At bottom, there is one fundamental question: Why do we take prison for granted? While a relatively small proportion of the population has ever directly experienced life inside prison, this is not true in poor black and Latino communities. Neither is it true for Native Americans or for certain Asian-American communities. But even among those people who must regrettably accept prison sentences—especially young people—as an ordinary dimension of community life, it is hardly acceptable to engage in serious public discussions about prison life or radical alternatives to prison. It is as if prison were an inevitable fact of life, like birth and death.
– Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete?
There are many similarities between the prison system and prostitution. The correlations with child abuse, broken families, poverty and homelessness – racism and colonisation. The dark room, sparsely furnished – a bed, and the ever-present sense of being watched; the constant monitoring and threat of assault. But if you’re a man, you are more likely to be wearing the standard issue blue boiler suit; if you’re a woman, the bra, the underwear and stilettos.
In both cases, it’s men who’ll make you work, men who are watching, and men who pose the threat. Men who groomed you for a lifetime to envisage that you could end up in this place (and you may well have been in and out of here before). But women’s punishment – for being poor, indigenous, traumatised, in the wrong place at the wrong time, or simply female – is always sexualised. So while prison cells are overwhelmingly occupied by men, it is women who are the inmates of brothels. In New Zealand, the majority is 85 per cent, in both cases.
Both the prison system and prostitution are viewed, culturally, as timeless and inevitable. In her book Are Prisons Obsolete? Angela Davis points out that as prisons have become socially entrenched through deeply vested interests, their actual development through historical processes has been forgotten and obscured. Prisons are an innovation of modern era. As for prostitution, it is a much older form of oppression, the oldest in fact – but humankind has lived 99% of our existence without it. 99% of our existence – without the sex trade, without the sale and purchase of women.
Sex roles have existed for as long as prostitution, and for equally as long a time, women’s punishment has been sexualised. That was true throughout the witch trials, and so it is today. “During the early 1700s,” says Davis, “one in eight transported convicts were women, and the work they were forced to perform often consisted of prostitution.” Imprisonment was not even seen as sufficient punishment for female convicts when the prison system first became established: women did not have any rights to freedom of movement to be taken.
Now that women have these rights, we are increasingly imprisoned: indigenous women are being incarcerated at the highest rate of any group. And we are still being prostituted, though prostitution is increasingly viewed not as sexualised punishment – but as a “choice”. Even ‘torture porn’ generates 32 million hits online, and is not problematised by liberals despite its brutality.
The mythologising of each of these systems of punishment – prostitution and prisons – as inevitable and timeless, has racist implications. Both systems recruit a disproportionately high rate of indigenous women. In New Zealand, while Māori women constitute only 15% of the total population, a whole 32% of prostituted persons are Māori. The industry thrives off demand coming from wealthy, white men: in 2017, we are still being coached to believe that indigenous women are somehow innately predisposed to being subjected to the abuses of wealthy, white men.
Prostitution is the quintessential women’s prison.
One way prisons are deemed degrading, is indeed through their sexualised aspects. In Australia, Amanda George has pointed out that “prison and police officers are vested with the power and responsibility to do acts which, if done outside work hours, would be crimes of sexual assault.” Abolitionists will go to great lengths to explain the degradation of the routine strip search, which can happen up to seven times a day. Yet many of these same people will claim that prostitution is empowering, even that sex trafficking is a legitimate form of work for migrant women. So a strip search sanctioned by the state is degrading – but being instructed by that same state on how to receive anal penetration from “clients” – is empowering?
Prostitution is always branded as a “choice” women make. Women “choose” to enter, for their own “empowerment”. They “choose” to stay, “choose” to return and can “choose” to leave at any time.
The same is not said of men who reoffend and return to prison, even when they themselves claim that they sought to return to prison, that it was the best option available to put a roof over their heads. The sex trade is notoriously difficult for women to exit and stay out of, just as reoffending rates demonstrate the prison system is. A 2001 Canadian study of 201 women in prostitution showed that seven in ten women had exited the sex trade at least once; and more than half exited three or more times. Those who had not been in prostitution at least two years had attempted to leave on average five to six times before making the break.
Just as reoffending rates are high, so are the rates at which women are forced to re-enter prostitution. This is not to say that prostitution is a crime for women, or that prison is a choice for men: but that both are a trap for which people are groomed. Not least because prostitution, like the prison system, often exploits a cheap labour force to turn a profit.
Prostitution may actually be an industry prison abolitionists in New Zealand expect male sex offenders to make more use of upon release from prison – who knows. Many prison abolitionists, as liberal activists, promote prostitution as legitimate “sex work”. Their notions of epidemic violence are either at odds, or complementary: I’m not sure which, nor which would be more disturbing.
Many sex trade lobbyists say that abolishing the sex trade would simply “drive it underground”, and argue that “if there were no prostitution, there would be more rape,” as if prostitution and pornography alleviate the problem of rape, rather than perpetuating rape culture. Yet, just like prisons don’t alleviate social problems because they are inherently abusive, prostitution doesn’t either: it legitimates and profits from violence. Being opposed to prisons means addressing male violence at the root, and being opposed to prostitution, means the same. In both cases, taking an abolitionist position means acknowledging male violence as a social problem that social transformation could change.
Sex trade lobbyists rarely, if ever, envisage the end of male violence: it’s ultimately only something that can be accommodated and regulated, not stopped. As if we should accept that a section of the female population is specially destined to absorb sexual urges that some men cannot control, like a release valve. The New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective accepts this narrative to the extent that what they are committed to is harm minimisation, not women’s rights or the elimination of sexual violence.
Yet at the same time, are some of these liberal activists working toward the right for men to abuse with impunity? A harm minimisation stance on prostitution, you would think, would necessitate some way of isolating repeat offenders. If you acknowledge the reality of sexual violence but do not think it can be solved completely as a social problem, surely you would allow for the means to isolate men who present a constant threat and danger to vulnerable women. Surely if you believe women must accept being subjected to some ongoing risk of assault, at the very least, you’d allow known rapists and offenders to be able to be removed from the community. Surely if we can’t possibly get rid of rape – well then, we can’t possibly get rid of prisons.
Saying that male violence in prostitution can only be helped through harm minimisation must be inconsistent with a commitment to prison abolition, at least if you care about women’s safety. You cannot view violence as a social problem in one breath, and as an inevitable product of nature in the next. Being an “idealist” when it comes to abolishing prisons for the sake of decolonisation, and a “realist” about prostitution because rape will never stop, is just very thinly veiled men’s rights activism.
Prison abolitionists see male violence as a problem that can be solved through social transformation. To engage that process of transformation, abolitionists will need to start critically analysing industries that institutionalise male entitlement to women’s bodies, like prostitution – the quintessential women’s prison.
You could say that at bottom, there is one fundamental question: Why do we take prostitution for granted? In fact, substitute “prison” for “prostitution” every time it appears in Davis’ quote above. It makes sense, and the only reason we would resist the new truths in it are because of a gendered double standard.
At bottom, there is one fundamental question: Why do we take prostitution for granted? Even among those people who must regrettably accept time in prostitution – especially young people – as an ordinary dimension of community life, it is hardly acceptable to engage in serious public discussions about life in prostitution or radical alternatives to prostitution. It is as if prostitution were an inevitable fact of life, like birth and death.
It is not.