I was 17 the first time I saw a prostitute. I’m sure that sounds ridiculous – I’m aware of that even as I’m typing this – but it’s true. I was headed to a house party, and there was a woman on the other side of the street, walking slowly up and down the same road, not wearing very much, and sticking her head into approaching cars.
I remember this so clearly because I was absolutely shocked by it. Of course, I’m sure I’d seen other prostitutes before and just not been aware of it, but this time I definitely was. She was right there, on the other side of the street. I remember feeling a lot of pity for this woman, and a bit disgusted, wondering what could have possibly gone so wrong in her life that she had to resort to this. But, after that, I didn’t give it too much thought.
And then I moved to Amsterdam.
Being an International Development student back in the UK, we had touched slightly on prostitution in some areas, but I hadn’t really delved too deeply into it. I had learnt a little about human trafficking, and we’d had one class focused on this article by Andrea Cornwall, which I’d whole-heartedly disagreed with at the time. I couldn’t find it within myself to accept sex work as empowering in any form. I couldn’t possibly imagine that any woman (in the right frame of mind) would willingly choose to sell her body over other forms of employment. I just couldn’t.
But, luckily, minds are susceptible to change. Mine was certainly opened in Amsterdam, particularly after I took a fantastic course called The Local and Global Complexities of Prostitution. It was an intensive 7 weeks, which included visiting the world-famous Red Light District late at night to observe and interview tourists, interviewing a sex worker herself (at 9.30am on a Tuesday morning – a very bizarre experience), interviewing a regular client, interviewing people back home and of course, lots of reading and presentations.
I could talk about this for ages and ages, but the one thing I wanted to make clear is that YES, some women actually CHOOSE to become sex workers and YES, some of them enjoy their work. For many of them, it’s just a job like any other. For others, it makes them feel good and allows them to explore their sexuality. It’s easier for us, and perhaps more comfortable, to immediately view them as victims that have been forced into the sex trade, either by a person or an unfortunate circumstance. But that is not always true. I would have never believed it myself, but I have seen it with my own eyes and I have come to accept it. We often let our own prejudices about prostitution, and the fact that we would never consider it ourselves, cloud our judgments.
In fact, the most important thing that I learnt from this course was that one of the main problems that a prostitute faces is not the work itself, but rather how they are treated in society. How they are pitied, viewed with disgust and treated like criminals. How everyone either wants nothing to do with them, or otherwise desires to ‘rescue’ them from their hell. Mainstream media is inundated with images and narratives of the ‘poor prostitute’, waiting for someone to lend her a hand. This image is not always true. Another common misconception is that prostitutes have to do every sexual act that a client asks of them. Again, this is often false. Ilonka, the prostitute that we interviewed in class, explained to us that she never did anything that she didn’t want to do. If a client didn’t like it … well, that’s too bad. In her situation, she was lucky to have the support of living in The Netherlands, with people and places to go to if things ever got bad. However, Ilonka told us that, in her 25 years of being a sex worker, she had never been exposed to a violent situation.
As a society, I feel that it’s our job to make prostitution as safe as possible for those wishing to engage in it, because it’s always going to happen whether it’s legal or not. The Netherlands provides one of the best, and safest, models for prostitutes anywhere in the world. It isn’t perfect, but its definitely preferable to what some sex workers around the world have to endure. I think it’s about time that other countries followed suit, and started having an open, honest conversation about prostitution, instead of brushing it under the carpet.
Don’t get me wrong. Forced prostitution and human trafficking exists, and it’s a huge problem that needs to be tackled. But it’s wrong to assume that all sex workers have come into the trade this way. To assume is to deny agency to the women (and men) that actively choose to be in sex work. Whether we agree with it or not is irrelevant. Contrary to popular belief, prostitution can simply just be a private, consensual act between two adults. Because of this, there needs to be a clear distinction made between human trafficking and prostitution, which are often put together in a nice big box, despite them not being the same thing.
Not all prostitutes want to be rescued.