Prostitution has become big business. Since 1998, when the International Labor Organization (ILO) recommended that governments legalize prostitution so they could collect some of the revenue, Holland, Germany and New Zealand have taken this route. Some states in Australia had already legalized prostitution (Sullivan, 2007). While Sweden and Norway are now combating prostitution by imposing fines on the purchase of sexual services, other countries are doing exactly the opposite and institutionalizing it. In Germany alone, the prostitution industry involves—on a daily basis—400,000 prostituted women and 1.2 million male buyers at a calculated annual value of 6 billion euros. Governments profit from prostitution; multinational companies organize it; it is even listed on the Australian stock exchange. The mafia delivers women to it—trafficking in human beings is also on the rise as a consequence of the global sex industry. The ILO estimates profits from trafficking alone to be 28.7 billion USD per year.1
It is difficult to know how many people are involved in the sex trade. The victims of human trafficking are estimated by the UN and
the ILO to be between 2 and 4 million people (Marcovich, 2007, p. 331).
In spite of frequent claims to the contrary, the sex trade is a highly gendered phenomenon. It primarily involves women and girls being sold to men: 98% of the people whose lives are sold through trafficking are women and girls.2
A minority are men and boys whose lives are sold to other men.
Simultaneously, a new way of talking about prostitution has arisen.
It is called ‘sex work’.
Its promoters say that prostitution is a job, just like any other. That selling sex should not be seen as a violation of our rights, but more as a right in itself. That we ought to focus on the condom use and proper payment. They say that if prostitution is legalized, its negative features will disappear, the authorities will be able to control it and prostitutes will be able to establish unions and be better paid. They claim that prostitution is not harmful in itself, that what happens between two consenting adults is their own business (Kempadoo, 1998, p. 5). Not infrequently, feminist and socialist organizations are mouthpieces for this line of argument: work, unions, rights and self-determination. In the world of prostitution, ‘working’ has long been used as a euphemism to avoid naming what is happening, a kind of perversely ironic usage. Someone asked “Are you working?” with a certain look, and the other person got the drift. But today the term ‘work’ is used in all seriousness by social commentators, politicians and international organizations: prostitution has become a job.
This opinion is put forward by Swedish scholars such as Susanne Dodillet and Don Kulick and social commentators such as Petra Östergren and Maria Abrahamsson. We hear it from the Swedish right-wing industrial think tank Timbro, as well as from the postmodern left-wingers writing in the Swedish magazine Arena
. It echoes from the youth leagues of political parties: both
the Swedish Centre and the Liberal Party youth leagues have adopted the idea that prostitution can be a job.
According to this way of thinking, prostitution has nothing to do with the relationship between women and men but instead is quite simply a business transaction. We are to speak, then, in business-related terms. Although the absolute majority of people in prostitution in the world are women and girls and the absolute majority of buyers are men, we are not supposed to speak about women and men, but about ‘sellers’ and ‘customers’. Instead of prostitution we are to say ‘commercial sex’ and instead of prostitutes, ‘sex workers’—terms that provide a semblance of neutrality. In Holland, where all aspects of prostitution are legal, brothel owners are called ‘independent entrepreneurs’; in Australia, ‘service providers’. Petra Östergren defines prostitution as “an income-earning activity or job for people of all sexes” (2006a p. 48). Political scientist Carole Pateman has called this ‘the universal argument’, as if the reality—in which prostitution is about women being sold to men—was subordinated to theoretical, ‘virtual’ prostitution, where any person can sell him or herself to any other person (1988, p. 192).
In spite of this genderless surface, the story of the sex worker is above all a story of the woman. At the center stands not the man who does the buying, but the woman who does the selling. This story strives to modernize the picture of this woman, elevating her from prostitute to ‘sex worker’. A ‘sex worker’, they say, is a strong and independent person. She is attractive, smart, a businesswoman or an employee, she knows what she is doing and doesn’t take shit from anyone. The ‘sex worker’ is, as scholar Jenny Westerstrand has written, a postmodern version of “the happy hooker” (2009; see also Rachel Moran’s autobiography Paid For
, 2013). She is popularized in novels with names like Belle de Jour: The intimate adventures of a London call girl
and Anett’s World: A hooker’s diary
, where she is always an escort with a high income and often another job on the side. Vecko-Revyn
, a Swedish magazine for girls in their early teens, does its part to glamorize the life of a prostitute. In an article from 2007, one woman says: “I sell sex—and actually like it!” The article
describes the alluring aspects of the life of a prostitute, like how much money and great sex she gets. The illustration is a model’s slender legs covered in glittery stockings and wearing high-heeled shoes (Vecko-Revyn
When the ILO recommended legalization of the sex industry in 1998, their main argument was that governments should be able to garner a share of a lucrative industry. But in order to assert this, it was, of course, necessary for prostitution also to be legitimated as morally acceptable. The narcotics trade and murder-for-hire are other lucrative industries from which governments can also profit, but few international organizations would recommend totally legalizing them. By renaming prostitution ‘sex work’, explaining that it can be the result of free choice, that society has to “admit the individual’s right to work as a prostitute,” and then fight for better working conditions, the ILO gave governments the moral legitimacy to profit from prostitution (Lim, 1998, p. 15). The story of the sex worker has replaced earlier biological and eugenic myths. Today it is the primary story used when the porn industry wants to advance its interests. It is used by men who defend buying sex. It is used by governments and lobbyists to legalize the trade in women. But how does this story work? What does it suggest? How did it come about and who is behind it?
An article in the Swedish daily paper Svenska Dagbladet by doctor of theology Susanne Wigorts Yngvesson featured the following headline: ‘Att sälja sin kropp är en moralisk rättighet’ [‘It is a moral right to sell your body’] (19 December 2006).
The article is about prostitution, but there is nothing in it about what prostitution is. If we didn’t know better, we might think prostitution was a strictly female affair. There is hardly a single word about men; instead, the main roles are occupied by two women: the female ‘sex worker’ and the feminist. The ‘sex workers’ are “a stigmatized group that feels oppressed”; however, “not by men, but by other women, radical feminists and politicians.”
Wigorts Yngvesson’s article is a commentary on Petra Östergren’s book Porr, Horor och Feminister
[Porn, Whores and Feminists], published in 2006. The article is constructed so that these two groups—‘sex workers’ and feminists—are set against each other and assigned opposing characteristics. We aren’t told what actually happens
in prostitution, but rather what the women in these two groups are like
. It is a typical example of how the story of the sex worker functions.
The ‘sex worker’ is described as both stigmatized and oppressed and at the same time thoroughly admirable. Wigorts Yngvesson describes her as an active individual who makes free choices, who exercises her “right to decide over her body” and who “actively protests” against claims that she doesn’t know what’s best for her.
Feminists and politicians are, by contrast, not exactly depicted as likeable characters that you would want as dinner guests. According to Wigorts Yngvesson, feminists violate and stigmatize ‘sex workers’ and consider them to be worth less than other people: “Women who say that they sell sex voluntarily are considered stupid.” Feminists, Wigorts Yngvesson clarifies in her article, restrict women’s rights to their own bodies, and in addition, imply that their attitude is due to ‘sexual hostility’: when “it is about women’s sexuality, radical feminists seem to think that a woman’s right to her own body ceases.” Feminists “paint all of the sex workers with the same brush and claim that they are victims” and even think “that sex workers themselves are not conscious of their roles as victims.” They are real know-it-alls, she suggests:
The rhetoric from left-wing [female Swedish] politicians like Inger Segelström and Gudrun Schyman is based on the idea that the sex workers themselves are not conscious of their roles as victims and the constant assaults to which they are subjected. In order to be regarded as reliable, they first have to understand how wrong they are and get some distance from their earlier lives. Then they can be saved from the depths of hell and be helped out of their misery. All sex workers with whom Petra Östergren spoke described this rhetoric as insulting.
This kind of rhetoric: “roles as victims,” “get some distance from their earlier lives” and “be saved from the depths of hell,” is hardly reminiscent of something feminist politicians Schyman or Segelström would have said. Rather it more accurately resembles the Christian rhetoric of sin and penance. The author herself is a doctor of theology, and in the next sentence she defends the Christian anti-prostitution stance: “For a theologian, there is every reason to argue against even voluntary sex trade, because we conceive of the body as a gift from God.” Wigorts Yngvesson goes on, however, to state her opinion that others have no legitimate reason to be against prostitution: “So what reasons can secular feminists present for women wanting to sell their bodies voluntarily?” She does not actually present these reasons, but merely hints—with some suspicion—that they might have something to do with a belief in the nuclear family. She then quickly states that there really are no
valid reasons: secular feminists must, quite simply, surrender their opposition to prostitution.
Historian of ideas Susanne Dodillet similarly asserts in her dissertation ‘Är sex arbete?’ [‘Is sex work?’] (2009) that prostitution can be “an active choice on the part of a strong-willed woman” and that prostitutes are “business-minded individuals” and “feminists who can show other women the way” (pp. 309, 258). She positions the prostitute as a role model for all women today.
When Dennis Magnusson’s play Jenny från Hörby [Jenny from Hörby], about a young woman who decides to become a porn actress, opened on the Intiman stage of the Malmö City Theater, many critics stressed what a heroic character Jenny is. She is “a free-thinking femme fatale” who “single-mindedly goes out into the world by riding on the commercial sexualizing of our consciousness instead of being a victim of it,” the daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet wrote (Benér, 25 February 2008). It was frequently pointed out what power Jenny exercised when she became a porn actress:
Jenny is no victim of the porn industry; she takes it over. ‘In many ways, she is the ultimate feminist who goes in and creates her own
rules in a patriarchal world’, says Alexander Karim who plays the boyfriend, porn actor Simson (Peterson, 18 February 2008).
The ‘sex worker’ is said to be the ultimate feminist, but she is always set against feminists because the feminist who does not sell sex is given only negative characteristics. A critic from the Malmö-based newspaper Sydsvenskan wrote:
In Jenny from Hörby at Intiman in Malmö, the religious father’s role has been taken over by a feminist author-aunt. Her reactions to her adopted daughter’s career choice reflect politically correct Swedish feminism à la the turn of the millennium rather than beliefs of the Christian right (Larsson, 1 March 2008).
In Petra Östergren’s Porn, Whores and Feminists
, this juxtaposition is taken to an extreme. ‘Whores’ and ‘feminists’ have the leading roles and are positioned against each other: whores are active subjects and feminists the unsympathetic oppressors. Östergren interviewed twelve women whom she chose, she says, because they had positive experiences with prostitution.3
They “love being whores,” are active subjects for whom prostitution was a “conscious choice” so they would not “be dependent on a man,” they rail “against outdated female models,” take “the command over men,” are “not afraid to stand up and be themselves,” and “have thought through the analysis of power” (Östergren, 2006a, pp. 212, 282 and 205). Feminists, on the other hand, want to protect and punish, and their suggestion for measures to combat the sex industry only have to do “with censorship and control” (p. 238). Östergren wants the reader to believe that feminists are actually Christian patriarchs
The leading roles, then, are occupied by the ‘sex worker’ and the feminist. But while the feminist is painted in the blackest of terms, the ‘sex worker’ takes on what once was the role of the feminist: it is she who, like Jenny from Hörby, is the “ultimate feminist who
goes in and dictates her own rules in a patriarchal world,” while the feminist becomes the patriarch (Peterson, 18 February 2008).
The story of the sex worker makes no claim of telling what prostitution is or how it works in practice. Neither Östergren nor Dodillet nor Wigorts Yngvesson uses research on the causes or consequences of prostitution to back up their claims. Instead, they construct a narrative drama of a struggle between good and evil. On the one side there are “the women who have sexual relations with many men and those who sell their bodies for money” and on the other the “radical feminists and politicians” (Wigorts Yngvesson, 19 December 2006). Having sex with many men (emancipated sexuality) is associated with selling one’s body for money. Feminists, on the other hand, are associated with power. Feminists stand out as a thoroughly privileged group; they are not ordinary women who are active in a women’s group or young activists, but women in positions of power—notoriously known as ‘elite feminists’! Wigorts Yngvesson is also consistent about putting the word radical in front of feminists, giving the term a tone of extremism—lo and behold, feminists are not just women in positions of power, but crazy women in positions of power!
Prostitution, these social com...