To put it simply, the debate over “prostitution” or “sex work” is divided between “abolitionists” on the one hand (and their more extreme version: the “prohibitionists”) and, on the other, the “regulationists” or “legalizationists.”
Abolitionists compare what they call “prostitution” with slavery, arguing that most individuals involved in the sex industry come from the poorest segments of populations from the Global South, and often victims of trafficking who are exploited by third parties and, often, criminal groups (the proletarian argument).
But regulationists wonder if they are condemning labor exploitation as toughly in other sectors, such as child labor in modern-day sweatshops or the exploitation of agricultural workers inside U.S. borders.
On the other hand, “If you don’t think you can get to the goal of eliminating trafficking and violence against women, you shouldn’t be in the human rights movement, in the feminist movement, in any movement that provides services to disenfranchised individuals,” told Taina Bien-Aime, executive director of Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, to teleSUR.
Abolitionists also maintain that most sex workers are in the great majority women, if not trans or gay men, while buyers are predominantly men; in that sense, sex work will always be caught up in a sexist relation of power (the “feminist” argument). Sex, and the sexual body, is so essential to human dignity that it should always be excluded from trade and from the market, they argue.
“This is not a job like any other job,” added Bien Aime. “It’s the cause and consequence of gender inequality and discrimination that johns inflict severe harm on prostituted individuals who are mostly women and trans or gay men.”
In terms of public policy, advocates of this position believe “prostitution” should be prohibited or at least gradually abolished by implementing measures that, at the very least, cut down on demand by criminalizing clients (“johns”) or at the most radical end, criminalize sex workers themselves. They also seek policies that create better social conditions so women can find employment alternatives to the sex industry.
As for regulationists, they respond that this moral opposition to sex work does more harm than good when it comes to protecting sex workers, especially female sex workers. Many anthropologists specializing in trafficking and migration, such as Laura Augustin and Denise Brennan, challenge the argument that most “sex workers” (they reject the loaded and patronizing term “prostitutes”) are “slaves” of criminal groups.
Brennan, for instance, told teleSUR she strongly rejected even the concept of “modern slavery,” arguing slavery is not legal and institutionalized anymore, so this term fails to understand the realities of sex workers today. It denies the possibility that sex workers choose the sex industry as the least bad option for their survival.
However, according to Bien Aime, the term “sex work” was invented by the sex industry itself to normalize the trade, make it mainstream and sanitize it.
Brennan's investigation of sex workers is closely linked to the study of migration and trafficking networks, because sex workers are often in the same position as undocumented migrants: they share the same risks for their lives in order to find better conditions of living, and protecting them would mean granting them rights instead of criminalizing them.
WATCH: Quito’s Sex Workers Fight for Formal Recognition
While abolitionists claim that sex work activists represent only a small proportion of individuals involved in the sex industry, regulationists respond that because the underground economy of sex trafficking is opaque, this assertion cannot be confirmed. However, because they are directly involved with (or because they are) sex workers, regulationists argue they can legitimately say in their names which policies protect better their lives and rights. When abolitionists say they speak in the name of sex workers and victims of violence and abuse, regulationists retort that these abuses are mainly the effect of prohibitionist policies.
Public policies should aim to protect sex workers’ rights and create better work conditions so the possibilities of work exploitation (the proletarian argument) or male violence (the feminist argument) are reduced, add regulationists. Prohibiting and criminalizing sex work will only contribute to making sex workers less visible, thus making it harder to protect their rights. Abolitionists respond that sex workers who are legalized rarely register with the government either because they worry about being stigmatized or because they are undocumented. Sexism among police officers adds to their distrust of law enforcement.
Finally, regulationists hold that the uniqueness or sacredness of the sexual body demonstrates a puritanical approach toward sex and a patronizing feminism with, arguably, even a whiff of colonialism: Often enough, it is relatively wealthy white people deciding what is best for the less privileged, who are often people of color.
According to Brennan, the success of abolitionist discourse over the past decades can be explained by various factors: it allowed policymakers to demonstrate to voters they were addressing the issue, and abolitionist policies allowed them to “clean” public space from prostitution and control undocumented migration in the name of feminism and human rights. The media also favored a perspective victimizing sex workers, preferring sensationalist coverage of the violence they sometimes face.
However, sex workers have also grown better at organizing to defend their rights, notably in Latin America. In Ecuador, where the sex workers' movement is the oldest on the continent—beginning in earnest in the early 1980s—the abolitionist discourse was only recently introduced in the country. According to regulationist activists, the trendy new discourse has already begun threatening the legal achievements sex workers have obtained so far.