Monday, April 09, 2012

On Spanish Brothels

The New York Times writes about prostitution in Spain. The story is upsetting, on many levels, though it's always important to remember how hard it is to get good data on the extent of trafficking.

This is the part to which I reacted most strongly:
While the rest of Spain’s economy may be struggling, experts say that prostitution — almost all of it involving the ruthless trafficking of foreign women — is booming, exploding into public view in small towns and big cities. The police recently rescued a 19-year-old Romanian woman from traffickers who had tattooed on her wrist a bar code and the amount she still owed them: more than $2,500.
In the past, most customers were middle-aged men. But the boom here, experts say, is powered in large part by the desires of young men — many of them traveling in packs for the weekend — taking advantage of Europe’s cheap and nearly seamless travel.
“The young used to go to discos,” said Francina Vila i Valls, Barcelona’s councilor for women and civil rights. “But now they go to brothels. It’s just another form of entertainment to them.”

And this:
On a recent evening, one young man from Paris stood in the parking lot of Club Paradise, bragging about his sexual exploits while his friends looked on. The women, he said, did not talk about whether they were being forced to have sex.
“Maybe,” he said. “But I think they are having a good time.”
If any of them actually are, they would seem to be the exceptions. Thirty years ago, virtually all the prostitutes in Spain were Spanish. Now, almost none are. Advocates and police officials say that most of the women are controlled by illegal networks — they are modern-day slaves.
The reason for my reaction is that these are the parts where the article talks about the demand side of the market. In prostitution the clientele is overwhelmingly male and the workers overwhelmingly female. Indeed, the market could not exist if men, everywhere, simply decided not to frequent prostitutes.

It's very difficult to think of other markets where almost all the sellers are one gender and almost all the buyers the other gender. This gendered nature of the market cannot be ignored in feminist analyses, even though it sometimes is.

To put it as plainly as possible, women don't have the power to stop sexual trafficking because women are not the customers in the prostitution markets. Any attempt to rectify the problems in prostitution can be destroyed if enough customers don't really care whether the women who service them are forced to do so or not.

This is why those quoted parts worried me so much. Take the latter quote first:

The young man boasts about his sexual exploits! Given that they have been with women paid (and perhaps forced) to participate, I'm not quite sure where the bragging rights enter. Any person with enough money (and no scruples) could have done what he did.

Then the first quote: Brothels are just entertainment for these young men.

Would it matter at all if they were told that some of the women entertaining them were forced to do so? Or is that an irrelevancy, something that would only occur to a person who saw prostitutes first as human beings?

Or in a somewhat different form: Are women still divided into the ones who get at least a temporary passport as human beings (mothers, sisters, wives, girlfriends, work or school friends) and then the rest who are more in the nature of a juicy steak or a mug of beer?

I guess one might make the counterargument that when I visit, say, a dentist, I'm not overly bothered about her or his humanity, that we all treat others as objects or as performers of certain roles in some parts of our lives. But this doesn't really wash, because dentistry is regulated, subject to laws and well remunerated. If anything, the dentist has more power than the patient.

This is not the case in prostitution, partly due to its illegal nature in many countries. But even where prostitution is legal sex workers are not respected and their rights are poorly guarded. Add to this the whole mythology about whores, the way that term is used as a general insult, and I end up in the same pretzels whenever I write about the topic, and those are created by the dual nature of the debates:

On the one hand the market for sex is argued to be just another market, a place where people buy and sell a service for which there is demand. From that point of view all we need is to make the markets legal and to regulate and oversee them properly. That will safeguard the rights of sex workers and make something like trafficking so unprofitable that it will cease.

On the other hand, the market for sex is not the same as the market for, say, bread. It doesn't have the same mythology or the same legal and moral history. It's a market where women sell (or rather, rent) something biologically female to men who wish to buy (or rent) only that part and not the rest of any possible relationship between men and women. And in some ways it's a caricature of a mutually satisfying sexual relationship where the necessity of pleasing the woman has been replaced with a monetary payment. But despite that replacement, the relationship is viewed as demeaning to the woman, not to the man in the sexual mythology of all countries. The term for men who frequent prostitutes is not a swearword in any culture I know of. But most of the terms for prostitutes are.

Those underpinnings cannot be ignored when we discuss the market for sex. Would they exist if women also frequented prostitutes in the same numbers as men do? I doubt that, and that's why the markets for sex are something feminists cannot really analyze only as a female dominated labor market. We must also question the underlying values, myths and moral judgements.