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Opinion / Analysis / Essays

Boston Globe FOCUS Section 

January 2, 2000

Prostitution is illegal in most parts of the world, considered grossly immoral by many people, yet it is in sync with the globalization of business and culture that is a hallmark of our times.

Sex tourism, international trafficking in women, prostitution attributed to declining economies here and with prosperity there, all seem to be growing rapidly, though reliable figures are hard to find.

Scholars and activists continue to debate whether buying and selling sexual services should be treated like an industry. Should prostitutes be regulated, allowed to form unions, be given legal and medical protections? Should governments tax this trade and cash in on a wildly lucrative enterprise? Or should every legal, social, and cultural prohibition against prostitution be sought to stamp it out?

Serious people make reasoned arguments on both sides of the divide between "abolitionists" and "regulationists."

The battle is joined in several venues. One is Vienna, where deliberations are taking place to craft language for a United Nations response to trafficking, including in the sex industry. Delegations from 100 or so countries have been devising treaty language since May 1998 to deal with transnational organized crime. They want a document in place for governments to consider signing by next October, and they are pushing hard to get that done. One of the protocols is designed to "prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children."

Janice Raymond, a professor of women's studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the co-director of the Amherst-based Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, believes the kind of language adopted in Vienna and in other forums may fundamentally affect women's lives well into this century.

At the risk of oversimplifying a complicated issue, you could say that one word draws more ire than any other: consent.

The draft protocol has two options for negotiators to decide between for the section on "scope" and "definitions." Raymond favors the second, which extends the reach of the document to "prostitution or other form of sexual exploitation of a woman - even with the consent of that person." It would also penalize sex tourists and pornographers.

Anything less would leave a huge loophole for traffickers, she says. "The consent of the victim should be irrelevant."

Truly consensual prostitution is exceedingly rare, Raymond argues, believing that prostitution that might seem consensual is probably the product of poverty or past abuse. Her position as a feminist is that purchasing access to a body (almost always a woman's) for intercourse is exploitation and that no regulatory line can be drawn and no legal framework crafted to get around that fact. For her, it is a human rights issue: A society that allows some women to be degraded for the gratification of men inevitably demeans all women.

The other option being debated in the United Nations draws a distinction between consensual and forced prostitution. Supporters, like Ann Jordan, director of The Initiative Against Trafficking in Persons at the International Human Rights Law Group based in Washington, D.C., say it protects women, and is a far better approach. Significantly, it leaves open the possibility that a woman may choose prostitution of her own free will, Jordan says, yet it protects women from being trafficked into slavery, forced labor, and servitude. Jordan, who also calls herself a feminist, faults "the zeal" with which the other side seeks to criminalize almost everyone associated with the sex trade.

She points to a hypothetical case of a woman deciding to enter prostitution in another country and asking her brother for a ride to the airport. Under the more restrictive wording, he is subject to prosecution. Jordan's concerns are not just for those unwittingly caught up in practices some people condemn. She has a fundamental problem with telling women how to evaluate basic life choices. The result, according to her, is often to drive prostitutes, already among the most marginalized women in the world, further underground and further into the clutches of criminals who brutalize and exploit them.

Many women see prostitution as a chosen way to make a living, she says. It might not be their first choice in a perfect world, but given the alternatives, it is a logical one they freely make, Jordan believes, and outlawing their means of survival violates their human rights.

As representatives of organizations with consultative status to the UN Economic and Social Council, Raymond and Jordan attend sessions of the Transnational Crime Commission to press their views. If the resulting convention is signed by member states, as expected, it will have the force of a treaty.

Adding fuel to the firefights over how the international community should respond to prostitution is a report issued in 1998 by the research arm of the UN International Labor Organization, or ILO. The book-length study, called "The Sex Sector: The Economic and Social Bases of Prostitution in Southeast Asia," is edited by economist Lin Lean Lim.

Much about the report disturbs Raymond, not the least of which is that an organization with a mandate to look at labor, rather than criminal, concerns is taking up the issue of prostitution in the first place. And the report draws a distinction between "voluntary" and "involuntary" prostitution.

Again, the issue of consent emerges. In a pamphlet, "Legitimizing Prostitution as Sex Work: UN Labor Organization Calls for Recognition of the Sex Industry," Raymond contends the organization is calling "for governments to cash in on the booming profits of the industry by taxing and regulating it as a legitimate job."

She calls such moves "the height of economic opportunism" and worries that governments will get hooked on prostitution to "lower the unemployment rate and then for taxing women's earnings to raise desperately needed capital." She says the ILO report "confuses compliance with consent."

Lim, through a written statement, contends the report takes no position on consent, but merely conveys competing views. She also denies that the report encourages governments to "get in on the gravy train" by taxing prostitution. She says the report "suggests that recognition of prostitution as an economic sector in official statistics, development plans, and government budgets" is important for sound policy.

Prostitution and related businesses account for between 2 and 14 percent of the gross domestic product in the four countries Lim's report covers, according to contributing researchers. Other sources estimate that between 1 million and 4 million women are trafficked across borders each year, with most references tending toward the higher estimate.

Jordan, of the International Human Rights Law Group, argues that there are important policy reasons to recognize that some women freely choose prostitution. She points to 40,000 prostitutes in Calcutta who formed a union. Only if prostitutes have a degree of legal legitimacy can they seek protection from the law, says Jordan.

When prostitutes can organize they are likely to keep more of the money they earn and they are better able to set standards, such as condom use, according to Jordan. She contrasts an HIV infection rate of under 10 percent among organized sex workers in Calcutta where, she says, condom use is enforced by brothel owners, and 60 percent among sex workers in Mombai (formerly Bombay) where prostitutes are not allowed to organize.

Raymond, who recently received grants totaling $349,000 from the Ford Foundation and the US Justice Department to study sex trafficking, responds that the net effect of any movement toward legitimizing prostitution is to fuel demand, in the long run subjecting ever more women to more extreme sexual exploitation.

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All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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