Disclaimer: This is an adaptation of an essay I wrote for my Contemporary Dutch Social Policy class. I don't profess to know nearly enough about this subject to make any sort of universal claims; the opinions expressed here are simply those that I formed over a two week unit on the subject of prostitution in the Netherlands.
As a strongly identifying feminist, learning about prostitution in the Netherlands has fascinated me. I support the legalization of prostitution, because it gives women full, legal control of their bodies. Legalization is the first step towards de-stigmatization, which is, indirectly, a step in the right direction towards female sexual equality. I am always interested in policy that will afford women greater equality. However, it is hard to ignore the issues of human trafficking and feminist objections to legalized sex work. These issues are relevant and important, but I do not think that regression towards the criminalization of prostitution is an effective policy move. Instead, I advocate for an increase in attention and the generation of progressive solutions to these problems.
Legalization of sex work elevates a natural use of the body to a profession. It enables workers to have dignity in their every day lives and provides room for sex work to take on an air of class and sophistication. One can claim that utilization of the human body for profit parallels the professions of dance, acrobatics or even craftsmen. Guest speakers and former prostitute Petra Timmermans agrees, describing sex work mainly as “performance,” something we allow artists to do every day without interference or much scrutiny. Of course, the scrutiny sex work endures stems from a long-standing and still relevant stigma around women having sex in general. In my opinion, women should feel just as comfortable as men using their bodies in whichever way they please. Legal sex work supports this notion of female sexual equality.
Conversely, it is hard for me to believe that a woman ultimately strives to work in the sex industry. Although many respectable women, such as feminist writer Brooke Magnanti, feel that prostitution can be empowering for women, there seem to be so many more lucrative and less stigmatized professions available to women. Magnanti also represents the higher end of the socioeconomic spectrum, which does little to persuade those of the Marxist feminist position. I can empathize, because my concern is that economic factors force girls into sex work involuntarily. Imagine a scenario in which a woman needs money, be it for her family or personal support. Legalized prostitution sends the indirect message that, “If you have a female body, you can make money.” The attractive nature of this statement, combined with an extreme need for an income, can psychologically coerce a woman into selling her body, thus deriving her of all the power prostitution promises.
Both the radical and liberal feminists make fair points within the argument, as well. Radical feminists hold that prostitution objectifies women and reduces them to merchandise. I agree, from the standpoint that women are unequally (i.e. more) able to sell their bodies to men, due to cultural demand for the female body. The female body is already viewed as a commodity to own, conquer, achieve - whatever the verb may be - to both men and women. Prostitution encourages the image of the female body as a commodity. On the other hand, I can identify with liberal feminist thought, in that a woman should be able to use her body as she pleases and provide sexual skills and services at her own discretion. The government should not be allowed to regulate human sexuality, but business is a different, entirely subject story.
The industry is further plagued by allegations of human trafficking, although hard, reliable statistics are somewhat unaccessible. As a legal and regulated industry, this should not be happening at all. There should be adequate checks against criminal activity and active outlets for workers to express their grievances, from poor working conditions to forced sex work. I am in favor of a system that improves communication between sex workers and regulating, authoritative bodies. The main consideration should be bypassing sources of mediation, such as human traffickers and pimps.
Perhaps private one-on-one check-ins, annual anonymous surveys and bi-annual sex work conventions would provide more open and honest forums for workers to talk about their lived experience within the industry. The purpose would be to provide multiple, diverse platforms for workers to voice inequities or concerns and to seek help or mobility out of the sex industry. Some, especially within the Netherlands, tout the idea of mandatory registration of prostitutes as the solution to human trafficking. I empathize with the argument against it. Digital registration attaches a highly stigmatized label to a sex worker’s name forever, divesting them of their autonomy and power. A report published by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs supports this idea, linking the initial lack of registration of prostitutes to “protecting personal privacy."
In an ideal world, we could all be liberal feminists on the topic of prostitution. There would be no stigma attached to female sex. In an ideal world, all countries would legalize and regulate sex work, stimulating awareness, conversation and active campaigns against crime associated with the industry. The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs agrees, stating, “Abuses are easier to detect when sex workers operate publicly and legally rather than in a clandestine subculture." However, due to the multitude of religious, sociocultural, political, and economic institutions that have come to oppress and/or commoditize female sexuality, we must consider prostitution through a lens of scrutiny, asking if it furthers an already incorrect notion about female sexuality or the involuntary transport of vulnerable human beings. I believe that said lens will stay in place until our global society undergoes a major attitude change in regards to female sexuality.
Thanks for listening!
And if you care, my sources:
Dutch Policy on Prostitution. Publication no. AVT12/BZ106006. N.p.: Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, n.d. Print.
Hendin, Aron. Contemporary Dutch Social Policy. Amsterdam, Netherlands: University of Amsterdam, 7 Mar. 2014. Student Presentation.
Timmermans, Petra. Contemporary Dutch Social Policy. Amsterdam, Netherlands: University of Amsterdam, 3 Mar. 2014. Guest Lecture.
Trope, Allison. Gender and Media in Society. Los Angeles, California: University of Southern California, 29 Jan. 2013. Lecture Notes.
Van den Ende, Hannah. Contemporary Dutch Social Policy. Amsterdam, Netherlands: University of Amsterdam, 24 Feb. 2014. Lecture Notes.