German FEMEN demonstrators outside the largest brothel in the cathedral city of Köln. They consider prostitution a human rights abuse, and hold up human trafficking, rampant in Germany, as an example of how liberalization of laws governing the “Oldest Profession” has failed. A Swedish feminist, interviewed by EMMA (the leading German feminist magazine), agrees. I’m going to translate the interview in its entirety, as what she has to say resonated very strongly with me, as well…and at the end, I’ll explain why, in case it’s not self-explanatory already.
The leftist Kajsa Ekis Ekman speaks with EMMA about prostitution as a right-wing concept — and as a left-wing fallacy.
EMMA: How did you come to write your book, Varat och Varan (trans: Wares and Being)?
Kajsa Ekis Ekman: I lived in Barcelona, and shared an apartment with a woman who prostituted herself at a highway rest stop. I was there when she came home at night with her so-called boyfriend, that is, her pimp, all drunk. When I went back to Sweden in 2006, a debate was going on: Prostitution as “sex work”, which liberates women. I had experienced it quite differently, and wanted to get involved.
EMMA: Didn’t Sweden have this debate already, in 1999, when it brought in legal punishment for johns?
Kajsa Ekis Ekman: No, at the time there were all the “old-fashioned” arguments: “Prostitution is the oldest profession in the world”, or “A man just can’t help needing sex”. The “modern” arguments came up later. Suddenly, it was: Prostitution is liberated sexuality, and whoever is against it, is a puritanical moralist. That had something to do with the strengthening of the queer movement, which defined prostitution as hip and cool. The problem is, this movement may have called norms into question, but not power relationships. In this discourse, the prostitute is not a human being, but a symbol of sexual transgression, with which one can adorn oneself, like an earring. So I decided to write a book, in order to bring some facts into the debate. For example, opponents of the anti-john law have always claimed that the law was just the doing of social workers and radical feminists, and that no one had ever listened to the prostitutes. But when I looked at the studies, I realized that this was not true. In the 1970s, there had been a complete change of perspective among researchers. Whereas before, people used to look on prostitutes as criminals and not a part of society, later they began to go into their milieu, and ask questions of them. Ever since then, studies about prostitution have drawn their conclusions from the world of prostitution: from prostitutes themselves, but also from pimps and johns. Their testimony forms the basis of our law.
EMMA: What is your response to the so-called “progressives” who say that a woman should have the “right” to prostitute herself, and a man the “right” to buy a woman?
Kajsa Ekis Ekman: That’s a stupid argument by any analysis. If we based our society on the maxim that everyone can do what they want, and no one has the right to stop them, we’d be living in a completely different society than the one we have right now. So let’s analyze what prostitution is. Leaving aside, for the moment, the human traffickers, pimps, and the high rape and murder rates, and just looking at the two people who meet in prostitution, you see that one of them wants sex, and the other does not. Without this basic requirement there is no prostitution, because when two people both want to have sex with each other, there is no reason that one of them should pay for it. Even in the priciest escort service in a five-star hotel, she doesn’t want sex, but money. So there is always the inequality of desire. Prostitution speaks to the right-wing concept of a hierarchic class-based society, in which some make the decisions, and others carry them out.
EMMA: In your book, you decry the fact that left and right have become allies on the subject of prostitution.
Kajsa Ekis Ekman: Yes. Because on the one side, we have the neoliberal right-wingers, who believe in the free market and want to deregulate everything. And on the other, we have the post-modern leftists, who just say yes to everything that sounds to them like freedom. Now we have prostitution with a totally deregulated market, low wages and high rent, which dictates the vocabulary of the left: “Oppressed women are empowering themselves to define their own lives and refuse to be victims.”
EMMA: You write that the “victim” has been simply erased from this debate.
Kajsa Ekis Ekman: The word “victim” is now practically taboo. It’s painful to be a victim, it’s the worst thing that can happen to a person. That’s why everybody always hastens to say: “I’m not a victim! I refuse to be a victim! I don’t want to be called a victim!” So naturally, in the prostitution debate, there can be no victims. Instead, one is a “subject”. That means: If you’re a victim, you have to be ashamed about it. Because it’s ultimately your own decision to be a victim. That, again, is part of the neoliberal agenda: Everything is the free decision of the “subject”. The opposite of “victim” is not “subject”, it’s “perpetrator”. But when there are no victims, there are also no perpetrators. With that, not only does the victim disappear, but also the responsibility of the sex-buyer. The sociologist, Heather Montgomery, wrote about children in Thailand who were sold into prostitution from their own villages. Montgomery writes that these children had developed great survival strategies, so you could not call them “victims” in any way. It just doesn’t get any more cynical than that.
EMMA: In may European countries, there’s a serious debate going on about prostitution as a human rights abuse, and as an expression of power relationships between the genders. In Germany, on the other hand, EMMA is unfortunately the only openly feminist voice against prostitution. Have you an explanation for that?
Kajsa Ekis Ekman: When I talked with German women on the subject, I was very surprised at how vehement and emotional they were in defending prostitution. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that in Germany, the emphasis on the role of the mother is more conservative than in other European lands. Prostitution doesn’t work, after all, without its counterpart: the long-suffering wife, who keeps a pretty house and stays home to look after the children. I don’t believe what the queer movement contends; prostitution doesn’t create more freedom, but more conservative family relations. Because the more prostitution there is, and the more out in the open it is, the more the men have to keep their women away from that world. In Cuba, where I spoke at a conference awhile back, there is, for example, the following development: Cuban men don’t buy women, but foreign men come in as sex tourists. The upshot is that Cuban women can’t meet with foreign men, because then they’ll automatically be seen as prostitutes. That is, the more prostitution there is, the less freely women can move, because then they’ll get closer to prostitution more quickly. More prostitution on the one hand means more puritanism on the other.
EMMA: Where there are “whores”, there have to be “holy Madonnas” as well?
Kajsa Ekis Ekman: Yes, and it’s interesting to look at it from a historical viewpoint. A hundred years ago, people argued very differently in order to defend prostitution. Back then, they said: Prostitution is necessary in order to keep families intact. If a man can’t go to prostitutes, they said, then he wouldn’t be able to stick it out in his marriage. He would become wild and unpredictable, and civilization would break down. But if he could go to a brothel, he would come home calm and level-headed. So prostitution used to be sold to us as a marriage-saving device, but today, the queer movement is pushing prostitution as a means to break up the crusty old family model. To legitimize prostitution, therefore, whichever argument best fits the spirit of the times is the one that gets used.
EMMA: In Germany, they’re now planning to reform the very liberal prostitution laws. There are supposed to be better controls — for instance, prostitutes will be required to register, and the police will have right of entry into bordellos. These bordellos will then get some sort of certificate. What do you think of that?
Kajsa Ekis Ekman: They’re making the same mistake as from a hundred years ago! Back then, they also brought in so-called regulations — that is, prostitution in state-controlled brothels. The basis: We need prostitution, but we’ll let it happen in a controlled environment. So we’ll keep it clean and orderly, separate the good prostitutes from the bad. To what did that lead back then? To a huge slave market. Women and girls from poor rural areas and from Eastern Europe came into the big cities to work, would be snapped up at the railway stations, and brought to the bordellos. Because there just plain weren’t enough women to cover the enormous demand. It’s just the same as today; you can never separate human trafficking from prostitution, because there are never enough women going into prostitution voluntarily. So you have to get them from somewhere and force them into it. The only effective way to combat human trafficking is to lower the demand for prostitution! We should actually have learned that from history.
EMMA: Has Sweden succeeded in that with the ban on sex-buying?
Kajsa Ekis Ekman: The number of men buying sex has gone down. Before the ban it was one man in eight, now it’s one in twelve. Since sex-buying is illegal, it’s definitely had a great effect on the “normal family father”, who might not care what feminists think of prostitution, but who doesn’t want to be a criminal.
EMMA: Has the law and the debate about it also led to men understanding why they shouldn’t buy women?
Kajsa Ekis Ekman: I think so. When there are always articles in the papers, reporting on how the mafia funnels girls into Sweden, then a lot of men say to themselves: If that’s prostitution, I want nothing to do with it. I believe that for a lot of Swedish men, prostitution is no longer an issue. In Germany, it’s different. I’ve been in districts where one sex club stands right next door to another, and the neon signs are flashing. If you, as a man, go roaming around there, and you’re a bit drunk, then it’s very possible that you will walk into one of these shops. Men are also victims of this capitalistic strategy, if you will. After all, the prostitution industry lures the men in with all means available.
EMMA: What were the reactions in Sweden to your vehement case against prostitution?
Kajsa Ekis Ekman: Very positive. And the “liberals” have gotten a bit quieter. That’s because they aren’t arguing with facts. Their strategy is to tie prostitution in with all the positive things in modern life: Sex, work, freedom of choice, independence, strength. At the same time, they project all the negative, “unmodern” attributes onto prostitution’s opponents: radical feminism, sex-negativity, Christianity, prudery, and so on. They present these things as facts, but they’re not. They say, for example, that prostitutes are more subject to violence since the law was brought in. This claim is all over the Internet, but no one has ever furnished proof for it. Also: Who abuses the women? The johns! So that’s just one more reason to punish the johns, and discourage them from buying women.
EMMA: Are there any political parties who want to abolish that or weaken it?
Kajsa Ekis Ekman: No, on the contrary. It’s been reinforced just recently. Anyone who buys sex from minors or trafficking victims will now not only face fines, but jail time. So the law has broad support in the Parliament. Norway and Iceland have adopted it as well, France and Finland are now discussing it too, and Holland has always realized that total liberalization hasn’t functioned. And what I’m particularly proud about: The police have had a change of heart. At first they used to say, “Oh come on, that’s not a crime, haha!” And treated the johns like parking tickets. Meanwhile, many lessons have been learned. I’ve been there with some of them, and can say that the police are very sour on judges who let johns off. They complain: “We see this man here every week, and he only gets a slap on the wrist!” Some of them now sound downright feministic. Because they have to see the misery every day, out on the streets.
Well. That’s a fair chunk, is it not? Now, here’s what I got out of all of it, and here are my thoughts on the matter.
In Canada, or rather here in Ontario, there was recently a court ruling which had the effect of liberalizing prostitution further. Prostitution wasn’t illegal, but soliciting, pimping, and keeping a common bawdy house were. Soliciting and pimping still are, but brothel-keeping no longer is. The idea was to improve the freedom and safety of the sex workers. Whether this will prove to be the case remains unknown.
I do know from what I’ve seen, though, that the anti-soliciting part has always been a bad joke; the parade of streetwalkers through downtown Toronto, starting at sunset, made that all too clear to me. The girls in the too-short skirts and too-high heels were not on their way to a club; anyone with an eye could see that they were not walking purposefully, but merely strolling, putting the “merchandise” on display for potential buyers.
And the guys who were driving too slowly even for residential neighborhoods (which is where all this was taking place; there is no red light district in Toronto), and often putting on the brakes…what were they doing if not soliciting? One particularly pesky would-be john even tried to pick me up as I was on my way out to meet some classmates for the night; my baggy jeans, puffy coat and flat Doc Marten boots didn’t deter him. I had to actually flip him the bird before he realized I wasn’t for sale. (In the eyes of these guys, any female walking alone after dark is potentially a whore.)
So there was definitely solicitation going on. And the fact that it’s still illegal hasn’t stopped it one bit.
If you want to take a real bite out of prostitution, you have to address the demand side seriously, the same as you do with any other economic problem. Punishing the hookers for soliciting accomplishes little besides driving them further underground. And to try to catch the johns for the same offence, without making sex-buying itself illegal, would demand an awful lot of police decoys, since johns who only get off with a slap on the wrist will be right back out there again once their fines are paid. It might be a handy source of revenue for the cop shop, but that’s about it.
Unless you actually make it illegal to buy sex, but not illegal to sell it, as in Sweden, all the same old prostitution-related problems will go on unchecked. The streets will be unsafe to walk, whether or not you are one of “those” girls. They will be crawling with horny guys who may or may not be trustworthy. Drug dealing will be rampant; after all, even those who are out there of their own free will may have demons to hold at bay, or simply need to numb their sensibilities a bit to deal with the sickos and the creeps. And there will be rapists and serial killers on the prowl, looking to take advantage of teenage runaways and others who are unlikely to be missed. Prostitutes are not to blame for perverts and serial killers, of course, but wherever they congregate, those guys are stalking.
The arguments against the Swedish anti-john law, over here, are that prostitution will be driven underground. Which is silly, because it already IS underground (but still not hard to find!), and it’s not illegal to BE a john, only to be too obvious about being one. And the punishment for being one is not a strict enough deterrent. Unless you live an a city where there’s a john school, or are named as a sex offender, there are no real social consequences for sex-buying.
The onus, as always, remains on the sellers. They are the ones whose good names get sullied. They are the ones who get rounded up and thrown in jail. The johns, who are after all “good family fathers”, get off lightly, and their names are protected.
Prostitution is being billed nowadays as “sexual liberation”. For whom? Think of the crudest and ugliest insults you know, and you will instantly come up against the dirtification of female sexuality. If you are a woman and you get trolled on the internet, you will either be accused of being in the sex trade (whore), or be told in effect that you belong there (slut), or be reduced to nothing more than the merchandise for sale (cunt). You will be invited to “suck my dick” or “bend over, bitch”. You will be threatened with a rapacious fucking. In short: You will be reduced to doing what whores do. And all this just for being female and daring to venture an opinion in public! This is “liberation”?
The whole idea of prostitution as “free sexual expression” falls flat when you realize that once money is taken out of the expression, as Kajsa Ekis Ekman says, there is only one person who wants the actual sex, and it isn’t the woman. The one doing the sexual expressing is the man, and he has to pay for it. This is “free”?
And yes, there is a gross gender inequality inherent even under the best circumstances in prostitution. Even when it’s a rentboy situation, who’s the buyer? Most of the time it’s men. That’s where all the demand is. Women rarely pay gigolos; even those who have the money (and they are precious and few) are typically ashamed even to contemplate it. Female sexuality is shamed, degraded, repressed. Fuck the MRAs and their silly prattle about how male sexuality is taboo, but women can just walk into any old bar and get laid. Sure we can…if we’re selling.
But in reality, if we try to do it the way the guys do, we strike out way more often than not. If we’re not model-gorgeous — and most of us aren’t — we stand to be rejected, and badly. Guys fear and are threatened by female sexual demands; it’s a rare man who isn’t. After all, we take longer to get warmed up; we’re not automatically guaranteed an orgasm; we have to work hard for it and maybe never have one at all. And at the end of it all, after two minutes of humping, he gets off, rolls over, and starts to snore, and we’re left lying there frustrated. You can’t get a lot of sexual satisfaction if you’re an average female chump. And if you are reduced to buying it, you run the risk of being labelled oversexed and pathetic. You’re not a “real” woman, who performs sex on her man’s demand, but doesn’t desire it for herself.
But guys? Hey, no shame there. It’s practically a rite of passage, a feather in the fedora for the machos. It’s expected that men want sex more than women, and the same old double standards that Ekman describes, from a hundred years ago, still apply. She’s right; the Oldest Profession is very much a conservative thing. It relies on conservative notions of madonnas and whores; of “real” men wanting sex and “real” women not; of “good” and “bad” girls; and of the idea that a man is within his rights to buy what he’s not getting at home (except, of course, for the purposes of procreation). And also conservative notions of women and their dangerous sexuality needing to be corralled and cloistered, with “bad” prostitutes ghettoized in red-light districts, and “good” housewives sequestered in the suburbs. (Heaven forfend that the two groups of women should ever get together and compare notes!)
So it’s no wonder if women, who only make 70 cents to a man’s dollar still, are pretty much screwed. (So to speak.) Nor is it any wonder that some go out, “voluntarily” of course, and sell sex for a living. They’re not doing it to finally get themselves a good lay. (Most johns are lacking in that department. Anyway, it’s HER job to be good in bed, not his.) They’re doing it because it’s the most lucrative job you can have without specialized training or education, with flexible hours and no dress code. And if you’re young and pretty, you’re in just like that. You can even advertise yourself as a “model” — nudge nudge, wink wink. And hey! You can even play it as some kind of hipster thing, you little badass, you — although I suspect that this fashion puff piece is just tackily tongue in cheek.
But are you truly sexually free or economically independent through prostitution? Ay, there’s the rub. You’re still dependent on the sexual desires of the client and of his willingness to pay the asking price. He who pays the piper is he who calls the tune.
And that’s why demand-side economics applies to the sex trade. It works the same in all markets. Demand for drugs drives the drug trade. Take the demand away, and the trade collapses; suddenly, drug trafficking isn’t worth it anymore. Human trafficking works the same way. Make it uncool to buy, and suddenly it’s no longer so lucrative to sell girls. The bottom falls out of the market whenever demand does. They know that already in sex-positive, feministic Sweden. How much longer before all the well-meaning “sexual liberation” leftists and “third wave” feminists here get the message? And what will we do when it finally sinks home?