Prostitution: Slavery and Individual Women Skin

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The gap between the promise of civil rights and the real lives of prostitutes is an abyss which swallows up prostituted women.(1) To speak of prostitution and civil rights in one breath moves the two into one world, at once exposing and narrowing the distance between them.

Women in prostitution are denied every imaginable civil right in every imaginable and unimaginable way, (2) such that it makes sense to understand prostitution as consisting in the denial of women's humanity, no matter how humanity is defined. It is denied both through the social definition and condition of prostitutes and through the meaning of some civil rights.

The legal right to be free from torture and cruel and inhuman or degrading treatment is recognized by most nations and is internationally guaranteed. In prostitution, women are tortured through repeated rape and in all the more conventionally recognized ways. Women are prostituted precisely in order to be degraded and subjected to cruel and brutal treatment without human limits; it is the opportunity to do this that is exchanged when women are bought and sold for sex. The fact that most legal prohibitions on torture apply only to official torture, specifically torture by state actors, illustrates the degree to which the legal design of civil rights has excluded women's experience of being denied them.

Security of the person is fundamental to society. The point of prostitution is to transgress women's personal security. Every time the woman walks up to the man's car, every time the man walks into the brothel, the personhood of women--not that secure in a male dominated society to begin with--is made more insecure. Women in prostitution attempt to set limits on what can be done to them. But nothing backs them up. Pimps supposedly do, but it shows how insecure prostitutes' lives are that pimps can look like security. Nothing limits pimps, and, ultimately, anything can be done to their property for a price. As Andrea Dworkin has said, "whatever can be stolen can be sold." (3) In rape, the security of women's person is stolen; in prostitution, it is stolen and sold.

Liberty is a primary civil right. Kathleen Barry has analyzed female sexual slavery as prostitution one cannot get out of. (4) A recent study of street prostitutes in Toronto found that about ninety percent wanted to leave but could not. (5) If they are there because they cannot leave, they are sexual slaves. Need it be said: to be a slave is to be deprived of liberty, not to exercise it. To lack the ability to set limits on one's condition or to leave it is to lack consent to it. At the same time, liberty for men is often construed in sexual terms and includes liberal access to women, including prostituted ones. So while, for men, liberty entails that women be prostituted, for women, prostitution entails loss of all that liberty means.

The right to privacy is often included among civil rights. In the United States, one meaning privacy has effectively come to have is the right to dominate free of public scrutiny. The private is then defined as a place of freedom by effectively rendering consensual what women and children are forced to do out of the public eye. Prostitution is thus often referred to as occurring in private between consenting adults, as is marriage and family. (6) The result is to extend the aura of privacy and protection from public intervention from sex to sexual abuse. In prostitution, women have no space they can call off-limits to prying eyes, prying hands, or prying other parts of the anatomy, not even inside their own skin.

Freedom from arbitrary arrest is also a civil right. Criminal prostitution laws make women into criminals for being victimized as women, so are arguably arbitrary in the first place.(7) Then these laws are often enforced for bureaucratic, turf-protective, funding, political, or advancement reasons(8) --that is, arbitrarily, against women.

Property ownership is recognized as a...
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