Gloria Steinem defines prostitution thus:
The truth seems to be that the invasion of the human body by another person – whether empowered by money or violence or authority — is de-humanising in itself. Yes, there are many other jobs in which people are exploited, but prostitution is the only one that by definition crosses boundary of our skin and invades our most central sense of self.
Later she speaks of prostitution as “body invasion.” This is true of rape, rape is a body invasion, it’s profoundly violating. Not all sex work is rape. I know people get caught up in the notion of privileged white escorts in the states and “not all sex workers are like that” and like duh. I absolutely agree.
However, when you have WOC in other countries also saying the same thing, women who’ve created unions to advocate for themselves—and for victims of trafficking because they know the difference between sex work and trafficking and they are against trafficking—to spread health information and safety tips, and when western feminists ignore them and paint them as pimps and traffickers themselves, there’s something wrong. It becomes hard to avoid the conclusion that white western feminists are more focused on saving the poor woc from themselves—whether they want to be saved or not! whether this saving is actually saving or just removing harm reduction skills and access to health care and basic things like condoms—than on actually listening to what they say they need and helping them.
I find this language of all prostitution-as-violation to be disingenuous and deliberately unhelpful. By defining all prostitution as rape they erase actual victims of rape as well as victims of trafficking.
I hate how the conversation has been hijacked by the trafficking framework, as if the sex industry has become the only place where men rape, abuse, and exploit women and children. As if all those things will stop once sex work has been made illegal.
As if they couldn’t be just as well (or better!) addressed by a concerted effort to make rape and assault illegal so that when these things happened anywhere, including within the sex industry, there would be legal protections for victims, and repercussions and punishment for the abusers. Like why is that so unrealistic? So a woman could be like “This john raped me/my boyfriend is abusive and is basically a pimp and he takes my money” or “I was raped on set” because the problem, RIGHT? is rape and assault? The two go hand in hand, like if as much energy was poured into ending rape culture as into ending trafficking, which after all isn’t it just an extension of rape culture? Women could seek redress for sexual exploitation without being criminalized for their work.
how do people expect to help sex workers if they won’t acknowledge that the problems in the sex industry didn’t begin with it, aren’t confined within its borders, and would continue if it was gone.
men rape, abuse, and murder women who aren’t sex workers. family members rape and abuse other family members.
in the feminist framework seems like the very fact of sex/sexualized services for money is the real assault. Trying to get politicians and legislators to focus on taking rape and sexual abuse seriously isn’t a realistic goal! A better goal is just making sex work illegal. And that suits politicians just fine, it leaves the actual issue of rape culture untouched.
I don’t understand how focusing on sex work as labour—how seeing that there is actually a difference between sex work (which is labour and sex workers deserve workers rights and human rights) and rape and exploitation. A woman who is being raped is being raped. That’s not sex work. Sex workers don’t want to protect people who are profiting off rape. Like am I saying it clear enough? You don’t need to criminalize sex work to punish people who rape women and or profit from the rape of women/children.
If sex work was treated as work we could focus on the people exploiting us and stop it. If rape were taken seriously anyone who was assaulted could seek redress, whether they were a sex worker or a teenager running away from home. Those two goals aren’t incompatible and they seem a hell of a lot more reasonable and functional to me than banning sex work and punishing anyone who comes near the industry.
In the open discussion that followed Ms Steinem’s presentation, there were several participants who agreed with her positions. However, others pointed out that there were certain simplistic assumptions involved. For instance, Ms Steinem and Ruchira Gupta of Apne Aap refuse to recognize that unionized sex workers are voicing their own opinions—these women are dismissed as puppets of pimps and brothel owners—a gross simplification in view of the sheer numbers of women across the country who have unionised in a bid to claim human rights and dignity.
Other voices of dissent pointed out to the need to look at issues of poverty and labour in general, and locate sex work within that context, and/ or within a larger context of violence rather than homogenise all prostitutes/ sex workers. While side-stepping rather than engaging with these questions, one of Ms Steinem’s responses was that she would not mind if prostitutes, as she chooses to designate all sex workers, paid income tax—at the same time she advocated a strategy of penalizing but not criminalizing the client—how these were to be achieved remained unclear.
Dr Kumkum Roy is Director of the Women’s Studies Programme at the JNU
Just as all sex work is not linked to trafficking, all trafficking is also not linked to sex work. While it is certainly true that many women (and children) enter sex-work under violent and exploitative conditions, this is no different from other livelihood occupations in the unorganized sector such as agricultural and domestic work, construction and industrial labour. Ironically, those who demand the abolition of sex work to stop trafficking do not make the same argument for domestic work despite the fact that conditions, wages, working hours, levels of exhaustion are far worse for domestic workers.
It has been repeatedly pointed out that the statistics on `trafficking’ have no basis in a rigorous methodology, scientific evidence or primary research. A study undertaken by the Special Rappateur on Violence Against Women demonstrated the extreme difficulty of finding reliable statistics since so much of the activity happens underground. Consequently, ‘trafficking’ statistics are derived from figures relating to sex-work, migration and even numbers of “missing persons”. By failing to distinguish between sex-work, migration and trafficking, ‘abolitionists’ like Steinem only serve to make the gender-neutral term synonymous with the female migrant.
Ironically, some of the best work on ‘trafficking’ in India is being done by the Self Regulatory Boards of the Durbar Mahila Swamanyay Committee (DMSC) which emerged out of the famous STD/HIV Intervention Project (SHIP) in Sonagachi, now an internationally acclaimed model sexual health project. The DMSC considers sex-work to be a contractual sexual service negotiated between consenting sexual adults and demands decriminalization of adult sex-work. If feminists like Gloria Steinem and organizations like Apne Aap want to end trafficking in sex-work, their best bet is to recognize sex-work as labour, support its decriminalization and empower the sex-worker to fight exploitation, coercion and stigma.
Ms Shohini Ghosh is the Professor Zakir Hussain Chair at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia
the last paragraph is especially bitter in light of Steinem’s work to end sexual health education, services, and condom distribution in India, because it “promotes trafficking.” People are still working in the sex industry, they still need to eat, but now they can do it without condoms or access to accurate medical information. Adequately saved, Steinem.