The Prostitution Grey Zone: Can women have both rights and choice?

Last month Fondation Scelles, an NGO dedicated to eradicating prostitution and sex trafficking, released a report estimating that there are between 40 and 42 million prostitutes in the world today. The report also suggested that 80 percent of them are female and about 75 percent of them are between the ages of 13 and 25.


Hundreds of organizations around the world have been reporting similar numbers for over a decade and the accompanying message is always the same—violence is endemic to prostitution, which is intrinsically linked to sex trafficking, which therefore should be eliminated. This is generally followed by a statement of how much sex trafficking has increased in recent years, and how we have a moral obligation to do something about this human injustice. Of course, with numbers like these, who wouldn’t want to support anti-prostitution and anti-trafficking organizations? Given a cursory understanding of the facts, abolition of prostitution appears to be the logical feminist choice. However, digging a little deeper, it becomes clear how oppressive abolition of prostitution is toward women.


The problem is that prostitution and sex trafficking have become so polarizing that it is nearly impossible to call the abolitionists into question without the assumption being that you are promoting prostitution. The reality is, there is more than one way to exploit a person and structural injustices, which lead to a number of human rights abuses, often compel women into lives of prostitution.


Labeling all such exploitation “human trafficking” only serves to mask a multitude of injustices and absolve the state of responsibility. While sex trafficking may exist because of male sexual demand, the state facilitated the socio-economic conditions and exacerbated structural inequalities that led to the increase in female prostitution around the world. Instead of holding more powerful forces accountable, abolitionists accuse liberal feminists of being apologists for pimps and traffickers, while abolitionists become apologists for the state.


Although I believe that women should have the right to choose whether to engage in sex work, this is not to suggest that promoting prostitution is the way to go. Instead, we should focus on the most exploitative aspects of capitalism that dictate these choices. We cannot extricate our understanding of sex trafficking and prostitution from the socio-economic conditions within which many women live. As feminists, our central focus should be the legal and substantive equality of all women around the world. This would challenge the exploitative elements of capitalism and the state as well as expand the realm of options for women. As it stands now, abolitionists strip women of their rights by denying their ability to voluntarily engage in sex as work, while liberal feminists deny women choice by tacitly accepting the fact that many of these women have no other choice. It seems as if only in the prostitution grey zone can you argue that women should be afforded both rights and choice.


Submitted by Karie A. Gubbins

The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not represent the opinions of Rutgers University or the Division of Global Affairs.

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