Can the preconditions for true consent ever exist in prostitution?

By Dana Levy

Dana is a survivor of the sex industry who supports and promotes the Nordic Model in Israel. When she wrote this article a Nordic Model-style law was making its way through the legislative process. Since then, Israel became the eighth country in the world to implement Nordic Model legislation.

The upcoming law prohibiting the purchase of sexual services has given rise to heated public debate and controversy in Israel. Opposers of the law claim that it stems from a patronizing approach that forces the legislators’ and feminist pressure groups’ worldview on the individual, and it involves disproportionate interference in consensual relations between adults. This is a common misconception, infused by the centuries-old normalization of the so-called ‘sex industry.’

The time has come to discuss this misconception and explain why paying for sex in every shape and form can never be ‘consensual relations’ but is rather a type of sexual violence that the public has yet to recognize as such.

The law and public discourse in Israel are accustomed to the notion that sexual violence has many facets, and that the term ‘rape’ describes an action done without the other person’s freely-given consent – and while they are not necessarily expressing strong noticeable opposition.

Consent relies on three conditions: the freedom to choose a sexual partner, the freedom to choose the nature of relations, and the freedom to choose the timing. If any one of these conditions is impaired, the sexual relations should be considered forced – for example, when someone forces their regular partner or spouse to have sex at a time or in a way they do not want.

In the context of prostitution, none of those three conditions can be completely met. Women in prostitution do not choose their clients (except in anecdotal blog stories); they do not choose the timing; and, in most cases, they have hardly any freedom to determine the nature of the acts performed.

Forced sex, even in cases that include some version of consent, is obviously traumatic to those involved. Most of us intuitively understand that when one’s livelihood and economic survival are dependent on having sex with partners who were not chosen, in a timing and manner that were also not chosen, it can be mentally and emotionally damaging.

For those who struggle with understanding this concept’s relevance to prostitution, imagine an employee having sexual relations with their boss under the threat of being fired, a practice parallel by all means to prostitution. Here too there is some type of consent, but it is forced out by the threat of loss of income. In such a case, both the general public and the law mostly agree on the act’s nature and severity.

Now, we must take another leap of consciousness and apply the recognition of such abuse of power to those caught in the vicious cycle of prostitution.

Women celebrating the Knesset approving the first reading of the law on 22 October 2018.

4 thoughts on “Can the preconditions for true consent ever exist in prostitution?

  1. Hello, sex worker client here. During a visit to a Dutch “privehuis” in 2018, the sex worker:
    – Instructed me to wash with soap and water
    – Insisted on a condom before I touched her
    – Explained to me what was off-limits and what services could be purchased for an additional fee.
    Her body, her rules. It was quite plain that if I violated any of these, I would be shown the door in jig time.

    I do not deny the author’s trauma or pain and suffering. I acknowledge the victimization and oppression of women by men. But the statement about consent concerns some sex workers – not all of them. Decriminalizing sex work does not negate any laws against rape or sex trafficking.

    Numerous sex workers have given me positive feedback with their words and hugs and are happy to see me a second or third time. It’s because I listened to their rules about respect and hygiene, and I comported myself in a manner that helped them feel safe. I do not deserve to be criminalized.

    1. While we appreciate your honesty, we believe you are in utter denial of the reality and the harms that prostitution causes women and girls. They HAVE to pretend they are enjoying it – that’s part of the deal.

      We suggest you read some of the many first-person accounts on this website from women who’ve been there.

      The whole point of the Nordic Model is to make it clear that buying sexual access to another human being IS damaging and therefore to change men’s behaviour – rather than putting you in prison.

  2. There are many arguements against prostitution, and I feel most of them can be addressed by radical changes in how prostitution is conducted. For example, adequate sexual education and condoms can be useful in slowing the spread of STD’s and Pregnancy in sex work.

    However, ultimately the bottom line where everything falls apart is affirmative consent. The definition you used, was a little different, but very valid in it’s own way. Let me share what I learned about affirmative consent. I learned that affirmative consent must be “Continous, Explicit, and Able”. LIke your explanation I cannot imagine scenarios in which prostitution meets all of these criteria ethically.

    Explicit- The individual must be clearly informed without ambiguity as to what is requested or desired as well as the consequences and benefits as plainly as possible. Consider for example, that approaching people with explicit sexual requests is often seen as a form of sexual harassment, how then can a prostitute ethically practice her trade without sexually harassing people, and how can a potential customer seek the services of a prostitute without potentially sexually harassing people? Clearly there must be work done in communication and sex positivity well before the explicit nature of consent can be readily implemented in sex work, or sex in general.

    Continuous- The individual must be able to withdraw consent at any time without consequence or repercussion, and consent must be continously ably, explicitly be given. For example if a prostitute is performing a sex act and suddenly changes her mind, the client may feel entitled to withholding pay, and therefore the prostitute may be afraid of terminating an act for fear of not being paid. Refusing to offer certain sex acts can also put her at jeopardy financially and therefore there is economic incentive to comply with acts that are unpleasant or undesirable to the sex worker. If a prostitute has a reputation for “changing her mind” she will be economically impacted, and therefore financially coerced into doing things she would prefer to avoid, risking her health and safety.

    Able- The individual must be in a state of mind and position to give consent conscientiously, this means free of any kind of mind altering substance, illness, and duress, including poverty! If the sex worker is using prostitution as a means of escaping poverty or to earn a living, that is automatically a violation of affirmative consent.

    So you can clearly see that the fundamental problem with prostitution is that it cannot be consensual according to affirmative consent.

    I can think of some kind of hyperbolic situation in which a person may: enjoy consensually having sex, with partners of her choosing, free of any kind of financial duress (socialized public resources), in acts that they themselves explicitly agree to, without any fear of physical harm, such as being completely immobilized (also a violation of their consent, potentially) for refusing to comply, and merely enjoy being paid for it, with clients who pay in advance and understand they may not get refunds and that the individual may change their mind at any point simply because money is always nice. In that case, who will stop them? I’d suggest more people have won the lottery in one state in one year than this has occurred in all of humanity for all of history. The concern for prostitution is rarely these hyperbolic scenarios. If that is how prostitution should be conducted, then currently, the next step is establishing norms of affirmative consent socially and legally.

    “Punishing prostitutes will only make it worse”- Absolutely, I believe that when prostitution is discovered the result should be a fervent push for access to resources, relocation, access to human rights, rehabilitation (voluntary) and anything else a person needs to escape that scenario, for themselves and their family and anyone else who is in need.

    Many people claim they visited prostitutes who had positive experiences. This is like saying the waitress likes someone because the waitress is nice to them. When the encounter was had with said-sex worker, was there any kind of way to make sure that the absence of drugs was used, was there any way to make sure the sex worker wasn’t trafficked, or struggling financially?

    “Any job is a violation of affirmative consent”- Absolutely, again! Indeed, therefore the current steps should be to insist upon a society that basis itself upon affirmative consent! Ignoring affirmative consent and instead legalizing prostitution as a taxable profession like all the others simply enforces the culture of rape we have established in society.

    “But prostitution will still exist! It won’t go away just because people lack access to housing and medicine and food”- Absolutely, so that basically means that we are being raped wholesale! We are basically being told “So… do you want to starve, or do you want prostitution legalized?”. We are being systematically raped! There is nothing stopping businesses and governments from providing employees of all kinds with the many benefits and protections promised to sex workers and citizens of any civilized nation. Why not start there? Why not start with consent and work up? Legalizing sex work requires action and enormous change. I suggest that that action and change would do more to help sex workers and struggling individuals than simply making prostitution a taxable form of revenue. Why not start with affirmative consent as the basis of all law and society?

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