A religious group had brought an action to challenge new law which legalizes prostitution and brothels. The group views this development as fundamentally immoral and exploitative of women. Comparative views of the law within feminism.
Activist Chris Kramarae once remarked that “feminism is the radical notion that women are human beings.”Feminism, as a movement, is about women living on equal terms with men and not pushed down into a subservient role.
Feminism is broken down into three historical “waves”: First-wave feminism, which lasted from the 18th century until World War II, centred on securing basic civil rights, such as the right to vote; Second-wave feminism, from the end of World War II until the Equal Rights Amendment failed in the 1980s (a piece of legislation in America that was supposed to protect women’s rights in the workplace); and Third-wave feminism, which incorporates racial justice, and class oppression and seeks practical equality for all women. There are also different kinds of feminism, the most common being: Liberal feminism, which seeks equal rights through policy change but does not focus on cultural issues; Radical feminism, which seeks the abolition of gender as we know it; and Socialist feminism which suggests that capitalism along with patriarchy is responsible for the oppression of women and therefore seek to abolish these to prevent female oppression.
Feminist approaches to prostitution have shifted over the last ten or so years due to changing views on sexuality. Initially it was seen in a reductionist way but has now become a more understandable response to economic need within our consumer culture.
In liberal feminism, prostitution is seen as a private business transaction which the woman has entered into of her own free will. The transaction is just like any other in that when a professional is sought, such as a doctor or mechanic, you are not concerned in the person doing the professional work only their services.This is a view shared by Carol Pateman: ‘the prostitute is not really a wage labourer but rather an independent contractor who can start or stop a transaction.’
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Radical Feminists feel prostitutes do not act out of free choice but they are victims of coercion. The radical view is far more emotional than Liberals and they see the woman as becoming a piece of ‘merchandise’and therefore there is no freedom within their contracts. They usually see prostitution as an exploitative relationship in which the customer is interested in the prostitute’s services.
Socialist feminism sees oppression of the women as having psychological and social roots. A prostitute is a victim of the corruption of a society which accompanies class distinctions. The oppression of class in a materialistic society degrades people by categorising them in a particular class. In both the socialist feminist and Marxist feminist perspectives prostitution is discouraged, but neither school seeks a remedy for its elimination. They believe the cause of prostitution is the structuring of society and this is how the problem will be solved.
Several leading feminists are opposed to prostitution as they argue it is not a conscious choice. Most women who become prostitutes do so because they were forced, or, when it is an independent decision, out of poverty, lack of opportunity, or due to serious underlying problems. Catherine MacKinnon points out women from the lowest socioeconomic classes are overrepresented in prostitution:”If prostitution is a free choice, why are the women with the fewest choices the ones most often found doing it?”She also argues”In prostitution, women have sex with men they would never otherwise have sex with. The money thus acts as a form of force…It acts like physical force does in rape.”Other experts also assert consent within prostitution is almost impossible: ‘For radical feminists this is because prostitution is always a coercive sexual practice. Others simply suggest that economic coercion makes the sexual consent of sex workers highly problematic if not impossible….’Furthermore, anti-prostitution groups feel that the long-term effects can be horrific as prostitution routinely exposes the women to psychological, physical and sexual violence. Such effects can be as severe as self harm and suicide.Andrea Dworkin, an ex-prostitute, stated: “Prostitution…is an abuse of a woman’s body. In prostitution, no woman stays whole. It is impossible to use a human body in the way women’s bodies are used in prostitution and to have a whole human being at the end of it…And no woman gets whole again later, after.”
Prostitution is also seen as a form of male-dominance over women. It is not a mutual and equal sex act; it puts the woman in a subordinate position, reducing her to an instrument of sexual pleasure. These feminists believe that many clients use the services of the prostitutes because they enjoy the “power trip” and the control they have. Catharine MacKinnon argues that prostitution “isn’t sex only, it’s you do what I say, sex.”These feminists believe that prostitution is harmful to society as it reinforces the idea that women are sex objects which exist for men’s enjoyment. Anti-prostitution feminists argue that when society accepts prostitution, it sends the message that it is acceptable for a man to engage in sexual activity with a woman who does not enjoy it and who is mentally and emotionally forcing herself in order to be able to cope; the normalisation of this may negatively affect the way men relate to women and might increase sexual violence against women.
However, there are groups of feminists that do not agree; these pro-sex feminists see it as being a positive experience in using independence to make a decision to engage in prostitution. Many of these feminists argue that the act of selling sex need not be exploitative; but that attempts to abolish prostitution lead to an abusive climate for sex workers that must be changed. This perspective has led to the rise since the 1970s of an international sex workers’ rights movement, comprising organizations such as COYOTEand the International Prostitutes Collective to name only two.
An important argument advanced by pro-sex work feminists such as Carol Queen highlights that feminists who are critical of prostitution have failed to consider the viewpoints of women who are themselves engaged in sex work, choosing instead to base their arguments in theory and outdated experiences.Pro-sex worker perspectives are also suspicious of the logic behind the arguments of anti-prostitution feminists, often believing such feminists to be basing their arguments on outdated notions of sexuality that existed to constrain sexual practice and regulate the behaviour and sexual expression of women.Jill Nagle considers this to be part of a binary construction of women’s’ identity as being a ‘good girl’ or ‘bad girl’, a notion she believes we must undermine.
There are many feminists whose views on prostitution do not fit in either the anti-prostitution feminist or the sex-positive feminist viewpoints. They feel both view points as unproductive and bitter debate. Such authors highlight that allowing arguments to be reduced to stale analysis and theoretical debate, feminists are contributing to marginalisation of prostitutes, simplifying the nature of the work they carry out and personal circumstances that involve each individual.Feminist scholar Laurie Shrage has also criticised the haphazard nature of feminist views on prostitution. She claims that ‘pro-sex feminists have advocated a reckless deregulation of laws surrounding prostitution, without considering the implications that this may have, particularly given the nature of the sex trade, which is more likely to be plagued by exploitation and poor working conditions.’
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As a matter of legal rule if someone has committed an offence, such as prostitution, they will be offered the same protection that someone whom has not committed an offence would be. However, developments in rape lawhave not been extended to protect sex workers. It has been suggested that women within the industry do feel they cannot make a police complaint as they will not be taken seriously due to their job and only feel that with specialist organisations they can successfully make a complaint without fear of prejudice. This also lead to suggestion that criminal prosecution should be removed from sex workersThere has also been an assertion of unionisation within the industry to ensure the workers were adequately protected.However, what of those workers who do not sign up to a union, or those who cannot afford to comply with union regulation requirements? Furthermore, what of the workers who ‘go alone’? They may not want to or afford to to sign up to a union and as such would put themselves in danger. This suggestion is somewhat flawed as there will still be some that would not comply with the regulations; as there are those who do not comply with the laws we have.
Current legislation seeks to punish the provider rather than the buyer and there is a lack of clarity within the law. For example a girl over 13, but under 16, can be charged with soliciting even though she cannot give lawful consent. However, there is a shift beginning to occur clients can now be prosecuted for the offence of kerb crawling.It should be noted by feminists and other groups when stating that the whole prostitution system needs to be outlawed that they are subjecting women to stigmas should they need to undertake this kind of work during their lives, as after two cautions a woman can be defined in law as a common prostitute.This kind of stigma has long-term effects on equal opportunities when seeking employment out of this sector of work, and despite three attempts to remove the term it still remains.This suggests that there needs to be some intervention within the legal system in order to protect women on leaving the industry.
Since reviews by the Home Office in 2004 and 2006, there has been a lenient stance taken on sex-workers in that there are some permissible activities allowed within an indoor environment. This has encouraged more ‘safe’ environments for sex work and has allowed effective policing of street based work; whereby the courts can now compel a woman caught soliciting to undertake a rehabilitation course to quit the street based work.This suggests that gone are the 19th century views that prostitution should be wholly illegal, to a more open view that prostitution is part of society and, rather than punishing those who work within the industry, the government should seek to protect those who do by tighter rules and regulations.
There was suggestion of licensing brothels; however this notion did not pass on the grounds that those who were not willing to comply would be pushed into an illegal section. The second reason was that the changes may lead to expansion of the industry;which the government does not want as England is not a country that is seen as a sexual capital, unlike the likes of Amsterdam which promotes its industry on a shop front level.
There have been several debates in the UK surrounding the laws that centre around whether we should follow the Netherlands, Germany or New Zealand and tolerate prostitution, or whether the country should make it illegal to pay for sex, like Sweden, Norway and Iceland. In 2006, the government raised the possibility of loosening the laws and allowing small brothels in England and Wales, but in the end this was abandoned, after fears that such establishments would bring pimps and drug dealers into residential areas. After this, government ministers suggested that rather than permitting mini-brothels, they would like to tackle the “demand side” and make it illegal to pay for sex.In Scotland, there was A Prostitution Tolerance Zones Bill introduced, however it failed to become law. Instead, the Parliament passed the Prostitution (Public Places) (Scotland) Act 2007 which leaves the law relating to prostitutes unchanged but introduces a new offence committed by their clients.Prior to the end of 2001, Edinburgh operated a tolerance zone system for prostitutes which seemed to produce positive affects in that crimes against the workers were in fact reported to the police. Since the zero-tolerance came in after December 2001, this figure fell and fewer crimes are being reported; thus having a negative impact on the safety and well-being of the women.
In Germany women can seek clients within specific zones and even have to charge VAT and pay tax to the government on their earnings; thus making it much like any other business, however it has been claimed that any unemployment benefits maybe reduced should a woman not take a job as a prostitute.In the Netherlands prostitution is common place and with Amsterdam’s red light district; it is expected. However, the government do feel their liberal attitudes are causing a problem and the industry is too large and, despite introducing licenses, they are now having to crack down on prostitution as it is leading to other more serious crimes such as drug trafficking.New Zealand sex-work laws are some of the most liberal, prior to 2003, prostitution was governed by the Massage Parlours Act 1978, which allowed some indoor prostitution under a facade; indoor sex workers were required to be registered with the police. Advertising the sale of sex (‘soliciting’), running a brothel, and living from the earnings of prostitution were illegal. These laws were changed by the Prostitution Reform Act, which was passed in June 2003. Again however, there has been serious knock of affects from this liberalist attitude and it has caused high numbers of related crimes against the prostitutes.
In contrast, from 1999 in Sweden it is illegal for the client to buy the services but not for the prostitute to offer them. The Swedish Government has adopted an official position that prostitution is a form of violence against women and should be eliminated by reducing demand; a view that socialist feminists would agree with.The same laws have also been adopted by Norway and Iceland in 2009.
If we were to legalise prostitution and give it employment status, it would be tough to apply employment laws that we have nowto sex workers. The laws we have are triggered by the ’employee’ status and are separate from an ‘independent contractor.’ The difference between the two is a fine line,often workers are categorised as being independent contractorsto avoid the laws surrounding employee status. This is something that, should new legalisation law be passed, would need to be addressed to protect prostitutes from abuse by their employers. This is currently being sought by the English Collective of Prostitutes and WHIP in England to ensure all labour laws apply to the sex workers as well as the average worker.
Sex work has been around for hundreds of years in some shape or form. Whilst I do not believe that full legalisation is the way to go, I also cannot see that total criminalisation is the way forward either. I believe, from comparative laws that have been trialled or are in force, some kind of regulation would be the best way forward so as to protect not only the common man, but also the sex worker. Feminism does indeed support a broad spectrum of views within the sex industry; from one of total defiance(radical) to one of support(liberal). I feel that the socialist feminist approach provides the best insight into law reforms in that to aid the problems and crimes that prostitution and brothels may cause, we need to address the class background within society and a good way to do this would be to regulate brothels and prostitutes to provide better working conditions for those who choose to undertake the work; so as to raise their status within society to prevent the current ‘dirty’ image the places and the people involved are set out to be. However, there must be caution taken when providing such laws, as has been shown within Amsterdam, as it may lead to an over-subscribed employment area and lead to expansion. Government needs to work with pro-sex work groups and see what they feel the best way is to protect the women within the work as they can get to those whose views are vital. Feminism has helped pass several laws in the past so I feel that working with the ‘middle of the road’ opinion individuals will seek to provide a fair solution to the law relating to this area that ensures that women are not exploited and they are protected.
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