The feminist goal is abolition of prostitution—not acceptance of it and mere defence of ‘sex workers’.
Prostitution is not about choice but exploitation, need and trafficking. It is not a job like any other. Nor does its longevity render it ‘natural’. The ‘oldest trade’ is not sustained in formally egalitarian societies that pursue substantive equality; rather, it constitutes a school of inequality for all.
That is why the European Parliament adopted this month, by a clear majority, a report (the socialist MEP Maria Noichl was rapporteur) calling on the European Commission and the Council of the EU to act on prostitution, as clearly contrary to the fundamental values of the European Union. The report opts for a ‘Nordic’ or equality model; amendments misusing that label to advocate the decriminalisation of those who engage in prostitution fell.
Key elements of the model are:
- prevention, via education and awareness-raising campaigns and social and employment policies to eliminate female poverty, as well as migration policies to offer vulnerable women and girls realistic alternatives;
- demand reduction, recognising that it is the ‘demand’ to buy sex that drives the market and therefore the suffering, coercion and violence, and
- exit strategies, with realistic and adequately funded alternatives and programmes of social inclusion and reintegration for those who want to leave prostitution.
The report argues that prostitution, which feeds on the lucrative business of pimps and trafficking networks, is one of the most extreme manifestations of the inequalities which intersect in the exploitation of women’s bodies and lives—exploitation which continues to grow within Europe’s borders, where most countries regulate or tolerate prostitution. This though article 2 of the Treaty on European Union affirms that the union is founded on the values of human dignity, equality and respect for human rights (including the rights of persons belonging to minorities), non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men.
That article also talks about respect for freedom. But freedom can only be guaranteed if one has a choice—something that does not exist for most women driven into prostitution. Most are victims of trafficking from impoverished or chaotic states or come from milieux of exclusion; their supply increases in times of economic crisis. In 2022, the European Parliament gave its opinion on the link between women’s poverty and the rise in prostitution, in a non-legislative initiative on women’s poverty in Europe (for which I was rapporteur).
‘Freedom’ is the language of associations and individuals critical of the abolitionist stance of the report the parliament has just adopted. Their arguments appeal to women’s autonomy over their bodies and associated empowerment, equating prostitution with sexual and reproductive rights. This, however, mangles words and principles: what free choice, what autonomy, exists when one has no real options?
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Power and exploitation
In most cases we are not even talking about the myth of ‘free choice’, albeit stemming from extreme need, at all—but coercion by families who sell girls into the international trafficking and extortion networks that feed the brothels of rich countries. In this context, to speak of autonomy is to legitimise relations of power and exploitation towards women.
Beyond that, the myth of free choice works by implying that everyone has the same range of possibilities, among which to choose. But this requires minimal material preconditions, so that the ‘choice’ is not between prostitution and destitution.
Nor are decisions which might appear to stem from ‘free will’ independent of the differentiated socialisation women and men experience. Foundational patriarchal stereotypes are thereby reproduced and renewed in distinct ways—among them that women must be educated to assuage the desires of men (as even Jean-Jacques Rousseau advocated in Émile) and that men have a natural sexual urge which they cannot control. In this way, a ‘natural order’ is legitimised, supported for centuries, as if it could not be altered. Better then, it follows, to legalise prostitution, so that the ‘business’ comes out of the shadows and one can improve the living and working conditions of the women so ‘employed’.
Yet prostitution has almost always been legal—which has neither reduced its ‘consumption’ nor improved its conditions. Indeed, where prostitution is regulated as pseudo-work demand increases. For example, the number of officially registered female prostitutes in Germany has been growing every year since prostitution was legalised in 2002 and that growth returned in 2022 following the end of measures against the pandemic. Dehumanising resort to prostitutes in Sweden meanwhile fell, from 13.6 per cent to 7.9 per cent of men, between 1995 and 2008, as a result of the application of the Nordic or equality model. Conversely, we know that prostitution increases opportunities for trafficking: 56 per cent of human trafficking in the EU is for sexual exploitation.
Faced with the argument of the ‘oldest trade’ that has no remedy, one might hope more men might rebel against their implicit portrayal as little more than uncivilised animals with brute sexual desires. Yet the socialisation of men and women remains differentiated in ostensibly more civilised times of formal equality, marked by hypersexualisation. Now the naturalisation and legitimisation of prostitution emerges via free and early access to pornography and ‘softer’ alternatives, such as sugardaddy-ism, to which the parliamentary report also refers. In the end we arrive at the same place—women’s bodies being at the service of men’s desires and power asymmetries.
Moreover, our ‘free’ choices adapt to our real opportunities. That is why the exit strategies the report addresses are so important. Prostitution must be linked to the fight against poverty, the defence of social investment and social services and a fair and non-discriminatory labour market which permits all women to participate on a dignified basis.
Prostitution is not a job like any other. If we were to accept that claim, training courses should be offered to respond to the current ‘demand for employment’, with theoretical and practical content appropriate to this ‘professional sector’. Work should be directed to unemployed individuals, making explicit the sex of the person to be hired—90 per cent of those in prostitution being women and girls—in breach of EU regulations on non-discrimination on grounds of sex in ‘the conditions of access to employment’.
School of inequality
Prostitution is a school of inequality for all. For women, because our peers stop seeing us as such and that ends up affecting even our professional possibilities and personal relationships. I recommend the film Inside Job about the financial crisis of 2008, portraying the imbalances of power and the omertà protecting the offices of Wall Street amid the luxury brothels installed in its surroundings.
For men, because they are dehumanised too when they resort to prostitutes: the reality, the life, the will of the woman concerned counts for nothing to them. As the feminist philosopher Ana de Miguel elaborates, in prostitution all empathy disappears—an argument already formulated by Marxist theorists such as Friederich Engels or Alexandra Kollontai. In that school of sexuality into which men are initiated, they not only learn that the only important pleasure is their own. They also enjoy absolute ignorance of female sexuality, while women are somehow forced (now this also happens with porn) to represent the fiction that prostituted women exist to attend to men.
Prostitution affects the imaginary of what it is to be a woman and distances us from being equals. It is thus incompatible with the equality we claim to defend in our laws and policies. Women now have their own incomes and could, in theory, also demand prostitution from men. But we do not do it, because (fortunately) we have not internalised a culture that objectifies men and justifies a female sexuality outwith the desire and consent of the other.
Lina Gálvez Muñoz is a professor of economic history and institutions at Pablo de Olavide University and, since 2019, a socialist member of the European Parliament, vice-chair of the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy and a member of the Women's Rights and Gender Equality Committee.