A Freedom That Enslaves
By Naomi Zacharias
In a recent and defining move for a globally controversial issue, an international council for Amnesty International voted to develop a policy calling for the decriminalization of all aspects of consensual prostitution. To clarify, this is distinct from legalization, as legalization is accompanied by regulation. The committee said their findings revealed that regulation placed sex workers in unsafe and compromising situations, and so two years of research and evaluation resulted in a decision they defend as reflective of their conviction to protect the human rights of sex workers, a group extremely vulnerable to human rights abuses, such as exploitation and violence.
The explanation itself acknowledges an undeniable reality. By its very nature, prostitution renders its participants, still a predominantly female demographic, particularly vulnerable to some horrific exploitation and abuse. It is a difficult field to research, for reasons such as the reluctance of anyone forced into the profession to freely discuss it or to records research that would require a sex worker had proclaimed herself as such on any official documents, such as medical reports. But even so, previous research cites violence and drugs as the number-one cause of death for sex workers, with the second highest cause of death being homicide. This international committee specifically notes that they found many women chose to enter the profession out of a kind of desperate need—poverty, in effect. I would have hoped an international advocacy group would recognize this association as reflective of a last resort for many and therefore a red flag for concern. I would have thought the committee’s responsibility would be to seek an alternative, rather than accept the desperation. For it leads women victimized in one area of life to a recourse that renders them all the more vulnerable to further forms of exploitation and abuse.
History tells the story of the long struggle for the protection of women’s rights. It saddens me that an organization that exists as an advocate for the vulnerable can elect to support a profession inherently dangerous to a contingent of society historically so vulnerable to discrimination, exploitation, and abuse. And I wonder what it tells us about where we’ve landed. In her discussion of the rise of female raunch culture, author Ariel Levy asks, “Why is this the ‘new feminism’ and not what it looks like: the old objectification?” While regulation may have its inconveniences and even associated risks (and the council lists some legitimately dangerous circumstances), the alternative seems far more dangerous and positively frightening as you consider the ramifications on health, the potential spread of disease, and the risk to the worker in an environment dominated by appetite and money, with no regulatory boundaries. I can’t help but feel a sense of loss as this does not seem a step forward for empowerment or emancipation for women or even human rights, but instead a giant step backward from gains, from rights, and respect hard fought for and hard won.
I have an immediate internal resistance to the legalization of prostitution. And after careful consideration of the surrounding issues, I have concluded that prostitution inherently exploits and objectifies a human being and is therefore a violation of another. However, I realize this is not a foregone conclusion for many who care about the issues and the individuals as much as I do. I have respected colleagues in the humanitarian field working specifically in the area of human trafficking who find the question of the legalization of prostitution to be complicated rather than the obvious many want it to be. They are not personally in favor of it, but the question for them is in the role of government. With legalization comes monitoring and regulation, they say. It usually carries a recognized responsibility for government to monitor and respond to oft-associated illegal activity such as sex trafficking and organized crime and has resulted in healthcare programs that provide care and treatment to sex workers and regular testing to reduce the spread of STDs and HIV/AIDS.
But Amnesty International arrived at a conclusion I think even my colleagues in the field who identify aid associated with legalization would say is perhaps the most dangerous of all options. I don’t see how reasoning, awareness of human nature, study of history, meaningful research, and sound judgment lead one to advocate for this high-risk work, and say associated human rights are ultimately strengthened by the absence of any regulation surrounding it. My father often quotes author G.K. Chesterton when he issued a timeless caution: before you tear down a fence, stop to consider why it was put up in the first place. A reasonable glance through the history of the profession and one can surely form an argument for why the practice became regulated and the ultimate harms that befall sex workers when it is not.
In 2000, the legalization of prostitution in The Netherlands was said to be a vote for women’s rights, where women could freely engage in a legitimized profession with a self-described empowering safety net of regulation. Incidentally, in the interests of full disclosure, an objective party should not fail to note an obvious conflict of interest for legislators as this particular decision in the name of women’s rights also carries the added benefit of significant financial gain for any supporting government through taxable income—a gain of millions in revenue through one of the few industries that historically thrives whether the economy is thriving or crashing.
The city of Amsterdam has been intentional about regulating it, implementing programs to monitor associated activity to protect the sex workers and the city. And their research disclosed frightening revelations over the years. In 2008, the BBC reported that Amsterdam was aggressively cracking down on the district to eliminate known sources of human trafficking and organized crime. And by 2012, a conservative estimate of 30 percent of brothels was closed for illegal activities such as trafficking and money laundering. To aid in combatting the “decay” of the city center activities, the city council’s declared goal was to ultimately close down 50% percent of the brothels. “Money laundering, extortion and human trafficking are things you do not see on the surface but they are hurting people and the city. We want to fight this,” said Deputy Mayor Lodewijk Asscher.
1n 1999, Sweden initiated the Nordic model, where it was not illegal to sell sex, but it was illegal to buy it. This was introduced to protect the worker, so that she was not subject to prosecution. This has been an issue, as women who want to leave fear the option and the charges they may face if they go to law enforcement. Sweden took a bold approach, and while research is inconclusive it seems to have been effective. Amnesty International acknowledges the model, but did not favor it for reasons that seem somewhat weak and not in the greater interests of the worker as claimed.They say that it endangers the worker, as they have to meet a client in a private location due to the illegality of brothels. I can see how this would be so, but to decriminalize and deregulate places them in arguably the same degree of danger, if not greater. They offer a second reason against regulation, the harassment endured by many workers to meet health criteria. I believe this is probably true as well, but to remove the health regulations puts both the workers and the clients at greater risk for infection and disease, including the life-threatening HIV virus.
As one would expect, Amnesty International abhors trafficking, but to call for no regulation and state you are against trafficking seems naive. It is certainly not to say that the abuse of anything should alone negate it in legal practice, but one has to recognize the likelihood, frequency, and degree of abuse and determine if it is reasonable to prevent such, and if the cost is one than can or should be endured. In this case, I find it hard to justify a claim that we, the free people, are courageously willing to endure the undoubted and certain sexual servitude of the inevitable millions of victims.
They assert that sex workers can help law enforcement identify traffickers and trafficking victims, but it doesn’t really work that way. A single day in a brothel and red light district can open your eyes to the frightening reality that a sex worker is afraid of his or her pimp and terrified of a trafficker.
I remember one victim and worker saying to me, “You don’t understand. We only know one face. But hundreds of faces know us.” She spoke of the friend who tried to leave and was found murdered, and another who left and went missing. More than the threat upon their own lives, they fear the threats made on their loved ones: their parents, their children. I was visiting an organization that works in the red light district of Amsterdam when a call came to them from the police. They had identified a girl they were sure was being abused and had possibly been trafficked. She looked terrified, they said, and physically cowered in fear at the sight of a male. But without her word or testimony they could not do anything to help her. I followed my respected friend and colleague as she went to find her to see if she could help. The girl opened her brothel door and invited us into her room. She said she was 18, though she appeared much younger to me. She was from Russia, with fair skin and blonde hair. She was quite beautiful. And she also had about 10 visible blue and purple bruises on her body. She was timid and soft spoken though she nodded and said she was fine. I am confident none of the three of us believed her. I wonder what she would think of this logical committee decision. It seems rational, but was made behind the safety of conference room walls and far from the dark alleys of the underworld.
They call for decriminalization, when both parties consent. I see our societies moving in a frightening direction where consent is becoming a governing law over the nature of a particularly dangerous act itself. But our legal system has not always operated with that as the ever-reigning guide. In international sweatshops, one would find thousands of consenting workers, as the dollar they may make is better than the nothing they will have without it. And yet we still find the employer guilty of a moral and legal crime of exploitation. It is not legal to sell the organs of your body, or to purchase them from another. This is not because no one would be willing to do so, or no one is willing to purchase. For sadly this is a thriving market in various parts of the world, with parties on each side of the aisle choosing, often in desperation, to acquire needed money to simple needs, or to save the life of a loved one. Still, we have made it illegal in our own country with foresight of an inherent problem in facilitating a marketplace for human organs, one that certainly preys on desperation. And no less important is the abused spouse who chooses to stay—her willingness to stay does not relieve her abuser of an act we deem heinous, wrong, and worthy of prosecution. The point is, an individual’s willingness to subject her to something, even to various kinds of exploitation, does not render innocence on the part of the instigator. At least, it has not been so. It is here that families have fought for a loved one, and governments have fought for ethnicities and genders, even when the victim is no longer fighting for herself.
Furthermore, as consent alone trumps all else, we actually make it harder for any victim to prove a violation. Listening to women working in these environments, I have consistently heard that the requested sexual activities are becoming more and more violent and deviant. Previously, a victim used to reference her bruises and physical evidence of a violation, and now a perpetrator need only claim it was consensual. I suggest that now we will witness the removal of laws and fences once constructed to protect as we inevitably begin the debate on what it means to consent and at what age one ought be able to do so and who has the right to determine boundaries. I think we will make it all the more difficult for the victim of rape, abuse, and trafficking. And it will not only be a criminal who violated her rights, it will be our laws, our governments, our advocacy, our tolerance, our declared protection of human rights.
History tells of revolutions for freedom won for future generations. Movies like Braveheart powerfully remind us of the grave cost as well as the awesome privilege of liberty. Freedom has always been a paradox. To truly protect freedom for the people, a government must also limit it. Any law effectively protects the freedom of one and simultaneously limits the freedom of another. American law protects the individual right of one to live and in doing so limits the liberty of a murderer. It protects the freedom of a consumer to obtain the truth and limits the freedom of a business to commit fraud and intentionally deceive. It is neither theoretically nor practically possible to create a world of absolute freedom. And so, our choice is to determine which freedoms we choose to uphold.
The call of this global advocacy group leads us into an area where we no longer recognize an exploitation and objectification as inherently wrong. To heed to it reverses our value that it is wrong to exploit based on gender, or status, or ethnicity, or even desperation. And in doing so we enslave and endanger ourselves and others to the most unsightly, unregulated, untempered, and horrific parts of our humanity and human appetite.
In the debate of what constitutes a human right, I can’t help but wonder if women are being sold a bill of goods and perhaps even played the fool. For as we carefully look at the deemed “big wins for women,” we discover they have actually been used against women, not just in limiting their advancement but also in quite literally shrinking their voice. On a global scale, abortion has been used mightily as a means to intentionally prevent female life in favor of a more desirable male birth. This alone is so astounding to me: how a victory for a proclaimed woman’s right to a kind of life has been overwhelmingly used to prevent literally millions of female lives, period. We have dramatically altered the natural balance in gender population and created an imbalance in female to male population, believed to have internationally increased trafficking, bride sharing, and violence against women. The global debate of legalization or decimalization of sex work, politically positioned as another women’s right issue, is said to represent emancipation for her by legitimizing sale of her body for base gratification without any due responsibility, care, respect, accountability, or now even regulation. Yet somehow we tell her this is a sign of her equality; how even in her desperation and poverty, she can become a commodity—something to be bargained and bartered for, at heightened risk for disease, infection, and violence, even death. We will open the door wider for trafficking, perpetuating and elevating a view of women that sees them a means to an end. And the sound bite reads this is a victory for women rights.
Yes, there are women who are in sex work because they say they like the profession. I have not personally met one, but I have read accounts and I am sure it is true. I believe each one of us is filled with a longing to find identity, and while the particularities of this are unique to each individual, I believe there is a uniqueness specific to women. One sex worker said to me, “When he picks me out of 400 women, it feels so good.” How interesting that the time she is chosen seems to carry such power over the rejection of the countless times he chooses another. As I have traveled in various countries and encountered women in different cultures and circumstances, I have found we share a profound, deep, and sometimes crippling longing to be desired, wanted, and considered beautiful. My little girl is not yet two years old. I recently remarked how beautiful her big brown eyes are. And she surprised me as she shook her head no and said with a distinctly disappointed sigh, “No…they boring, mama.” I watch her look into a mirror and put on her “makeup,” proudly and aimlessly brushing my black mascara and pink blush across her cheeks and chin. And then she proudly looks at me, and especially toward her daddy as she says hopefully, “I so pretty, right?” There seems to be ingrained in us both a yearning to be beautiful but an internal fear that whispers doubt or displeasure at out own particular and distinct design. The messages of pornography and prostitution are deep and dark to both object and viewer, and dangerously claim to project what it means to be wanted, desired, and satisfied—a narrow, exploited caricature of something and someone.
When men and women alike defend these industries as progressive steps toward freedom—and sexual freedom and liberation for women, specifically—there is a tremendously sad irony. It has dressed up in costume as liberation but in reality enslaves her to more as it defines her by exceedingly less.
I have heard my father beautifully reveal a truth in a passage of the Bible. He tells the story found in Mark 12, verses 13 through 17. The Pharisees approached Jesus and ask if it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. Jesus asked them to bring him a denarius and then questions whose likeness and inscription are on the coin. They answer that it is Caesar’s, and Jesus says, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” My father says they missed an opportunity, for they should have then asked the follow up question, “And what is God’s?” Here, he suggests, Jesus would have answered, “Whose image is on you?” I can deeply relate to the desire to be chosen, and to lingering wounds from the past when I felt quite un-chosen. I would not, and could not cast judgment or insult upon any woman in this field, regardless of her reason. But I cannot help but wonder if even when desire is understood to be the motivator, if there is a deeper longing and a greater answer to her search.
Others say they are there because they are paid for something, and they do not want to have this life choice stripped from them. As Levy notes in regards to pornography, “Because I am paid to,” should not be confused with “taking control of ones sexuality.” From what I have witnessed, it seems the majority are there with a horrible story that took them there: from low self-esteem, to manipulation, to abuse, to trickery, to desperation, to trafficking. None of these reasons are for women.
Regardless of what delivers her to a brothel room, whether it is desire, desperation, or slavery, there is actually one place—there is miraculously one person—who can and will both fulfill her and emancipate her. In Jesus Christ, she finds her identify, her intrinsic value, her beauty, and her freedom.
What is tragic in our time is not only the existence of prostitution and pornography, but also the creative ways we have found to justify and normalize them. In the movie Crazy Stupid Love, actor Ryan Gosling’s character, Jacob, ends a familiar debate with an interesting call. “The war between the sexes is over,” he declares. “We won the second women started doing pole dancing for exercise.” His comment poignantly reveals how we have managed not only to normalize objectification of women; we have made it look like freedom and respect. We have made it sexy. It is the reason a woman who intends to show she is liberated proudly displays on her t-shirt a symbol of a little, cute toy-like animal that bounces around, the Playboy bunny logo. It is a victory for some. It is a victory of sorts.
But not for equality for women.