issue 252 - February 1994
The law is meant to protect the citizen from violence and abuse.
But what if that citizen happens to be a prostitute?
Cheryl Overs uncovers a worldwide scandal.
An Australian policeman provided me with one of the best descriptions of prostitution law. Policing the sex industry, he said, was like pushing on a waterbed. Push in one place and it simply came up again in the other.
This is the same the world over – the only variation being how the pushing is done.
In most countries police tend to use more ‘discretion’ in dealing with ‘vice’ as opposed to ‘hard’ crimes. This may sometimes mean they act reasonably and within the law.
But it can also mean they make arbitrary decisions. ‘Arbitrary decision-making’ is often a euphemism for some appalling acts. Take the murder of prostitutes in Latin America, for example, or the execution of HIV-positive sex workers in Burma.
Even in so-called democratic countries the list of mundane abuses against prostitutes carried out by the authorities will include raids, rapes, beatings, extortion, ‘confiscation’ of property and compulsory medical intervention.
Not unnaturally, the law is feared and mistrusted everywhere by people in the sex industry and those who live or work alongside it. The more visible the prostitution, the more vulnerable workers are to harassment and abuse.
Street prostitution is illegal in most countries, so those engaged in it are more likely targets for police attention than those who work for escort agencies, which are usually legal. Most prostitutes who work illegally don’t do it just for the hell of it. Often they are unable to secure or maintain a position in a legal workplace such as an escort agency or a legal brothel. Those who cannot work legally are often the most vulnerable members of a society – they may be young, homeless, on drugs, transsexual. Many will be migrant workers or illegal immigrants.
The risks they run are increased by the law and its enforcers. For example, if there is a strong chance of a prostitute getting arrested while working on the street, then the prostitute will choose a remote place, even if it is more dangerous. If the police are likely to arrive at any moment the negotiation process with the client has to be quick. It is at this point that street workers make vital decisions about their safety and must at the same time negotiate prices, condom use, and what services are on offer.
Generally speaking, the safer the work conditions, the less you earn. Bar workers pay a high price for the protection of the bar, both in cash to proprietors and in the health implications of compulsory drinking. Escort agencies are dangerous for all but the most experienced because you have to go unaccompanied to strange places. Working from home is a solution in some countries although it is obviously a compromise to forfeit privacy and possibly safety as well.
The question of where to have sex is often tricky. In many countries there are laws aimed at preventing sex workers from renting hotel rooms. Because it’s risky, hotel owners charge prostitutes exorbitant prices.
Otherwise, sex can be had in lanes or cars. Utrecht in the Netherlands has gone so far as to build special car-parking bays for prostitutes and clients! But there’s no running water in cars and light is often limited, which is not good for condom use. Also, the outside of the car is a short push away – and that is where many prostitutes end up, on the ground, minus money after they have completed their side of the deal.
If they are then arrested they have to go through a degrading process of being taken to the police station, charged and fingerprinted – a process often made worse by police attitudes. This may be followed by a court appearance and a fine. And to pay the fine the prostitute goes back on the street – or she has the option of going to prison.
There are lasting and pervasive implications for convicted prostitutes living in countries where criminal records are efficiently kept. A prostitute may lose her right to travel and education. She may lose employment, housing, welfare benefits. And because of the ‘moral’ nature of the crime she may lose child custody rights too.
So, to avoid prosecution, many people prefer to work in ‘fronts’ for prostitution. But these can have disadvantages too. If a massage parlour worker is abused by her employer she is the one likely to be arrested for her ‘criminal’ activity.
Bars, saunas and massage parlours are often sleazy and unhygienic places to work in, not because prostitutes and their clients like it that way, but because investing capital in illegal or quasi-legal ventures is risky, especially where there are fierce laws which enable the state to confiscate property belonging to prostitutes.
One of the most notorious by-products of quasi-legality is police corruption. Bribes paid to police come directly or indirectly from the prostitute’s pocket, who may also have to render free services.
But legal brothels are not always a better option. Conditions are usually appalling and the pay low. There are no enforceable codes of work practice, no legal rights against employers and little protection from violence. Unnecessary medical testing is often compulsory in an ill-informed attempt to provide a ‘clean product’ to men of unknown health status. The ranch brothels of Nevada are famous for stripping their ‘inmates’ of every possible human and industrial right, while in Turkey many of the women are unable to leave the brothels they work in because they are deeply in debt to the owner.
Better examples do exist, though. In Australia, for instance, the legalization of prostitution saw the creation of brothels with standards equal to five-star hotels, though even here industrial rights still leave much to be desired.
There are, of course, plenty of models for improving the sex industry. All you have to do is look at some of the parallels in other industries. Gyms have showers and spas – showers and spas in the commercial sex establishments should be subject to the same regulations. Planning law governs opening hours, appearance of buildings, their location and the number of staff and customers appropriate for the placement of the business. No legislation specific to prostitution needs to be in force to enable all these normal laws to apply. All that is needed is removal of the criminal laws and a policy of equality, so that the sex industry is not routinely refused planning permission or over-zealously taxed. The sex industry could easily be facilitated in the same ways and by the same laws that govern other industries.
The challenge is to avoid reworking into new laws the assumption that prostitution is a ‘bad thing’ which should be discouraged. The key to change is consultation with prostitutes and clients rather than pontification from isolated and political places. That is one of the reasons why prostitutes’ self-governing organizations are so important and why they should be resourced and listened to.
One of the main obstacles facing decriminalization campaigners is that whenever legislators address the issue of exploitation of prostitutes, they immediately think of pimps – or the ‘pimp problem’ as they prefer to call it. They then set about dreaming up laws against pimping. What they fail to see is that pimping is a product of anti-whore laws and that if these laws were abolished prostitutes would be able to sell services in the way that anyone else does and enjoy the same protection in law.
Legislating against the pimps is – as one activist put it – like ‘attacking the vultures who pick the flesh off dead bodies... it only makes them fiercer. It also nets many of the wrong people. The government needs to remove the reasons why the dead bodies are there in the first place – the anti-whore laws.’
I recently heard a politician compare prostitution to prison – it doesn’t bring in any votes. The only vote prostitutes have is with their feet. Where the sex industry is badly managed – as it inevitably is by the law – prostitutes use this vote by refusing to work where it is legally sanctioned. The chaos which ensues, the ‘problem’ of prostitution, is the result of ordinary people with a living to make responding to bad management.
The challenge for legislators is to come up with a plan which enables prostitution to operate safely and inoffensively. And planning is essential – rather than leaving the regulation of the commerce of prostitution to the whims and ‘discretion’ of those pushing on the waterbed.
Cheryl Overs is a consultant on sexual health in the sex industry.
I was married before I left school, and pregnant within a year. I think it was in 1972, and I couldn’t have been more than 15 at the time.
For some time after my son was born, things were all right. I worked as a housemaid in several houses and brought home some money. But then my husband, who didn’t have a steady job, started to drink a lot. He used to beat and abuse me. Most days we didn’t have enough money for food.
Then I had a second child, a daughter, who got polio. My husband’s behaviour didn’t get any better. Finally, after seven years, I could take it no longer. I began to spend more and more time with my mother, who had a brothel in Kamathipura, Bombay’s largest red-light district.
They say that every woman’s story is like her mother’s story. My family is from Solapur – a district in Maharashtra – and my mother used to be the main earner in the family because my father had a stroke. Then he died and she came to Bombay. She sold old bottles and papers and often used to come to Kamathipura. That’s how she got into the trade and took a house on rent.
As a child, I used to visit my mother. But when I grew older and was able to understand what was going on, she stopped me coming. She did everything for us, sent us money, sent me and my brothers to school. Whenever I ran away from my husband, she tried to send me back to my married home. But there comes a time when you know that things won’t get better. So I began to live here too, with my children.
It was strange at the beginning. I didn’t know how I would be able to accept living like this. But I got used to it and the years have gone by. I have five or six girls in my house; they are from villages in Maharashtra and Karnataka. I am a mother, a sister and a friend to my girls.
It was difficult for me to get into the business myself. I didn’t want to at first because the men often get drunk and shout at the girls. As the head of the house I have my self-respect to think of. But now I receive customers at times.
The men who come here are of all sorts. They are havaldars (police constables), labourers, office sahibs. The policemen are the worst. They are nothing but pimps themselves. Some of the regulars bring us gifts, like saris, soap, talcum powder.
Here in my house we have always asked the men to use rubber, AIDS or no AIDS. Some of them still refuse. But business is down to half these days because of AIDS and the communal riots a year ago. We are lucky if we make 200 rupees a day (about $6).
I often think of doing something else to earn a living. But where can I go? I have an old mother, and can’t leave her here. My son is 17, doesn’t go to school and has no job. I have to make enough money to feed the three of us. I sometimes think of going away but then my house is here. Where else will I find one in Bombay?
But I will never allow my daughter to enter this business. She comes here from Solapur when she has had a fight with her husband, but I always send her back. She doesn’t like village life. She wants to wear make-up and bright clips in her hair and live in the city.
There have been so many men who have come and gone, but they are all the same. Look at the men who come here. They are married but they leave their wives to spend nights with these girls.
Whether you are here or anywhere else, your life is ultimately tied up with men. If they are good and kind, they are like trees, and you can spend your life under their shade. Otherwise you have to snatch at whatever they give you. But they always betray you.
The brothel-owner was interviewed by Bharati Sadasivam, a journalist for the Times of India.
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