Stripped of their rights

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Question

As a long-​time reader, woman, supporter of personal freedoms and bleeding-​heart lawyer, I'm eager to know your take on Iceland de-​legalizing strip clubs (as described in the news article linked below). In particular, I find it odd that this is being called a feminist move. What about the women who want to be sex workers of whatever kind? Hell, what about the men? I haven't seen your take on this yet....

guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/mar/25/iceland-​most-​feminist-​country

Sarah L. Boyd

Answer

Well, Sarah, if you look at countries that have banned or placed irrational restrictions on the sex trade, you'll see that those policies don't automatically make the sex trade magically disappear. What tends to happen is that it crops up in less urban settings. Take Sweden, for example, which decided to make it illegal to buy, but not sell, sex. Did the sex trade diminish there? It did in larger cities, only to settle in more remote and dangerous areas, attracting the type of bold, violent clients more willing to risk legal repercussion.

Let's look a little closer at the details of the article. "Iceland," it reads, "is fast becoming a world-leader in feminism. A country with a tiny population of 320,000, it is on the brink of achieving what many considered to be impossible: closing down its sex industry."

As a feminist, I'm a little surprised they're applying the term to denigrate an industry that I, as a feminist, used to work in. Instead of lumping all feminists together, maybe it would be better to call those behind the Icelandic initiative "anti-sex-work feminist.". But a more accurate description would be "yoinking-away-women's-sexual-and-job-autonomy-and-painting-them-all-as-victims-of-trafficking feminists."

As the article says, "Kolbrún Halldórsdóttir, the politician who first proposed the ban, firmly told the national press on Wednesday: 'It is not acceptable that women or people in general are a product to be sold.'"

I've always been curious why sex is the thing that makes this gesture unacceptable, especially having willingly sold myself. People use their bodies for profit all the time, whether they're doing construction, delivering furniture or modelling.

What I see here is another government not willing to do the real work -- that is, focusing attention on people who are genuinely trafficked. Instead, they use a big broad brush to make a grandstanding gesture that in the end creates more problems.

Iceland seems to be following in Sweden's footsteps, in this case making it illegal for businesses to profit off the nudity of their employees. Care to guess what will happen in Iceland as a result? One scenario: an underground strip club culture will develop, and the trafficking of people will actually increase, not decrease. Why? Because the people willing to take the risk will be hard-nosed criminals, and they're going to want a pretty big return on their investment. Their investment, of course, is women. There will be exorbitant club fees, gruelling working hours and loads of uncompensated extras. Hurrah for feminism!

It doesn't seem like this decision was made in consultation with those most deeply affected, the sex workers themselves. If Iceland's main objective is to abolish trafficking, and its lawmakers had bothered to talk to women active in the politics of the sex industry, these women might have given them more effective advice.

In countries where workers have fought hard for their rights and dignity, a priority is helping identify and assist those who are trafficked. Check out durbar.org/html/anti_trafficking.asp, on the website of India's largest sex worker rights organization, Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, for more information. Many jobs are degrading. Having worked in several of them, I can say that sex work didn't even come close to topping the list. Using the abolition of strip clubs as some victory in the women's rights movement is hollow and misguided.

So is that enough of a take for you, Sarah?