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Prostitution is not synonymous with sex slavery


Taslima Nasrin joined Freethoughtblogs a few days ago. She’s apparently somewhat well-known, though I honestly had barely heard of her until then. I read a handful of bloggers and watch a handful of vloggers, but I am not deeply embedded in the atheist movement. This morning, I was perusing new articles of FTB and found this article about how all prostitution is sex slavery . I don’t entirely know where she’s coming from on this and she doesn’t exactly say. I plan to read up on her previous work, but for now, I will indulge in a bit of speculation. Before you read my comments, I recommend reading Greta Christina’s response here. She probably knows far more about this issue than I ever will. Also, many of the comments bring up actual problems with prostitution with some discussion.

If I were to summarize very briefly what’s wrong with Nasrin’s article, I’d say she makes a lot of assertions, but doesn’t really back them up and engages in some guilt by association and false dichotomies. I won’t say that scientific studies are the only legitimate basis for policy.There are reasons as to why policies shouldn’t and shouldn’t be implemented that ultimately rest on abstract ideas like rights instead of hard consequentialism and some issues are inherently difficult to study or the studies just haven’t been done yet. There’s nothing inherently wrong with arguments that depend more on ideas or thought experiments than facts, but she makes a number of factual claims and doesn’t elaborate on her reasoning for the most part. I will present a more detailed critique below:

Lie1. Prostitution is an oldest profession.

Truth1. Prostitution is the oldest form of patriarchal oppression, not oldest profession.

If I may read between the lines here, she seems to be saying that professionals are defined by having a developed, marketable skill and using it to gain some financial independence instead of the usual hand-to-mouth existence. Prostitutes don’t count because they don’t really have control of their skills, so are stuck using them at the service of others instead of to improve their own lot. This strikes me as much broader than justified. There’s no reason prostitution couldn’t be both profession and oppression, in different times, places and social contexts. I assume we are not meant to take her claim that it is the oldest form of patriarchal oppression literally and she isn’t actually claiming that it predates rape and such.

Lie2. Prostitution is sexual freedom. /Prostitution is sex.

Truth2. Prostitution is sexual exploitation./ Prostitution is not sex, it is sexual violence.

This is the same basic false dichotomy as above. There’s no reason either answer should be generally true. This was Greta’s main point. To elaborate, some people want to play World of Warcraft and actually pay $15/month for the privilege. Other people are essentially slave labor, forced to play the game so that the gold they gather can be sold for real money to the first group. There’s a diversity of experience in most areas that can’t be summed up by one or two simple declarative sentences. There are actually bigger problems here, but I’ll deal with those in point five.

Lie3. Legalizing prostitution gets rid of sex traffickers and pimps.

Truth3. Legalizing prostitution benefits sex traffickers, pimps, clients, sex industries.

This is one hell of a citation needed. Besides that, she sneaked clients and sex industries into the list without explaining why they should be there. She’s using guilt-by-association here by just sticking them in a list with known villains. I’m not sure what even counts as a sex industry. Are sex-toy vendors okay? I’m pretty sure she doesn’t actually oppose them. It’s really important to define your terms in these cases and explain what, exactly, you are objecting to.

Lie4. Men need sex therefore prostitution must exist. Prostitution is a natural form of human sexuality.

Truth4. The sex of prostitution is not “sex” for women in it. Most men who use women in prostitution have other sexual partners.

This doesn’t really follow. The fact that there’s demand for prostitution is self-evident. The fact that most johns have other sex partners doesn’t mean that’s it’s possible to eliminate demand for prostitution, just that one explanation for that demand is false. Besides, she says most johns have other sex partners, not all. This would seem to imply a significant minority don’t have other sex partners, so this wouldn’t counter the original claim even if men needing sex were the sole explanation of prostitution. She never argues that men don’t need sex or that all men are capable of getting sex without prostitutes, which would be necessary to actually counter the claim that prostitution will always exist because men need sex.

Lie5. Women choose to enter prostitution.

Truth5. Prostitution is not an acceptable job for women. They are forced to enter prostitution. Prostitution is an abusive institution and women stay poor in prostitution.  It  is not a vocation choice, it is human rights abuse.

This is probably the most problematic part of the whole article and why I felt compelled to respond. What does she mean that prostitution is not an acceptable job choice for women? Who is she to decide what’s acceptable for other women to choose? She follows this by asserting they don’t really choose it. This is certainly the case in many situations, but this argument requires basically ignoring the hundreds of thousands of women in organizations like the International Union of Sex Workers. She essentially is telling them that they don’t really think what they think they do. They’re just brainwashed and incapable of really thinking for themselves. I was going to call this attitude patronizing, but that doesn’t seem right. If she were arguing that they didn’t understand their interests well and needed to be prevented from making bad choices, that would be patronizing. Silencing their voices and denying they even have a real opinion is infantalizing.

Not all women are poor when they become prostitutes. Not all women who enter prostitution poor stay poor. For that matter, as she ignores throughout the piece, not all prostitutes are women. The figures she quotes at the beginning of her article say about 20% of prostitutes are men, which she apparently doesn’t think is enough to count and proceeds to ignore, even though it would affect a lot of her points. Are male prostitutes also necessarily oppressed? Her apparently universal declarations don’t say.

Lie6. Legal prostitution protects women in prostitution.

Truth6. Legal prostitution does not protect women in prostitution from harm. All prostitution , legal or illegal, harm women.

If we accept her previous claims, it does follow that all prostitution harms women (if, again, we are ignoring the stuff that doesn’t involve women). However, it doesn’t follow that legalization doesn’t help. It’s possible that all prostitution is harmful, but legal prostitution is considerably less so. American prohibition is a good analogy. Alcohol does have significant social costs, which is what got it banned in the first place, but prohibition did little to stop this and caused a whole bunch of other problems. Frankly, this reminds of of prohibition’s modern cousin, the drug war. We have to ban drugs because drugs are bad with no consideration over whether banning drugs actually helps. It’s an appealing approach because of its simplicity, but it doesn’t always work out in real life.

Lie7. Social Stigma is most harmful aspect of prostitution

Truth7. Not social stigma, Harmful aspects are rape, beatings, physical abuse, psychological abuse, and other violence from clients and pimps.

This seems to dismiss social stigma out of hand, which I have a huge problem with. I’ve had friends who broke down and cried over shame that other people forced on them. Stigma in itself does harm. More importantly, the social stigma attached to prostitution (along with its illegality) is exactly why prostitutes are at risk for rape, beating and exploitation: society doesn’t care enough to do a whole lot about it. Why do you think “dead hooker” jokes are a staple of “edgy” comedy and not “dead kindergarten teacher”? Would Gary Ridgway have ever managed to kill seventy-one women if he targeted dental assistants instead of prostitutes? Society’s contempt for prostitutes is what puts them in danger, not prostitution itself.

Lie8. Prostitution is deterrent to sex crimes.

Truth8. Prostitution is associated with increased rate of sex crimes.

Besides the usual missing citation, what prostitution? Is this only talking about illegal prostitution or legal? Does it matter if the prostitutes are call girls, working in brothels or working in alleys? Are we talking about a geographic or chronological association? Is there any good reason to believe that it’s causal?

Lie9. Legalization of prostitution is an entirely separate issue from human trafficking.

Truth9. Prostitution is the destination point for trafficking.

The “lie” here seems to be a bit of a straw man. No one is claiming that no women are trafficked and forced into prostitution. The issue is that sex slavery is not the sole purpose of human trafficking and not all prostitutes are trafficked. They are related in a practical sense, but they are not the same issue.

Lie10. Legalized prostitution would control the sex industry.

Truth10. Legalization/decriminalization of prostitution expands the sex industry

Besides the citation problem, expansion and control aren’t mutually exclusive. Even if her claim here is true, it’s easy to imagine how legalizing or decriminalizing prostitution (which are not the same thing, but she fails to ever address this) could both expand the prostitution industry and bring it under government control. In fact, a lot of new workers and clients may be attracted by the improved conditions.

Lie11. Opposing prostitution means prostitutes would be arrested.

True11. We have to decriminalize poor prostituted women but arrest their predators: clients, pimps, traffickers.

There are several problems with this. I have no problems with arresting pimps and traffickers, assuming we mean the same thing by those terms. However, she just said earlier that legalizing prostitution only helps pimps and traffickers, who are already subject to arrest in areas where prostitution is legal. How is this any different? Arresting johns doesn’t affect them. It just gives pimps a new way to extort johns. Prostitutes could go to the police to report abusive johns, but they can also do this if prostitution is legal. Yes, this system may possibly be better than flat illegality, but it would seem to have at least the same drawbacks as legalization, which she just said would make things worse in her previous point.

Also, if this succeeds in eliminating prostitution, prostitutes would go from having to turn to sex work to avoid starvation to having to turn to something worse or just starving. Putting their source of income in jail does very little to help people trapped in the industry. The real problem here is crushing poverty, which is the main thing that makes people vulnerable to all types of exploitation. It has nothing to do with prostitution itself.

I took this personally because I am a former sex worker. I was a stripper, not a prostitute, and for the most part I was doing it as a hobby. I wanted to show off and develop some performance art ideas. I had a day job and I didn’t really need the money. There were a few months where I was otherwise unemployed and the money meant a lot more though. I’ve also had quite a few good friends who were sex workers of some type. Some felt like they were forced into it by economic circumstances, though that’s true of all jobs. Some just saw it as a good way to make more money for less work than they otherwise could. Some needed to do it to get drugs. Some were living the dream and were as proud of their job as any astronaut. See my previous article about strip clubs. The handful of prostitutes I’ve known didn’t even have pimps and worked near their chosen homes. They weren’t trafficked anywhere. The vast majority were perhaps not where they wanted to be ideally, but in a place they chose. I realize my experience is different from Nasrin’s. I live in the suburbs in the Midwestern United States. She’s lived in Bangladesh and a couple of places in India. It’s quite likely the situation is very different there. However, she is trying to make universal declarations, which is not justified. To expand on a point Greta made, even if prostitution were overwhelming exploitative everywhere, that wouldn’t mean there was anything inherently exploitative about it. Two hundred years ago, almost all sugar and cotton were produced by slave labor. That only meant that slavery had to be abolished and the industries reformed, not that sugar and cotton had to be banned.

Furthermore, I resent the characterization of the points she’s arguing against as lies. I know this sounds like a dreaded tone argument, but she’s effectively accusing all pro-legalization types of not really giving a shit about sex workers. She was possibly unaware that lots of other people on her blog network have written articles asserting contrary positions. For instance, see Ian Cromwell’s article celebrating the legalization of brothels in Canada because this will create safer working conditions for prostitutes. Mano Singham implicitly endorsed the idea there’s nothing wrong with prostitution here, where he called it broad-minded in the context of explaining how one can object to using “prostitute” as an insult without objecting to prostitution itself. Dan Fincke recounted his experience of finding out from a news crew that a brothel had been operating a few doors down from his apartment building. He had no problem with it so long as everyone was of age and consenting, which was sadly not the case. Natalie Reed previously even wrote about people who try to draw a false dichotomy between being against sex work and supporting or denying every abuse that’s ever happened. All of those examples are just from the month of March. If you go back further, you’ll find lots more examples. Almost everyone on the Freethought Blogs who has expressed an opinion on the matter disagrees with Nasrin. FTB isn’t and shouldn’t be a hive mind or back-slapping party. There’s nothing wrong with challenging your network-mates. It’s healthy, even. However, when you do so, you need to actually challenge the things they’ve said rather than just assert they are wrong. It’s like it never occurred to her she should write this as a persuasive piece. I expect a couple more responses to this from other bloggers and hopefully a follow-up where Nasrin better explains and supports her position so we’ll have a starting point for a real discussion. I will write more if this happens.

From → politics

  1. Great Post! Well said… and Nasreen pretty much lifted those ‘lies’ and ‘truths’ from Melissa Farley’s site:

    And what so very much bothers me is that she advocates the Swedish Model, but where I am, in the US, they are passing ‘end demand’ statutes which increases the penalties for buyers yet no change is offered for the sellers — What I mean is, people come around and say “oh the swedish model is teh bestest! because buyers are criminal and sellers aren’t! it’s totally feminist! support our End Demand statute cuz it’s like Swedish Feminism!” – and Ok first of all, criminalizing my clients isn’t going to make life safer for me, but second of all – they AREN’T passing the ‘swedish model’ form into law here in the states, the sellers STAY criminalized and the fines against the buyers are jacked WAY up, and guess who gets all that money from the higher fines? Programs for women to leave prostitution, for counseling, for job training? Fuck no, it goes right back to the police to finance more sting operations… I can’t even tell you… I’ve been heavy researching this stuff for a couple years now… I’ve seen the laws they’ve been passing. It’s terrible terrible stuff. Don’t even get me started on the government-funded christian missionary aspects of the whole thing…. arg.

    Anyway, sorry to vent…

    • Hey venting is what blog commenting is for. You shoudl friend me on Facebook. I’m Democratus Reno. Now that she’s started responding to criticisms, she’s actually pissing me off even more. She’s gone from possibly misinformed and not thinking through her implications to downright misogynistic. She called prostitutes who advocate legalization house slaves, which is perpetuating the very social factors that allow prostitutes to be exploited. This is definitely getting a follow-up.

  2. At this point, Nareen is simply stomping around making accusatory rhetoric at those disagreeing with her rather than engaging with the issues. That’s par for the course with abolitionist ideologues, but one should expect more from ostensible rationalists.

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