Part 1- Victim and Victimized
I’m writing this amid a current scandal in Vietnam which involves a celebrity being publicly exposed by some media to be a prostitute. Her pictures have gone viral, with as much personal information included as possible. “Whore”, “hooker” and many other degrading words have been used to hurdle shame and guilt upon the woman.
In Vietnam, although the law only imposes moderate punishment (a fine of from US$5-25) on prostitutes, sex workers are subjected to harsh social criticism. Even the terminology “sex worker” is virtually non-existent since very few would consider trading sex for money as work.
In this article of two parts, let's consider some arguments that have consistently been used to ban prostitution, commonly seen as a profession which is as old as the humanity itself.
The questions we want to answer is: “Is prostitution inherently immoral and harmful? Should it be criminalized and punished?”.
This picture taken on September 19, 2014 shows a prostitute looking for customers during day time at a public park in downtown Hanoi. Prostitution remains illegal in Vietnam, a traditional society still dominated by Confucian social mores, but a fierce debate over whether to legalize and regulate the industry has sprung up online and in the official press. Photo: AFP
'Sex workers are exploited and coerced to work by criminals, that is why it is harmful'
One of the main reasons why prostitution is considered harmful stems from the fact that in many cases, sex workers are coerced into becoming a prostitute. They are considered victims of the last choice, human trafficking, economic hardship, domestic abuse, or criminal organizations.
According to a statistics from the UN, 80 percent of border-crossing human trafficking are women and girls, most of them are consequently subjected to sexual abuse and forced to work in the sex industry. It has become common knowledge that many women who end up in the Red Light District of Amsterdam, were promised a career in dance and entertainment.
Some prostitutes are unaware victims of lover boys who target vulnerable teenagers, make them fall in love, then isolate them from families. The girl are slowly trapped in the vicious circle of manipulated relationship with a terrifying mixture of emotional terrorism, dependent love affair, and confusing perceptions of sex, love and money.
Needless to say, those who coerce others into prostitution also include their loved ones: parents who are desperate for money, partners who see their “better half” as “better” in term of financial support.
In India, several villages such as Ingonia are known to survive and thrive on the profession. “Born into brothels” is an award-winning documentary in which children of Sonagachi were given a camera to capture their daily life in this red light district. Most female sex workers in this documentary were portrayed as indirect victims of poverty or domestic coercion.
Ironically, if we accept that sex workers are genuinely victims of coercion and crimes, and that is why sex work should be banned, then criminalizing sex work is nothing more than an unethical act to punish the victims one more time.
Blaming the victims is obviously easier than finding the culprits, especially when the culprits are hidden behind the thin veneer of families, love, sacrifice, or a corrupted system. We cannot punish a malfunctioning economy that creates such a terrible poverty that consequently puts people in to a situation of having to choose trading sex for survival, can we?
However, if the causal link between coercion and victimhood is the reason why prostitution is harmful and should be banned, then frankly, this can be argued to be the case with most of professions on earth.
To a certain extent, all of us are coerced into doing what we are doing, since none of us is 100 percent free to do what we individually want. Freedom is never absolute, and as members of a society, we all have to sacrifice, compromise, or adjust ourselves to suit the situation, hence, allowing ourselves to be coerced into doing something we genuinely would not want to do. From this point of view, we are all victims of societal pressure, at varying degrees.
At this point, “degree” should be the focal point of this argument. To what degree is coercion acceptable? This is not a question of a bi-polar spectrum where one extreme is right and the other is wrong. This is a question of one single scale with one single attribute of “suffering”, one end more acceptable and the other end less so.
Our hypothesis then can be stated as: “If we can somehow make the degree of coercion in prostitution at least similar to other lawful professions, then sex work should be considered a lawful profession”.
This leads the discussion away from the unfair treatment of punishing the victims and focuses the solution on regulations and law enforcement, which is the basis of a civil society. By decriminalizing prostitution and imposing strict rules, victims will be able to avoid double punishment, leading to an escape that is safer and more sustainable than what they have had to endure.
Many studies have proved that criminalizing prostitution creates double incrimination. A study in Florida shows that 82 percent of the sex workers have been assaulted, and 68 percent have been raped. They fear to report to police since this can be used as evidence to make them committed another felony charge of working as sex workers.
A 2002 Chicago based study found that 30 percent of exotic dancers and 24 percent of street-based sex workers who had been raped identified a police officer as the rapist. Up to 17 percent of sex workers interviewed reported sexual harassment and abuse, including rape, by police. They had been forced to strip or engage in other sexual conduct while in police detention. Again, a victim is victimized one more time, ironically with a punishment exactly the same as their accused felony.
Further, while acknowledging that this argument of victimhood is valid, we also need to accept the fact that not all sex workers are coerced into prostitution. Many of them choose this profession voluntarily because it fits their life style and personality, or because it is economically efficient, without any pressure.
In the last few months, I have been part of a volunteer group helping to deliver tea and coffee to sex workers in the Red Light District of Amsterdam. I started the job with the idea that all these people are victims, and I could not be more wrong.
While some of them are surely coerced into prostitution, there are many who choose to work here freely. Sex work is exactly that, work. And what well-intended people should do is to protect those who are forced to enter the industry, and support those who are the boss of their life, regardless of who they choose to be, as long as it is honest labor.
At this point, we have the second hypothesis regarding the argument of victimhood: “If we can be sure that sex workers choose their profession freely, then sex work should be considered a lawful profession”.
Feminism has been torn between these two viewpoints since the end of the 20th century. Half of the feminists believe that sex workers are victims, even to the point that they themselves are not aware of their victim status. Liberal Nordic countries such as Sweden and Norway fall into this categories, punishing the buyers and not the sex workers themselves.
The other half of the feminists believe that sex workers are also people who choose this profession on their voluntarily basis. The Netherlands and Germany legalize prostitution with strong regulations, making a genuine effort to ensure that sex workers are protected against abuse and coercion (to a certain acceptable degree on par with other lawful professions, of course).
This picture taken on September 17, 2014 shows prostitutes waiting for customers during day time at a public park in downtown Hanoi. Prostitution remains illegal in Vietnam, a traditional society still dominated by Confucian social mores, but a fierce debate over whether to legalize and regulate the industry has sprung up online and in the official press. Photo: AFP
'Prostitution is degrading, that is why it is harmful'
Prostitution suffers from a strong social stigma as a degrading profession. Being moral or immoral is not the point here, but the way societies look at it. One should not choose to be a sex worker simply because it is a degrading job to do. We try to avoid this profession not because it is wrong, but because societies attach very limited amount of respect to it.
More often than not, those who adhere to this argument are often hypocritical without even knowing it. When the Vietnamese celebrity was exposed on the media, some shook their head in a combination of disgust and empathy: “Sex work is also work, nothing wrong with it. But I still find her disgusting and I curse her for wanting to do that job. Why? Because she knows people dislike it, and yet, she still does it”.
This double standard is deafening, yet so well disguised under the cover page of social conformity. In a nut shell, the job itself is honest labor, but one still should succumb to social stigma and avoid it. Even people who accept that prostitution is pure honest work also cannot escape the need to surrender and bow to the negative social perception and betray their own genuine point of view.
Not only is this argument subject to hypocrisy, social perception towards prostitution as a degrading job cannot rule out the fact that many other professions in our societies are also degrading and not socially desired.
Not so many of us can loudly claim to be Jesus-like and give convincing evidence that we love everyone without a tiny bit of bias based on what job they do for a living. Some of us use degrading words to address housemaids, shoe-shine boys, scrap scavengers, or street porters…despite the fact that they are earning money honestly with their labor. If we do not criminalize these professions on the basis of socially undesirableness, why should we do that to prostitution?
Clearly, the discussion should be focused on how to change the stigmatized social perception of sex work, and not the moral nature of sex work itself. If we criminalize a profession simply because it is an unwanted profession by the society at large, then again, we are punishing and victimizing the victims who are already marginalized by the society. Worse, this punishment is purely based on our fear of being seen as sympathizers for the oppressed. If that is not hypocrisy, then I don’t know what is.
Again, the hypothesis that should be stated here is: “To an extent that we can promote social acceptance and empathy towards sex workers, then sex work should be able to be considered as lawful work”.
* Dr Phuong-Mai Nguyen teaches Intercultural Communication and Middle East studies at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. Follow her blog here.
Her view is personal and does not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Thanh Nien News.