On Saturday 27th at the Milan protest against violence against women - see opening image - among many other things we said: it is really difficult to understand how a feminism can exist that fights for the dismantling of the Merlin law and for the decriminalisation of exploitation, as well as for the regulation of so-called 'sex work'. Why does it do this? And for whom? And do the thousands of girls participating in the Non Una di Meno marches know that they are also demonstrating for this objective?
Fortunately, the abolitionist perspective gains space. Here is an editorial bySonia Sodha in The Observer.
Last Monday James Martin was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for killing Stella Frew. They had argued in his van, then he accelerated with her hanging over the side, eventually running over Frew and causing her catastrophic injuries. Martin ran off with her bag which he then dumped.
The cause of the quarrel? Martin refused to pay her for the sexual act she had just performed on him. Like many women who sell sex, Frew struggled with drug and alcohol addiction and was under their influence when she approached Martin. Her daughter described her before the court as the "kinder and friendlier woman"abused and hurt by men throughout her life. The judge noted that Martin had barely shown any empathy for his victim.
This has always been the case. Prostitution is related to a mortal danger: according to a study, women who sell sex are 18 times more likely to be killed than women who do not. Yet historically these women have always been considered second-class citizensnot worthy of the same concern as the other victims.
What is the best way to prevent violence against those who sell sex, the vast majority of whom are women, has long divided feminists..
For some, it is a matter of decriminalising the sale and purchase of sexwhich in England and Wales, for example, would mean decriminalising crimes such as driving around looking for a prostitute, inciting prostitution and running a brothel. Prostitution will always be there, that's the argument, so better to bring it to light. More on the other hand, agree that the sale of sex should be decriminalised in all circumstances and think that women should be provided with extensive support to exit prostitution, but claim that buying sex, an almost exclusively male activity, should always be a crime.
The argument for full decriminalisation is based on the belief that it is possible to support those who sell sex to turn it into 'sex work', as if it were any other work. What makes him attractive is fuelled by an archetype that has evolved into the narrative of the male saviour of Pretty Womanor that of the sexually uninhibited woman who makes a mockery of a conservative society by making a lot of money in a job she loves.
Sex work would therefore be a choice which should be respected and destigmatiseddecriminalising the men who buy it and regulating it to make it safer. The women who rail against this view are portrayed as puritans constrained by their own reluctance to have sex..
There are two reality checks that lead these arguments to fall. The first is that for every woman or man who sells sex and considers it a positive choice, there are some, indeed many more who have been trafficked or exploited and are in fact slaves of criminal networksworking for a pittance, or for drugs which serve to forget the trauma of being forced to sell themselves and then being penetrated again and again. Or even for nothing.
In an investigation into sex traffickingthe police of the Leicestershire reported that 86% of the women in brothels were Romanian; in Northumbria, it was 75%. Numerous studies have shown how dangerous prostitution is: most women who sell sex have experienced severe and repeated violence, with more than two-thirds suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder at levels comparable to war veterans. Women who are actually forced to sell sex have little voice in political debates, although there are important networks of survivors who support abolition.
"How could a woman selling sex maintain safe boundaries or withdraw consent when a man hurts her?".
Secondly, as set out feminist activist Julie Bindel in her 2017 book The Pimping of Prostitutionthe decriminalisation and regulation have not been as successful as their supporters claim. Bindel visited and interviewed working women in legal brothels in the countries Netherlands, Germany, Nevada, New Zealand and Australia and discovered that exploitation is widespread, with legalisation acting to legitimise brothel owners. In a Las Vegas brothel, women were not allowed to go out unaccompanied or without the permission of their pimp. In a German brothel, women had to serve six men a day at the minimum rate just to pay the room rent. In a New Zealand brothel, the women said that the men could complain to the pimp and get their money back, leaving the women without compensation.
Decriminalisation increases the overall scale of prostitution without reducing the damage or providing any of the benefits promised by regulation. In New Zealand, Bindel revealed that in 12 years there have been only 11 health and safety inspections of brothels. And that decriminalisation makes it even more difficult for the police to combat trafficking. Spanish police testify how difficult it is to investigate brothels, with frightened and distressed young women telling them that they work there by choice.
Decriminalisation cannot make prostitution safe because it is inherently dangerous and exploitative..
Men who buy sex too often get out of control. The project Invisible Men documents the nauseating way in which men talk online about their experiences with women who sell sex: very little of this is publishable. Research finds that men who buy sex are also more likely to abuse their partnershave a stronger preference for a-relational sex. and commit rape and other sexual offences. Some might say that there is no cause-effect relationship, but it is not difficult to imagine how using women for payment even if it hurts them can only further exacerbate already toxic attitudes towards women.
These men have every interest in the normalisation of their sexual acquisitions. Perhaps the most extraordinary example is former MP Keith Vazwho chaired a Select Committee on Home Affairs enquiry into the criminalisation of sex buyers and who a few months later was reported for offering to buy cocaine for two prostitutes .
Prostitutes should not be stigmatised, but helped and supported.. But we legitimise to our detriment the men who engage in the harmful practice of buying sex. In the UK, it is estimated that about one in 10 men have paid for sex; in Spain, where access to prostitution is decriminalised, the number is much higher.
Accepting that prostitution will always exist, and therefore the best thing we can do is to regulate it, is not just tolerating the abuse of women: it is being complicit in its expansion.
Original article heretranslation by Laura De Barbieri