Dammit to hell. I really, really didn’t want my first reply to something by Taslima Nasreen to be an argument. I have tremendous respect for the woman and her work, and I would have loved for my first piece on her work to be gushing and adoring.
But I can’t let this go by without opposition.
Nasreen has written a post titled “Sex Slavery must be abolished.” Hard to argue with. Except that throughout the piece, she equates all forms of prostitution with sexual slavery. She says prostitution is always patriarchal oppression, always sexual exploitation, always sexual violence, that women are always forced into it, that it is never a vocation choice, that it is always human rights abuse, that all of it harms women.
Now. It’s certainly the case that prostitution is sometimes sexual slavery, patriarchal oppression, violent, not freely chosen, abusive, and harmful. In fact, if Nasreen wanted to claim that it often is all these things, I probably wouldn’t argue with that. It’s hard to get accurate statistics on how widespread the abusive versions of prostitution are compared to the non-abusive versions — it’s illegal, and it’s a charged issue, so it’s hard to get accurate, non-biased data about it. But I won’t deny that the abusive and exploitative versions of prostitute are a serious problem around the world. And of course, I stand in passionate opposition to abusive and exploitative sexual slavery. Of course I am eager to find solutions that reduce these harms as much as is humanly possible, and if possible that eliminate them entirely.
My problem is with the idea that, because prostitution is sometimes or often abusive and exploitative, it therefore always is — and that it is by its very nature.
My problem is this: What do you say to women — and men, there are plenty of male prostitutes — who say that this is not their experience?
What do you say to the women and men who currently work as prostitutes, or who once worked as prostitutes, who say that they freely chose the work, and are happy with that choice?
There are thousands of women — and men — who will tell you this. There are thousands of women and men who say that they actively enjoy working as prostitutes. They had other choices of profession, and they chose this one, and they’re happy with that choice. They like many of their customers, and are free to reject customers they don’t want to work with. They get sexual pleasure out of their work, and they get other kinds of job satisfaction from it as well. (There might well be more of them speaking out, if prostitution weren’t so heavily stigmatized, and if people felt more comfortable speaking openly about their experiences with it.)
And there are thousands more who will tell you that they basically see prostitution the way most people see their job — as a job, with things they like about it and things they don’t, not necessarily something they want to do forever but on the whole the best choice for them at a particular time in their lives. (Again, there might well be more speaking out, if it were easier to speak openly about being a prostitute without legal and practical and social penalty.)
These experiences are certainly not universal. I wouldn’t claim that they are. But they’re not unheard of, either. They are a part of the reality of prostitution — every bit as much as abuse and exploitation and sex slavery.
Are you saying that these people don’t exist? Or are you saying that they don’t matter? Are you saying that they’re deluded — that they thought they were free to choose but really weren’t, or that they thought they felt good about the work but really didn’t? Are you going to deny agency to thousands of current and former prostitutes, because their experience contradicts your thesis?
What’s more, there are thousands of women — and men — who didn’t have such a positive experience with prostitution… but who still want it to be legalized. I can’t tell you how many prostitutes I’ve talked with and read, who have said that they had terrible experiences with their work… and that these experiences were made significantly worse by the fact that the work was illegal. Women — and men — have said that the illegality of their work meant that they couldn’t go to the police if they were abused by customers or pimps or brothel owners; that in fact they were subjected to regular abuse from the police themselves, including extortion, blackmail, theft, beatings, and rape. And of course, the fact that the work is illegal makes it harder to leave it when you want to. (It’s not exactly something you can put on a resume.)
Yes. Prostitution is often abusive and exploitative. So is the garment industry. So is the chocolate industry. In fact, abuses in both the garment and the chocolate industry are so widespread as to be endemic. It does not follow, however, that wearing clothes and eating chocolate are inherently and by their very nature abusive and exploitative, that nobody ever freely chooses to enter these industries, and that anyone who participates them is either an abuser or a victim. If we’re going to work to stop abuses and exploitation in the garment and chocolate industries, shaming and marginalizing people who wear clothes and eat chocolate — or who make clothes and pick cocoa beans, or who work in clothing stores and chocolate shops — is not a good place to start.
Yes. Prostitution is often abusive and exploitative. I absolutely stand with you against any form of prostitution that is enslaving, patriarchal oppression, violent, not freely chosen, abusive, or in any way harmful. I am eager to find solutions to the all-too-common abuse and exploitation of prostitutes. But these solutions need to be based in reality. They cannot be based in the denial of the real experience of thousands upon thousands of people.
Yes. Prostitution is often abusive and exploitative. But if you’re going to make a blanket statement that all prostitution is always and by definition abusive and exploitative, then you are denying reality. You are ignoring the experience of thousands of human beings. That is not in keeping with a humanist philosophy. Please listen to the voices and experiences of the women — and men — who work or have worked as prostitutes, and please let your thoughts and your work on this issue be guided by those voices. All of them.