Prostitution is often referred to euphemistically as the ‘oldest trade in the world’ however for centuries society has looked down upon the practice as well as criminalising the pillars of the sex trade (i.e. owning brothels, buying sex). Due to the power of criminal gangs over this industry, and the funding such gangs receive as a result, many sections of society wish for the trade to remain prohibited lest these criminal gangs’ influence increase with the support of the state.
Many feminists are split as to whether prostitution should be legalized, fearing that this not tackle the culture of female objectification; as a sex-positive socialist feminist I would argue that prostitution should be legal, not only to protect the sex workers themselves, but also to provide greater economic benefits and to suffocate the funding of criminal organisations by means of sexual exploitation. The objections that are made by anti-prostitution feminists, I believe, are actually arguments against prostitution in an anarcho-capitalist context as the potential of co-operative socialism, trade unions and state regulation are rarely mentioned or actively discounted.
According to the Office of National Statistics in 2014 people in the UK spent £4.3 billion on prostitution and due to the current legal prohibition on the industry much of this money went to criminal organisations. Through legalization all of this money would become taxable and give sex workers a more secure income that is not currently the case when at the mercy of gang-employed pimps. In more abstract economic terms with legal sex workers in Britain providing the supply for the existing demand, criminal enterprises would have no economic incentive to continue illegal prostitution rings and related activities like human trafficking.
With the capital that would normally go into funding illegal activities stopped, illegal entities will no longer have the resources to continue their operations at the same level without change, and gangs whose revenue was dependent upon the sex industry would soon lose all societal influence. Legalization would act as a deterrent to international criminal organisations as they wouldn’t risk criminal charges in a number of countries trafficking women to be prostitutes if the demand for the sex trade was being met by a regulated and legal industry.
As has been seen in the Netherlands legalization isn’t a cure for the problem of human trafficking but I believe that it will make it easier for sex workers to have legal protections and for the authorities to discover the identities of traffickers.
Many of the arguments in favour of prohibition take on legalization by addressing it as if it is exclusively supported by free-market capitalists, and if this were the only alternative I wouldn’t oppose prohibition: It is in countering anti-legalization argument that economic regulation and the tenants of socialism are applicable, as well as pointing out ideological disagreement. The issue of women’s health is often at the forefront of any conversation, with the potential spread of STDs a major concern, and that poorly enforced policies by business owners would do nothing to prevent the spread of diseases like HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis.
Again I agree if the state was unable to regulate an enterprise there would be little difference, however this is not the case; legal protections could be put in place in which sex workers would be able to refuse service to patrons with visible signs of STDs, compulsory health checks for sex workers every few months, strictly enforced mandatory condom-use with patrons signing contracts stating that they will use contraception etc. It also worth pointing out that from a capitalistic perspective, it is not in the employer’s interests to have employees with STDs because of the loss of custom therefore it would make good business sense to maintain stringent health checks.
Another one of the most common arguments used by prohibition proponents is that legalization does nothing to change the power dynamics of the situation as the sex workers are still beholden to a powerful figure whether a businessman or a gang-supported pimp. In a traditional capitalist hierarchy the issue of power dynamics between the employer and employees remains, however this could be mitigated through the creation of a sex workers’ trade union to collectively bargain and argue for improved working conditions. A full solution to this, rather than just mitigation, would be to have all the staff of any brothel run the business as a democratized co-operative, thus resulting in no oppressive power dynamic as the sex workers would have no hierarchical superior to answer to.
In terms of ideological disagreement, two arguments against legalization come to mind: prostitution doesn’t enhance women’s choices; and legalization will increase the sex trade. In response to the first point, I would argue that legalization would enhance a women’s choice as under prohibition choosing to be a prostitute would essentially be illegal and there are many risks from other individuals whether from STDs or violence; after prohibition you are a participant in a legitimate and regulated industry with workplace protections along with potential union support.
On the second point, I cannot know whether legalization will increase the sex trade but I would contend that any increase would be solely from people wanting to take part on an experimental basis rather than seeing men in relationships flocking to brothels. In addition, I would argue that as the stigma around the sex industry is gradually reduced fewer people would be inclined to experiment as those seeking to rebel against society wouldn’t go to a brothel if it was an accepted part of that society. On a more ideological point I would also point out that a rise in the sex trade doesn’t overly concern me as in a well-regulated context, what people choose to do in their spare time doesn’t concern me so long as they don’t compel me to join in against my will.
The most philosophically interesting point is reconciling two pillars of feminist thought: preventing the continued objectification of women in society and enabling for women to do what they wish with their own bodies. The only prohibitionist argument, in my view, that holds any water is that legalizing prostitution will do nothing to prevent the continued societal perception of women having no worth than to be sexual objects used by men. My point of contention with this view is that I believe it be wrong to restrict a woman’s right to do what she wants with her body when, if both are consenting adults, there is no ‘victim’ of the ‘crime’.
My counter-point to this view would be that the alternative would be the status quo: the state, which is predominantly run by men and has often been paternalistic towards what women are legally allowed to do, continues that paternalism by insisting that prohibition is women’s best interests. The British state could be given as a textbook example of an expression of the patriarchy; one female prime minister ever, only one third of the current Cabinet is female and, according to a 2014 Hay Group Report, only 22% of top Civil Servants are women. To have a political establishment laying down diktats about women’s lifestyle choices when there are so few women at the top makes any such decision hard to take seriously.
A better response would be to liberate fully to give them the choice to do whatever they want to do, which will in itself challenge the idea of women being feeble and irrational. The issues of commodification and objectification are serious and will exist whether prostitution is legal or not; continued education and activism should be focussed on fighting against the patriarchy where system sexism exists, like in the British establishment, rather than feminists attacking each other thus allowing misconceptions of feminism to be continually perpetuated.
Ending the paternalism of the state whilst also encouraging sex workers to run their enterprises as democratic co-operatives will ensure that women have ownership over their bodies in both a legal and professional context, safeguarding sex workers from exploitation. I believe that biases against women will occur once the stigma around sexuality is reduced and the liberty of women to do as they wish becomes ingrained in society.