Jan 102006

Nerve has a great story about the conflict between the movement to decriminalize and/or regulate prostitution and the movement to reduce or eliminate human trafficking and other exploitation.

It comes down to a simple difference in viewpoint. Commercial sex tends to be viewed as enslavement in America — by moral conservatives as enslavement to sin, by feminists as enslavement to men and by law enforcement as a catalyst for criminal activity. In Europe, on the other hand, where the public is more comfortable with regulation, decriminalization is seen by many as the path to better control.

As the E.U.’s twenty-five member nations struggle to fashion a cohesive identity, now could the moment for sex workers to achieve widespread legalization on that continent. But it could also be the beginning of a continental crackdown, where countries that have traditionally been tolerant of prostitution swing ideologically toward their neighbors with tougher laws. As it stands, European laws on prostitution vary from country to country, but the E.U. is looking to make a number of its laws consistent continent-wide.

I’ve read Alain Corbin’s book “Women for Hire: Prostitution in France after 1850”. What I noticed was the discussion of maisons de tolerance, state-regulated live-in brothels in France in the late 19th century. Corbin’s analysis was that the regulated brothels was that they were intended as a means to control sex, keep it from spreading out into public (i.e. get ’em off the streets). The tolerances were designed with middle-class respectability in mind. Sex was one-on-one, in a bed, in private, between people who had at least been properly introduced. Public displays of sex were the sign of lower-class establishments.

He also says that, at the time, all-male institutions like universities, the military, and migrant workers created a large population of men who had no social link to their local communities. Their only real sexual opportunities were brothels.

The paradox is that the brothels, intended to keep sex out of sight, actually had the opposite effect. The brothels became a business, lavishly decorated and appointed as well as their clients could afford. Capitalism drove a diversification and expansion of sexual goods (toys, pornographic books and images, costumes) and services (during this period, oral sex went from being a bizarre, distasteful act to a standard part of the menu). Those expanded options trickled down from the artistocracy to the lower classes. Everybody wanted more/better sex. Arguably the culture of sexual choice and variety, and the industry that supported it began, here in the French brothels.

What that suggests to me is that experiments like regulated brothels and red light districts won’t keep sex out of sight.

The other issue, minimizing the exploitation of sex workers, is more complex. The tolerances added the government to the long list of people who directly or indirectly profitted from the sex workers: cooks, dress makers, decorators, cab drivers, vintners, etc. Corbin suggests that the pimp was unduly demonized as a brutal parasite to distract attention from all the other people who benefited from the sex industry.

The women who staffed the tolerances had to live on the brothel’s premises. (Another type of brothel, maisons de rendez-vous were unregulated and the women lived elsewhere.) They were effectively prisoners there too. Arguably the legal designation of prostitute actually made it harder to quit the life and find other work.

I’ve seen the red light district of Amsterdam, which looked pretty clean and safe, but I don’t know enough about the larger picture. Would legalized brothels or a red light district in Vancouver have prevented the Pickton pig farm murders? I don’t know. I suspect that legalization might make things better for many sex workers, but it wouldn’t help the bottom-rung, subsistence-level prostitutes who are probably the main targets of violence.

Perhaps legalization/decrmininalization of sex work by itself is not enough to mitigate the worst cases of violence and exploitation. It has to be in conjunction with anti-poverty work. That’s what necessary to remove that population of subsistence sex workers who are economically and physically vulnerable.

Personally, I know a number of women in the milder, safer levels of the sex trade: sex toy party saleswomen, pro Dommes, rub and tug workers. Lately a friend, with a background in feminist and anti-poverty politics, has said my view of sex work is naive, and her view of it is pretty much a horror show.

(Corbin’s book is interesting, but frustrating because it keeps referring to French authors on sex and prostitution like Leo Taxil, Fiaux and Meunier, which I’m pretty sure have not been translated into English. I’ve got a lot of material on England, but not much on the rest of the world.)

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