Unless we respect sex workers, we will never respect all women

First posted on Loyar Burok’s LoyarEqual Feminist Week on 17th to 21st October.

Credits: Jessicamera11 via Flickr Creative Commons

Being called a “slut”, “thevadiya”, “sundal”, “whore”, or “jalang” are probably the worst forms of verbal abuse anyone, woman or man, can inflict on a woman or girl. But they needn’t be. One only needs to unpack the toxicity in the abusive usage of the word which will expose some uncomfortable truths about our relationship with sex and sexuality to understand why. Every time a person uses it as an insult they perpetuate an ancient double standard that refuses to go away – that a promiscuous or sexually active unmarried woman is worthy of disrespect while a man who leads a similar life is likely to receive macho backslaps of praise. Women and girls are seen as the “moral guardians” of society and pose as a sexual threat regardless of age and marital status she may be, whether she’s a virgin or not.

This means that a female-identified person are in danger of being called a slut or sundal for any reason; when she speaks her mind she’s a slut, if she doesn’t wear a tudung she’s a slut, when she breaks a rice bowl she’s a stupid slut. It is no exaggeration that these are the words used to bully women and girls into silence and submission.

Truth be told, many women and girls do not like words like “sundal” and “slut” despite the Slutwalks that are take place across the globe. And that is mainly because no one wants to identify as or with sex workers or to use the stigmatising term, prostitute. But we little do we realise that the history of female sexuality in Malaysia is intimately linked with the dehumanising laws regulating the colonial sex industry in Malaya.

British colonialism in the late 19th century Malaya was mired in racism against migrant labourers brought in from mainland China who were deemed as lacking morals and homophobia against homosexual activities that occurred between them. To curtail homosexual practices, the colonial authorities introduced female sex workers, trafficked or otherwise, to the labourers and colonial officers alike. By 1900, there were around ten thousand female sex workers in the Straits settlements. Numbers in the Malay states were less easy to estimate due to lack of surveillance and regulation.

Viewed as vectors of venereal disease, female sex workers in British Malaya were subjected to the Women and Girls Protection Act (WGPA) that stipulated compulsory medical examination and detainment followed by forced treatment if women were found with disease. Today, along with various other colonial legal relics, the WGPA 1973 is used to detain young women under 21 for up to three years for “immoral” activity. According to the WCC, the act has mainly been used to round up young women in karaoke bars and leaving their male company unscathed. The assumption behind such arrests is that young women’s sexual morality need to be “protected” from the deathly threat of moral corruption.

The intertwining histories of the colonial sex industry and the sexuality in present day Malaysia urge us to close the gap between the virgin-whore dichotomy that gives words like “jalang” and “slut” their potency. We can start with respecting sex workers as workers and as women who are more than just what they do in a sexual/business transaction. We can end the stigma behind words like “pelacur” and disarm the slurs inflicted on people who are not sex workers.

Malaysia is not unique in our relentless punishment against the women and men in the sex industry.
In countries where prostitution is illegal and / or penalises its clientele, sex work often ends up persisting anyway but in more deadly and dehumanising forms. Outlawed sex industries go underground, increase the trafficking of women and girls and incidences of sexual violence, making it impossible for them to leave the profession, deaths and abuse go unreported, sex workers do not get medical treatment or health checks which increases the likelihood of dangerous sexually-transmitted diseases – all because the criminalisation of sex work purports to “shield” women, girls, and society from the “evils” of sex work. The evil is not inherent in sex work itself but rather in the abuse perpetrated by violent pimps, johns, traffickers, and the law.

Respecting sex workers allows them to leave the industry as they wish through humanitarian laws and anti-discriminatory employment practices, destigmatises paid sex, turn them into our sisters and brothers, and welcomes them into the fray of society as people. Women and girls must refuse playing hostage to the toxicity of words like “sundal” or “whore” and end the moral double standard that punishes us for having the conceit to have sexual desire.

The reason why we hate or use these words as terms of abuse is because deep down, we still think that being sexual outside of marriage is “bad” and “shameful” and that healthy female sexuality is “unnatural”. And as we discuss the topic of gendered slurs, the global Slutwalk marches on, neutralising and reclaiming the word “slut” at the heart of its anti-rape agenda. What Slutwalk does to the word “slut” is taking the negative power from sexist cultures and having the freedom to twist, subvert, reclaim, and/or detoxify it. Make gendered terms of abuse obsolete and we will disarm the simplest act of abuse against all women and girls whether they are sex workers and not.

14 thoughts on “Unless we respect sex workers, we will never respect all women

  1. ” Outlawed sex industries go underground, increase the trafficking of women and girls and incidences of sexual violence,”

    Would love to see your reference backing this up. That is not what I am seeing in the research but would love to be pointed to some solid evidence backing up your claim.

  2. Check out my entire blog.. lol.. What I have come upon is actually the exact opposite. Stats out of Germany, where prostitution is legal, shows they have become a hub for sex trafficking. While in Sweden, where Johns/punters are punished and prostituted peoples decriminalized, they have seen huge drops in prostitution in general.

    I was asking for your references because I am very interested in this topic, involved in research on it currently – and would love to get as much info as possible. Would also love to read an elaboration on your statement – only if you’re interested of course. Possibly I misunderstood your claim.

    I see you calling it “sex work” so I am going to make a very broad generalization and assume you are for full legalization?

    Here are my references, would love to see yours:

    Ekberg, G. (2004). The Swedish law that prohibits the purchase of sexual services: Best

    practices for prevention of prostitution and trafficking in human beings.

    Violence Against Women 10: 1187

    Farley, M. (2004). Bad for the body, bad for the heart: Prostitution harms women even if

    legalized or decriminalized. Violence Against Women 10 (10): 1087-1125.

    Farley, M. (2003). Prostitution and the invisibility of harm. Women and Therapy, 26(3/4).

    Farley, M., Baral, I., Kiremire, M. & Sezgin, U. (1998). Prostitution in five countries: Violence

    and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Feminism & Psychology 8 (4): 415-426.

    Farley, M., Cotton, A., Lynne, J., Zumbeck, S., Spiwak, F., Reyes, M. E., Alvarez, D., &

    Sezgin, V. (2003). Prostitution in nine countries: Update on violence and posttraumatic

    stress disorder. In M. Farley (Ed.), Prostitution, trafficking, and traumatic stress (pp. 33-

    74). Binghamton, NY: Haworth.

    Farley, M., & Lynne, J. (2003). Prostitution in Vancouver: Violence and the colonization of

    First Nations women. Fourth World Journal. Retrieved 10/04/2011 from

    http://www.cwis.org/fwj/index.htm.

    Farley, M., & Patsalides, B.(2001). Physical symptoms, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, and

    healthcare utilization of women with and without childhood physical and sexual

    abuse. Psychological Reports 89: 595-606.

    MacKinnon, C. (2009). Trafficking, prostitution and inequality. Harvard Civil Rights – Civil

    Liberties Law Review. Speech given Jan. 5th, 2009 in Bihar, India.

    United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2011). UNODC report on human trafficking exposes

    modern form of slavery. Retrieved 10/04/2011 from: http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/human-trafficking/global-report-on-trafficking-in

    persons.html

    The U.S. Department of State – Bureau of Public Affairs (2004). Global affairs: The link

    between prostitution and sex trafficking. Retrieved 10/04/2011 From

    http://www.servingourworld.org/PDF/trafficking/dos-prostitution-sex%20-trafficking.pdf

    The United States Department of Veterans Affairs – National Center for PTSD (2011). The

    PTSD checklist (PCL). Retrieved 10/04/2011 from:

    http://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/pages/assessments/ptsd-checklist.asp

    Weitzer, R. (2005). Flawed theory and method in studies of prostitution. Violence Against

    Women. 11: 934.

    Interesting Websites:

    http://www.prostitutionresearch.com/

    Link to an excellent debate about legalization between anti-prostitution advocates and pro sex work advocates (1.5 hour video) titled: It’s Wrong To Pay For Sex. From: Intelligence Squared Debates.

    http://intelligencesquaredus.org/index.php/past-debates/its-wrong-to-pay-for-sex/#dm-col-a

    • almostclever,

      I am very impressed! But then, if it is your research, which is mainly on trauma and sex work you would know the area best. I’ll read all of them! But I’m not sure if any of them concerns the link between sex work, migrant workers, and trafficking in SE Asia or Malaysia in particular? When I found out that the UK proposed to follow Sweden’s strategy of shrinking sex work via criminalising clients, I was very suspicious because it did not say a word about providing sex workers recourse to other jobs, and recovery. I do believe that sex work should be decriminalised while at the same time making sure that sex workers have full legal protection. Decriminalisation MUST lead to greater employment and health rights, and legal empowerment and protection from people who tend to benefit the most from their work, i.e. pimps and managers of clubs and brothels.

      In the UK, there are concerns about sex trafficking but because hard numbers of those trafficked into the sex industry – whether into legal “businesses” or not – are quite difficult to get, what can be confirmed by the UK’s official data is the number is still quite low. I’ve attended a sex worker’s conference here in London middle of this year to gain the facts from sex workers themselves. The problem with criminalisation of sex work is that sex workers, due to the depressing treatment of female survivors of abuse and violence more generally, are easily criminalised themselves and fall through the loopholes (or rather the sexism) of the justice system.

      My article is directed towards the local sex industry and local perceptions towards sex workers. I’m not a full-time researcher on the global sex industry, but I do know that prostitution in Malaysia is illegal and that undocumented female workers from neighboring South East Asian countries are trafficked in to much abuse by local men and the authorities. I am sure as hell abuse of all forms is rampant against them and that is because of the intersection of their status as migrant workers, sex workers, and women.

      In the little amount of research I’ve done for a report on sex work was on the relative agency the women of Daulatdia had as sex workers. Their experiences mirrored sex workers in Britain in making the choice to work in the sex industry as mothers and as people who required the flexibility their chosen has given them.

      My interest in the intersection of sex work and feminism is not entirely academic, but derives from the work and experiences of British sex workers and what I know about sex work in Malaysia. If you’re asking me whether I am anti-sex work, I’m not. I don’t have that many sources, but I count talking with sex workers in the UK, and the following sources as supporting my argument:

      Sex-work harm reduction, ML Rekart – The Lancet, 2006.

      Recommendation for sex work policy, Frances Shaver, 2005.
      http://reimer.concordia.ca/Personal/FranWebDocs/SHAVER-2005-SSLR-Roundtable-May30.pdf

  3. Thanks for the links, I will check them out – I have been searching for some good “pro sex work” articles, they are hard to come by.

    In Sweden the government subsidizes programming for women exiting prostitution through vocational rehab, drug abuse treatment, and job skills training in order to provide viable economic alternatives.

    I view the sex trade as violence against women, not as work. I also question our views of agency and choice when many women’s economic circumstances are the reason they “choose” this life, while others, of course, are coerced into it.

    I am of the view of abolishment. PTSD rates, traumatic brain injury and gross domestic violence and enslavement are soaring.. Evidence out of countries where it is legal shows that these rates have not gone done due to legalization.. Until I can find research that shows the utter harm it causes women, goes down, I will always be against full legalization of the pimps and profiteers who make money off of violence against women.

    I have not seen anything coming out of Malaysia, but there has been a lot of research in Thailand and certain countries in Africa (Nigeria and South Africa, off the top of my head).

    Melissa Farley, a leading researcher in the States, has done studies in over 9 countries and has found sky high rates of PTSD across the board.

    I just do not think we should be legalizing trauma. I do not think we should be legalizing pimping as a legitimate profession. Pimping is the coercion of women, that is the job description – are we ok saying the state should tax the exploitation of women and girls?

    So far Sweden has shown the most promise in their approach to the sex trade. They have offered vocational rehab and social services, paid for by the gov’t – reduced prostitution numbers, and reduced trafficking rings as criminal syndicates have found it easier to go to places such as Germany, where legalization brought a 300% jump in sex trafficking and illegal forms of prostitution (street prostitution).

    I would be so very curious to find out how you came to the conclusion that legalizing prostitution would protect prostituted peoples.

    I am a trauma counselor and domestic violence advocate at two different agencies in my state, I do trauma informed group and one-on- one therapy with survivors of sexual abuse and the sex trade. I have never met a prostituted woman myself who was not a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. The percentages are in the high 70′s overall. When asked, upwards of 90% of women interviewed who are in prostitution state their first need is to get help leaving prostitution.

    I would encourage you to go out with your local street outreach teams and do ride alongs in the neighborhoods where prostitution is rife. Sex trafficking and prostitution have become so enmeshed these days, 80% of women trafficked are trafficked into prostitution.. What would legalization do to help them?
    Prostitution is not only gendered, it is also racialized and has deep roots in colonialism. I would urge you to take a second look at why you think prostitution should be considered “work.”

    I have a case with a trafficked woman from Canada right now, she left a trafficking ring in Canada, ran to California, got picked up by a pimp who then sold her to one of the most famous “legal” pimps in Nevada (where pimping is legal in 10 counties), who then sold her to Colorado. She ran from there and ended up at my agency. I am working with an immigration lawyer right now as she is undocumented. I am trying to secure her rights as a trafficking victim, do you know how utterly impossible it would be to prove this woman was a victim of trafficking if prostitution were legal in every state in the U.S.? It would be nearly impossible to prove she was trafficked and not just “working,”

    Anyways, i apologize for the long comment, but I certainly urge feminists who are pro sex work to rethink their positions. Should we legalize the sex trade for 10% who call it a choice? What will legalization gain for women? Are we ok saying women’s bodies are allowed to be rented out for a price? Does that bring about sex equality? Or is it simply another form of patriarchal violence and subordination of women?

    When a woman prostitutes for economic need, do we call that consent? Does her poverty, or her will, consent?

    • For one thing, I’m not advocating the legalisation of sexual violence, abuse, trauma, and trafficking. Because it seems as if you’re insinuating that I do. Granted, sex work right now in nearly every part of the world is not a safe business. But it’s not sex work per se that puts women in vulnerable and dangerous position, it’s the other factors – desperate socio-economic conditions, pimps, the violent men, the misogynistic laws and enforcement, a society that refuses to have a humane involvement with sex workers, stigmatisation of former sex workers who have left the trade – that make it difficult for women, who make the majority of the sex trade.

      I’m not sure if it’s really fair to even say that sex work by women who enter the trade on their own volition is not work. It’s devaluing the very few opportunities that some women who *do* make it a choice to go into the industry. I am aware that a number of anti-sex work authors say that sex work cannot be deemed as “work” because it strips people of their dignity. Now, what or who exactly “strips” them of their dignity? I find that it’s more often our moralistic and slut-shaming culture that strips them of their dignity. It’s bad enough that most women detest or would rather not work in the sex trade when given the opportunity, but to say that they’re degrading themselves if just terrible. What other reasons do other anti-sex work advocates say that sex work cannot be considered “work”? Because sex workers cannot form unions? Many countries, Malaysia included, discourage and / or make it hard for workers to form unions.

      I also find that most anti-sex work advocates find that sex is a private, almost sacred affair that can only be enjoyed in an unpaid, loving and sustained relationship, and that anything outside that is an aberration of the meaning of sex and degrades women. Anti-sex work advocates seem to think that it’s not possible that women can “rent” her body out without feeling shame and dirty. If anything, it’s our society that shames women to feel used if they used their, our, bodies in the sex trade.

      I am aware of the many horrific stories of abuse involved in trafficking and would like to see an end of it. But I also know that very few countries have proper recourse provided for women who escape undocumented, who leave as former sex workers, and find themselves in a society that continues to punish them because of the stigma attached to working in the sex industry. There is a balance and plenty of nuance that need to be had in the debate on sex work. I’m not a radical feminist and do not agree that all sex work performed by all women is violence against women.

      • I am not a radical feminist either, nor am I any other category people like to throw on each other. I don’t agree with categories that separate feminists from each other.

        I understand what you are saying about the stigmatization of society, bt it is the reality and we need to work with reality, not idealism. What I am looking at is rates of PTSD among women, men and transgendered individuals across the board. That is what sways me to abolishment. If upwards of 70% of people in the trade meet criteria for PTSD are we ok saying this should be a viable economic decision? Or should we work on creating other economic alternatives for people, instead of sex work?

        With such high percentages of people meeting criteria for trauma, are we comfortable saying the state should tax it? They have the same rates of trauma as combat veterans and torture survivors.

        I am just looking at the mass numbers of people who are experiencing trauma. Should we call it work and try to get legalization passed when it is so utterly harmful and dangerous? Yes the pimps, profiteers etc. are dangerous, but so are the johns. There is no getting around the violence. We cannot talk about prostitution without talking about PTSD and dissociation.

        How do we reconcile that truth when legalization does not change the nature of the work?

        In my city the face of prositution is Black and Latino. Brothels in my city are drug houses, and people who do choose to sell themselves are doing it to maintain their habits and to survive economically. Should we simply call this their decision, even understanding the high rates of trauma these women experience – and not work to provide alternatives?

        “There is a balance and plenty of nuance that need to be had in the debate on sex work. I’m not a radical feminist and do not agree that all sex work performed by all women is violence against women.”

        When I see the gendered nature of the work, and the high rates of trauma, I think I would be disingenuous to say it is not violence against women.

        What do you see as the balance?

    • almostclever, I know you have serious concerns about the mental welfare of the women you’ve done research on, and about the data you have. I used to be in the abolishing of sex work camp myself having had the perception that women and girls in the trade experience abuse and trauma, but I did not talk to anyone directly related to the sex industry then. It was only after listening to sex workers themselves about their working conditions, their anxieties, their fears, and their views on the nature of their work, I decided to change my mind. I feel that it is important to let sex workers have their say on whether sex work should be criminalised or not.

      I am inclined to support ry’s views below on this.

      The balance is to minimising harm while giving sex workers the voice and power to organise their vocation and pressure for legal protection.

      What makes you sure that by abolishing prostitution alone will end the trauma experienced by women and girls’ lives?

  4. i really want to recommend reading ‘sex at the margins’ (http://www.amazon.com/Sex-Margins-Migration-Markets-Industry/dp/1842778609) for migrant sex worker knowledge about the subject.
    I think it is extremely important if you are doing research on sex work (as a non sex worker) that you listen to sex worker voices because there is actually very little research that engages with sex worker knowledge about work under capitilism (inc sex work) on our own terms. Yes there are hundreds/thousands of articles which may quote sex workers, but researchers come in with their own ideas about sex workers all being victims needing to be rescued and that sex workers are damaged and fallen women and that doing sex work is immoral or violence against women. But the wider scope of work under capitilism is not considered. While you (as a non sex worker) might think that working in a mine or a plantation or cleaning offices is not as oppressive as sex work, the opposite may be true for lots of people.

    When you argue that sex work should be made illegal you are actually arguing against what the vast majority of sex workers (inc. pretty much every sex worker run organization) have been fighting for for years- which is decriminalization. You could check out projects (google) such as New Zealand Collective of Prostitutes, Scarlett Alliance (Australia) Zi Teng (Hong Kong) English Collective of prostitutes, Empower (Thailand) COSWAP (Taiwan) All of these sex worker organizations are fighting for decriminalization. Because decriminalization means that our work can be treated as work, it means that we are not targetted by the police, it means better health outcomes and it means things can be dealt with in the open and abuses are easier to see. Also allowing migrant sex workers working visas also directly empowers migrant workers so that they have more power of their working conditions instead of potentially having to rely on middlemen and work in trafficking like conditions due to visa laws and criminalization of sex work.

    Finally, I hope if you are using statistics such as child hood abuse, sexual abuse or PTSD rates you are comparing these rates with a baseline of woman who are of a similar background but do not do sex work. And also take into account that after doing sex work, sex workers may be more comfortable talking about past sexual assaults than those who are not inside sex worker communities. It is highly offensive for other people to draw links and explainations about my work and my mental health when I already have understandings of how they are and are not connected. Like it further perpetuates the denial of sex worker knowledge and our own agency.

  5. Thank you BOTH for this discussion, it is what I have been searching for and has been very hard to get. Feminists have certainly drawn their lines when it comes to this issue and it is tough trying to get honest opinions about how people have come to their conclusions, without them thinking I have an ulterior motive or am preparing an attack.

    I work with sex workers/prostituted peoples every day of my life, although the bulk of what I do is advocacy for trafficking survivors. I am a trauma counselor and sex assault/abuse advocate at a non profit in the U.S. I think the problem I have is that what you say, Ry, as far as your experiences – just is not what I am seeing or hearing from the women I work with. Also, there are just as many exited women who share the abolishment view, so saying “we have to listen to what sex workers are saying” doesn’t hold much weight because there are women on each side of this debate who have the real experiences of being in the sex trade and are saying two very different things.
    I think this could be where trauma plays a role.

    My aim, through my research – is to find that difference between pro sex work and pro abolishment advocates, and dissect it. On the ground, with harm reduction outreach teams in my city, and sexual abuse counselors and advocates, the ideology is of abolishment. BUT, is it because we are working with the trauma aspects of the industry? Sure.

    Anyways, thanks for clarifying your views – I wish more people from differing viewpoints could discuss without falling apart in anger.

    Take care

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