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Prostitution seen as Violence Against Women
- a supportive or oppressive view?

by Liv Jessen

Liv Jessen receives first ever Human Rights Award from Amnesty International for Prostitutes' Rights work.

I am the head of the Pro Centre, a national centre for prostitutes in Norway. I am a social worker by profession and for seventeen years I worked daily among Norwegian and foreign women and men who sell sex and among some of their customers. In talking about prostitution and society's view of this phenomenon, it is natural for me to base myself on the Norwegian/ Scandinavian reality.

Since the seventies, parallels have been drawn between prostitution, pornography, rape and domestic violence. A radical feminist theory on prostitution has developed. The theory is that prostitution should be regarded as violence against women. In this chapter, I will try to argue that this is an imperfect or at worst an oppressive theory that can continue to stigmatise prostitutes. Furthermore, I will argue that this theory can go hand in hand with views that regard prostitution as a moral or social problem - theories that the feminists have disagreed with. For the sake of simplicity, I will write about women who sell and men who buy sex.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the position of women in Scandinavian society was the subject of vigorous debate. The most important thing that happened was that women wanted financial independence and they invaded the labour market. As time went on, very many areas of society became arenas for feminist thinking and influence. They were researched, debated and demonstrated for and against. Many battles were won and a number of measures were implemented. The fight for legal abortion was won. There were heated discussions about rape, wife battering, sexual abuse and prostitution. In their wake, we saw the appearance of women's shelters, rape centres, centres for victims of incest and, not least, support centres for prostitutes - of which we are one. Feminist thinking was behind much of the progressive politics of that time.

The prevailing view on prostitution had up until then been that women prostitutes are different from most women and they are whores due to bad morals or to a biological defect. For thousands of years, women have been ashamed of working as prostitutes. The belief that some women have qualities that make them do it is very much alive, and not just among women in prostitution. At any rate, it is her fault and she has to take the 'blame' for prostitution. We have not yet had a serious debate on men, on the customer's responsibility for his role in prostitution. He goes free; the searchlight is on her. The whore and Madonna myth is still very much alive, as is who is 'to blame' in prostitution.

The feminists of the 1980s objected to this view. To us feminist, prostitution was violence against women and there was naturally no reason to divide women into the respectable ones and the temptresses, unless it was to keep women disciplined and split. We believed that women were forced into prostitution for various reasons, such as material and spiritual want. Prostitution was a class question then as it is now. It is women of the working class who are available today, too.

What does or did this radical feminist view consist of? I am sure that plenty of you are familiar with it. In fact, even today it affects much of Scandinavian society.

Basically, a feminist believes that the balance of power between men and women determines their different positions in society. Women were and still are inferior to men in the financial, social, political and cultural area. Although much has changed since the 1980s, research and statistics show that there is still a long way to go. This structural imbalance affects both our thinking and society's many institutions. What happened? Other areas, which had previously been regarded as private, were now politicised: battering, rape, sexual abuse, etc. The violence a women suffered in her home was no longer a private matter. It was an expression of men's power over women and thus a social issue. Previously, it was the woman's fault for putting herself in a position where she was raped and abused. Now this violence was interpreted within the context of the power balance between the sexes, the need of the male sex to discipline the female sex. Viewed this way, women were the victims and men the abusers. So far so good. But we also interpreted prostitution within this framework. A woman prostitute was a victim of the (male) customer's abusive power over her.

The philosophy that prostitution is violence against women presumes that men have power, are the subject, can act and make choices. Women prostitutes are then victims, objects, and more or less 'forced' into prostitution for a variety of reasons, such as sexual abuse, poverty, drug dependence and an unhappy childhood and youth. Moreover we claimed that prostitution - selling sexual services - was synonymous with selling part of yourself and therefore done at great emotional cost. Our sexuality was identical or closely associated with our identity or our very SELVES.

It was also agreed that the people who organize this business, the ringleaders and pimps, should be persecuted. Further tightening up of the anti-prostitution regulations was not to affect the weakest party, i.e. the sellers. Disagreement arose when there was talk of criminalizing the customer only and that disagreement remains to this day.

The years pass by and thanks to my day-to-day work at the ProCentre I learn more, understand more, read more and, not least, meet women in prostitution who do not fit into the picture we all had of the woman prostitute - the picture of wretchedness and misery. I feel the need to expand the picture. It is not just the drug-addicted streetwalker I meet, with a difficult past, with few options, who thinks prostitution is hell on earth. She has different faces. She no longer talks with only one tongue.

I meet women who tell me both that they have 'chosen' prostitution and that they do not lack anything because of it. I do not believe them. I think that they are saying this because they do not know what is good for them: WE KNOW what traumas are involved.

How often can we say or think this without wondering what view of humankind is hidden here. Norwegian philosopher Hans Skjervheim has wisely said that if we objectify another person, it is not easy to take her and what she is saying seriously. He says: "By objectifying the other person, you attack that other person's freedom. You turn the other person into a fact, an object in your world. In that way you can gain control of the other person. The person who objectifies the other in the most sophisticated way is the master". This gives me a nasty taste in my mouth. I do not want to objectify anyone or take control of anyone. Who am I to say to these women that I know better than they do, what their life is like, what they feel and think?

As time goes on, we meet more and more people who describe their life in prostitution in a rather different way from the picture drawn by radical feminist research. A picture I myself had obstinately stuck to throughout my initial years at the. The picture becomes more varied and therefore more complicated. It is no longer so black and white. The horizons become wider. Can different realities be true at one and the same time? I think, at any rate, that the feminist perspective of the 1980s alone does not provide a satisfactory answer to all the complex questions we come up against, or explain the paradoxes we encounter, nor is it a sufficient basis on which to formulate a wise policy for the future. The starting point was too narrow. For where is the social significance of male prostitution or women buyers, if prostitution is only an expression of men's sexual dominance over women? There are many questions which obscure the picture. The mistake we had made was to believe that our view embraced the whole world of prostitution. Until then, the prostitution we had seen was among the defeated women on the street. Where need was great - and it was easy, as a social worker, to regard her as a victim of men's oppression. This was particularly easy when it fitted in with our theoretical superstructure. Radical feminist research had also chosen to research the "obvious victims" in street prostitution.

At any rate, I am more afraid today of the people who have found the whole truth about prostitution than I am of those who have the courage to doubt.

A person who has dared to ask questions is a Finnish researcher, Margaretha JŠrvinen. She challenges us by asking some interesting questions which I would like to present here. She claims that there are several possible feministic views of prostitution. Some complement each other, while others are in direct conflict. The sex trade is not a phenomenon outside of society; on the contrary, it is constructed by society. It reflects the gender and power structure we have and is thus not abnormal. Thus, it is important not to attach importance to what distinguishes prostitutes from other women, but to focus on the fact that women in general have a great deal in common, such as our work on the reproduction front, the fact that we are largely financially inferior to and dependent on men, the female role in the sex game, commercialisation of the female body, the disciplining of women's sexuality, and so on. She calls her view a socio-constructionist view and she says it is not very constructive to explain a prostitute's participation in prostitution by her background, upbringing or similar, or by the detrimental effects prostitution is claimed to have. She uses some controversial questions to support her view. For example:

Can prostitution be seen as an option, or is it always a situation where there is no choice?
Are women prostitutes deviants or normal people?
Is the purchase itself an expression of power or of powerlessness?
Should prostitution be criminalized or not?
I would like to consider some of these questions.
Does prostitution always have to be linked with a no-choice situation?

We agreed that women are generally in an inferior social position. Some women also find themselves in a no-choice situation where they feel that prostitution is the only solution. The more traumatic a woman's background is, the easier it is for us to understand her. It is easy to confuse the structural view of women as victims and objects of men's abusive power with the picture of individual wretchedness in some street prostitutes. We naturally have no difficulty in understanding that her wretched life quality 'forces' her to prostitute herself.

Like other radical feminists, H¿igard and Finstad, two norwegian scientists, are unable to accept voluntary prostitution because they do not believe that anyone could ever choose to take part in such activity: "no-one wants to rent out her vagina as a garbage can for hordes of anonymous men's ejaculations". Nevertheless, to apply the social victim-object view to individuals in prostitution can at best arouse our sympathy, but at worst can result in her no longer seeing herself as a person, a subject with a choice. If there is anything women in prostitution need to do, then it is to mobilize all their willpower and strength to make a choice - and perhaps chose something other than prostitution. But to do that she must be ascribed humanness, subjectivity and identity. And then we also run the risk that she will not make the choice we want her to; she may choose prostitution. As the wise Hans Skjervheim has said: "The first thing you have to choose, is to make the choice yourself".

The sex trade today covers many different degrees of volition and exploitation. That is why it is fruitless to take a general victim view of prostitution. Free will and force vary in different cultures in the past and in the present, within any one country and perhaps also in any one individual.

What about prostitutes as deviants or normal people?
We have mentioned above that prostitution has traditionally been regarded as socially deviant, and that this was something the feminists objected to. They would not agree that her participation in prostitution could be explained by individual characteristics and pathologization. But what happens if we explain her participation solely by background factors such as a difficult childhood, drug abuse in the home, psychological problems, sexual abuse, etc. Or if we analyse the social and psychological deviations and harmful effects caused by prostitution, such as split personality, loss of self-respect, sexual problems, social isolation etc.? What then? We are getting dangerously close to defining her as a social deviant. She is certainly not like us. She is still the Other Woman, with whom we do not have to identify. We are careful not show our contempt. Instead she becomes the object of our pity.

If she is in a situation where she has no choice, is he always in a position of power?
In 1979, Taksdal and Prieur, also norwegian scientists, launched their book,  sette pris pŒ kvinner - menn som kj¿per sex (Putting a Price on Women - Men Who Buy Sex). This book has unfortunately not been translated. At last, the focus shifts for a brief moment. Since then both the Swedes and the Danes have written books and reports on the purchaser. Research shows that the customer is no different from ordinary men as regards age, marital status or occupation, although there is an overrepresentation among men who travel a great deal. The customers' reasons for purchasing vary. However, the feminist interpretation of men as the subject, active and power-wielding does not fit in very well with the motives given by the interviewees. Their statements can be interpreted as powerlessness as easily as anything else. In some ways, the women even believe that they are the ones with power in prostitution, not the customers. Since power and the exercise of power vary so much between the different forms of prostitution and in different cultures, it is not easy to paint an unambiguous picture. I think that many of us who busy ourselves with these questions agree that far more social effort must be directed at the customers in the years ahead, both in the form of more research into the market and into the buyers' motives for buying, and we should perhaps implement some social measures for certain groups of customers.

Then there is the criminalization aspect
For many years it was (and still is) generally agreed that we did not want to criminalize women in prostitution. The situation for street prostitutes was already wretched; no-one wanted to make it any worse. Some political voices advocated this criminalization, but it does not look as if the suggestion has much support among the people of Scandinavia. However, there are many people who, out of sympathy for women in street prostitution and on a feministic basis, advocate criminalizing the customers. Sweden passed a law in 1999 prohibiting the sale of sexual services. One good thing about the Swedish law is that, unlike earlier legislation, it has brought the customer's role into the debate on prostitution.

However, my main argument against criminalization of the customer is that it would most likely send the activity under ground and away from public supervision and control. Furthermore, any kind of criminalization will hurt the weakest party, the women. In 1985, changes were made in the penal code in Canada, prohibiting the sale of sexual services in public places. They tried to adapt the law in a gender-equal way, but more sellers than buyers were caught. Many of the street prostitutes I have spoken to in Oslo do not see criminalization of the customers as supportive of them. They say that they do not make any distinction between criminalising prostitution as such and criminalizing the purchase alone. They already feel that they are doing something illegal, so if the purchase alone is criminalised in Norway too, they know that in practice it will be bad for them.

Off-street prostitution will always be very difficult to prosecute. For that reason, the Swedish police have concentrated their efforts on street prostitution. The women in street prostitution are already very vulnerable to abuse; the situation will become worse. Confidence in social workers and in the police will dwindle, and the market will be wide open for procurers and other profiteers. The best means of preventing the situation from becoming worse is openness and dialogue.

We must be capable of finding other ways of doing something about prostitution. Believing that criminalization will 'resolve' this difficult dilemma for us is not the way to go. A society with our humanistic traditions must make an effort to find better solutions. I do not know of any restrictive society where legislation has abolished prostitution - it has only made the situation more difficult for those who sell sex. Since 1999 when they introduced the new law in Sweden, 160 cases were reported. Out of these, 67 cases were withdrawn. Of the rest, 43 were charged for the crime. 25 persons were fined, 11 submitted fine without trial and 7 not guilty. 50 cases are still under investigation. These figures are from February 2001. There, they have focused on street prostitution and 'got rid of' half of the street prostitutes. What has happened to them, no-one knows. Very little is known about off-street prostitution.

At all events, there is a scarlet thread running from the view that prostitutes are victims and social losers through the idea that purchasing sex is 'violence against women' to the suggestion that the activity of customers should be criminalized. Seen from this point of view, criminalization will recognize that prostitutes have no choice and apportion the blame where it belongs, namely with the customer.

How can we sum this all up? JŠrvinen says: "Prostitution is not a marginal phenomenon on the edge of society, inhabited by deviant individuals. It does not represent a break with the male society's central values and norms. It is a social construction which corresponds with the male and female roles in society. Therefore, there is no obvious and universally applicable line between prostitute-client relationships and other heterosexual relationships." Whether or not JŠrvinen is right is open to discussion. We, for our part, can sum up as follows:

Customer research has shown that the customer alone cannot be seen as and interpreted as an abuser of power. But there are areas of prostitution which attract criminals and abusers, and this will be the case if we marginalize these areas even more and place them outside public supervision.

We have also wondered whether tightening up the legislation will have the desired effect, or whether other measures might prove to be better. No country I know of has managed to abolish prostitution with the help of a few legal provisions. I have never seen such widespread sales of sex as there are in Thailand where prostitution is prohibited.

We know today that women 'choose' prostitution for a variety of reasons. Some from a more enforced and inferior position than others.

Some are extremely unhappy with what they are doing, become deeply troubled, and need years of good support to repair the damage. Some seem to sail through it without a problem. But they all have one thing in common. They all know that society around them condemns them for what they do. They are a pariah race, branded, outcasts and feared. Combating this should be a major challenge for all feminists. Instead, the radical feminists continue to talk about her as a victim. If she defends her participation in prostitution, they say that she is not credible; they talk about a false consciousness syndrome. The only women who are believed and who know what is best for them are the "repentant sinners", who have been called Survivors.

Women in prostitution naturally have different views on the subject of prostitution, but to say that only the ones who agree with us are right, while the prostitutes who think differently are not ascribed human qualities like the right to make their own choices or to be believed, is oppressive and a fundamentalist attitude.

Our society's humanistic traditions should be the basis for all our work on prostitution. We need to demonstrate our solidarity with women and men who sell sex. Every prostitute suffers from the way society brands her. Furthermore, we must initiate measures which can help to strengthen prostitutes' human and civil rights. They must have the same rights as other citizens and we must abolish any laws which prevent this. Whatever we do, we must ask ourselves whether the measures intensify the stigmatisation or make the situation worse for those who sell sex. We must keep their health and well-being in mind. We need initiative and enterprise to fight the aspects of prostitution which are oppressive and degrading.

We must formulate a social welfare policy that gives a helping hand to prostitutes who want to get out of it. That applies to both buyers and sellers. While prostitution itself should not be a crime, coercion, violence and deception should still be.

We do not think we can regulate ourselves out of prostitution by passing new, more stringent laws. The burdens imposed by restrictive changes in legislation will always be borne by the people who sell sex.

Women's inferior position to men in society applies regardless of prostitution. We also know that being oppressed is not the same as being weak and passive. We always have to distinguish between understanding prostitution at a structural level and understanding it at an individual level. But prostitutes, like all other people, must be given the freedom to choose. That is what makes you human. It also means that you are allowed to take the responsibility for your actions.

Prostitutes will no longer be looked upon as victims to pity or rescue - but as heroes in their own life.

copyright by Liv Jessen Jan. 2002

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