Opinion | Banning prostitution a way to control women’s sexuality

The recent decision by the Danish government to not proceed with effectively banning prostitution should be welcomed by anyone who values women’s autonomy and equality.

From the beginnings of human history, people have tried to control women’s sexuality. Laws designed to restrict women’s sexuality can be found in many cultures: laws forcing women to wear veils, headscarves or burkas; laws disallowing women to wear make-up or to go out in public without a male family member; laws forcing women to undergo virginity tests or to hide away when they are menstruating; laws restricting women’s access to birth control or abortion; and laws restricting women from earning money from sex.

All of these laws and regulations have one thing in common: namely, the attempt to remove a woman’s freedom of choice over her own body and own sexuality.

Those who want to make women’s sex work illegal try to argue that they are doing it for women’s own good. But that is the same assertion made by those who require women to wear headscarves, undergo virginity tests or not go out in public without a male family member.

These laws too are purportedly designed for a woman’s “own good”. It does not, however, take great powers of perception to see that making it illegal for women to not wear headscarves or go out alone are little more than ways of controlling women and their sexuality. But if it is obvious that these laws are merely methods of controlling women’s sexuality, then it should equally be obvious that making it illegal for women to earn money from sex is also merely a method of controlling women’s sexuality.

One thing that has made it difficult for some people to see this is that many of the groups who are trying to make sex work illegal in Denmark are women’s advocacy groups. This gives the impression that outlawing sex work must be for women’s own good.

This is because it would seem that women’s advocacy groups would naturally want what is best for women. The problem, however, is that one does not need to be a man to oppress a woman. Women can also oppress women.

The well-known anthropologist Mary Douglas has shown how women in certain cultures use cultural rules surrounding menstruation – for example, being confined during menstruation – to oppress other women and to attempt to limit a rival female’s sexual behaviour.

Could it be that those women who are trying to stop other women from engaging in prostitution are doing the same thing? It seems clear that many women, even in Denmark, do not like the idea of their partners having sex with other women.

Prostitutes are clearly women who are sexually available for any man, including the partners of the women who want to make prostitution illegal. A woman attempting to make other women’s prostitution illegal can thus easily be seen as an attempt to limit a rival female’s sexual behaviour.

Of course in the Danish case, the groups who are advocating to make prostitution illegal are trying to make the buying of sex illegal, not the selling of sex. In this case it might give the appearance that it is the customer of the sex worker who is being controlled rather than the prostitute herself.

But this is neither here nor there; for in the wider picture, the result is the same: namely, the outlawing of prostitution. Indeed, outlawing the buying rather than the selling of sex looks very much like a cover-up. That is, it is an attempt to hide the fact that the ban is merely one more attempt to control a woman’s right to decide her own sexuality.

The expected reply to this is to point out how women prostitutes are often exploited and abused by both their employers and customers, how illegal immigrants are sometimes coerced into prostitution with threats of turning them over to the authorities, and so on. Consequently, the argument goes, outlawing prostitution would save those in prostitution from this sort of treatment.

The difficulty with this reply, however, is that none of these problems are problems with prostitution in itself. Rather, they are problems stemming from the government’s inconsistent treatment of prostitutes and the marginalisation of prostitution as a legitimate profession.

Thus, in Denmark it is legal to be a prostitute, and prostitutes, like anyone else, are expected to pay taxes. Yet prostitutes are not entitled to protection under employment legislation or to unemployment benefits. Not only is this inconsistent, but it sends the clear message to everyone (including those who would exploit prostitutes) that prostitutes are looked down upon by the authorities and not deemed to be worthy of society’s full protection. It is no wonder then that those involved in crime move in to take advantage of prostitutes.

What has created the criminal environment that often surrounds prostitution is therefore not the nature of the profession, but rather a lack of government protection for those in the profession. The same thing could happen with any profession.

Thus, were taxi drivers or hairstylists looked down upon by the authorities and denied legal protection or unemployment benefits, criminals would quickly move in to take advantage of the situation and exploit them. The answer, then, would not be to make the purchase of a taxi ride or a haircut illegal, but rather to give taxi drivers or hairstylists the same respect and legal protections as anybody else. In the same way, the answer is not to make the purchasing of prostitution illegal, but rather for the government to afford prostitutes the same respect and legal safeguards as any other workers. 

In her recent New Year’s address PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt said that freedom, equality, and safety were the fundamental values upon which the Danish community is built. If this is true, then the government should uphold these values in their treatment of prostitutes.

Prostitutes should have the freedom to pursue their authorised profession, equality with other workers, and the safety provided by the full protection of the employment laws.

The author is a lecturer in philosophy and the author of ‘The Nature of Sexual Desire’