KASAMA Vol. 13 No. 2 / April-May-June 1999 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

Extracts from



written by Cecilia Hofmann
published by
Coalition Against Trafficking in Women - Asia Pacific,
November 1998, Quezon City

What if She Chooses Prostitution?

A major argument being put forward by those who propose the legalization of prostitution is that while it is true that many women and girls are forced into prostitution, there are also women who are in prostitution by their own choice. Women in "upmarket" prostitution may find that they can make more money, work shorter hours, and choose their clients. It may even afford some a "glamorous" lifestyle. For women in a lower social class of prostitution, it may provide a source of income, a work "niche" where otherwise, they would have nothing at all. Therefore, according to this thinking, not all forms of prostitution are necessarily oppressive or exploitative, and women's choice or at least consent, to do prostitution must be respected.

When it is accepted that there is a "natural" order behind the social organization of life, oppression and exploitation may not aIways be immediately clear or obvious. In fact, in order to survive and prosper within that "natural" order, women have always had to accommodate themselves to patriarchal definitions of gender roles and to a sexual division of labor that were in no way "natural" but devised to serve men's interests.

Women have sought to beautify themselves in ways that please men (today putting their health at risk with silicon breast implants because men are sexually attracted by large breasts), have tried to be the kinds of wives, secretaries or entertainers that win the approval of husbands, bosses or male audiences. Since women are getting love and security as wives, promotions and good salaries as secretaries, wealth and fame as entertainers, and as prostitutes are paid money in exchange for sex, it might be said that the system is mutually beneficial to women and men. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the system as a whole is designed for the convenience and gratification of the male of the species, with women being assigned to the corresponding subordinate roles.

What are the specific problems with choosing prostitution? For the vast majority of women in prostitution, it is a forced choice. Women are absorbed into prostitution for many reasons and in ways in which the whole notion of real "choice" is put into question.

…As all too often in the examination of what is called women's issues, the focus of attention, inquiry, and analysis has tended to be on the women themselves, their profiles, situations, motivations. Whenever the word prostitution comes up, the questions immediately arise: "Who are these women? Why are they here? What are they doing?" As someone has said, it is like trying to understand capitalism by asking about the workers' motivations.

Prostitution pre-exists as a system and an institution that patriarchy has a stake in and will maintain, with or without women's consent. If women and girls are not persuaded by the big money which is sometimes offered, or the survival possibility for women or their families, then they will simply be tricked or trafficked. Either way, the supply of bodies must be ensured. No client asks women whether or not they are there with their full consent - that is immaterial to what prostitution is all about: the exercise of a certain conception of masculinity that identifies with power, sexual privilege and gratification.

The apparent and in some cases, real consent of some women to do prostitution is held up by some as proof that self-determined choice can exist. The angle of women's accommodation to and conditioning by patriarchy is dismissed. The contradiction between individual will and common good is dismissed. Because the fact remains that the institution of prostitution is one of, if not the most blatant form of subordination of women's bodies and personhood to men's interests. The consent of some, condemns all women as a group, to continue to be defined as possible providers of sex or sexual merchandise.

It should be noted that the question of consent is not considered the determining criterion in other issues of common or social good. There has been a legislation in some countries, for example, on the sale of human organs so that a desperately poor person would not have the legal right to sell parts of her/his body, say a kidney, lung or cornea, even if big money were offered. This "individual right" has not been acknowledged in the interest of a conception of the dignity and integrity of the human person.

In the case of women, with the long and painful history of many cultures' refusal to grant women full human status, the struggle against prostitution is much more than an issue of work choice or illegality or sex or religious morality. It is about either the perpetuation of patriarchy or the fight for true gender equality.

Decriminalization of the women

…Over the years a series of consultations, discussion groups and fora involving women in prostitution, NGOs, academics, and government officials have aimed at reflecting on prostitution and the law and at examining the various legal frameworks of deregulation, prohibition or legalization.

A bias for the decriminalization of women in prostitution has emerged in the Philippines and the analysis is widely subscribed to of prostitution as a patriarchal institution ensuring male sexual supremacy. With this, the possibility of legal liability for the clients of women in prostitution and for other profiteers of prostitution, while at the same time leaving the women free from liability, has been discussed.

During a panel discussion on this issue, an eminent senator and lawyer raised what was, in his view, a legal problem of unequal incrimination, namely, that should a woman and man be apprehended in a prostitution situation, it would be absurd and legally inadmissible to arrest the man but to let the woman go.

It was pointed out to him, of course, that although for decades and centuries, women were arrested, stoned, shorn, cast out, or killed for prostitution while men suffered no inconvenience, the legal profession did not in the past express a similar sense of absurdity or recognize the discrimination and injustice inherent in the unequal treatment of the law.

…If the prostitution of women were to be regarded in the same light as the prostitution of children, in other words as abuse, harm and human rights violation, and further, as discrimination against women as a group, then the same legal treatment would not only be possible but necessary. Abusers and profiteers would be legally liable while the women would be considered as offended parties.

The legal framework of the legalization of prostitution has been widely rejected in the Philippines because legalization would further benefit men whose "rights" as buyers of sex would thereby be guaranteed by the State.

As signatories of the Convention Against All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, it is also considered that the legalization of prostitution would go against the State's obligation to take all appropriate measures to ensure gender equality and would instead confirm women's subordinate status as providers of sex.

…For non-discrimination and justice to be attained by women in prostitution, a complete turn-about is required of the understanding of the cornerstone of patriarchy in order to correctly assign legal accountability. This is an overhaul of traditional thinking that implies a long and sustained task of re-education of society and of male sexuality. But at the same time, solidarity with the women and girls in prostitution urgently demands that their harassment and criminalization be ended.

You can buy a copy of Questions and Issues On Prostitution: What We Need To Know from Project Respect, PO Box 1323, Collingwood Vic. 3066 Australia
Cost: AUS $8 including postage in Australia. (See Project Respect: "Women Matter" in this issue of KASAMA.)

Coalition Against Trafficking in Women - Asia Pacific,
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Metro Manila 1500

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