Sex work is a term that covers many practices from pole dancing, stripping, and through to prostitution. It is prostitution that will be examined in this essay. There are many arguments, both in defence of, and against the practice of prostitution, of which many derive from the perspective of morality. However the aim of this essay is not to moralise or pass judgement, but rather, to examine how a modern approach to this issue can improve the lives and working conditions of women who are working in the world’s “oldest profession”.
It may be argued that prostitution is fundamentally, although not always, a result of poverty and social marginalisation, and until these issues are addressed, then there will always be vulnerable people, mainly women, who will have, or feel that they do have, few, if any alternatives to this type of work.
Many of the developed nations of the western world, have recently, or are presently, considering different forms of legislation, and it is this that will form the basis of this essay.
Various models, including the Swedish and the New Zealand prototypes will be investigated, and the resulting outcomes of the ruling of these legislatures will be analysed, with proposals for a workable system put forward, by way of a conclusion.
In this investigation, the views and opinions of “working women” will remain paramount, as they are the “experts”, and as such, have the experience and a real understanding of the issues involved.
Both proponents and objectors of legalised prostitution have valid arguments regarding this issue. Whilst prostitution has traditionally been viewed as the preserve of impoverished, uneducated, working class women, it is becoming increasingly common for educated, middle class graduates to consider this as a “ respectable “ career option, often commanding an income far in excess of what a “mainstream” graduate level position may offer. It may be argued, that if these women could work legally, they could pay tax and contribute to the revenue, thus securing access to social security and pension rights.
It may also be argued that sex workers provide a valuable and much needed service. According to Abraham Maslow, sexual relationships, are a fundamental human need that have to be satisfied. (Maslow A, Hierarchy of Human Needs). However, due to disability, low self esteem, social exclusion or old age, etc some people may have problems initiating or maintaining relationships, and as such, sex workers who operate in this area, may argue that they are providing a form of social work.
Many women in today’s society find themselves as single parents, and struggle to balance work and motherhood. Childcare is becoming increasingly expensive and working simply to pay a child minder is not an option. Whilst sex work and motherhood may seem to be incongruent activities, sex work, does allow women to earn a reasonable living whilst having the freedom to work the hours that accommodates childcare provisions.
Objectors to sex work as an employment option raise the issue of health concerns, and of course there is the problem of STD’s. Lesser known health problems however, which can cause permanent damage, revolve around mental health issues. Post traumatic stress disorder/syndrome, is a major mental health issue amongst “Working Women”.
“A research project across nine countries found the rate of PTSD amongst women in prostitution was 68%, a rate comparable with rape and state sponsored torture”
Other objections are raised by feminist rights campaigners. If sex work was accepted as a legitimate form of employment, then unemployed women, and possibly men, could be forced into sex work or risk losing their welfare payments.
Unbelievable as this may seem, it is already the case, that the British Governments employment agency, Jobcentre Plus, has advertised positions such as masseuses and escorts in the full knowledge that this may involve the provision of sex. (Banyard K., 2010 a) Whilst there is no suggestion that any one was pressured into taking up these positions, it is understandable that there are concerns regarding the future of this practice.
Many western governments do not appear to have a problem with “high class prostitution” or other types of “respectable” sex work, as it not only tends to be “invisible”, but is also considered to be a “ Parliamentary Perk” for the patriarchy. For example, at the British Conservative Party Conference, which was held at Birmingham, in 2008, attendees were issued with a delegates pack which contained discount vouchers for a lap dancing club. (Banyard K., 2010 b)
It is apparent however that not only government, but also members of the public, object to the high visibility of “street walkers”, and this may explain why many countries are now in the process of updating laws in order to adopt a more contemporary approach.
Models of Prostitution:
There are four main approaches to dealing with prostitution, which are employed in various jurisdictions around the world, and whilst each individual model will vary according to location, they may generally be defined as follows.
Prohibition: Criminalising the purchase and sale of sex services, and
related activities, i.e. Pimping and running a brothel.
Abolition: Criminalising only the purchase of sex services and
Regulation: Places certain restrictions on the purchase, sale and
practices, regarding the way that those involved operate.
Decriminalisation: Allowing suppliers and consumers of sex services,
to operate according to the prevailing laws that govern
any other business. ( De Marnoff P. 2010)
All of the above approaches have their pros and cons, but the state, and the women who work in the industry, will be in disagreement as to which model is the most appropriate. The state will of course be influenced by public and moral opinion, whereas the women them selves, will be concerned with safety and commercial issues.
The sex industry has operated in New Zealand ever since the country was colonised by Europeans, and as such, has had similar laws which have addressed the activities of sex workers, rather than the clients. The Prostitution Reform Act of 2003, served to decriminalise prostitution, and was an attempt to cater for the needs of sex workers
It was not the intention to raise the status of sex work, but rather to afford the same legal protections to sex workers, that are taken for granted by workers in other professions. The aims of the act were,
- Safeguarding the human rights of sex workers.
- Protecting sex workers from exploitation.
- Promoting the welfare, health and safety of sex workers.
- Creating an environment conducive to public health.
- Protecting children from exploitation.
(Prostitution Reform Bill, 2000)
Under the Act of 2003, commercial prostitution is permitted to be carried out under the same terms as any other commercial enterprise, albeit with certain industry-specific restrictions, much in the same way that bars and betting shops are subject to local regulation.
Brothels are allowed (with local authority planning permission) providing that the owner has been granted a Brothel Operators Licence. Persons granted this licence, will be over the age of eighteen, a citizen or permanent resident of New Zealand, and have no disqualifying criminal convictions.
Owners of SOOB’s (Small Owner Operated Brothels) are not required to have a licence, provided that no more than four people operate on the premises, and that workers retain control over their own earnings, ie they are. self-employed.
Regular health check ups are mandatory. Safe sex practices, both on the part of the worker and client are also mandatory, with a fine of $2000 as a penalty for transgressing the law, although quite how the authorities enforce this is somewhat questionable.
Early reports on how the system has improved working conditions are favourable, however, the aim of the act was to protect workers from exploitation, and it may be argued, that the act has failed to do this on several counts.
Brothel owners employ the workers and profit from selling the service. Surely this amounts to legalised pimping? Rather than eradicating exploitation, it might be argued that it encourages it? Furthermore, it would appear that there are few, if any, government initiatives, to provide supports for women who wish to exit the industry. Sex work in New Zealand remains a highly controversial issue which may have to be revisited in the future.
In 1998/99 Sweden introduced the Abolition model, which seeks to address the industry with a harm reduction approach. Under this model, the providers of sex services are no longer prosecuted, but instead, it is now illegal to purchase sexual favours. Related activities, such as pimping and running a brothel are also outlawed. This model is also applied in Norway and Iceland. The Swedish authorities argue that by making the purchase of sex services illegal, this will reduced the demand side, and thus the exploitation of the women will also be reduced.
So has this change in the law really led to a reduction in the incidence of prostitution? If the official figures are to be believed, then it has. Five years after the introduction of the act, the number of women involved in street prostitution had declined by up to 50%, and the number of new recruits to the profession had reached virtually zero. (Ekberg G., 2004). However, detractors from the Swedish model, suggest that whilst street work may well have diminished, the law has simply driven the women indoors, and as such, the authorities have no way of assessing the impact on prostitution over all.
Further more, many of the workers feel that they are more vulnerable, as they now have to operate on-line or via mobile phones so that their clients have more protection from arrest. The lack of visibility and the increased anonymity of on-line appointments may increase the risk of abuse and violent assault.
Some of the women criticise the way that the law is implemented, claiming that the police are watching known workers addresses, and arresting clients on arrival. As word of this practice spreads, clients look for business else where, resulting in some workers loosing regular customers and a much needed income.
The Swedish model does of course have a major strength that may be of benefit to women who wish to exit this particular area of work. The legislation allows for a network of supports for such women, although a criticism might be that this would only be affective with the required amount of government funding. However it may also be argued that this innovative development in the field of sex work legislation may pave the way for an entirely new approach. Many would be in favour of a social solution, without the heavy handed involvement of the judicial system.
Conclusion: The way forward.
As can be seen, sex work is a highly contentious issue, and as such, any new legislation should be approached in an objective manner, with the welfare of those involved in the industry, being central to the discussion. The majority of sex workers may have little or no choice in the way that they earn a living, and poverty is no doubt a driving factor, however, some take a more philosophical view.
“ Yes it is a profession, I believe a perfectly respectable profession and should be viewed as such in the same way as a teacher, accountant or anyone else….Why should the fact that I have chosen to work as a prostitute be considered any different from that of being a nurse, which I once was?….. I work in clean comfortable surroundings, have regular check ups and pay taxes like anyone else “
With this in mind, it becomes apparent the differing schools of thought cannot accommodate the needs of every one regarding sex work, and may be , rather than adopting an existing model, it may be prudent to take an eclectic approach, and introduce a “ Social Model “ of prostitution. This may sound like a radical idea, but surely this is a societal issue rather than a legal one.
It is the opinion of the author of this essay that any legislation should be there for the sole purpose of the protection and support of the workers. They should be free from prosecution, and Governments must provide an adequate budget for exit strategies, i.e. Education to equip women with knowledge and skills, such that they can seek alternative employment, addiction counselling must be addressed, as many women use drugs/alcohol as a coping mechanism, childcare facilities, help with housing etc. No doubt, this discussion will continue into the future, but surely a Social Model must prevail?
Banyard K. (2010 a) The Equality Illusion: The Truth about Women and Men Today. p. 144. Faber and Faber. London.
Banyard K. (2010 b) p. 215. Ibid.
De Marnoff P. (2010) Liberalism and Prostitution. pp. 28-30. Oxford University Press. New York.
Ekberg G. (2004) In. Banyard K. 2010. pp. 236-237. Ibid.
Farley M. (2004) Bad for the Body, Bad for the Heart: Prostitution Harms Women, Even if Legalised or Decriminalised. Violence Against Women. 10 (10) pp. 1087- 1125.
Maslow A. Hierarchy of needs. Available at: http://www.learning-theories.com/maslows-hierarchy-of-needs.html. [Accessed: 10/01/2015].
Prostitution Reform Bill. Available at. http://www.parliament.nz/en-nz/parl-support/research-papers/00PLSocRP12051/prostitution-law-reform-in-new-zealand [Accessed ] 3/1/2015.
“Rona” (2000). In Giddens A. Sutton P.W. (2013) Sociology 7th ed. pp. 662-663. Polity. Cambridge / London.