How prostitution became the world’s most modern profession

Kajsa Ekis Ekman, Being and Being Bought, Geelong (Australia): Spinifex Press, 2013.

A synopsis and commentary of Chapters 1-2 by Daphna Whitmore

Ekman, a Swedish journalist and critic, brings together a Marxist and feminist analysis of prostitution and surrogacy in this groundbreaking book.screen-shot-2019-10-06-at-2.15.01-pm.png

She opens the discussion with a definition of prostitution: It is sex between two people – between one who wants it and one who doesn’t. Since desire is absent, payment takes its place.

This inequality of lust is the basis of all prostitution, be it ‘VIP escort services’ or the modern slavery of trafficking.  Money may get the buyer ‘consent’ and even fake appreciation during the act, but it only highlights the fact that the other party has sex even though s/he does not really want to. No matter how much is said or done to cover this up, if there were mutual desire, there wouldn’t be any payment – and we all know it.

Ekman contends that prostitution is, therefore, an enemy of sexual liberation, of lust, and of free will.

She notes there are plenty of other problems associated with prostitution such as violence, poverty, high mortality rates, the pimps – be it the mafia or the state – and the whole industry that feeds off the inequality of lust.

The replacement of desire with money is, from the point of view of the sex work proponents, totally acceptable: few people love their jobs, why should selling sex be different? On the other hand, the buyer refuses to see this reality. He does not want her to act as if she is doing an ‘ordinary’ job. He wants the prostitute to show desire for him. Which, of course, means that she has to fake it. This dilemma, this lie, pervades the whole world of prostitution. For the people who sell sex, this has dire consequences: it essentially forces them to create a Split Self: the being, and the one who is being bought. The body becomes sex. Sex becomes a service.  

There are parallels between prostitution and surrogacy, a topic which Ekman examines in the second part of her book. The two industries profit from women’s bodies: one from her sex, the other from her uterus. This issue is not only about gender. It is about power and how it manifests itself in relation to class, ethnicity, age, social standing, etc.

Both industries are based on the concept that the body of a poor person is to be used for the benefit of the rich – without limitation. The powerful people say: “I want sex, I want it this way, I want you to do this, say this,” and pay someone to do it. The powerful people say: “We want children, newborn babies, we want them to look like us,” and pay someone to bear the child and give it up, never to see it again. The powerful even go as far as to call their wishes ‘human rights’.

Ekman maintains that to fight against prostitution and surrogacy is to fight for free sexuality and women’s reproductive autonomy. Or to put it differently, the idea that we should be able to have sex and have children when we want to, when we desire it and feel ready for it – not because somebody pays us, forces us, manipulates us, or makes us feel guilty if we don’t. 

The fight against prostitution and surrogacy may seem peripheral or trivial to some. For Ekman it is through this fight that we define what it is to be human.

When the ILO in 1998 recommended the sex industry be legalised their main argument was that governments should be able to garner a share of money generated by this lucrative industry.

The sex trade is highly gendered, 98% of the people sold through trafficking are women and girls. The use of the term sex work, rather than prostitution, however, implies it is not a relationship between women and men, but simply a business transaction. Prostitution is about women’s right to work, say the pro-prostitution social commentators. The prostitute is depicted as sexually emancipated and a strong, independent person in this narrative. The story of the sex worker makes no claim of telling what prostitution is or how it works in practice.

Two ideas are at play: sexuality and work. When prostitution is described as a job, it should be subjected to the terms and conditions of the labour market. When it is described as a form of sexuality, it suddenly becomes private, something with which society should not interfere. 

Today, researchers and queer theorists see prostitution as a norm-violating practice that breaks down boundaries and calls gender roles into question. They describe the opponents of prostitution as authoritarian oppressors. The argument that “she is an agent, not a victim” is primarily imported from the USA. 

The research on prostitution in Sweden tells a different story. The Prostitution Inquiry was launched in 1977, and the researchers did something quite unusual for government investigations both then and now: they spent three years in places where prostitution was taking place. They left their desks and interviewed prostitutes, buyers, and others who traveled in these circles. They wanted to understand what prostitution was. 

The result was an 800-page report, of which 140 pages were people’s own testimonies (Borg et al., 1981). The Inquiry laid the foundation for a whole new analysis in which prostitution was understood to be an extreme, concentrated version of the general relationship between the sexes. The report tells a great deal about violence, exploitation and the societal inequality of the people involved. It paved the way for prostitution research all over Scandanavia. Prostitution, like rape, had suddenly become political: part of gender politics as much as of social politics.

“Abolishing the victim” is the battle cry of the pro-prostitution advocates. Trafficking victims get renamed “migrant sex workers” and the woman who is forced into prostitution is depicted as fortunate. Even when trafficked women are confined to apartments for several months without being allowed to leave this is painted as not so bad by some. One sex work advocate says, “in many cases, however, migrant workers prefer this situation, for any of a number of reasons: if they don’t leave the premises they don’t spend money; if they don’t have working papers, they feel safer inside in a controlled situation”. 

Some are even beginning to refuse to see children as victims. Social anthropologist Heather Montgomery (Global Sex Workers, 1998)  strives to cast doubt on the idea of children as mere victims of prostitution. Writing of an impoverished Thai village with 65 children under 15 years of age, she notes at least 40 of them have worked as prostitutes at some point. “The children that I knew did have ‘a sense of decision and control’ and to deny them this is to deny the skillful way that they use the very small amount of control that they do have. The search for victims of child abuse sometimes obscures the acknowledgment of children’s agency.” (p. 146) 

In Australia, where prostitution is legal and prevalent in many states, child prostitution is growing. 

A report, Australia’s National Plan of Action Against the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (2000), told the story of Peter, a nine-year-old homeless boy who was taken by a group of men and raped the whole night long. “Some men took him home to bed, gave him a good dinner and breakfast and a warm bed for the night. Sex was involved and in the morning they gave him $50. Peter thought this was terrific – a warm bed, lots of ‘affection’, food and more spending money than he had ever had in his life.” 

Ekman shows how the focus in this description of Peter’s rape is on everything that is not sexual. There is an eternal paradox in the story of the sex worker: that, although it seems to be a pro-sex narrative, it actually euphemises all sex acts as if to purify the discourse itself. The authors of the report seem to forget that food and a warm bed should be a human right and not a luxury for a nine-year-old boy. In the report there were no perpetrators, victims or even actors. We aren’t told how many men violated the child, what they did and how long it went on, all these facts are brushed aside in favour of the news that Peter received 50 dollars.

The neoliberal order hates victims. And, of course, if there are no victims there are no perpetrators. 

After regulated prostitution was abolished in 1918 prostitution decreased in Europe. The decrease can also be attributed to the rise of the welfare state. In the 1950s, many people thought that prostitution was heading for extinction, along with other traces of bygone eras of inequality.

But today it is again on the rise – with the potential of reaching gigantic proportions. The UN and ILO estimate that between 2 and 4 million people are victims of trafficking for sexual purposes (Marcovich, 2007,p.331) The basic structure of prostitution has not changed appreciably in over 100 years. It is still overwhelmingly men who pay for intercourse with women, and prostitution still takes place on streets, in apartments and in brothels. It involves the same poverty and the same violence. Poor women are still trafficked to other parts of the world and sold in brothels. The trade is still controlled by pimps and organised crime.

In the nineteenth century, prostitution was said to be natural and necessary to preserve marriage and civilisation. Now it is said to be a free choice and a rebellion against traditional gender roles. In the past, people claimed the prostitute was biologically inferior. Today she is held up as the ultimate feminist. Then it was inescapable fate, now it is completely free choice. Then it was shameful, now it is honorable. Then as now, however, prostitution is presented as a characteristic of the woman. Then as now, the man is left out of the story, as is the question of why he purchases sexual services.

How, then, was prostitution successfully reinstated in society? How was this outdated, slavery-like industry made to look modern and even liberatory?

An Industry is Born – 1970 to present

In the mid-1970s the contemporary sex industry began to take shape. During the Vietnam War the US opened mega brothels for its soldiers in Thailand. After the war the brothels stayed open for tourists.  Prostitution was attacked by the women’s liberation movement, which described it as one of the worst possible expressions of women’s oppression. The sex industry had a real image problem. 

In 1973 the American group Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics (COYOTE) was founded by a liberal faction of the hippie movement. Their central belief was that prostitution was an expression of sexual freedom. COYOTE was marketed with gala dinners called ‘Hookers’ Balls’, and invited journalists to rub elbows with ‘real whores’. They auctioned off a night with a prostituted woman. The Methodist Church in California and Playboy Magazine were early donors to COYOTE. The organisation had 30,000 members within eight years, of whom only 3% were prostituted women. Despite this small number, it was labeled the first national organisation for prostitutes. COYOTE stalwart Priscilla Alexander coined the term ‘sex worker’. Although COYOTE carried out some positive changes such as abolishing the forced quarantine of prostituted women waiting for the results of gonorrhoea tests its emphasis lay squarely on legitimising prostitution as work. “To sell your body is a human right,” they claimed. 

In the 1980s the Dutch government invested in multiple projects normalising prostitution. A ‘union for prostitutes’, de Rode Draad [The Red Thread], was established to give prostitution the status of work. Today they report having only about 100 members and have still never dedicated themselves to any trade union battle.

In the 1990s the HIV/AIDS epidemic transformed the ‘sex worker’ movement from an underground phenomenon into a major international force. Prostitution was identified as one of the sources of infection, and groups like COYOTE offered a solution: teach prostitutes about condom use. Instead of questioning the existence of prostitution and turning the focus onto the buyers, governments and international organisations opted to preserve the institution of prostitution. Groups with a prostitution-friendly stance received millions to teach what they call ‘safe sex’, but they were also not restricted from spending some of this money on lobbying.

This meant a return to the nineteenth-century ideals of hygiene, where the onus was “primarily on the women to take responsibility for the health of ‘the customer’, so disease would not be spread to their families.”

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, ‘trade unions’ became a magic word in the debate about prostitution. The positive association excited people on the left. Even the political right applauded this. While collective bargaining was being attacked by the establishment – it was to be abolished for everyone except prostitutes. 

The proponents never enumerate what the demands of these unions should be. Is it a reasonable expectation that a woman should have intercourse with 10 men per day, or should the line be drawn at 5? What is one act of intercourse ‘worth’ – $15 or $1500? How do you enforce legally binding contracts with the heavily armed mafia? Is ‘sex work’ where women and girls are hit and urinated on in compliance with legislation for safe work environments? And what about the law against sexual harassment? How does that fit in?

Part 2 will examine the ‘trade unions for sex workers’ and what exactly is the commodity being bought if the ‘sex worker’ does not sell herself.


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