When people talk about prostitution, the woman’s choice is often used to justify her prostitution. For example, here are a few random comments from The Guardian website:
“If a woman chooses (freely chooses, without coercion) to sell sex then that’s her right.”
“So long as they are safe, secure, happy and independently making that decision it is entirely up to them what they do.”
“I respect her right to choose. Don’t you respect the rights of a women to choose?”
But choice is complicated.
Who gets to choose?
When I was a new mother, my life with a toddler was changed by something the late, great, Claire Rayner said on the radio. She said never ask your overtired fractious toddler whether they want to go to bed, because their imperative to assert themselves as individuals will compel them to say NO. Instead, Claire said, ask whether they want to wear the red pyjamas or the blue pyjamas.
And then bedtime was transformed. My toddler was happy to choose which pyjamas to wear while moving inexorably towards the point she would be tucked up in bed and I could settle down for some quiet time with my book.
Being able to choose between the blue and red pyjamas gave her dignity and a sense of personal agency. But in reality her choice was trivial. It was me who had the power to make all the significant choices and decisions in her life.
I tell this story to illustrate that it is those with power who have the options that make real, meaningful choices possible. The more power you have, the more options you get.
For people who’ve had luckier lives, it’s easy to forget how few options many people actually have. And how for many people, those options may be equivalent to choosing the red pyjamas while moving inexorably in the direction made inevitable by the choices of those with power, such as the UK government that systematically deprives women of resources.
What do girls want?
I asked the mothers in a social media discussion group to ask their daughters what they wanted to do when they grew up. Their answers were full of life and hope. Here’s a small sample:
Not a single one of these girls said they want to go into prostitution when they grow up.
So who are the girls and young women who “choose” prostitution and what has happened to them?
The reality for most women and girls in prostitution
Testimony from survivors and studies of women and girls in prostitution consistently show that many were in local authority care as children; many started in prostitution before they were 18 or when they were homeless; many were coerced into prostitution; and the majority had been abused as children.
The following chart shows statistics from studies of prostituted women and girls in the UK:
This paints a picture of a marginalised population of girls and young women whose options at the time they started were severely limited. They were not choosing between prostitution and being a vet or a midwife or going to college to study.
Instead these figures suggest that the options for most of them were between prostitution and sleeping rough, or prostitution and being beaten by the person who was coercing them – or losing his support – and for a young woman with little or no family support this might have been more persuasive than being beaten.
So to the man who asked on The Guardian website whether we respect her choice, the answer is yes, indeed we do. But we don’t think those are the options anyone should be facing. It would be like saying that my little girl’s choice of pyjamas justified the choices that I imposed on her.
Because how is a 15, 16, 17, 18-year old girl to know how it will affect her over time, pretending every day that she is enjoying all those men groping her and each ramming his dick into her? Men who might be older than her father and even her grandfather. How is she to know in advance about the violence that is inherent to prostitution? And how it can never be safe?
How is she to know that – in this world that has told her since she was a tiny child that her only purpose in life is to look pretty, to please the male gaze? In this world that glamorises not only prostitution, but pimping too?
So how is her choice, her consent, to enter prostitution either free or informed?
A choice that is not free is not really a choice. Consent that is not informed is not consent.
And did anyone ever tell her, that for most women in prostitution, it is hard to get out and that if she does manage it, the chances are high that she will be worse off than when she started and have a whole heap of additional problems, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?
The following chart shows statistics from studies of prostituted women and girls.
This tells us that once women are embedded in prostitution, for most of them getting out is very hard. Most of the time, they continue because of an absence of viable alternatives.
An absence of alternatives is not a choice. Acquiescence is not consent.
We do not use the argument of choice to justify any other systematic inequality. For example, campaigners against zero-hour employment contracts do not justify them by saying people choose those contracts. In the vast majority of cases, people accept them because of a lack of alternative options. It is those who profit from unfair contracts that justify them by the person’s supposed choice.
Most women and girls are in prostitution because of a lack of options. We believe that women and girls should have other viable options. This is why we campaign for ring-fenced funding for high quality non-judgemental services to help them exit and for an end to women’s systematic inequality and poverty.
To justify prostitution by her supposed choice is disingenuous. It is the language of the vested interest.
It is men, the punters, who have choice. The choice to continue to abuse her vulnerability or the choice to man up and say no to prostitution.
They say that prostitution is a choice…
This very short film by Ygerne Price-Davies is based on survivor testimony submitted to Nordic Model Now! through our Share Your Story page.