Friday, 27 April 2012

Safety and Exploitation in the Oldest Profession

This piece started as a reply to a letter in my local newspaper, by a Mr Dalton who I know personally through our mutual work in a local peace group. He was effectively condemning the profession of sex working as exploitative, with the workers portrayed as victims and their clients as ‘sad’. He gave examples of the increase in trafficking, sexual slavery and child prostitution as evidence for his assertion that ‘prostitution is exploitation’.

This got me thinking, because sex working is a subject that interests me and one of my friends used to be in the profession herself. While she admits that prostitution is almost always exploitative, her experience was nothing like that portrayed by Mr Dalton in his letter.

Let me say that I agreed with a great deal of his letter, and feel the same compassion for the victims of crime that he mentioned. He’s a liberal and humane man with a deep concern for human rights, which I share. But the letter seems too great a generalisation. It’s as if he took examples from the extreme end of the spectrum, and then tarred the whole profession with that brush. It’s certainly true that prostitution is often highly exploitative, and that there has been a great increase in trafficking over recent years. So the kinds of experiences that my friend had over ten years ago may be rarer now; although I’m sure there will always be honest people who decide to make a living from selling sex. But to state in such a bald way that ‘prostitution is exploitation’ is too great a simplification, and I don’t see that in itself it’s necessarily a bad thing, especially if it could be legalised and the women involved better protected. It’s the exploitation that is wrong, not the prostitution.

My friend, who I’ll call Martha (not her real name) lives and works overseas, in a far less controversial profession; but she used to work near the heart of Soho in London. She wasn’t very happy as a sex worker, although some of her friends were more comfortable with it than she was. Neither of these women were forced to become sex workers, and although they were exploited financially, they felt physically safe and were not abused by those they worked for. They chose to be sex workers, and when my friend was totally fed up with it, she chose to stop being one.

Tragically (and everything Mr Dalton says about the desperate circumstances of many sex workers is true), a huge number of women don’t have that choice. But many do, and their reasons for sex working are as varied as the reasons people choose any job. Neither are they necessarily any more likely to become HIV positive than people with a predilection for one night stands are; in fact, they may even be safer. Mr Dalton’s letter very much overemphasises the danger here, as if there’s something especially unhygienic about having sex with a prostitute. Sure, it depends on where they work, how desperate they are for money, and other factors. But Martha and her friends weren’t HIV positive; they worked in the business for many years, and protected themselves every time they worked. Neither she nor her friends ever became infected with anything.

Mr Dalton’s letter really got me thinking though, because the subject of exploitation, trafficking and slavery is such a serious one. So I asked Martha if she would tell me more about her years as a sex worker, because I didn’t feel I knew very much about it. She sent me the following reply - which I’ve edited somewhat, without removing anything she says about her experiences:

Hey Michael! Don’t worry; I have no problem in talking about my days of a working girl. No regrets, that’s what I think. Sometimes one can find a greater exploitation between a man and a woman who are in a “loving” kind of relationship than between a prostitute and her client. In the latter, everything is clear and open. It is like any other business where one has to deal with people. Some people are easy going; some others are hard to manage. 

All I know is my own experience and things I heard about at the time. Everywhere I worked I felt exploited by the premises owners and maids. The rental we had to pay was very high and the maids were very expensive. Not only we had to pay a very good wages but we also had to give them commission over our earnings. Sometimes we would go home with a lot less than we paid out…or even owing money. It was sad, depressing and humiliating. They wouldn’t pity us. The one I worked with most often was the greediest. 

All the girls would go for medical checkup frequently, and we were very aware of the danger of doing anything without proper protection. Yes, it’s easier to catch something with a one night standing than with a prostitute.

I thought it was quite safe. Out of all the years I worked there, we got mugged only once, but that can happen anywhere. We just have to be careful everywhere these days.

Well, about trafficking, slavery and all the rest of it; I don’t consider it prostitution; these are crimes, despicable crimes. Just the thought of what these poor girls, usually children, go through brings tears to my eyes. Some men are just so sick that I can hardly find words to describe them; they should be put in jail for many years…and where children are involved, they should throw away the keys.

Many kisses to you and baby Tally, and kiss Angie for me when you see her.


Beyond its honesty and openness, there are several striking things about this message. The first is in Martha’s opening paragraph, where she writes about the contrast between the ‘open’ relationship between prostitute and client in contrast to certain other relationships. Working girls and their clients only do openly and honestly something that mirrors the more covert dependent/exploitative relationships that can exist between other partners. It’s often been argued that traditionally, the state of marriage was exploitative, in that the wife would provide sex, the rearing of children, cook the meals and keep the house clean, all in return for financial security. In past times, it was virtually impossible for the vast majority of women to be financially independent.

Martha and her friends were exploited not only by men (in the sense that the rents were very high) but also by other women. This somewhat turns the table on the popular idea of prostitutes as tragic victims of men’s despicable behaviour – which of course is often true, but a simplification nonetheless.

They felt safe. That’s not to say that some clients weren’t ‘hard to manage’, but generally the women felt okay, and the clients were as mixed in personality and behaviour as any other segment of the population.

They practised scrupulous sexual hygiene. It’s not how promiscuous you are that makes you dangerous as a sexual partner; it’s how blithe and careless you are in your behaviour. Again, in some ways sex working is not much different from some other sexual relationships, and may in certain respects be a lot safer. I realise that some working girls, if desperate for cash, will have sex without using condoms – but again, this is far from universal.

The fact that there are often dangers involved in sex working, and that many sex workers are desperate, exploited, abused or under-age, doesn’t strike me as a reason for generalising or discriminating in a negative way. Many sex workers themselves insist that these are valid reasons for legalising their profession. Legalised brothels, monitored for safety and hygiene, would do much to protect sex workers from exploitation, and both the workers and their clients from infection. Sex workers are still often afraid to approach the police when they have serious reason to, for fear of arrest and prosecution. Stigmatising or legislating against prostitution tends to drive it underground, where it’s far more dangerous.

Martha’s letter shows that even near its best, prostitution is a pretty exploitative profession. And even many of Martha’s clients were probably under the mistaken impression that they were paying her for the pleasure she gave them, and not the maids and others who fed off her. But then, look at the way that bankers exploit their staff and customers, and sex working suddenly doesn’t seem that different. The banks (who caused the financial crisis) and corporations who make billions in profits and don’t even pay their taxes; MPs who effectively commit benefit fraud through their expenses (our taxes); multi-millionaire government ministers who keep getting richer while cutting vital welfare and services… The Murdochs! It’s the way things are now (capitalism is parasitic almost by definition), and it seems to me unfair to single out just this one profession.

On the other hand, at its worst this one profession involves abuse of a terrible kind. I’m not sure if trafficking and slavery are continuing to get more common or not, but certainly it’s worse than most exploitative practices you’d expect to meet in everyday life. Perhaps it’s because of these terrible practices, that while Mr Dalton correctly (if slightly sweepingly) refers to prostitution as exploitation, the examples he gives are of the worst kind: sexual slavery, trafficking and paedophilia. Yet my friend Martha says that these crimes are ‘not prostitution’ – they are simply heinous crimes. They bear little relation to the profession she used to work in – unless it’s in the same sense that a brain tumour is like a mild headache. We would not call an Eastern European au pair who is kept as a slave a nanny or a cleaner, even though she does many of the same things as a nanny or a cleaner. She is simply a slave.

Perhaps it’s just a question of semantics. Yet I feel that labelling and wording are important when making generalising statements about a particular group within society.

Personally, I think that sex working fulfils a widespread need. I’m sure that many clients are purely casual or thoughtless in their behaviour, and some can be abusive too. But many people (not necessarily men, either!) find it difficult if not impossible to have a sex life without paying for it – whether because of loneliness, lack of confidence, lack of opportunity or even disability. Having spent the first decade of my adult life without a girlfriend or even a one night stand for comfort, I can’t say I blame them. Some people have strong moral views against prostitution, but I would not like to judge either the sex workers or their clients, certainly not without knowing their personal reasons.

Is it ‘sad’, as Mr Dalton says, that the clients of sex workers choose to obtain sexual satisfaction in this way? Yes, maybe, although the reasons for being a client must be at least as varied as the reasons for being a prostitute. Perhaps, not being able to have sex at all is even sadder – you’d have to ask the person concerned. But of course, not many clients would come forward to answer the question, because the stigma is so severe.

As for the difference between sex shops and brothels, I think Mr Dalton over-emphasises it. He says in his letter that the new local sex shop is morally okay but a brothel wouldn’t be. But pornography can be highly exploitative in many of the ways that prostitution can. I wouldn’t have a problem with the presence of a legalised brothel in my town; after all, I expect sex is sold here anyway, just like anywhere else! We can’t prevent prostitution; not for nothing is it dubbed the world’s ‘oldest profession’! What we can do is make it safer and less exploitative – for as many people as we can. In a civilised society, surely people’s safety, health and well-being should be the most important concern?

Legalising brothels would also mean that clients would know they could go to legalised establishments without fear of harming anyone or having anything to do with that appalling kind of slavery. I’m sure that many of them must care just as much as anyone about the injustice and cruelty that has been on the increase in recent years, and would not want to contribute to it. Legalising brothels would not protect everyone, but it would be a huge step in the right direction. Sadly, unlike in some other countries, governments in Britain have so far placed a Victorian ‘morality’ above common sense, decency and the safety of all concerned. We can only hope that things will change for the better in the future.

I know that Mr Dalton is not prejudiced in the way I mean here, but it seems that there are already far too many groups in our society who are stigmatised and generalised about: from Muslims, travellers and asylum seekers to the disabled - and even foxes! To state the obvious, sex workers and their clients are as much a varied mix of people as the rest of us. Yes, there can be appalling abuse and exploitation involved, and because of this we need to make the profession as safe and out-in-the-open as we can. But I believe it’s also true that, even now, the oldest profession can often be less sensational and much less sordid than many people believe. 

Postscript: A follower of this blog has sent me the link to this story, about a call from a (female) New South Wales MP to decriminalise sex working and provide government funding for the disabled to hire sex workers This is the sort of humane response to sex working - and also the disabled - that is a breath of fresh air to me. As far as I know, the state of Victoria has already legalised brothels. In the current political climate though, I can't see either of these measures happening in Britain!


  1. hi michael, brain isn't working well enough to take this all in at the moment but scanning it i thought you might find this interesting:

  2. Thank you kp! That is truly remarkable. I only wish I could see such humane measures put forward in Britain, but sadly it doesn't seem very likely! I've added a postscript to my blog with the article link included. Many thanks, and take care.

  3. PS: I've only just realised which friend of mine you are! :)

  4. that P.S. gave me a good laugh thanks! it won't in a million years happen here either...just found it a fascinating idea to contemplate.