July 2015, shop window of an underwear store in Amsterdam.
“I don’t really know where I stand as for the legalization of prostitution, because I’ve never talked to someone who’s been in it”.
“Well, you are now”.
This was the beginning of one of the most interesting conversations I’ve ever had, on a windy summer
morning in the city of Amsterdam. For hours, this amazing woman and I talked about the myths and truths of the “oldest business of the world”, and by the time we said goodbye the way I saw the
world had meaningfully changed.
For the past few years I had been noticing an uprising of posts and articles online by feminist women praising the “sex workers” and defending their right to sell sex if they choose to do so. "It’s their body and they can do what they want with it" – and it sure is hard to disagree with such a statement. However, after this conversation, I became very skeptical about what “choosing” really means when speaking of prostitution. After all, no choice is a choice if it’s not a free choice.
Most women who escape prostitution suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, on a similar or higher rate than war veterans, this lady told me. She has been working with them for years, helping them out, and she experiences it herself. And while media and mainstream movies sell us the myth of the shy, lonely, insecure guy who never gets laid and needs the help of an amused prostitute to get some experience, reality is very different: most clients are actually married men who know exactly what they’re doing and seek in prostitution what their wives don’t (or wouldn’t) allow them to do in their bedroom. This, of course, doesn’t imply the type of fun, kind sex that the lonely boy would be seeking, where the lady has control on herself and teaches him what to do – but the objectified use of a woman’s body to fulfil every sexual practice that would embarrass the man outside of that environment, from scatology to violence. Where control lays means everything. And the client, as we know, is always right.
So ok, we all know that most prostituted women are forced to take this life, but what about the ones who do it because they want to? Why do they choose it? Or why don’t they leave once they realize what’s behind?
"Because they don't know any better" were the exact words she used to answer this question. There is a strong link that connects poverty and child sexual trauma to "chosen" prostitution. When a woman has no resources, or hasn't been able to access an education, or has suffered from sexual abuse as a child, it is not difficult for her to fall into the prostitution net. As this brilliant article points out, many of the women in this business were just little girls when they started. Long story short, abusive sex gets normalized from a young age and ends up being used as a way to earn money. And the longer you've been in, the more difficult it is to leave.
"But prostitution prevents rape!", some say - I might even have found myself saying this at some point of my life. This assumption is not only misleading, but also dangerous. It is misleading because, if a man is as violent as to be likely to rape a woman in the street (plus risking being sent to prison), there is no reason why he wouldn't be likely to be violent towards a prostitute - the issue here is if we care as much for one as for the other. But, most of all, this statement is dangerous because of the way it deals with the problem of rape - if a man feels the desire to force a woman to have sex with him, by offering him a gateway we are basically validating this desire, instead of fighting to eliminate it. Not to mention the cherry on top of the cake - that this "gateway" is an actual human being.
The truth is that many of the "sex workers" praisers are white, middle-class feminists (just like myself) who, despite their best intentions, haven't interacted directly with the environment of prostitution and take for granted that choice is, in this context, a free concept (just as I used to!), and thus they speak in the name of women they've never met or talked to. And this happens to allies in every social movement. We tend to put words on the victims' mouths and validate our opinion without listening to them. It happens to us all and it is an issue not only in activism, but in worldwide society, that we can only get rid of by being aware of it.
What I learned that afternoon was not only that I stand for the abolition of prostitution and the criminalization of its clients - but a broader, deeper lesson: that, no matter our position regarding a specific issue, the process to form an opinion should include listening to the people affected by whatever it is that we are trying to defeat or defend. This basic idea, I found, is essential to have the freedom to change our minds.
And traveling, once again, is sometimes the most fulfilling and effective way to do so.