I’ve talked to a lot of men who buy women; a lot of times they say that sex work is honest work. They tell me things like:
“She likes it.”
“I’m helping her make a living.”
“How else would she support her kids?”
“She chose this life.”
To further this narrative I just read an article on Upworthy, of all places, arguing that sex work is “honest.” Margaret Cho, a comedian who did pre-recorded phone sex when she was younger, claims that “Sex work is not degrading – it didn’t degrade me. Rape was degrading. Not sex work. Sex work is honest work.”
Her statement broke my heart, I immediately thought of all the girls and women I knew that had been trapped in the sex trade: the desperation that sent them there, the daily struggle it was to survive, and the immense healing it takes to recover.
In Angeles City, a city with over 500,000 girls and women working in the bars, the process of selling women is relatively simple: dozens of half-naked girls “dance” on a stage, sometimes with numbers attached to their underwear.
Men come in to get a drink and “watch” the girls on stage, and when they see one that suits their fancy, they flag over a waitress and point to the girl they want. The waitress shines a laser on the girl and that signals her to come off stage and have a drink with this man.
While she drinks with him, he is free to grope her wherever he pleases, kiss her, play games with her, but he is not allowed to do more with her until he pays a “bar fine,” which will allow him to take the girl back to his hotel room and have sex with her (I call it rape). Technically, the bar fine (usually around $60 in Angeles City, and far less in other areas) is paying for the girl to leave work early, but that’s just a way to skirt around the Philippine’s anti-prostitution law.
Every single woman I have talked to in the bars does not want to be there. They have been forced, coerced, or left with no other options but to sell their bodies, often times they don’t even know what working in the bars means when they first arrive.
Most of the women I talk to are single moms trying to support their children and left with no other options to make enough to feed them. An increasing number are coming from the provinces as climate change wipes out their family farms, forcing parents to send their daughters to the city to keep her family alive, often supporting parents and up to eight siblings.
Some families have more evil intentions, sending their daughters, nieces, or wives into the bars to make a profit off of them. One woman I know was raped continually by her former employer, so she moved to the city where she would at least get paid for it.
But not one woman I know has gone there because she wants to be there, or she thinks it is desirable way to survive. She is trapped by dire circumstances in life and is left with a choice; sell your body to keep you and/or those you love alive, or, give up and watch you and/or your family slowly waste away.
This might seem like a harsh way to describe their situation—the men who frequent the bars would call me a liar. They tell me, “They love working here. What a fun way to make a living.” I wonder how they can possibly convince themselves of this watching the majority of girls stare at the ground as they sway on stage, using their arms to cover what parts of the body they can.
It feels like a cattle auction to me, just men, sizing up the piece of meat they want to purchase. The girls pretend to have a good time, no one earns a tip with a sombre attitude.
My response to the men who buy women and to Margaret Cho is that a woman forced into prostitution by desperate circumstances is NOT free.
She is a slave.
Spend time with any woman forced to sell her body and you will find the same.
Julie Bindel, a woman who investigates prostitution for a living, shares the sentiment:
For the last three years I’ve been investigating prostitution worldwide to test the conventional wisdom of it being a career choice, as valid as any other. I conducted 250 interviews in 40 countries, interviewed 50 survivors of the sex trade, and almost all of them told me the same story: don’t believe the ‘happy hooker’ myth you see on TV. In almost every case it’s actually slavery. The women who work as prostitutes are in hock and in trouble. They’re in need of rescue just as much as any of the more fashionable victims of modern slavery.
So if sex work is basically slavery in disguise, what do we do about it?
We speak. We tell our congressmen and senators, and friends and family, that “sex work” is modern-day slavery. We advocate for laws resembling The Nordic model which flips the traditional criminal liability for prostitution away from sex workers: “Paying for sex would be a crime, but being paid for sex would not.”
The laws are slowly eradicating this form of slavery in Sweden, Norway, and Iceland. Zeeshan Aleen, journalist for Mic, explains the origin of the law and why it has been so successful:
Sweden’s modern laws on prostitution are rooted in a particular feminist reading of its causes, namely that its existence is a product of gender inequality, and that by its very nature it violently commodifies women. The government shifted its legal rhetoric on prostitution to view it as a trade that invariably victimizes its participants, and thus has no business operating in a gender-equal society.
One study found that up to 89% of sex workers want to leave the industry but said they didn’t have other options for survival, and that two-thirds fulfill criteria for post-traumatic stress “equal to that of treatment-seeking Vietnam veterans and victims of torture or rape,” as Max Waltman, a PhD candidate at Stockholm University, has noted. Its proponents point to studies showing that despite noble intentions, legalization typically increases overall trafficking.
In the decade and a half since the Swedish Sex Purchase Act took effect, prostitution and trafficking have declined dramatically. According to the Swedish Ministry of Justice, prostitution across the country has fully halved. The cost of purchasing sex in Sweden is estimated to be the highest in Europe. Sex workers are reportedly more organized than in Amsterdam, where prostitution is legal. Concerns that the law would lead to an increase in violence against sex workers were allayed by a government report in 2010 suggesting that there was no evidence of the phenomenon.
The Nordic model is working; proving that prostitution is not a desirable profession for any woman. In fact, it’s the opposite: when a woman’s only option for survival is to sell their bodies, it’s simply slavery.
Join me as we change the narrative that sex work is “honest work” or “empowering” to women to the truth that it’s one of the most degrading and oppressive forms of slavery.
Want to do more than talk about it? Donate to Wipe Every Tear, an organization that rescues women from the sex trade and puts them through college. You could even go with me to visit Wipe Every Tear and make a difference in these women’s lives, just shoot me an email.