Prostitution is defined as “the practice of engaging in relatively indiscriminate sexual activity, in general with someone who is not a spouse or a friend, in exchange for immediate payment in money or other valuables.”
Now you will see some “socially liberal” men (don’t laugh!) who have a whitewashed & romanticized view of this “industry” assuming that this is an empowering thing for women to do, and beating their chest in support of it– there may be many on this sub itself, you may even be one of them reading this. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. The truth is that these “industries” are steeped in exploitation and oppression.
You may ask, “Can it be as simple as nice rainbows and OnlyFans creators?” Yes, anything CAN technically be some way or the other. The question however, is not one of possibility or probability, but one of reality. The reality is while “sex work” may be liberating for some women, it is not so for the overwhelming majority of the women stuck in the system of exploitation and oppression.
There is a lot, and I mean a LOT, to cover on this issue..
- Consent and the Illusion of Choice: The ethical question of consent arises. Now while it is entirely possible for the prostitute to consent, it is not what is actually happening. Consent cannot be monetized, as most of those working do not do so out of their own choice, but rather to make money so as to buy food and fulfill their other basic day-to-day needs. Is it, then, actual consent? Certainly one could not compare it to two individuals having sex of completely their own volition, since the element of survival does not crop up in the latter scenario. Now you might say, “But the worker can consent too! The money could just be an additional gift!” And you wouldn’t be fully wrong, since it is technicallypossible for that to occur. However, that is not the case in real life. Most of the research done by the development organisation Sanlaap indicates that the majority of sex workers in India work as prostitutes due to lacking resources to support themselves or their children. Most do not choose this profession but out of necessity, often after the breakup of a marriage or after being disowned and thrown out of their homes by their families. The children of sex workers are much more likely to get involved in this kind of work as well. A survey by the All Bengal Women’s Union interviewed a random sample of 160 sex workers in Calcutta: Of those, 23 claimed that they had come of their own accord, whereas the remaining 137 women claimed to have been introduced into the sex trade by agents.Coerced sex is rape. Therefore, this is true whether the coercive force is your husband, boyfriend, friend, a strange man, or social and economic forces. To surrender to the patriarchal definition of rape, defined in its most limited sense in order to protect the male right to rape, is to forfeit your ability to call yourself a feminist. Rape culture ignores the myriad of ways women are coerced into sexual service for men. As legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon notes, “the coercion of women into and within prostitution has been invisible because prostitution is considered sex and sex is considered what women are for.” Hisila Yami defines rape as “a manifestation of men’s power over women.” Men wield their power over women through physical force, mental manipulation, or by exploiting conditions that make her vulnerable such as her subordinated class position. The global sex trade is a market defined by the right of men to use their money as power over women, to demand the right to women of lower classes when and how they want it, and to play their fantasies out over proletarian women who are only there because of severe economic destitution.
- Grooming & Pedophilia: The sex trade in India enables and even encourages pedophilia and grooming of young girls. A study by the non-governmental International Justice Mission (IJM), Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in Mumbai, mapped nearly 10,000 commercial sex workers in more than 1,000 brothels, and about 200 sex workers operating from private establishments. There are no official records for the numbers of women and children working in prostitution, but estimates make harrowing reading with some saying that between 300,000 and 500,000 prostitutes in India are children, i.e., 40% of the industry between the age of 10 to 14 years. This is the dark side of the otherwise progressive and enthusiastic city, that thousands of young girls are forced into prostitution by organized human trafficking syndicates. An old piece from CNN estimates around 1.2 million children working in the sex trade in India. The then-home secretary Madhukar Gupta remarked that at least 100 million people were involved in human trafficking in India.
- Caste/Community: Here are a few communities we can look at as examples. The Bachara tribe from west Madhya Pradesh is famous for treating prostitution as a tradition. The eldest daughter of the family is brought up with the knowledge that she will grow up to this life, and once she gets older, the younger daughter takes over. The tradition comes down from the days when the women from the tribe would grow up to become respected courtesans — respect that is not given to women in the sex trade any more. The only way out of this life is for the women to find a suitor who agrees to pay her parents the expensive dowry they demand for her. If you’re wondering how the young girls get into this life, it is her father or brother who ends up acting as her pimp, taking care of all the arrangements. In fact, the family has a dedicated room which is meant for prostitution. Here is an Al Jazeera segment on the tribe and the casteism and evils they face. Nat Purwa, a small village in the Hardoi district in east Uttar Pradesh, is another such place. An extremely poor village, most of the villagers here belong to the Nat community. In 1871, when the Criminal Tribes Act was passed under British rule, the Nats became one of the communities accused of being involved with “criminal activities,” and were eventually left with nothing but prostitution. Children in this village know only their first names, and most don’t even have first names — not surprising, considering Nat Purwa is known as “a village of bastards.” The devadasi system has changed from being a religious custom to one of simple exploitation. This practice goes back as far as the 6th century CE. Young pre-pubescent girls are “married off” to the local deity, and in ancient periods, it meant that she was dedicated to the service of God. In addition to taking care of the temple and performing rituals, the women learnt classical dance, and enjoyed a very high status in society. They would go on to marry patrons, who were often kings, and wouldn’t need to participate in the daily workings of the household. During the British rule, these kings soon lost their power, leaving the devadasis to turn to a life of prostitution to support themselves. Even though the system has been outlawed since 1988, there are hundreds of women still forced to turn to this life in parts of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka. Instead of serving God, they now have to cater to whoever places the highest bid on their virginity, and then go wherever they are sent to, to lead their lives as what can be basically termed prostitutes. The Wadia village in Gujarat is famous for its prostitution, with the birth of girls being celebrated, because it means there’s another breadwinner for the family. Girls are groomed for a life as a prostitute, and some start as young as 12, and boys are trained to be pimps. Men come to Wadia from as far as Ahmedabad, Pakistan, Rajasthan, even Mumbai to buy sex — with rates ranging anywhere between INR 500 to 10,000. In every single one of these areas, efforts have been made to try and rehabilitate the women by NGOS and the government alike. Nothing has really changed for the women, and if there’s something that we see common to all of these places, it is that the fates of all the women are in the hands of the men in their lives. While the women are simply looked at as a means of money, and barely treated as human, the chances of things changing for them looks grim. Additionally, this point ties together both points 1 & 2. Source.Nepali revolutionary leader Hisila Yami in People’s War and Dalit Women Question notes that Dalit women are treated as a “sexual commodity that can be used and thrown away by upper class and castes.” Parents, out of severe desperation, often act as pimps selling their daughters into prostitution. They are in the sex trade because they are literally considered “untouchables” cut off from both social life and social production. Yami notes that their oppression is so severe that they are sometimes forced to eat human feces and are severely beaten, sometimes to death through stoning. Thousands of pre-teen girls are yearly forced into prostitution as a religious obligation, as Dalit oppression is deeply rooted in religious ideology. Prostitution is a condition of their oppression not a tool of their liberation. Yami understood that liberation of Dalit women would only come by abolishing the caste and class system that thrust them into severe sexual exploitation, not trying to win some “labor rights” and conceding to a life of sexual exploitation and class and caste oppression.
- Human Trafficking: India is a source, destination, and transit country for women and children subjected to sex trafficking. Most of India’s trafficking problem is internal, and those from the most disadvantaged social strata — economically weaker sections, people of SC/ST backgrounds (as seen above) — are most vulnerable. Thousands of “agencies” reportedly lure adults and children under false promises of employment or sham marriages within India or Gulf states into sex trafficking. In addition to traditional red light districts, women and children increasingly endure sex trafficking in small hotels, vehicles, huts, and private residences. Traffickers increasingly use websites, mobile applications, and online money transfers to facilitate commercial sex. Children continue to be subjected to sex trafficking in religious pilgrimage centers and by sexpats. Many women and girls, predominately from Nepal and Bangladesh, and from Europe, Central Asia, Africa, and Asia, including Rohingya and other minority populations from Burma, are subjected to sex trafficking in India. Prime destinations for both Indian and foreign female trafficking victims include Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi, Gujarat, Hyderabad, and along the India-Nepal border; Nepali women and girls are increasingly subjected to sex trafficking in Assam, and other cities such as Nagpur and Pune. Some corrupt law enforcement officers protect suspected traffickers and brothel owners from law enforcement efforts, take bribes from sex trafficking establishments and sexual services from victims, and tip off sex traffickers to impede rescue efforts. Some Nepali, Bangladeshi, and Afghan women and girls are subjected to both labor and sex trafficking in major Indian cities. Source
- Violence against Prostitutes: Globally, sex workers have a 45 to 75% chance of experiencing sexual violence at some point in their careers and a 32 to 55% chance of experiencing sexual violence in a given year. There are four key sources of violence against the majority of prostitutes: The social, economic, and institutional forces which compel her into sexual service and deny her right to exit; male violence which keep her in submission and reinforces her belief that sex is all she’s good for; police aggression due to criminalization but also because of her class, and; the power struggle between the buyer and the bought premised on the buyer exploiting her economic and social vulnerability. More: Prostitution is sexual violence
This begets the questions, “is prostitution = empowerment?” and “is sex work, work?”
No. Better than I, a former sex worker named Esperanza Fonseca will explain this.
Sex Trade Expansionary Feminists (STEF’s) have accepted a number of conditions that they are unable to change. Firstly, they accept that women’s social and economic condition will not get better. Secondly, they accept that women who are left with no other viable option at survival will turn to the sex trade. Lastly, they accept that the reserve army of labor constituting the sex trade is coerced by social and economic forces, that such a reserve army of labor is engaged in coerced sex for survival, and that no better options exist or can exist for the masses of dispossessed women.
They have accepted defeat on the terrain of guaranteeing any material improvement to women’s conditions. Therefore, instead of attempting to abolish the global markets which trade the most vulnerable women and girls, and the conditions precluding that market, they seek to surrender to capitalist realism, accepting the situation as unchangeable and trying to win some tiny improvements here and there.
Such a position is aptly named right opportunism, where they ignore the political immediacy of ending the commercial sexual exploitation of women and girls — and with it the male violence concentrated in the industry — in favor of attempts to make some legal recognition for them, hoping it can somehow offset the coercion, force, and violence inherent to the sex trade.
Ms. Fonseca’s personal account as a transgender sex worker:
In the transgender community prostitution is glamorized. In a world where trans women of color are murdered by men of our own race and class with impunity, where men will fuck us in private but act like they never knew us in public, where we are rejected from jobs, housing, and cut-off from our families and communities, I understand why prostitution made us feel powerful. In many ways, being a prostitute is a complete rejection of all we’ve been through: fuck the man that won’t hold my hand in public, I’ll charge him instead. Fuck my family for rejecting me, fuck that job for firing me, I don’t need them anymore. The whole world can reject me and it doesn’t matter because I could make it on my own. Not to mention, for those of us not independently wealthy, usually our only option for transition related medical care is through prostitution — whether we like it or not.
But the reality of being a transgender prostitute was not so simple. What started out as empowering in my mind quickly became a trap I couldn’t escape. The longer in the trade, the harder it is to leave. I’ve been raped more times than I can count.
Additional Perspective: Why Sex Work is Not Empowering or Real Work
Additional Perspective: Sex Work Is Not Work, by a former prostitute
“What about complete decriminalization?” one would ask. “That works, right? Surely that would fix the trafficking and make sex work empowering?”
Nope. Wrong again!
Countries that have decriminalized prostitution, such as Denmark did in 1999, still have human trafficking at equal, if not higher, levels. The authors of one study note that there were 2,250 trafficking victims in Denmark in 2004, and only 500 in Sweden under the Equality Model, stating that “this implies that the number of human trafficking victims in Denmark is more than four times that of Sweden, although the population size of Sweden (8.9 million) is about 40% larger than that of Denmark (5.3 million).” Additionally, decriminalization has expanded the industry, and thus the demand for trafficked bodies. “Importantly, the Global report also estimates the number of prostitutes in Denmark — about 6,000 — to be three to four times larger than the number in Sweden.” They conclude that “countries where prostitution is legal experience larger reported human trafficking inflows.”
Decriminalizing pimps and buyers expands the sex trade. Let’s take the example of the New Zealand model some liberals harp about. As one 2019 study notes, “The number of sex buyers in the streets doubled after New Zealand decriminalization, and an Auckland outreach agency’s staff reported that they were more often harassed by the men.” Furthermore, The New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, a lobbyist for the law, offered no programmatic support such as job training or housing advocacy for the large majority of those in prostitution who wanted to escape it, and instead, viewing prostitution as “a reasonable job for poor women,” they left behind those women who wanted to leave because it was “just like any other job.”
Expanding the sex trade while poverty deepens only expands the coercion and violence of the industry rather than expanding rights for prostituted women and girls. That means that as the sex trade market expands, the right to exit contracts. Expanding the market takes away the right to exit and the right to not be prostituted for the women who, under some form of captivity, make up the actual reserve army of prostituted bodies. “Social liberals” argue that human rights are the right to buy and sell sex and bodies as commodities. A socialist construction of human rights includes the right to not be coerced into survival sex, the right to exit, and the right to live free from commercial sexual exploitation.
Ms Fonseca goes on:
The sex trade will always retain its class character. Wealthy men get the “right of the first night” and choose the most desirable women paying them the most desirable rates. Working-class men get to buy the women not currently used by wealthy men, and out of the woman’s economic desperation, pay her lower rates. Thus the few at the top are high-end escorts, the rest at the bottom are relegated to a life of poverty, extreme coercion, and hyper-exploitation. This is the result of women’s bodies being commodities bought and sold on the competitive market.
These women, having gotten into the sex trade because of poverty, almost always stay in poverty, proving the sex trade to not be a path out of poverty for the masses of women.
Some few prostituted women might ascend to capitalist success. The rest experience the trade as a brutal trap which denies them the right to exit when desired. The freedom of a few women to break glass ceilings with the sex trade is eclipsed by the army of women forced into the trade with no choice and no protection.
Is prostitution needed?
Nope, not at all. Farming is socially necessary, since without it, people would starve. Cleaning is socially necessary, since without it, filth would facilitate the spread of diseases. Without prostitution, men would have to either masturbate or find consensual ways to enjoy sex with women. To conflate the two industries is to simplify them to the extent that it becomes impossible to analyze them and how they develop in reality. This is not about what some people “prefer” to do for work. This is about a market, an institution, which recruits its army of bodies from the most vulnerable sections of society, holds them in economic and social captivity, and exposes them to repeated violence and trauma. Some in the developed nations might be able to join the ranks of a labor aristocracy and enjoy certain freedoms they gain from the sexual servitude of the most oppressed women. That won’t suddenly erase the class character of the global sex trade that enslaves the poorest women from the most oppressed nations. The sex trade is a parasite that feeds on the vulnerability of poor women.
Is the prostitute the victim? Who is the villain?
By any sane measure, the prostitute is the victim of socioeconomic conditions under a capitalist system. A view that villifies the prostitute is a conservative talking point, and the stigmatization of their existence will only increase the violence and ostracization they face in society. The villains here are the rich who endorse and want to expand this parasitic system, the traffickers, the economically stronger “customers,” and the pimps (exceptions could exist in those communities where they are forced into the occupation.)
The fact is, prostitution can never be a viable business for the woman whose body is the commodity being bought and sold. The pimps and traffickers who sell those bodies and the buyers who use them would like nothing better than for you to see the practice as perfectly okay and a way for women to support their families. They don’t want you to look at what’s happened in countries or states that have legalized or decriminalized prostitution, like Rhode Island’s failed experiment with the same. They don’t want you to see how it increases sex trafficking and leads to even more activity in the illegal market. They don’t want you to know how the industry meets high demand by luring vulnerable women and children or taking them outright.
The Leftist Perspective:
Marx viewed prostitutes as victims of the capitalist system. In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, he described sex work as being “only a specific expression of the generalprostitution of the laborer,” and viewed the abolition of prostitution as a necessary part of ending capitalism. Similarly, in The Communist Manifesto, he called prostitution the “complement” of the bourgeois family, and predicted that both institutions would one day vanish.
Marx’s friend and fellow revolutionary Friedrich Engels also opposed prostitution as something that dehumanized both the women who sold themselves and the men who hired them. Echoing the position of early French socialist Charles Fourier, Engels argued that marriage itself could be considered a form of prostitution. In his treatise on The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, he wrote that within the capitalist class system a “marriage of convenience turns often enough into a marriage of prostitution — sometimes for both partners but far more commonly for the woman.” Vladimir Lenin acknowledged the human thirst for sex, but found the institution of sex work similarly distasteful.
Additional perspective: Marxism v Moralism, an Analysis of Prostitution.
Additional perspective: Why Marxist Feminists oppose Liberal Feminists on Prostitution and Pornography
What is, then, the stance to be taken? What is the solution?
- Decriminalizing and de-stigmatizing prostituted people.
- Repressing global sex trade markets through containing demand, by standing against the expansion of the sex trade.
- Creating accountability for buyers and pimps outside of the bourgeois state judicial system.
- Ensuring the universal right to exit and right to not be prostituted. You can contribute to local NGOs that help women and children in red light areas escape the horrors of the brothels. Here is one I found that works in Mumbai’s Kamathipura
- Focusing specifically on the most vulnerable women and children in the sex trade, especially women of SC/ST backgrounds and other marginalized communities.
- Pursuing an ambitious plan for women’s socioeconomic liberation alongside increasing opportunities for women at the bottom including good jobs, housing, education, etc.
- Ultimately, organizing towards complete abolition.