frontline 12

Sexual exploitation – a dilemma for socialists

How do socialists campaign around the complex issues raised by the sexual exploitation of women, children and men? Catriona Grant, activist in the Socialist Womens Network and co-chair of the SSP, looks at this question.

Sexual Exploitation as violence and abuse

Many feminists, social activists and workers in the caring professions have viewed patriarchal oppression as the root cause of prostitution. It is based on men’s desire to control women and children both sexually and economically and based on their power within the world around them.

The prostitute could not be raped in Southern California up until 1991 as she was less than human, she was a bad thing, a thing that can only be used for sex – with or without consent. (1) This, whilst shocking, is a common view held by legislators throughout the world. Many argue that prostitution can be a positive employment choice as women are in control of their own income, decide when and when not to work and are free to leave (if they wanted) at any time. However research and anecdotal evidence shows us that prostitution is far from this. Rather it is based on the sexual abuse, rape and beating of women and children. Most prostitutes enter the “profession” at a very early age. How many professions can workers enter as young as 13 years old and without qualifications?

The average age of entry into prostitution is 13 or 14 (2) Most of these 13 or 14-year-old girls were recruited or coerced into prostitution. Other older women were “traditional wives” without job skills who escaped from or were abandoned by abusive husbands or ex-partners and went into prostitution to support themselves and their children (3). The links between prostitution and domestic violence are very clear. Many prostitutes became prostitutes as they fled from abusive fathers, step fathers or partners. Most of the girls under 16 who enter “prostitution” are fleeing child sexual abuse from family members or close family friends.

Unfortunately whilst they may be free from the original perpetrator they become victim to new perpetrators of violence and sexual violence. The statistics of rape and assaults on prostitutes are so horrendous that they seem unbelievable. “About 80% of women in prostitution have been the victims of a rape. It’s hard to talk about this because the experience of prostitution is just like rape. Prostitutes are raped, on the average, eight to ten times per year. They are the most raped class of women in the history of our planet.”(4)

78% of 55 women who sought help from the Council for Prostitution Alternatives in 1991 (a project in Oregon, USA) reported being raped an average of 16 times a year by pimps, and were raped 33 times a year by johns.(5) 85% of prostitutes are raped by pimps(6).

It has been suggested that prostitution is a sexually traumatised victims re-enactment of their sexual abuse. Estimates of the prevalence of incest among prostitutes range from 65% to 90%. The Council for Prostitution Alternatives, Portland, Oregon Annual Report in 1991 stated that: 85% of prostitute/clients reported history of sexual abuse in childhood; 70% reported incest. The higher percentages (80%-90%) of reports of incest and childhood sexual assaults of prostitutes come from anecdotal reports and from clinicians working with prostitutes(7) Yet there is little discussion about incest and the effects of the victims beyond social workers, psychiatrists and psychologists.

As socialists we must also recognise the role of war in the process of becoming a prostitute, historically wherever there are soldiers there are prostitutes. The classic example is Thailand. Thailand before the 1960s was a rural country with very low-level prostitution, however in the 21st century it has become a hub for the so-called “sex tourist industry” – the globalisation of women through sex. In 1974, police estimated that there were 400,000 prostitutes in Thailand, procured primarily for the U.S. military on R & R from the Vietnam War. As of 1993, an unofficial estimate is that there are 2 million prostitutes in Thailand, whose national economy is dependent on tourism. The sex industry is based on slavery, coercion, drug use, poverty and ill health. Sex tourists go to Thailand to rape raped women and children and pay gangsters and pimps for the pleasure.

One of the main reasons given by campaigners for legalisation, decriminalisation and/or tolerance zones is that there should be a harm reduction policy in order to protect women. They argue that the evidence is clear from the courts, police, doctors, social workers and the prostitutes themselves that being a prostitute is violent and dangerous work. Many prostitutes fear violence every day and want safe places to work.

Sex work as work

However whilst many women and men in the “sex industry” including prostitutes would recognize violence and harassment as a common experience many do not recognize themselves as abused, sexually exploited victims. Rather they see themselves as WORKERS. They sell their labour in exchange for wages, money or goods.

Recently unionized sex workers in London were affronted and very angry at women’s groups and organizations for picketing a lap dancing club called Spearmint Rhino when they saw the focus of feminist activity to be against the war and occupation in Iraq. In an open letter printed in The Guardian they stated:

“Women and our children pay most for war and weapons. We are 70% of victims of armed conflict, 80% of refugees and displaced people. More than 50% of refugee and asylum-seeking women have escaped from rape and are threatened with deportation back to rape. At least 500,000 children have died in Iraq as a result of sanctions and many more will die if bombing starts. Are their mothers worried about lap dancing? Are such feminists worried about anything serious? Why, and on whose behalf, are they ignoring this crisis for humankind… “No reference is made to the women workers in these clubs — once again some feminists think they know better what’s good for other women. How sexist and arrogant! Most women in the sex industry are supporting families. Many are single mothers, many are immigrants or asylum seekers denied benefits and other resources after fleeing Western-backed wars or dictatorships. To picket lap dancing clubs is to invite more raids and deportations everywhere, and therefore more rape and murders of women who end up on the streets… “Military budgets deprive women and children everywhere of water, food, healthcare, literacy, decent wages, pensions . . . thus causing death and devastation well before any bombs hit the ground. Those of us who have been speaking out against spending on weapons of mass destruction and their use in war are outraged that any woman can prioritise protesting against lap dancing over anti-war protest at this time.“

These women (and men as well) were organised in The English Collective of Prostitutes and in the Soho branch of the GMB that organises sex workers and those involved in the associated services. They recognised themselves as workers and wanted to make demands similar to those made by socialists in relation to the war.

In 1998 women dancers went on strike at the Lusty Lady in San Francisco for the right to join a union and to be recognised as workers with workers rights. They were successful in their strike and set up a union called Exotic Dancers’ Alliance, an association that wants to improve the working condition and status of strippers (8).

However it is not just strippers and dancers who see themselves as workers, many prostitutes do too. Organised prostitutes in England have produced the following demands, which we as socialists need to explore.

It should be remarked upon that they do not demand legalisation or the creation of tolerance zones. There appears to be the coming together of a recognition that prostitutes can be sexually exploited and violated women yet workers at the same time. This is and can be confusing.

The Swedish Model

Currently in Britain prostitution is not illegal but soliciting is. It is the act of soliciting that gets prostitutes and rent boys into trouble. We need to campaign in order to end these draconian laws, which only serve to criminalize the women and not the buyer of sex. Kerb crawling is illegal but few men are prosecuted. There were over 500 prosecutions of soliciting under the Consolidation (Scotland) Act in Glasgow alone in 2002.

In Sweden legislation is very different. Prostitution is not illegal however buying sex is as the Swedish government have used a model that recognises prostitution as men’s violence and abuse of women.

The Swedish legislators view prostitution as violence against women. As it is violence a woman cannot consent to being abused, they therefore state that it makes no sense to legalize or decriminalize prostitution. The Swedish government reject the argument that the primary violence in prostitution is “social stigma” as some maintain. Decriminalising or legalising prostitution would therefore normalize and regulate practices which are human rights violations, and which in any other context would be legally actionable (sexual harassment, physical assault, rape, captivity, economic coercion.) or emotionally damaging (verbal abuse).

In 1999, the Swedish Parliament put into effect a law, which criminalizes the buying of sexual services but not the selling of sexual services (9). The exploiter is the person who buys sex or mediates in a purchase. They are the criminals. The victim of the offence is the prostitute who cannot consent to being assaulted and is not punished or criminalized.

Sweden has attempted to reduce trafficking, from the Baltic States and Eastern Europe, of sex slaves. Recent research in 2003 has indicated a significant reduction in trafficked women into Sweden. The suggested reason is the state have hit the profit margin of the sex slave traffickers and it isn’t worth their while to bring women to Sweden when the risk of being caught with a prostitute could be a massive fine.

However Sweden have been criticised for not putting enough resources into assisting trafficked currently in the country. The greatest criticism has been levelled at officials who have deported trafficked women/illegal immigrants working as prostitutes without regard for her safety on her return.

The Swedish government however states through research that 1 in 8 men in Sweden buy sex, but they hope that their public campaign and laws can uncover women forced into prostitution, change attitudes, reduce street prostitution and prevent women being trafficked into Sweden. (11)

Will Prostitution Toleration Zones keep women safe?

There has been much debate around Margo MacDonald’s ‘Prostitution Tolerance Zones (Scotland) Bill’ that is being presented to the Scottish Parliament as a Private Members Bill Margo has argued that the bill is not a pro-prostitution bill but a bill that will protect prostitutes from harassment and a step towards harm reduction. Edinburgh from 1995 had an informal tolerance zone in Coburg Street, Leith until 2002. It appeared to work well and a project, Scot Pep opened up in order to support the women working as prostitutes, advising about safety and their choices around prostitution. However in 2002 the Toleration Zone was moved to Salamander Street about a mile away. Coburg St had gone from an industrial harbour area to a desired residential area. No one was consulted and the prostitutes were moved on. The local residents of Salamander St perceived the move of the “Toleration Zone” to their locality to be an insult and dangerous. Locals were unhappy which resulted in prostitutes being harassed. Furthermore the relocation meant they lost access to the resources they once. After much debate, demonstrations and counter demonstrations, the Toleration Zone was ended and the criminalizing and harassing of women started in a way it hadn’t done so for 17 years beforehand. Women reported that violent assaults on them had escalated.

Margo MacDonald presented her bill to the Parliament in this context.

Margo argues that this is a small step in protecting women however I do not think it goes far enough as it only gives local authorities the power to allow a geographical space to be a “Toleration Zone” for prostitutes between certain times or on certain days. Soliciting remains illegal and local authorities, police and health do not have to commit to any more resources to prostitutes.

Prostitutes would still be illegal, just “tolerated” in a certain area.

In Utrecht, Holland, women who work in toleration zones complain about being arrested while entering and leaving the zone. They have also said that the police “wash their hands of the area,” for example refusing to protect them from violence. There are no extra health or police resources put into the area. Women remain unsafe and unprotected. Yet Holland has a long tradition of liberal attitudes towards sex, including prostitution. The local authority funds a bus containing a shower, toilet, kitchen and a doctor. There is no indication that even this low level of assistance would happen here. The legislation does not insist local authorities or health boards must put resources into the area.

Toleration zones could just continue the intolerant attitude towards prostitution. Who would enter these areas other than men buying sex, pimps or prostitutes? Prostitution becomes hidden and therefore invisible.

In Holland all is not as it seems. Violence and exploitation of prostitutes continue. In the licensed premises in Amsterdam competition is fierce: the rents are high (approximately £100 a day) and women have to work longer shifts to keep their rooms and pay the middle men who run them. Women have little control over their money or working conditions - taxed at a higher rate than other workers, prostitute women are not eligible for social benefits and in many cases are not able to refuse clients or limit what services they will provide. Prostitutes are under considerable pressure to bring in money and raising the issue of violence undermines their licence and makes them less likely to make disclosures or allegations.

In Hamburg, prostitute women had to register with the police and undergo compulsory health checks. The loss of a health card could result in arrest. Only 12 percent of prostitute women were estimated to work in the legalised area; the rest preferred to work illegally rather than submit to these controls. Being an illegal prostitute can mean prison.

In Australia women have won some improvements in working conditions: health and safety are taken more seriously by employers now that the workers are not illegal, and they back women’s refusal to have sex without condoms. But these same employers are the main beneficiaries of brothels, the women who work in them describe as supermarkets. As with all legalisation, women have to work harder for less money.

Under the current loitering and soliciting laws women are convicted on police evidence alone, it is the one piece of “offending” that needs no corroboration just two police statements, there is no “victim” of the crime

But a legalised red-light zone would not be an improvement. Only the abolition of the prostitution laws could protect women. This is the only way to end the criminalisation of prostitutes and remove the stigma attached to prostitution. Sex workers, like other workers, should come under civil not criminal law. Police would have to protect prostitutes; any crime against a prostitute should be treated as a sexually motivated offence and have a consquence of a sexual offence i.e. probation with a condition to attend a sex offenders programme or associated programme, custody and/or being registered on the Sex Offenders Register.

Abolition of the laws would undermine the need for red-light areas, as women would be able to advertise and work from premises, they would not need to work on the street, though those who chose to do so should be able to. It would increase safety for prostitute women who could insist on their right to police protection, and to employment and health benefits. Other women would benefit as police resources now invested in arresting prostitute women and kerb-crawlers, could deal instead with domestic violence, rape, racist attacks and other violent crimes.

Women who take the often courageous and difficult decision to go on the game to escape or refuse poverty should be commended for their efforts, not criminalised. We estimate that 70% of prostitute women are mainly single mothers trying to feed themselves and their families. It is about time that local and central government recognised, not “tolerated”, the legal, civil, economic and human rights of prostitutes and provided higher benefits, wages, housing and other resources so that no woman, man or child would be forced by poverty into sex with anyone.

Women prostituting themselves to pay for a drug habit – theirs or their partners – need to be assisted to come off drugs. Heroin being the number one drug “of choice”. Feeding two heroin habits can cost up to £150 a day but clean heroin on prescription would be free. Many prostitutes would not need to go on the game in order to buy heroin. A network of drug projects and rehab centers that allowed women with their children and/or partner to come off drugs is necessary. Specialised Women Crisis centers could be set up that would accommodate drug taking women who were fleeing violence. This would include women with no recourse to public funds i.e. asylum seeking women, women who came to Britain to marry and trafficked women. Remove heroin and crack cocaine from the equation and it would be interesting to see how many women prostitute themselves.

The suggestion that Edinburgh’s prostitution scene was “a model of self-regulation and safety” compared with Glasgow is mistaken. There are enormous differences between the type and numbers of women working in the two cities, and in the patterns of drug use, pimping and off-street trade. Edinburgh’s ‘sauna’s’ are one factor that has resulted in a different culture around prostitution.

The suggestion that the removal of the Leith zone led to increases in violence, drug use and under-age girls working as prostitutes, is disingenuous. The crisis is in social work in Scotland. Child protection authorities lack resources to protect young girls who may need to be taken into care or even secured. This is contributing to the problem of underage girls participating in prostitution. These girls are failed by local authorities and police alike. Toleration zones provide no disincentive to under-age girls and may encourage some desperate young women to engage in prostitution more readily. Or worse than that force them to work away from older women as they would be at greater risk of being found by the authorities and prostitute themselves away from resources and networks putting themselves at greater risk.

Experimental zones in a number of Dutch cities have been abandoned. In November 2003, the Mayor of Amsterdam closed down a Toleration Zone. The reasons include objections from residents and the zones becoming overcrowded, as they can act as a magnet for prostitutes, pimps, clients and drug dealers from other areas.

The recurring problem of approved zones, however, is that objections from residents or businesses mean that the only places available tend to be industrial areas, docks and the like, which are often remote. It is often difficult to attract clients to these zones and the women move elsewhere.

Prostitution Tolerance Zones would not be a safe place for “illegal” asylum seekers/refugees or trafficked women to work. We have recently seen the death of 15 Chinese illegal immigrants who drowned in Morecambe Bay whilst collecting shellfish. There are many illegal immigrants in Britain and many are in the sex industry. Some women flee their trafficker and continue to prostitute themselves as to seek help from the authorities could result in her deportation. Women refusing the right to stay in Britain may be forced into prostitution as they would be made destitute but a Toleration Zone would not be safe to work from as they could become recognised and known by the police. Such women would work elsewhere away from resources, away from the toleration and become even more marginalized and endangered. Who would know if they were kidnapped, raped or murdered? Who would look for them if they disappeared? Who would they tell?

I would be opposed to Margo MacDonald’s bill as it does not address the issue of the continued criminalizing of prostitutes and there is no reference to resources that would be required to assist women. I do not believe there is evidence that it would reduce the harm to women.

As a socialist I would argue for:

Usually articles in socialist journals end by stating that “only under socialism would there be no sexual exploitation”, however I will argue that sexual exploitation will continue under socialism if we do not deal with causes today.


  1. Linda Fairstein, Sexual Violence: Our War Against Rape, 1993, New York, William Morrow.
  2. D.Kelly Weisberg, 1985, Children of the Night: A Study of Adolescent Prostitution, Lexington, Mass, Toronto.
  3. Denise Gamache and Evelina Giobbe, Prostitution: Oppression Disguised as Liberation, National Coalition against Domestic Violence, 1990.
  4. Susan Kay Hunter and K.C. Reed, July, 1990 “Taking the side of bought and sold rape,” speech at National Coalition against Sexual Assault, Washington, D.C.
  5. Susan Kay Hunter, Council for Prostitution Alternatives Annual Report, 1991, Portland, Oregon.
  6. Council on Prostitution Alternatives, Portland, 1994.
  7. Interviews with Nevada psychologists cited by Patricia Murphy, Making the Connections: women, work, and abuse, 1993, Paul M. Deutsch Press, Orlando, Florida; see also Rita Belton, “Prostitution as Traumatic Reenactment,” 1992, International Society for Traumatic Stress Annual Meeting, Los Angeles, CA M.H. Silbert and A.M. Pines, 1982, “Victimization of street prostitutes,” Victimology: An International Journal, 7: 122-133; C. Bagley and L Young, 1987, “Juvenile Prostitution and child sexual abuse: a controlled study,” Canadian Journal of Community Mental Health, Vol 6: 5-26.
    Kathleen Barry, The Prostitution of Sexuality, 1995, New York, New York University Press.
    Giobbe, E. (1992) Juvenile Prostitution: Profile of Recruitment in Ann W. Burgess (ed.) Child Trauma: Issues & Research.
    Garland Publishing Inc, New York, page 126.
  8. Film of Live Nude Girls Unite can be ordered from
  9. Sven-Axel Mansson and Ulla-Carin Hedin, 1999, “Breaking the Matthew Effect - On Women Leaving Prostitution,” International Journal of Social Work. Also see Prostitution Research & Education web site, for a copy of the Swedish law.