Contentious and contradictory: Prostitution-law campaigns in Europe

See this perfectly ordinary building? Most sex is sold here, out of conventional flats and apartments, anywhere in the world. The photos of women on the street beloved of dull editors teach that sex work is in the street, and the other photos editors use, of women sitting on barstools, teach that whatever’s not in the street is in brothels or sex clubs. On the contrary, of the many millions worldwide who sell sex of all kinds, most undoubtedly operate discreetly via telephone from their own residence or someone else’s, in the conventional housing we all live in. The photos here are European examples because a conference I’m speaking at speculates about Europe. From the website:

Sexual Citizenship and Human Rights: What Can the US Learn from the EU and European Law?

22-24 November 2013
University of Texas at Austin Law School
Eidman Courtroom, Room 2.306
727 East Dean Keeton Street

The conference will focus on several difficult issues at the intersection of sexual self-determination and human rights, including same-sex marriage and family, the potential and limits of anti-discrimination laws, transgender rights, sex work and trafficking, youth sexuality, pornography as it affects minors, and the regulation of sex offenders. Individual papers will explore European and American attitudes and practices on each of these issues, with the goal of presenting new conceptual paradigms for future reform efforts. The conference brings together academics, practicing attorneys and therapists, state policy makers, and activists from various points of view.

Attendance is free but registration is required. Full programme

Saturday 23 November
5:15-7:00 p.m. Session Six: Sex Work, Migration and Trafficking

Laura Agustín

Contentious and Contradictory: Prostitution-law Campaigns in Europe (30 min)

Despite the sex-industry’s proliferation into areas where prostitution laws hardly apply, Europeans quarrel tirelessly over which law is correct. Notions of how to protect and serve women compete: 1-the Swedish/Nordic model, which prohibits buying sex whilst allowing its sale, holding that prostitution is violence against women and an absolute impediment to gender equality; 2- regulationism (partial legalisation), which favours allowing middle-class commercial establishments (clubs, bars, brothels) and prohibits street prostitution; 3-decriminalistion, which demands removal of all laws that penalise sex work and favours independent work. Ill-informed campaigns about sex trafficking obstruct pragmatic discussion of now dysfunctional migration laws. Essentialist notions of national sexualities compete with Europeanist proposals, and academic claims about ‘evidence of harm’ muddy the waters. The result is a constant barrage of contradictory messages.

I am not a habitual conference-goer. I do not like to sit passively all day or listen to short versions of deep topics and I have never found the kind of socialising that happens enjoyable. I also hate flying in, living in a hotel and flying out, seeing and feeling nothing of the location but university halls, hotel salons and predictable tourist sights. (I’m going to this thing because I can stay a week, so if you are in Austin…) And now that the law penalising men who buy sex is going to pass in France, I’ll have even more to say than I planned when I wrote that abstract.

I reject reductionist ideas about national cultures and have long thought of myself as a sort of anthropologist of Europe. I believe the move of the law to continental Europe changes the game. I personally am not surprised, perhaps because I’ve lived and spent lots of time in France, Spain and Italy and experienced the same feelings and arguments on the subject of prostitution everywhere. Particularly I’ve experienced the same feminist battles in the same tedious war for coming on to 20 years, so I don’t subscribe to the idea that a few Swedes caused all this client-hating. Once in Valencia I was asked by a renowned Socialist lawyer if I was in favour of torture and arms-trafficking, given my opposition to the present sex-trafficking crusade. I moved away from Madrid because the abolitionist feminists there not only drove me round the bend but made me nervous for my own safety at one event. That was the one where a French woman boomed out We don’t have to talk to prostitutes to know what prostitution is. When I was evaluating anti-violence projects for the European Commission, a Belgian at the European Women’s Lobby denounced me to the director as morally inappropriate, losing me the job. All these attacks took place ten or more years ago, long before Sex at the Margins came out.

After Italian media picked up last week’s story about France, an Italian abolitionist published an attack on me and Thierry Schaffauser entitled Negazioniste della tratta e attori porno smemorati because, as Mira Sorvino’s pals said, I am a Holocaust Denier. Someone seeing the recent attack wrote Questa Augustin è una criminale, in poche parole. [Other Italians responded with defence immediately, more on that another time.] Some educated, feministically-inclined women and men have deplored sexworker-rights ideas in every culture, and others oppose them everywhere as well.

Swedes developed this particular law, but other laws, other ordinances, other police rules have attempted to destroy prostitution before, and not only because it is a social nuisance in the eyes of some but because it is considered wrong. Women who sell sex are often now talked of as victims rather than criminals, increasingly even in the USA, where they are actually criminals by law. The whole premise of the Rescue Industry is to save innocent people from sex-exploiters, with actions that make sense inside all sorts of religious traditions. Schools to re-educate and intimidate clients, fines for kerb-crawling, posting of men’s photos on websites to shame them are descendants of late 19th-century campaigns that had activists running after prostitutes and their clients in the streets. The law can win in the Irelands and France as well as Norway, Iceland and Sweden because the concepts being promoted resonate amongst moral crusaders in all these societies. When the law doesn’t win somewhere in one parliamentary vote it may win on another occasion, because campaigners certainly do not give up just because they did not win the first time.

Last week I mentioned feeling we were moving into a period of Social Purity, which some objected to. A week later I still feel that way and have gone back to re-reading some texts on the subject I first read more than ten years ago. Will report back.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

7 thoughts on “Contentious and contradictory: Prostitution-law campaigns in Europe

  1. Saftkrapfen

    I am working within what Alice Schwarzer recently mislabeled the System Prostitution and I can tell you: Though exploitation is still there in the german Sex Service trade, it has become a looooot better for sexworkers in germany since 2002.

    The nordic model would result in a much higher risk for clients, resulting in a need for a higher reward expected from sexworkers, either in form of unsafe sex or lower prices. This would lead to a much less safe working environment and much more economical dependence of sexworkers from landlords and club owners.

    what personally amazes and disgusts me is the willingness of the german public to talk big on this issue with little or no knowledge beyond the squareish prejudices.

    1. Laura Agustín

      Yes I’ve seen that Schwarzer has been hating strongly recently, too. The ordinary person who doesn’t know much about the topic seems to welcome these hating ladies, I don’t really understand why.

  2. Asehpe

    A return to Social Purity… I can see what motivates you to say that, Ms Agustín, and in a broader sense you are of course right: the concern of the Rescue Industry activists for the “victims” is not unlike similar movements in the past that were also based on a moralistic attitude about what people’s behavior should be. (I think anti-masturbation laws and campaigns in the United States were comparable, also because they often mentioned reasons other that mere moralism, such as masturbation being supposedly bad for the health and causing various different ailments.)

    But then again, where does that come from? What motivates it? My current answer is that, despite the supposedly enormous changes brought about by the sexual revolution and the acceptation of women’s (and, in some senses, also men’s) sexuality as normal and necessary for happiness — the changes that made sex an acceptable topic for conversation, research, and thought — have not really changed certain age old images of sex as “different”, as pertaining to its own sphere, so that things that happen in other areas become also “different” (“much worse”) when they happen in the area of sex. As you mentioned in another post, not only with prostitution, but also with rape (which becomes a crime much worse than it might objectively be, when compared to other heinous crimes), and even with certain taboo themes like paedophilia (which has become the modern equivalent of demonic possession).

    It seems to me that it continues to be impossible to think of sex as something normal. As a consequence, any social movement dealing with any aspect of sex will be permeated by “images”, “archetypes”, elements of the imaginary that will not be questioned but will be defended by their believers with all their might, including the mischaracterization of their opponents as “evil”. Because, to them, it is indeed a deep question: a question of fundamentals, of values, of archetypes which cannot be questioned without simultaneously endagering an entire worldview.

    The compraison with religious beliefs is, in many ways, quite accurate: if you believe that god exists, if your faith is so strong that you experience his existence in your everyday life and are deeply thankful for it, how can you conceptualize those who deny this important emotional experience in terms other than “evil” and “darkness”? In fact, intellectually speaking, it would seem to be illogical to do otherwise. In other words, you can’t experience true faith in god and at the same time fully understand and accept the viewpoint of atheists: this acceptance would only be possible if you empathize with the atheist, which would necessitate the capacity to entertain the possibility that a god might not exist, which would enter into direct contradiction with your deeply felt experience of faith. The only possibility for empathy in this case would be to assume that the atheist is “broken”, “self-deluded”; the empathy would take the form of pity for their broken, lost souls, which would deny atheists a real voice, a position with any inherent respectability. Atheists could only be pitied, not listened to. The similarity with sex workers and their movements is obvious.

    The image of sex that I see as still deeply present in our society would seem to imply a few tenets: (a) sex is biological, but it also relates to love; (b) in its relation to love, it transcends mere biology; (c) this transcendent aspect makes it an important facet of personhood, specifically one via which we are especially vulnerable. Plus the doctrine of patriarchy would see men as exploiters and women as victims par excellence, so all care must be taken in sex to make sure this (patriarchy-supporting) exploitation is not taking place, which means that men’s behavior must be controlled and kept within safe limits (defined according to (a-c) above). Within this framework, sex work as exploitation is an obvious consequence — just as capitalism as inherently oppressive was an obvious consequence of Marxism.

    Which is why I think that there is, ultimately, a problem with the idea of a return of Social Purity. Yes, it’s true, but since these images/archetypes about sex have never really been changed in our society, Social Purity in these areas has never really gone away. It has always been next to impossible to listen to what the prostitutes themselves say, because there never has really been a framework in which these basic images/archetypes through which these prostitutes are perceived were really changed. All the changes brought about by the sexual revolution happened around these images rather than in them. This is still, it seems, a task for the future.

    1. Laura Agustín

      Very interesting. If you widen the notion of Social Purity to take in all attitudes towards sex then for centuries the west has had it unremittingly, and I certainly agree that repression has been the dominant force about sex. But I was not referring to it that way but rather specifically to a social movement that began in the second half of the 19th century in anglo/european places with regard to prostitution.

      It is not true that such attitudes towards women who sell sex have ‘always’ been present: see the history chapter in Sex at the Margins. The attitudes we see now were born during the so-called Enlightenment; other also-‘unsatisfactory’ attitudes prevailed in different ways before that.

  3. Asehpe

    And, if you’ll allow me a final speculation… How could this change? It seems that the normalization of sex work would have to go through phases similar to the normalization of other behavior (e.g., homosexuality). Currently, the “prostitute-as-victim” archetype is the one that seems to be winning (considering the French law). The only way to change that would be to actively promote the image of “prostitute-as-autonomous”. I suppose more visible examples of such prostitutes would have to come forward, either in real life, or in the media — just as gay people had to come out of the closet both in real life and in the media, in popular culture (Vice-President Biden made reference, I believe, to TV shows like Glee as instruments in changing the opinion of the American public on gays; campaigns like Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better”, focusing on bullying and homophobia and its bad consequences, also played a role).

  4. Pingback: [LINK] Some social science links | A Bit More Detail

  5. Neena Mehta

    Well making the pros-legal is a good move to restrict and regularise the big industry where money is revolving and most of the people participate in one or the other means.
    Even politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen, or police all avail the services of prostitutes or so called-escorts in modern days.
    By regularizing these the government will get a good revenue and everyone will be under lens to be monitored for trafficking or other drugs related issues and it will for sure take down such illegal harmful activities in the society.
    I am fully in favor of it.


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