Making the connections: resource extraction, prostitution, poverty, climate change, and human rights

Making the connections: resource extraction, prostitution, poverty, climate change, and human rights

Editor’s note: This article has been published in The International Journal of Human Rights. Unfortunaltly we don’t have the rights to publish the whole article which is behind a paywall, but we are publishing the extract and some quotes.

Featured image: The surface mine storage place, mining minerals and brown coal in different colours. View from above. Photo by Curioso Photography on Unsplash

This article describes the connections between resource extraction, prostitution, poverty, and climate change. Although resource extraction and prostitution have been viewed as separate phenomena, this article suggests that they are related harms that result in multiple violations of women’s human rights. The businesses of resource extraction and prostitution adversely impact women’s lives, especially those who are poor, ethnically or racially marginalised, and young. The article clarifies associations between prostitution and climate change on the one hand, and poverty, choicelessness, and the appearance of consent on the other. We discuss human rights conventions that are relevant to mitigation of the harms caused by extreme poverty, homelessness, resource extraction, climate change, and prostitution. These include anti-slavery conventions and women’s sex-based rights conventions.

Farley writes: “In this article we offer some conceptual and empirical connections between prostitution, resource extraction, poverty, and climate change.1 These associations are clarified by Seiya Morita’s visual diagram, in Figure 1.2 In the short term, resource extraction leads to a sudden increase in the sex trade, as shown by the arrow on the left side of the diagram. In the long term, resource extraction causes climate change as indicated by the right arrow. Climate change then leads to crises in peoples’ ability to survive extreme events such as drought, floods, or agricultural collapse. These climate change catastrophes result in poverty which then mediates and channels women into the sex trade. The arrow on the bottom of Figure 1 illustrates this process.

The initial phase of resource extraction launches and expands prostitution
“At first, colonists and their descendants subordinate indigenous people who live on lands rich in natural resources. Historically, extraction industries have exploited young, poor men who are paid well to perform jobs that no one else wants because the jobs are unplea- sant and dangerous. This initial phase of resource extraction temporarily results in a boom economy with cash-rich but lonely working-class men. In order to pacify the workers and enrich the pimps, women and girls who are under pimp control are delivered to workers in these boom/sacrifice zones such as the Bakken oil fields in USA and Canada, gold mines in South Africa, coltan mining regions in Colombia, and logging regions in Brazil.3 This movement of trafficked women increases prostitution both in the boom town and in neigh- bouring communities. Following is an example of this process.

“The Bakken oil fields of Montana/North Dakota/Saskatchewan/Manitoba are located in lands where the Dakota Access Pipeline causes physical, psychological, and cultural damage to the community, and ecocidal harm to the land and the water.4 In 2008, large numbers of pipeline workers moved into the Bakken region’s barracks-style housing which were named man camps. Sexual assaults, domestic violence, and sex trafficking tripled in communities adjacent to the oilfield sacrifice zones,5 with especially high rates of sexual violence toward Native women.6 Adverse consequences of living near extractive projects include increased rates of sexually transmitted infections and still- births; general deterioration in health; ecological degradation and climate change; threats to food security; and political corruption – all of which severely impact women.7 When resource extraction is terminated, for example when coltan mining was halted in Congo because of environmental protests, the newly expanding sex trade remains in operation, an enduring legacy of colonisation. Belgium’s domination of Congo gradually shifted from state to corporate colonisation.8 The Belgian colonists’ commodification of the nation diminished the people’s social and political power, leaving them poorer, with fewer resources, and often desperate for a means of survival even before the later phase of climate change occurred. This sequence happens wherever resources are commodified. Initially, a boom economy based on resource extraction creates short-term job opportunities and wealth previously unknown. Prostitution is established both to pacify the workers and to generate money for pimps and traffickers. When the boom economy goes bust, men’s continued demand for paid sexual access, combined with women’s need for survival – drive the institution of prostitution, which remains even after the extraction industry has ended.”

Melissa Farley (2021): Making the connections: resource extraction, prostitution, poverty, climate change, and human rights, The International Journal of Human Rights, DOI: 10.1080/13642987.2021.1997999

The whole article is accessible here:

Melissa Farley
Melissa Farley is a research and clinical psychologist who has authored many articles and 2 books on the topic of prostitution, pimping/trafficking, and pornography. She is the executive director of Prostitution Research & Education, a nonprofit research institute that conducts original research on the sex trade and provides a library of information for survivors, advocates, policymakers, and the public. Access to the free library is at

Prostitution Abolition News from Australia

Prostitution Abolition News from Australia

     by Joanna Pinkiewicz / Deep Green Resistance Australia

Australia has different legislations in regards to prostitution in each state. For example New South Wales has almost full decriminalisation and definitely in favour of brothel owners, less so for individual, who can be charged for “living on the earnings of prostitute” or soliciting for prostitution outside dwelling, school, church or hospital. In Victoria street sex work is illegal and brothels and premises based work needs to be licenced. In reality, NSW police reports show that legal operations have connections to organised crime, drug and people trafficking and in Victoria we are seeing surge in premises, both registered and under the cover of massage parlours and unchecked conditions and practices within registered brothels.

While many countries in Europe and recently in the US (US Greens Party voted for change in policy on prostitution and support the Nordic Model) the push to introduce the abolitionist approach has been coming from the left in the name of justice and equality for women, in Australia the left has been supporting the “sex worker” lobby groups and the sex industry itself, contributing to normalisation of sex purchase by men and expansion of the sex trade industry.

It came as a bit as a surprise to see that in April a branch of Victorian Liberal Party proposed a motion in support of the Nordic Model, which aims at addressing the demand for prostitution via penalising the buyer and not targeting those who are in prostitution.

It also came as a surprise to have a very public supporter of the Nordic Model within the Greens Party, Kathleen Maltzahn, state that she won’t support the Vic Liberal Party’s motion for the Nordic Model  if and when it goes up for a vote. Maltzahn is known for her grass roots work, Project Respect, an exit program for women in prostitution, which she established after working in Philippines and seeing first-hand the insidious nature of sex trade. She has been going against her own party’s policy, which supports full decriminalisation. She has been widely criticised by those in her own party as well as those in the pro sex lobby groups. Upon the release of her statement, a criticism also came from parts of the abolition movement. I does look like a significant pressure has been placed upon her from the party leaders to make that statement. One thing is clear, we need more radical feminist analysis of prostitution in the Green’s party, more radical feminists being active within the mainstream left to bring about change.

Many activists within the abolishion movement hesitate at working with the Liberal Party or Christian organisations, due to disagreements on details or due to their stand regarding other women’s rights issues.

I have asked Simone Watson, director of Nordic Model Australia Coalition, what she thinks about working with the Liberal Party on this and she said this:

“My concerns around the Victorian Liberal Party endorsement of the Nordic/Abolitionist Model were that their first proposal was not in fact the Nordic/Abolitionist model at all.

“The initial draft was a serious red flag to me as it only focused on criminalising buyers in illegal brothels. It is already illegal to buy sexual access in illegal brothels. Yes, it aimed to decriminalise the prostituted women in those same brothels, but offered no exit programs and no changes to legislation across the board. So my reading of it was that it would be doomed to failure. I do not think my concerns around such a premise are unwarranted. It failed to take in to account the inefficacy of prohibition laws on prostitution; it failed to capture the intrinsic and essential point of the abolitionist approach. Their proposal was still rooted in the dangerous ground of prohibition. And prohibition fails. Some saw this as at least a start, however, the Nordic/Abolitionist Model cannot be undertaken half-baked. To do so would be incredibly dangerous and anathema to the law they claimed to be endorsing. To their credit they have since recognised that their initial proposal was incomplete.

“Do I trust them? Well, I have some trust, especially as they took considerable time to listen to survivor’s and our allies’ concerns on this. They certainly have taken more time than the Greens or Labor, which is why the Green Party USA should be commended for their determination to support the abolition of the sex trade and all major parties here should take note of that.

“For me, working with political parties as a sex-trade abolitionist is fraught because I often do not agree with many of their other policies. For example the Liberal’s alliance with anti-woman organisations, those who are against abortion and so on. But if a party is truly dedicated to abolishing the sex-trade, extinguishing the ongoing commodification of women, and women’s rights to be free from sexual exploitation, then I will support them on that particular policy. Again it is hard to trust any particular party on this issue, but if they are willing to amend their initial proposal and actively endorse the Nordic/Abolitionist model as it is intended in full, I support that unequivocally.”

Simone’s response highlights critical issues in approaching the Nordic Model with wrong motivation, poor understanding of the process involved as well as half-baked financial commitment, all critical to its success.

To summarise, the Nordic Model requires a three pronged approach:

  • Establishment of exit and support programs for people in prostitution.
  • Education of the public and retraining of the police
  • Enforcement of the new laws by providing funding to dedicated police people and social workers.

The laws themselves aim at stoping trafficking and curbing growth of the global sex trade via penalising the buyers and pimps.

Other important news from Australia is the upcoming Australian Summit Against Sexual Exploitation (ASASE) on 27-28 of July in Melbourne. Key speakers of the summit on the subject of prostitution are:

  • Julie Bindel (UK)
  • Sabrinna Valisce (SPACE International)
  • Simone Watson (Normac)
  • Sarah M Mah (Asian Women for Equality, Canada)

I’m hoping that the summit will bring more allies to the abolition movement in Australia, who can then plan for the consultation process needed when the Nordic Model gets a motion vote in Victoria.

Joanna Pinkiewicz is a DGR Australia member; environmental activist, women’s right activist artist and mother.


Prostitution Legislation Must Include Women in the Porn Industry

Prostitution Legislation Must Include Women in the Porn Industry

Featured image: From left to right: Cherie Jiminez, Per-Anders Sunesson, Gail Dines, Julie Bindel, Clara Berglund. By Gail Dines/Facebook)

     by Susan Cox / Feminist Current

I remember when I was first struck by the question: If prostitution is against the law in the US, why isn’t porn?

A friend of mine was telling me about an undercover sting operation at the massage parlour down the street from her apartment in New York, wherein police arrested some of the Asian women who “worked” there. This story made me wonder what kind of men would go to a “massage parlour” and exploit a woman’s desperation and marginalization as an immigrant in the US. Just the men should be thrown in jail for doing that, not those women, I thought.

I recalled the disgustingly racist way I have seen so many white men fetishize Asian women, imagining them to be extra-submissive. I thought about how there were probably hundreds of thousands of porn films promoting this view online, featuring Asian women “servicing” white men — many of which were probably even set in a massage parlour. Then it hit me: Why was it illegal at the place down the street from my friend’s apartment, but when the same thing is done with a camera, it’s considered totally legitimate?

It’s been years since this incongruity occurred to me, but I still don’t have an answer to that question… Because there isn’t one.

Last week, a panel held during the 61st session of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York addressed this bizarre disconnect between pornography and prostitution in law, activism, and consciousness. Moderated by Clara Berglund, Secretary General of the Swedish Women’s Lobby, the panel featured pornography expert Gail Dines, writer Julie Bindel, prostitution survivor and abolitionist Cherie Jimenez, and Sweden’s Ambassador at Large for Combatting Trafficking in Persons, Per-Anders Sunesson. All panelists advocate for the Nordic Model (a legal model which decriminalizes those who are prostituted and instead targets the demand side of the sex trade, by criminalizing pimps, brothel owners, and johns). The panel was preceded by a screening of Gail Dines’ documentary, Pornland: How the Porn Industry Has Hijacked Our Sexuality.

“When I first saw this documentary, I did not know how bad pornography had gotten,” Jimenez said, referring to the extreme acts of degradation and physical violence (slapping, gagging, choking, prolapsed anuses) that have come to dominate online porn. As a survivor of prostitution who now does frontline work with women trying to exit the sex trade, Jimenez has noticed a parallel between the increase in the brutality of porn and the increasingly sadistic demands of johns experienced by prostituted women today. “It’s a whole different game now,” she said.

Through her journalistic research in Cambodia, Bindel found that the prostituted women she interviewed shared a similar experience. They told her the demands of johns had gotten much worse since gonzo porn had flooded Cambodia, becoming more accessible to men through smart phones. Men would even play this kind of porn on their phones during the encounter and make prostituted women re-create the brutal acts performed in it.

Pro-”sex work” lobbyists like to frame prostitution as something natural, that has always been present throughout history. However, the disturbing requests and acts prostituted women say are expected of them since the Internet porn revolution show otherwise. The demand for prostitution has changed, suggesting it is no more natural than modern cultural norms like the pressure on women to shave their vulvas bald as per porn standards.

“Do you think men are born johns?” asked Dines. “Do you think they just suddenly wake up one day and decide to go to a trafficked or prostituted woman? No! That takes a socialization process. And what is the biggest socializer of sexuality in the world today? Pornography.”

Dines argues that pornography is the ideological arm of what is essentially one and the same sex trade, facilitating the demand for prostitution by normalizing sexual violence, dehumanizing women, and killing empathy in johns. Nonetheless, a sharp legal distinction is made — while prostitution is illegal in many countries, porn is considered to be an above-ground industry.

Its legitimate status means that the porn industry is in a position to dump massive amounts of money into influencing politicians and legislation. Ironically, it also enables the industry to facilitate illegal actions, such as sex trafficking in minors. Dines explains:

“The porn industry has put a ton of money into fighting a law called 2257. All that law says is that, on a porn set, you have to prove with some form of ID that everyone is 18 or above. The porn industry has been fighting that for years, claiming that it inhibits their free speech.”

Although industry lobbyists claim pornography is simply “free speech,” what happens in porn happens to real women (and girls, apparently). The fact that the act is filmed does not make the prostitution disappear, but effectively ensures the trauma is captured for eternity.

After exiting prostitution, Jimenez says she struggled “for a long time trying to feel whole again.” Dines extended this to the experiences of women in pornography, citing research by Melissa Farley which found that prostituted women who had pornography made of them experienced even higher rates of PTSD.

According to Dines, this is most likely due to the fact that, for women in pornography, there is no way to ever truly exit the sex trade. Their exploitation is frozen in time, allowing millions of johns to re-victimize women endlessly, even after their deaths. “Think of the trauma of never again having any sense of bodily integrity or privacy,” said Dines.

Bindel attended the 2015 LA Porn Awards as a journalist and learned about yet another way the industry makes it impossible for women to truly exit porn. She explained:

“The biggest category in 2015 was ‘Milf.’ And it was because when the women were retiring at the age of 35 or 36, the industry wanted to get more out of them. And someone told me something about this that left my blood cold. When the women are about to drop out of making films, for the most popular women, they make a ‘real doll’ from her. And it’s anatomically correct in every way. So men are ordering these exact replicas of these women and their orifices. They mold from her body, inside and out, which means that whatever happens to her, wherever she goes, there are men literally fucking her replica and writing about it online, etcetera. And that to me is the height of sadism.”

Considering the impact of the industry on women prostituted through porn (never mind on women and girls as a whole), Dines’ delivers an impassioned plea to the anti-trafficking movement:

“Don’t forget pornography and don’t forget the women in the industry…The less we think about it, the more we ignore the women in pornography and say, ‘You don’t count. We’re not even including you in this.’”

In her final comments, Dines called upon governments like Sweden to incorporate pornography into the legislation that already exists: “Now has come the time, after so many years of the Nordic Model, that if you’re going to fine or imprison [men] for sexual exploitation, you have to also do that for the exploitation of women in pornography.”

As the Nordic Model continues to spread across the world, this landmark legislation for women’s rights could also be a huge blow to the multi-billion dollar porn industry. It may be some time before feminists can convince states to craft and implement specific policy that includes pornography within the Nordic Model, but it is imperative we push for it. Anything less would abandon so many women and girls, arbitrarily denying them their humans rights and the justice they deserve.

Amnesty International and Emily Bazelon whitewash prostitution, leaving Indigenous women and girls to deal with the consequences

Amnesty International and Emily Bazelon whitewash prostitution, leaving Indigenous women and girls to deal with the consequences

By Cherry Smiley / Feminist Current

The full decriminalization of prostitution has received considerable mainstream media attention of late: On May 5, the New York Times published an article by Emily Bazelon called, “Should Prostitution be a Crime?” and on May 26, Amnesty International formally adopted a position in favour of the total decriminalization of prostitution.

Neither Bazelon’s article nor Amnesty International’s “sex work” policy take into meaningful account the ways in which prostitution functions as a system of colonialism that disproportionately targets Indigenous women and girls. Through these policies and positions, prostitution is sanitized and whitewashed into “sex work,” leaving Indigenous women and girls and our sisters of colour to deal with the consequences.

Today, as the result of the sustained work of Indigenous women and men, increasing numbers of individuals and organizations are beginning to recognize the importance of land to the survival, cultures, and well-being of Indigenous Peoples and the ways in which colonialism violently disrupts these relationships. Slowly, non-Indigenous people are beginning to understand the concept of “unceded territories” and acknowledge the exploitation of lands and “resources” that were forcibly removed from the care of Indigenous Peoples.

Male colonizers were thieves who took what wasn’t theirs because they believed they were entitled to it. But this entitlement didn’t stop at lands — these men decided they were also entitled to the bodies of Indigenous women and girls. According to research done by Melissa Farley, Jacqueline Lynne, and Ann Cotton, Indigenous women and girls in Canada were prostituted through early forts and military bases, and as “country wives” of white fur traders. Indigenous women and girls were targeted for prostitution in part because of lies told about them: they were “squaws” and “savages” who always wanted sex with white men. Prior to the invasion of North America, prostitution didn’t exist among the Indigenous Nations I have encountered — rather, prostitution was imposed on Indigenous women and girls by male colonizers. Entitlement to land continues today as non-Indigenous people live on and exploit Indigenous lands for profit, and entitlement to bodies continues in crisis levels of male violence against Indigenous women and girls.

In her article, Bazelon quotes Liesl Gerntholtz, Executive Director of the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch (HRW), another organization that has taken a position supporting the total decriminalization of prostitution:

“You’re often talking about women who have extremely limited choices. Would I like to live in a world where no one has to do sex work? Absolutely. But that’s not the case. So I want to live in a world where women do it largely voluntarily, in a way that is safe.”

Gerntholtz and HRW have apparently concluded that it is impossible to imagine a world without prostitution and, in doing so, disregard Indigenous histories and send the message to Indigenous women and girls that we are not worth fighting for. In taking this position, HRW reaffirms the racist myth that Indigenous women and girls (and women of colour) are disproportionately consenting to engage in prostitution because they so desire sex with white men. If we don’t recognize and fight back against the racist, sexist, and capitalist inequalities that funnel women and girls into prostitution and fight back against male entitlement, our only answer to the overrepresentation of Indigenous women and girls in the sex industry becomes: “Because they are ‘squaws’ who desire sex with strangers in disproportionate numbers to white women.” Is this the lie we want to continue to tell to Indigenous women and girls and the message we want to send to the men who buy and sell them?

Unfortunately, Bazelon and HRW can’t (or won’t) challenge male entitlement. Instead, women and girls are told they simply need to find better and “safer” ways to accommodate unchallenged male entitlement to our bodies.

The messages I received from the time I was a girl were meant to keep me “safer”: don’t talk to strangers, don’t walk alone at night, don’t wear short skirts. This messaging (always directed at girls and women) aims to constrain our movements and actions in the name of “safety.” Where is the messaging to boys and men not to rape? Where is the messenging that tells men and boys that they are not entitled to sex whenever, however, and with whoever they want? Where is the challenge to male entitlement to bodies and lands?

We see examples of male entitlement everywhere. The recent case of the Stanford rapist, Brock Turner, is a perfect example. His actions, as well as the light sentence, defence, minimization, and disbelief of Turner’s actions by his father and others, is an example of rape culture: a culture that allows, condones, and even celebrates the rape of women and girls by men. This culture affects all women and girls, but Indigenous women and women of colour in particular ways, leading one to question whether Turner would have even been charged or convicted had his victim been Indigenous or a woman of colour.

Watching these cases, Indigenous women and women of colour see that even a woman with white privilege received a horrific response to her sexual assault, leading us to ask, “If this happened to a woman with a relative level of privilege, what will happen to us?” Regardless of the race of the victim, what all women live through as victims of sexual assault and the ways our lives are constrained by male violence (or the threat of male violence) is a direct result of the patriarchal culture we live in.

Turner raped a woman because he felt entitled to her body. Male entitlement is a foundation of rape culture, yet many who claim to criticize rape culture simultaneously support the decriminalization of pimps and johns, thereby failing to recognize that the very same male entitlement that supports rape culture also fuels the sex industry.

Amnesty says their new policy, “does not argue that there is a human right to buy sex or a human right to financially benefit from the sale of sex by another person.” What the organization doesn’t seem to realize is that, without consequences for the actions of pimps and johns, their policy green-lights and condones those actions. Amnesty International’s policy naturalizes male entitlement to bodies (and lands) by refusing to acknowledge it as part of the foundation of patriarchy, racism, and capitalism and by refusing to challenge it accordingly.

To be clear, I am critiquing the system of prostitution, not the women and girls who are in prostitution. In the same way, I critique Canada’s horrific residential school system without criticizing residential school survivors and critique rape culture without blaming women and girls who have been raped. There is no shame in engaging in prostitution; Indigenous women and girls have been targeted for prostitution since the invasion of Canada by white men. The fact that Indigenous women and girls survive at all in a genocidal culture that hates us and hates all women is nothing short of a victory. But we deserve more than just survival — we deserve fulfilling, joyful lives that are free from male violence or the threat of male violence. We deserve to engage in sexual acts of our choosing, with partners that we choose, who consider our humanity and pleasure, without any form of threat or coercion, economic or otherwise. All those who sell sex should of course be decriminalized and all women and girls should have access to the things we need to build those fulfilling, joyful lives, like safe and affordable housing, nutritious food and clean water, access to education and employment opportunities, and a recognition of our rights to our lands, languages, and cultures. I don’t judge those who find themselves selling sex, but I do judge the men who choose to pay for or profit from the sexual exploitation of women and girls — the vast majority of whom are poor, Indigenous, and of colour. In Canada today, girls are sexualized from a very young age and women still only earn 72 per cent of what men earn for similar work; let’s not pretend girls begin their lives on equal footing.

I’ve witnessed a lot of online praise for Bazelon’s article and Amnesty International’s new policy, and sadly, I’m unsurprised at this show of support. When the status quo (male entitlement) isn’t being challenged, celebration is to be expected. I’m sure many johns and pimps applauded Bazelon’s article and Amnesty’s new sex work policy.

A number of well-meaning individuals and organizations refer to reports by HRW and Amnesty International regarding violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada as important research in regard to this issue. However, due to these organizations’ position on prostitution, it is obvious to me that neither has an understanding of colonialism and the consequences of this ongoing process on the lives of Indigenous women and girls. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Bazelon fail to understand that, on a fundamental level, white male entitlement to bodies and lands is harmful and sometimes deadly, and that white male entitlement to bodies and lands must always be challenged. Prostitution is the colonization of bodies, and at its heart, is an expression of patriarchy, racism, and capitalism. This is about wealthy, white male domination and control.

I suggest that writers like Bazelon educate themselves further on colonialism and what it means before publishing further on these issues, and that HRW and Amnesty International refrain from commenting on any issue of male violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada until they are willing to take a stand against male entitlement to women’s bodies and lands.

These positions and arguments are contradictory and cannot be reconciled to advocate for an end to violence against Indigenous women and girls on one hand, and for pimps and johns to buy and sell Indigenous women, without consequence, on the other. Indigenous women and girls don’t need “allies” that refuse to challenge colonialism in Canada and colonial ideologies within themselves.

Cherry Smiley is a feminist activist and artist from the Thompson and Navajo nations. She is a co-founder of Indigenous Women Against the Sex Industry and was the recipient of a 2013 Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Person’s Case and the 2014 winner of The Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy. Follow her @_cherrysmiley_.

Men’s Rights Activists Gather in Support of Prostitution

Men’s Rights Activists Gather in Support of Prostitution

Featured image: Men’s rights activists, known for their strong defense of women’s autonomy and freedom, at a pro-prostitution rally.

By Jonah Mix / Gender Detective

As the discussion grows around prostitution law in Canada, New Zealand, Germany, and other nations, a common defense of the sex industry keeps coming up – the idea that laws against prostitution tell women what they can and can’t do with their own bodies, making them paternalistic and anti-feminist. According to these supporters of the sex industry, prostitution is a choice a woman makes; legislating against it (even indirectly, through bans on the purchase of sex) is just another example of patriarchal control over women’s sexuality and a denial of their bodily autonomy. As one commenter put it on a recent blog post of mine, “There is nothing feminist about telling women what kind of sex they should or shouldn’t have. Nothing.”

This question about the interplay between free choice and regulation is a valuable one to have. Unfortunately, almost completely absent from the discussion is a second question: Does prostitution itself tell women what they can and can’t do with their own bodies? How do the demands on behavior made by the sex industry itself compare to the demands on behavior made by legal sanctions against that industry? Supporters of decriminalization are passionate about the impact sex buyer laws might have on women’s sexual freedom – but do they care much at all about the impact of what they’re fighting to decriminalize?

Before I go deeper, I want to make clear that I’m basing this look on the idea of prostitution as a service, which is by no means the only way people understand it. I myself don’t think we should see the sex that takes place in prostitution as a service. But since the people who talk about the sex industry in terms of free choice and bodily autonomy are most likely going to frame it that way, I’m not going to argue the point. Instead, I’m going to argue that the sex-as-service model is incompatible with the idea that we shouldn’t tell women what they can and can’t do with their own bodies.

So, from the start: If sex is a service, then it’s a service purchased like any other: A customer makes a request and offers compensation in return.  You ask a plumber to unclog your toilet, and you give him reason to unclog it by offering twenty bucks an hour. You ask a French teacher to help you learn the language, and the French teacher agrees because you’ve offered to pay an enrollment fee in her class. No matter what the service is, every transaction boils down to the simple logic of I want you to do this, and I’m going to provide you with enough of something else that you have reason to oblige.

Without one of those two parts, there’s no transaction anymore. Requesting a service without offering compensation is asking for a favor or making a demand, and compensation by itself is a gift if no request comes attached. Obviously, a client demanding free sex from a woman in prostitution would be rape, and a man giving her money without requesting sex is no longer a client. So for prostitution to be prostitution, we have to have these two features: A man’s request and a man’s compensation.

This notion of a “request” is important. In almost any transaction, the person initiating the purchase of the service is the one who frames the exchange. When you go to hire that plumber, he doesn’t turn around and say, “You know, I see your toilet is clogged, but I’d rather fix this leaky faucet.” Your French teacher doesn’t get to decide the day’s lesson will be on the Baltic languages whether her class likes it or not. Professionals in the service industry might provide advice to customers or guide them from a position of authority, but they’ll never provide a service that doesn’t at least meet some need or desire on the part of the customer. If they did, the customer wouldn’t pay (why would he?) and the transaction would be over.

This doesn’t mean that the service provider’s desires are irrelevant – only that they don’t, by themselves, determine the transaction. For example, I’ve spent years working as an appraiser of rare and antique books, something I absolutely adore. I don’t think I ever appraised a book I didn’t want to appraise, and I went out of my way many times to grow appraisal jobs and guide them towards the best samples I could find. Between poring over old classics and digging up obscure treasures, it was a job I very nearly would have done for free. But it was still the customer’s desire, not mine, that determined what, how, and when I performed my labor. Or, to put it another way, while I said that I may never have appraised a book I didn’t want to appraise, I know for damn sure I never appraised a book the customer didn’t want appraised. How could I? If they didn’t want it, they wouldn’t have been my customer!

Of course, prostitution isn’t comparable to bookselling, even for the people who say it’s a job like any other. But the larger point stands: We’ve all worked a job we didn’t desire, and we all have desires for jobs that don’t and possibly can’t exist. But no one has worked a job their employer didn’t desire be done. In any service industry, it’s the person fronting the bill – he or she who requests the service – that determines what the service will be.

A lot of this seems like boring theoretical busy work, and it very well might be. But the implications for prostitution are enormous. Because prostitution is a service, and because men are overwhelmingly the ones requesting that service, it’s reasonable to assume based on the previous paragraphs that men are the ones who define what prostitution is and how it plays out in the global marketplace. Considering that prostitution involves a physical act, that means that prostitution is an industry in which men tell women what they can and can’t do with their bodies.

Just like a plumber is never going to leave your toilet overflowing while he redesigns your bathtub, and your French teacher is never going to start lecturing in Estonian, a woman in prostitution is never going to perform a sex act that doesn’t align with the desire of a male client. That’s not the same as saying she’ll never have any desire of her own for that sex act (although it’s worth asking if a meaningful proportion do). It just means that her desire isn’t the reason that sex act is being performed. Because I’m stuck at my parents’ house this weekend and their Internet is too slow for most of my video games, I decided to take the time and make a chart showing the intersection of male and female desire in the sex industry:


If a sex act is desired by both the male client and the woman in prostitution, then of course it’s likely to happen. And by the same token, there’s very little chance of two people performing a sex act if both find it unappealing. After that, though, the pattern diverges. If a woman in prostitution actually enjoys a sex act, but her male client doesn’t, his refusal to pay outweighs her desire. But sex acts desired by men and not by women are performed in prostitution all the time, whether through the grudging acceptance of the woman or through unambiguous sexual coercion. Even with a generous estimate, it’s likely that hundreds of women endure unwanted sex acts in prostitution for every man who does the same – or, to put it another way, male desire is literally hundreds of time more influential than female desire when it comes to what sex acts occur in prostitution.

This asymmetry exists everywhere in prostitution, not just in the actual sex. A quick search online for brothels and escort agencies comes back with a range of mannerisms, clothing, and presentation choices that could charitably be described as, well… narrow. Beyond a few specialty schoolgirl outfits, nurse ensembles, and one punk-themed “sex dungeon,” the vast majority of women on display are thin, white, wearing heavy makeup, and displayed in some form of lingerie. (The women who aren’t white are specifically marketed as submissive Asians, “fiery” Latinas, and even more explicit racial epithets for Afrikan women.) Exactly as you’d expect, the vast majority of aesthetic choices made in prostitution align with what men generally find arousing.

Of course, it’s theoretically possible that every single woman in these brothel and escort advertisements has an authentic desire to dress like a schoolgirl or in lingerie (although, again, it’s absurd to actually think that). Regardless, that’s not a reasonable explanation for why those styles are so commonly seen. Many women have an authentic desire to wear jeans and t-shirts. Others wear overalls, sweaters with pictures of woodland creatures, ballroom gowns, or knit scarves. But those are rarely, if ever, seen in prostitution – and, if they are, they would only be seen by men who specified that they had those precise interests. Just like in any other industry, women in prostitution have financial incentive to privilege male interest over any personal desires they may or may not have.

Reading blogs and articles by women in prostitution – including those who explicitly support the industry – you can see this male control extending even further into things like speech patterns, mannerisms, the way a woman laughs, the way she walks, and even their basic identity. I just read a post from a woman who was busy trying to find a more “sensual” name after a few clients told her they didn’t like her real one. Another said she asks men beforehand whether or not they want her to smile, because both “too much” and “too little” smiling can be a turn-off depending on their preferences. Read that again: A woman has to alter how much she smiles, while being penetrated, based on what a man requests. And this is the industry that liberals defend in the name of bodily autonomy?

Prostitution, as a practice, just is men telling women what they can and can’t do with their bodies. It’s men telling women how to use their bodies, how to move their bodies, how to dress their bodies. What men tell women do with their bodies is the primal guide for how prostitution functions; if we stopped, prostitution couldn’t function. Like all markets, supply responds to demand and the customer is always right. The problem is that the customer wants a fuckable object, not a human being.

Real freedom – not just for women, but for any human being – is incompatible with an industry where rent and food money depends on fulfilling the demands of a stranger. And while all workers suffer under capitalism, we at least tend to see factory work as an expression of control, not liberation. A coal miner isn’t free just because no one tells him he can’t mine coal. The minimum wage shelf-stockers at Walmart don’t have real bodily autonomy just because no one said they can’t take instructions from their boss. It’s a mystery to me, then, why suddenly the legalization of prostitution is seen as a win for women’s freedom, when the result is just a larger set of demands put on their bodies.

Now, I understand the twinge of indignation when some people hear talk about abolishing prostitution. And I understand why “Let women do whatever they want to with their bodies” is an appealing slogan. But if you really aspire to that goal, let me ask: Does that include the woman putting on a miniskirt because she knows she’ll make more than if she wears the jeans she finds more comfortable? Does that include the woman wincing through painful, unpleasant, or just plain boring sex because the alternative is homelessness? Does that include the woman alternating between faking and holding back smiles while a stranger penetrates her? Don’t those women deserve the right to do what they want to with their bodies, and not what the men they depend on for survival want to see done? You may not like that the law sets limits on what a woman can choose to do, but remember: It’s not the law that told her to change her very name for the sake of a man’s erection.