You would think that all women would be united in seeing prostitution as exploitation – it is wrong for women to sell their bodies to strangers for sex.
But somehow in the 90s in the rush to support prostitutes rather than condemn them, some feminists and sex workers claimed that women could choose sex work and that it could be empowering: if women wanted to make money selling their bodies to pay for their degree course or the rent, that was a legitimate choice.
This scenario of the high class call girl making her own way in the world was an early storyline in The West Wing. Sam, a speechwriter for the new President, discovers that an attractive woman he met at a party and had sex with, is actually a call girl. Laurie is paying her way through law school and does not want to be ‘rescued’ by the well-meaning Sam. Over a number of episodes, he learns to accept her choice and by implication, the audience is asked to accept her decision too.
The trouble is that the storyline about Laurie is NOT the experience of 99% of women in the sex industry. But it creates the idea prostitution is an acceptable line of business and nowadays you can be criticised for thinking girls need to escape from its clutches.
When I was in Amsterdam a week ago to plan for a meeting (ironically) about empowering global women leaders, we met in the YWAM office right in the heart of the bar and sex district. I was struck by the groups wandering through the red-light district with their tour guides, who were being invited to gawp at women on display in windows as if sordid sex with strangers is just another part of the fun in the city. On a walking tour, you can meet ex-prostitutes and ask them “any question you like”. You can see the world’s first condom shop and prostitutes in the red & blue-lit window brothels. This is all marketed as part of vibrant Dutch ‘culture’.
The Netherlands is a source, destination, and transit country for women, men and children for sex trafficking. Dutch girls are enticed by young “loverboys,” who prey on vulnerable girls intimidating them into sexual exploitation; unaccompanied children seeking asylum are targeted outside asylum centres; and young women are brought in from Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia, lured by sham job promises.
This is a picture repeated in many places across the world, as the horrifying story of the girls in Rochdale UK testifies. But in the Netherlands where the sex industry is legal, the emphasis is on a liberated approach to sex and not on the suffering.
What is going on here? Sex work is overwhelmingly a miserable experience for women and girls (and young men too). Along with the slavery of trafficking are the drugs, diseases, violence and money laundering.
Sex is not about sniggering at women in red-lit windows, or legitimising prostitution as girls mothering poor men who have a lonely life – it is an industry of power and exploitation.
That is why I was so pleased to come across the bronze statue of Majoor Alida Bosshardt in the centre of Amsterdam. In the same district where semi-naked women are paraded in glass booths, Major Bosshardt sits in her prim Salvation Army uniform. In her 30s, she rented a house to offer help to the homeless, drug addicts and prostitutes.
For over 50 years (from the 1940s), she dedicated herself to restoring dignity to the most vulnerable, and rescuing any who wanted to take the leap into a fresh life. She was well-known on television as well as the streets of the city.
She said, “To serve God means to serve people and to serve people is to serve God”.
In 2009, two years after her death, the Majoor (as she was always known), was voted the Greatest Amsterdammer of All Time.
Yet I did not see the tour groups stopping before her statue.
In her attitude to the women she helped, the Majoor never pretended that the work of a prostitute was empowering. And if you asked girls on the street they may not want our pity but they do want recognition of their exploitation.
You can’t dress it up as anything else.
Digging deeper As with most issues, there are complexities to the issue of prostitution.
Should prostitution be decriminalised? For more information on actions taken by governments to tackle prostitution, eg the pros and cons of the Swedish model, see: http://time.com/3005687/what-the-swedish-model-gets-wrong-about-prostitution/?#
Can we ever say that prostitution is a valid career choice? Read more here: http://theihti.org/swedens-model-uncovered/
What about the men who use prostitutes? You can read a depressing article about research on men who use prostitutes here: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2010/jan/15/why-men-use-prostitutes
PRAY for and support Christian groups like the Salvation Army, A21 and IJM that reach out to prostitutes who are the victims of trafficking.