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Feminism consists of many differing outlooks, yet there are notions that all feminists agree upon. For instance, feminists agree that female voices need to be addressed and recognized in society. They also stand for female empowerment through gender equality, especially in a Modern context where women are found less in high status positions compared to men. Despite these agreed upon notions, feminists differ in other aspects. Postmodern feminists, for instance, contend that feminism has been dominated by white, middle-class women, and such women cannot represent the interests of women as a whole. The weakness in feminism is that there is a lack of consensus on a variety of topics. With regards to prostitution, there are oppositional feminist stances, which is highlighted by Maureen Davey and Karni Kissil in their analysis titled, “The Prostitution Debate in Feminism: Current Trends, Policy and Clinical Issues Facing an Invisible Population.” Yet these two feminist stances do not speak for all feminists, because many feminists may be open to other theories on prostitution.
Abolish Prostitution? Regulate it?
Two popular feminist stances towards laws on prostitution are: abolishing prostitution or regulating it. Yet while both have different stances, they both have very limited outlooks. Feminists who seek to abolish prostitution are often termed as Radical Feminists. In their view, prostitutes are victims of male oppression. Their goal is to abolish prostitution, as they feel prostitution only serves to oppress women. An example of this stance is found in Sweden, where prostitution is illegal. However, punishment is only directed at clients , whereas sex workers, seen as victims, are guided by state into ‘exiting’ programs. On the other side, another group of feminists, which Davey and Kissil termed the ‘pro’ feminists, feel that prostitutes have the agency to make their own choices and thus the laws should give them legal rights. The ‘pro’ feminists are usually in favor of laws which prostitution is tolerated. Therefore, legalization assumes that prostitutes will be empowered because they have legal rights. Overall, both the ‘pro’ and radical feminists are not challenging hegemonic state power, but rather are staying within i ts power. They fail to address how prostitution laws are part of wider form of maintaining state interests . In this view, the two feminist stances in the prostitution debate are problematic, because they are trying to represent the voices of all women. But as Kissil and Davey note, the two feminist stances have seldom consulted with the voices and desires of the prostitutes themselves. The lack of acknowledging the voices of prostitutes is apparent when given the implications of these feminist solutions to prostitution.
Prostitution laws, whether tolerant or against prostitution, results in more disadvantage than advantage for prostitutes. This is rather ironic, since feminist backed prostitution laws are usually aimed at protecting sex workers. For example, in Sweden, prostitutes are only protected from the law so long they adhere to ‘exiting’ programs, which are programs that aid prostitutes to exit the sex industry and integrate in mainstream society. This idea of exiting assumes that all prostitutes have the same desires, and thus all can be controlled . Therefore, prostitutes who don’t exit are deemed as criminals. As Scoular notes, “Criminalization in Sweden resulted in more risky situations for sex workers, where they have less choice of clients, quicker transactions, drop in prices and greater stress” (20). She further notes, “The Swedish Model just got rid of ‘visible’ street workers, while it created ‘invisible’ sex workers in off-street work” (20). Therefore, individuals who remain prostitutes in Sweden become excluded, because society has made no place for them. What is also interesting is how radical feminists aim at the criminalization of men over women, where men become targeted as clients. This actually doesn’t result in gender equality, but rather it shifts the stigma of prostitutes over to men.
Canadian examples illustrate the implications of prostitution laws where prostitution is tolerated. In Canada, the exchange of sex for money is legal, yet other laws make it difficult for prostitutes to conduct their services legally. Tamara O’Doherty (2011) notes that Canadian prostitution laws “ensure prostitution remains firmly entrenched in illicit markets by requiring sex workers to offend the criminal laws in order to work in safety (indoor venues)” (219). She further notes how Section 213 of the Canadian criminal code states that public communication for the purpose of prostitution is criminally prohibited. To illustrate this: brothels cannot legally label themselves as spaces for prostitution. Instead, they have to label themselves as non-sex related businesses, such as a massage parlor. Prostitutes themselves cannot be open about their services either; they cannot discuss with clients beforehand about their services. At the same time, Section 211 makes it illegal to use a place on a regular basis for prostitution, so therefore the massage parlor must ensure they deny sex is going on . According to O’Doherty, this ‘quasi-legal’ atmosphere places sex workers in more vulnerable positions, where they less prone to working in safe places. Given that the two feminist stances both have mainly negative implications for the lives of prostitutes, it seems that laws are not empowering their intended subjects. But rather, it’s pushing the majority of prostitutes to the ‘bare life.’
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