Prostitution is often referred to as the world’s oldest occupation despite the fact that in many if not most cases prostitution is forced. This does not make it an occupation but what is commonly referred to as Sexual- and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) – a crime. The topic undoubtedly triggers reactions amongst most people. Although there are both female as well as male prostitutes, men traditionally stand for the demand, women the supply. Most would claim prostitution is morally unacceptable, while others argue that prostitution is not at all immoral, the last mentioned often causing harsh reactions. What is it specifically that moves so many emotions when we discuss the rights and wrongs prostitutes and prostitution?
Clearly men and women differ in their perceptions which in many cases are affiliated to different starting points when it comes to sex. However, if looking closely at it, how different are our moral perceptions really? From a female perspective prostitution is often perceived as humiliation and degradation of the female body and women in general. Men however think different. ‘To pay for sex is OK’ a man said to me and continued ‘as long as the woman is not forced to sell sex and as long as it is organized under decent conditions’. In this I thought that would mean that prostitution is totally OK until I asked him whether he would be comfortable with having a prostitute as girlfriend. ‘No’ was the answer. Irrespective of the danger of diseases it would not be OK simply because he would not accept what she did for a living.
In the end, men are perhaps not more comfortable with prostitutes and it seems that tolerance goes only as far as ones own doorstep. While men are frequenting prostitutes far more than women statistically speaking, let us not forget that this is not personal. It is sex or relief and for some intimate comfort they are incapable of receiving anywhere else. Make it personal and most men will have a problem with it in the exact same way as women. The moral dilemma of rejecting acceptance, while buying sex as some sort of commodity is not difficult to understand. I think we all see the many pros and cons.
Moral arguments often focus on the coercive nature of prostitution. In many cases that is also the case. Prostitution is in many if not most cases, slavery which is banned by international law. In some cases, prostitution could be a way to survive economically which is a sad fact and problem in many societies. Occasionally but seldom, women choose themselves to sell sex. This is where some would argue that being a prostitute becomes a job like any other job. Still, it does not mean that prostitution in general should be seen as such and here comes the dilemma.
Prostitution takes many shapes. One has prostitutes that sell sex on the street, more organized forms of prostitution through brothels, escort services and in nowadays, special hotels with a VIP-male club; organized as fully legal businesses. Well, at least it has become more organized though one must wonder whether this is to count as positive development as it in fact turns prostitution into an occupation. In South Africa prostitution has been illegal since 1957 stated in the 1957 Sexual Offences Act (SOA). A 2007 amendment added purchase of sex an offense. Sex workers in South Africa have been accused of spreading HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases. They should hardly carry the blame alone if at all. We talk as if the responsibility of the customer is non-existent. Again, we judge on basis of the moral perspective that prevails prostitution.
Prostitution will hardly go away just because we forbid it by law which has been proven in many countries. The moralizing aspect of it is another thing. We moralize over the prostitute as if it was something dirty. Let us not even mention how many of the world’s population that more than willingly utilize their services. The moral back-fall is not that of the prostitutes themselves, but those that organize and sponsor a market of sexual slavery. “We say that slavery has vanished from European civilization, but this is not true. Slavery still exists, but now it applies only to women and its name is prostitution.” Victor Hugo, Les Misérables