Legalisation of brothels and the carceral state

By Esther

In Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) the French philosopher Michel Foucault analysed the social and cultural changes and theoretical explanations which resulted in public torture, mutilation and public execution being replaced by incarceration as the principal form of punishment inflicted by western states from the early 19th century onwards. Arguments for incarceration were based on the need to create a more “humanitarian” penal system, but Foucault argued that, like the growth of asylums and the factories which accompanied industrialisation, they are better explained as part of an ongoing process of subjection.

The internet era has seen the spread of torture and murder as a global, public spectacle utilised to instil terror and subdue populations all over the world by state and non-state actors alike. At the same time acts of rape, sexualised violence and torture have obtained global reach through online porn, imposing a universalised, industrialised sexual experience on women worldwide as they are “educated” to believe that this is how they must perform to please men. The many different forms of erotica found in cultures all over the world are granted an inferior status by a military-industrial machine as effective as any form of colonialism.

It isn’t unusual for pressure groups to change their objectives if they have succeeded in achieving their original aims, or if those aims are no longer feasible. Senior figures in human rights organisations are often there as part of a career path they hope will take them to high political office or senior positions at the United Nations and other global organisations where the states their organisations criticise are heavily represented. Perhaps the states who currently make up the human rights committee at the United Nations are an indicator of the unfeasibility of promoting civil and political rights in the face of realpolitik.

Nonetheless the way some of these organisations have been co-opted by the interests of sex traffickers and serious organised crime is remarkable, as is the cynicism with which they make “humanitarian” arguments to advance the carceral state through the legalisation of brothels. The interests of men who expect to find “comfort women” in cities they visit while participating in a global economy and those organisations whose leaders seek advancement by advocating the provision of these services are perfectly aligned.

Profits from supplying women and recreational drugs to the armed forces of one side in the Cold War played a significant, unacknowledged role in financing the development of the economy of Hong Kong, the country in which I grew up. Sex tourism aimed at western tastes is a legacy borne by women and men in that region. Teenage boys were recruited by organised crime gangs to gang-rape teenage girls whose resulting “outcast” status gave them few options other than prostitution for the profit of the same gangs who put them there. The perpetrators’ future involvement in organised crime was equally assured, whether they were prosecuted and sentenced or not. Young women recruited into prostitution on false premises sent money home and their families prospered while inflicting exile on their daughters lest their daughters bring shame on them. These same dynamics are currently playing out in London, where I now live.

The decriminalised sex industry in Germany likes to market itself as a form of “healthcare”. The politicians who facilitate the German state becoming a pimp would expect the women in their own families who were involved in healthcare to have multiple levels of supervision and professional assistance if they were in therapeutic professions encountering men speaking about their fantasies in the way that prostitutes experience them as reality. The politicians proposing drive-through cattle sheds for on-street prostitutes in the Netherlands mention the availability of social workers as an equivalent without a hint of irony about how that demonstrates the classism inherent in prostitution.

Advocates for legalised brothels like to frame it as a positive compared with on-street prostitution. In the UK the number of prostitutes working from premises greatly exceeds those working on the street, so this is a false comparison. I used to live on a street in London on which prostitutes worked openly. Harassment of young girls and women walking on those streets was routine. If you were female it was impossible to flag down a taxi because kerb-crawling drivers would slow down to speak with you and taxis wouldn’t stop because of the possibility that you were a prostitute and thought they were a client.

In the late 1990s proposals were published to permit two women working with a maid to operate legally in England and Wales. This would have necessitated a change of use of their premises under planning law from residential to commercial and the nature of the commercial activity would have been obvious. A council which permitted this would have experienced a backlash at the next local election unless the political party in power were sufficiently dominant that it couldn’t be voted out. The permitted zone for street prostitution persists in Leeds, in spite of the incidents which have occurred there, for this reason.

In my experience of prostitution the person who portrays themselves as the greatest “humanitarian” and tells you most ardently that you need them to keep you safe in the industry is the biggest threat to you and is only interested in lining their own pockets.

“Escort agencies” for whom friends of mine worked as prostitutes held back pay when my friends fled in fear for their lives from violent clients staying in five-star hotels. No protection there from either the agencies or the hotel staff. The agencies also had contacts with tabloid newspapers and the police. They would threaten to “out” women who might have attracted press attention because they were minor celebrities if they didn’t comply with requests or would report them to the authorities if they were illegal immigrants.

Friends of mine who were illegal immigrants were asked to pay additional “taxes” to the caretaker of the building they worked in and were arrested and deported when they were unable to pay. Most of them were from Brazil and were unaware of restrictions on illegal immigrants opening bank accounts and securing tenancies. They inevitably fell into the hands of people who could “help” them and joined groups of other Brazilian women in prostitution. The other women passed those who spoke English less well to clients who wanted services the women who spoke English weren’t willing to provide. Those women experienced rape and violence and were unable to report it because of their immigration status.

Escort agencies habitually misrepresented to clients what the women they sent to them were prepared to do. I mainly worked in the fetish/BDSM niche within the industry and frequently went to meet clients who would tell me they had also booked another woman working in the same niche, only to find that the other woman was unaware of what she had been booked to do and would have refused the work had she known.

This was particularly the case with women who didn’t speak English well, who usually had profiles on the sites they worked from written by the men who controlled them and were at much greater risk of violence because it was harder for them to work out when they should make a quick exit. Had they, or I, worked in a legalised brothel the issue of risk would have been judged by someone else with a vested interest in maintaining the reputation of their business as an environment with compliant women.

I earned more than women who weren’t white, privately educated, native English speakers for the same work. I also benefitted greatly from being asked to work in films by some well-known porn performers precisely because of these characteristics. Porn and prostitution are intimately connected, both in terms of the acts prostituted women will be asked to replicate, and because porn films are marketing devices, like music on Spotify and YouTube, which increase what you can charge to meet clients privately if the films are popular online.

You are also more likely to be able to make a “brand” name for yourself in porn and subsequently earn more for private meetings if you’re a white, native English speaker. College graduate? Even better. Men all over the world will place a much higher financial value on your degradation because of feelings of insecurity, because of racist stereotypes they hold about your sexuality and the sexuality of women from other ethnic groups, because of the legacy of colonialism and for a host of other reasons. The female students in student unions in the UK who list the welfare of sex worker students as their top priority are either completely disingenuous or ignorant about the racism, classism and sexism in the industry they are supporting.

The fact that Jurgen Rudloff, the owner of the “Paradise” chain of brothels, thought he would find independent women working as prostitutes for themselves who were willing to work in his “Paradise” chain of brothels, but instead found he had to resort to using criminal gangs to brutalise women from Eastern Europe into doing so, speaks volumes about the ignorance of someone that involved in the sex industry about the hierarchical nature of the business he was in.

Several of the women I made films with worked for German film companies. The last place where they would have arranged to meet a client privately was a brothel where they had no choice over the services they provided. The brutalised women who did work there could have been living on a different planet. Anyone listening to people like Rudloff or advocating for their interests is similarly deluded.

The criminal gangs who bring women over from Eastern and South-eastern Europe to work in prostitution display teenage girls they have recruited with promises of love and affection in accounts on the dark web where the girls have numbered profiles without names and are described in the way farmers might describe animals at auctions. You don’t have to know much history to recognise what that is.

The de-escalation skills you need when confronted by the equivalent of an elephant in musth who has spent days in fantasy, has been disappointed, robbed or deceived before, and is prepared to use violence because of this, are wearing when you have to use them several times a day. The fantasy frequently involves being aroused by expressions of pain and shock which porn intentionally displays. You will discover that the pain and shock are not fantasy and neither is porn’s disregard for sexual, physical and mental health.

The fact that you are a numbered commodity which can be easily replaced by a brothel owner who wants regular custom if you don’t smile and say you enjoyed it isn’t something that makes you safe. You will develop hypervigilance and become estranged from anyone who isn’t also in the business and similarly amplifying the delusion that you are all empowered. You will say that you are “tougher” than the rest. This is Stockholm Syndrome. The men who profit from you won’t be around when you fall. Deaths of “empowered” prostitutes in Germany aren’t publicised because of the concern the state that profited from them has for the feelings of their families.

The human rights organisations who support the decriminalisation (i.e. the legalisation) of brothels wouldn’t tolerate members of their own families working in prostitution. The class trajectory of their families through society doesn’t support it and they are aware of the high level of personal and societal risk. It is a fate for others.

It was a family member of mine working for a global human rights organisation at a senior level in a part of the world notorious for sex tourism who, having become concerned about my obviously deteriorating mental health, discovered the cause of it and took steps to compel me to address my mental and physical trauma.

The fact that I am a citizen of a country where healthcare is free, and that I didn’t need health insurance to cover my recovery from significant physical and mental trauma, is another factor greatly in my favour when I compare myself with other brutalised women around the world, whose interests have been cast aside by human rights organisations in financial difficulties who previously claimed to be interested in social and economic equality.

There isn’t a day when I don’t think about that. I have met many women who ended up, as I did, as inpatients on psychiatric wards because off-street prostitution put them there. They would be the last people to speak to human rights organisations about their experiences, silenced as they are by the double stigma of being survivors of prostitution and people with mental health diagnoses. They would be very unlikely to speak to anyone who hadn’t gone through the same experience. The diagnosis isn’t an explanation after the fact, it’s a result of the powerlessness and inequality which brought them into prostitution and the powerlessness and trauma they experienced there. That is the meaning of it.

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