When I'm meeting with women and girls in prostitution in my own country as well as some countries of Europe, Africa and here in India, I've always asked what they would like for their daughter. So far, the answers have not included prostitution.
That's especially striking given the profound differences in their lives, from Manhattan call girls to women in the brothel line-ups of Sonagachi; from women in the counties around Las Vegas, the only places in the US where prostitution is legal, to bar girls from the villages of Ghana and the scheduled castes in Bihar where women are consigned to prostitution by birth. Indeed, the same seems to be true of prostituted males who serve male clients.
The truth seems to be that the invasion of the human body by another person – whether empowered by money or violence or authority -- is de-humanising in itself. Yes, there are many other jobs in which people are exploited, but prostitution is the only one that by definition crosses boundary of our skin and invades our most central sense of self. I know this is a subject that needs much more exploring, but I want to indicate it in shorthand because I think it's the source of the misunderstanding in these two letters in response to a lecture I gave at Jawaharlal Nehru University on April 2.
I did not say -- nor do I think, as Shohini Ghosh supposes -- that sex trafficking and prostitution are “synonymous.” Though both are created by the same customers who want unequal sex, they represent crucial differences in a woman's ability to escape or control her own life. However, I would not equate prostitution with domestic work, as she does. That ignores the damage and trauma of the body invasion that is intrinsic to the former and should never be part of the latter. Also I don't think “consenting adults” is practical answer to structural inequality. Even sexual harassment law requires that sexual attention be “welcome,” not just “consensual.” It recognizes that consent can be coerced.
In addition, Kumkum Roy criticizes me for not using the term “sex worker.” I know this term is common in AIDS policy and academia, but it turned out to be dangerous in real life. For instance, in places as disparate as Germany and Nevada in the US, government used the idea that prostitution is “a job like any other” to withhold welfare and unemployment benefits from women who failed to try it. Only protests by women's movements ended this form of procurement. As a popular term, I notice that prostituted girls and women say “survival sex,” as more descriptive as well as a breach of human rights.
Finally, I devoutly wish that unions had improved conditions in brothels, kept children out of prostitution and lessened disease and violence, as they promised to do, but in fact, there has been a huge increase in trafficking, girls in prostitution have become younger and younger, and there is no independent evidence of lowering rates of AIDS. What the idea of unions has done is to enhance the ability of the sex industry to attract millions of dollars from the Gates Foundation for the distribution on condoms, despite the fact that customers often pay more for sex without condoms, and it has created a big new source of income for brothel owners, pimps and traffickers who are called “peer educators,” I understand that that the traffic of women and girls into Sonagachi has greatly increased.
But there is good news. The old polarization into legalization and criminalization is giving way to a more practical, woman-centered and successful Third Way: De-criminalize the prostituted persons, offer them meaningful choices, prosecute traffickers, pimps and all who sell the bodies of others, and also penalize the customers who create the market while educating them about its tragic human consequences.
Those are turning out to be goals on which many people work together.