Colonizing the Body

If only for the purpose of revealing a tacit but unstated privilege acquired by men at the instant of what Friedrich Engels called “the historic defeat of womankind,” the current debate on sex work vs prostitution is important. For the other side of this coin of defeat was a triumph, if one were to view historical events dialectically, not only in terms of patriarchal dominance over society, production and the family, for in womankind’s loss of control of her own sexuality and reproduction lay a conferring of the privilege, a presumed right, of the patriarch to sexual access to those under his wing. This tacit and yet so commonly assumed privilege underlies much of what forms everyday sexism to this time, from wage inequality to street harassment to the rape culture to the demand by certain German men with disabilities that the state to provide them prostitutes as part of their health benefits.1  While that privilege may have been expanded, in the current world, to elements other than the patriarch, the principle holds: those with power, those with a larger share of the surplus, those with greater strength or with whatever little bit of social exceptionalism – these have the tacit right to access sexually those who do not. One enduring deception that has kept this privilege unchallenged is that the accessed agree to being accessed, that they do so willingly – a myth which now Capital uses, in its incursion into the few non-capitalist spaces extant in a globalized economy.


Sex workers, according to a recent Canadian Institutes of Health-funded survey, made $39,000 per annum and were generally satisfied with what they did (81%); the researchers claimed they tried to keep the sample “representative,” though reaching the conclusion that most of those connected to the sex trade were “Canadian-born, Caucasian, between the ages of 30-40” – said conclusion being surveying 218 sex workers, 1252 clients, 30 spouses/intimate partners and 61 managers.1 On which group this profile was based was not given. Other surveys place First Nations women as comprising as high as 42% of prostituted women. Indeed, the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network (AWAN) wrote, in a declaration opposing the legalization of prostitution: “We have a long, multi-generational history of colonization, marginalization and displacement from our Homelands, and rampant abuses that has forced many of our sisters into prostitution.”2 Not thrilled by this survey’s findings as well was the Asian Women’s Coalition to End Prostitution (AWEP), which is Canada based, and which had declared, “we hold a position that prostitution entrenches racism and multiplies the effect of sexism on all.”3

This very recent incident in Canada underscores what has been absent in the discourse of those who promote prostitution as an economic alternative: that it afflicts a certain class, category and nationality/ race of women;   and that, by and large, the viewpoint of such women, despite comprising the majority of those commoditized in the sex trade, is either absent or not given due weight, not unlike the voices of children in the sex trade. The contending viewpoints should also make one aware that a policy on prostitution cannot and is hardly contained within national boundaries; that it will spill over and impact women and children and men across borders. The AWAN statement also underscores the historical fact that for many countries and societies, the sex trade arrived via an aggressive militarist colonialism that continues to impact definitions of power and authority, as well as perceptions of sex, conquest and the conquered.

Who are being sold and bought in the sex trade? A website that claims neutrality while providing statistics on the underworld places the number of prostitutes worldwide at 13,265,900 with an annual revenue of $186 billion. The number of prostitutes in the US is placed at 1 million; by way of contrast, the number for the Philippines, a US-client state with a population 1/3 of the US, is pegged at 800,000.4 The Paris-based Fondation Scelles gives an even higher number in its second report on global prostitution: 40-42 million, 75% between the ages of 13-25, 80% female.  Below is a map that may well be a graphic illustration of who or what funds/maintains prostitution in many parts of the world and who are bought and sold.



The Name Game

The popularization of the term “sex work” was the most successful in a series of attempts to find a euphemism for prostitution. In the 1960s, when Southeast Asian countries were designated as “rest-and-recreation” centers for US military troops engaged in a war in Vietnam, other labels for the sex trade were invented, so its earnings could be incorporated in the national spreadsheet and as to lure the general public into accepting what was basically an underworld activity. “Hired-wife services,“ “bar girls,” “bar fines” and “hospitality girls” tried to hide but failed the nature of the business.   Under tourism, the names morphed even more, even to the ludicrous “guest relations officer” or GRO. It would take someone from San Francisco, in the late 1970s, to come up with the term “sex work,” and its corollary would follow thereafter, “sex workers.” The new terms embedded prostitution in a spectrum of sex selling – from porn films, phone sex and later, cybersex to stripping. The use of “work” was masterful, as it situated those in the sex trade among the ranks of workers. Hence the argument that allowing the use of one’s genitals for cash was no different from allowing the use of one’s fingers for typing in a corporate office, there being no difference allegedly, between, as old journalists say, massaging a keyboard and massaging someone else’s genitals.

With a seductive name in place, the stage was set for the creation of a groundswell toward legalization, largely fueled by Dutch and German money, which, not by coincidence, would be among the first to legalize prostitution. A Dutch funding agency proudly proclaimed that it covered the travel costs of “black prostitutes from the US and allies from Thailand and the Philippines” to a 1986 international conference of whores.   One Dutchman responded, when I asked why funders associated with progressive causes would provide money for something that would, in the long run, decimate Third World women, he shrugged and replied, “well, we invented the slave trade, didn’t we?” Various reports now peg the number of foreign-born women in the Dutch sex trade as high as 80%. Other-ing is explicit in responses, when the question about the impact of legalization on the business (vs legalization of the commodity) on minorities. A “sex worker” in New York replied, when this was brought up: “well, I’m sorry about your people but I have to take care of myself.”

Throughout the 1990s, the onslaught continued. Prostitution was split into the categories of forced and voluntary; indentured and forced labor was split from slavery and trafficking as a crime was born out of the combination of forced prostitution and forced labor. Labor trafficking was then pitted against sex trafficking, with the claim that it was a larger problem than the latter. Meanwhile, the push for legalization of the business became both pernicious and constant. In 1994, the Global Alliance Against the Trafficking of Women (GAATW) was formed, ostensibly based in Thailand but with links to US-based and Dutch-funded organizations. GAATW pushed for trafficking to be defined largely as coercion and for “voluntary” prostitution to be legalized. By 1994, the International Labor Organization which helps define “work” for capital issued a pamphlet on “The Sex Sector.”   Subsequent conferences were held in Southeast Asia and commensurate pressure-organizations created to push for legalization.  The juggernaut seemed unstoppable, partly because no one could come up with a programmatic solution to the underlying issue of the tacit right to sexual access by virtue of having more cash than another person.

On January 1, 1999, Sweden criminalized the purchase of sex even as it maintained the decriminalized status of those who sold sex. In what may be seen as a global tit for tat, the Netherlands legalized the business the following year and Germany followed suit. More than a decade has passed – enough time to see the impact of these two approaches to prostitution, whether goals and objectives have been met and what else can be done to further either one or both models.

Thus far, Sweden has seen the number of those engaged in prostitution cut by half. By 2008, Norway and Denmark had three times the number of street prostitution compared to Sweden, this stark contrast being undoubtedly a result of the criminalization of the buying of sex. This conclusion was bolstered by reports from Norway that, as soon as it decided to pass a similar ban, there was an “immediate and dramatic reduction of street prostitution.” One icing to the cake, Sweden discovered, was a “marked shift in attitude” as 70% of support for the ban on the purchase of sex was “greatest among young people.” 5 It would be interesting to compare the attitudes toward women of a generation raised in a society with a sex-purchase ban and that of a generation raised in a society with a legalized business of prostitution.

Sweden’s Sex Purchase Act has been criticized for not distinguishing between forced and voluntary prostitution.   The reply was succinct: “from a gender equality and human rights perspective and a shift in focus from what is being offered – those exploited in prostitution – to demand, that is, traffickers, procurers and sex buyers, the distinction between voluntary and non-voluntary prostitution is not relevant.” 6 The ban, in other words, was intended to dismantle the power (Capital) holders in the business.

On the other side of the debate is Germany, now an economic powerhouse in Europe. A working paper for the German Parliament characterizes Germany as “a paradise for sex traffickers” and gives the following bullet points, though with the caveat that such figures might not be totally accurate in the floating world of the business of prostitution:

  • 400,000 sex workers
  • 1.2 million men visit sex workers daily
  • 90% of prostitutes are under constraint
  • US$17.7 billion from the sex trade annually.7

No wonder Germany has been untouched by the financial crisis. The human body as a generator of profit is extremely profitable and self-sustaining. Moreover, there seems to be an inexhaustible supply of such bodies to colonize. Mendes Bota, rapporteur of the Committee on Equality and Non-Discrimination of the Council of Europe, said in a report to the Council on 4 March 2014: “Sex workers have become simple commodities, subject to the basic law of supply and demand; brothel owners and managers try to make as much profit as possible.”8

The only way to increase profit in this business is to intensify the rate of exploitation.   Hence some brothel owners placed the women on per day wages and crammed as many customers as possible into her work hours. They then offered “flat rates” to customers to have as many women as they wanted within a given amount of time.   The Der Spiegel account of this is as follows:

When the Pussy Club opened near Stuttgart in 2009, the management advertised the club as follows: “Sex with all women as long as you want, as often as you want and the way you want. Sex. Anal sex. Oral sex without a condom. Three-ways. Group sex. Gang bangs.” The price: €70 during the day and €100 in the evening.

According to the police, about 1,700 customers took advantage of the offer on the opening weekend. Buses arrived from far away and local newspapers reported that up to 700 men stood in line outside the brothel. Afterwards, customers wrote in Internet chat rooms about the supposedly unsatisfactory service, complaining that the women were no longer as fit for use after a few hours.9

Agency and the Nature of the Beast

A study issued by the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition and Prostitution Research and Education provided the following statistics: Of the 105 Native American women interviewed (median age 35), 37% had been used by more than 500 men; 11% had 500-900 men; 16% by 900-1000 men.9    The report quotes one of the respondents who had been taken to Las Vegas by her pimp: “The men just kept coming and coming and I never slept or ate, I just had sex all the time.” 10

Rather than the genteel boudoir of a charming sex worker in control of her sexuality and destiny, the relentless assault described by the Native American woman is the topography of prostitution for the majority of those in the sex trade, particularly for the colonized bodies of Third World women. Legalization of the business has neither stopped trafficking nor limited it to adults.   In Brazil, where the business is legal, the price for sex with a 13-year-old is $5.50. In Cambodia, a daughter’s virginity is sold by the family, to pay for incurred debts.

In the creeping scandal of Germany’s burgeoning sex trade, 15 mental health professionals issued their support for a “Stop Sex-buying” initiative. Michaela Huber, psychologist and head of the German Society of Trauma and Dissociation, said, “Prostitution is in no way a job like any other. It is degrading, torturous, exploitative. On the side of the prostituted, there is a lot of horror and disgust at play, which they have to repress in order to get through it all.” Dr. Wolfgang U. Eckart, director of the Institute for History and Ethics in Medicine at Heidelberg flatly stated: “Prostitution is violence, not a profession. Little is free in prostitution on the whole, and nothing in mediated prostitution. Because the striking asymmetry of power and the potential for violence in the relationship between the mediator and practitioner generates in this oldest form of the enslavement of women constitutionally dependent relationships, which almost automatically deliver all the facades and backgrounds for the practice of traumatizing acts of violence of every sort.”11

A concern for women has always been at the core of those who opt for the decriminalization of prostitutes and the criminalization of the business owners, managers and customers. The nature of the business turns the human body into both an instrument of production and commodity for the generation of profits, trapped as person is in the cash nexus and subject to assault by Capital. It is this “striking asymmetry of power” that renders the question of agency moot and pointless, empowerment but an illusion for the most powerless gear in the profit-generating machine. Pro-sex work advocates use the concept of agency to reduce a multi-layer structure of dominance and exploitation to a micro question: whether a woman enters the sex trade voluntarily or involuntarily. The abstraction of agency ignores the force of circumstance; it ignores the conditioning exerted by material conditions, much as Capital makes no distinction between real and created demand. Furthermore, agency ignores the subtle difference between decision and choice – the decision to enter prostitution may not be, is more than likely not, a choice.

In no other system of exploitation has the agency of those lured into and trapped in it been used to justify its existence, institutionalization and legitimization.   No fast food worker has been taken to task for his or her agency in working under exploitative conditions; indeed, he and she are charged with the task of changing and preferably, dismantling such a system of exploitation. All workers, as a matter of fact, are exhorted to end exploitative structures, entire socio-economic systems, if need be. If prostitution is work, much like all other work, then embedded as it is in a system of class exploitation, rather than argue for the legalization of those who hold power in it – the brothel owners and managers, the pimps and recruiters, the Johns – one must demand their eradication. As Marx and Engels had written: “… the real point aimed at is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production.”12 The business of prostitution is a vivid manifestation of how the oppression of and violence against women underlay the creation of private property and wealth accumulation.   Much like the terrain that unchecked classism, sexism and racism have created, it is a blasted one.



NINOTCHKA ROSCA works with AF3IRM, an organization of transnational women residing in the US who are feminists and anti-imperialists. She has written several books, including two novels, one of which was conferred the American Book Award. She was also the International Spokesperson for the Purple Rose Campaign against the trafficking of women into both labor and sex markets. AF3IRM’s predecessor organization, GABNet, opposed the Philippines labor export policy.



1, Gender, Violence and Health: Contexts of Vulnerabilities, Resistance and Care among People in gthe Sex Industry. By Cecilia Benoit, Chris Atchisaon, Lauren Casey, Mikael Lansson, Bill McCarthy,Rachel Philips, Dan Reist and Frances M. Shaver. October 3, 2014

2. Aboriginal Women’s Action Network Statement on Legal Prostitution. 2007

3. Asian Women’s Coalition to End Prostitution. Statement on the Bedford Case. May 8, 2913


5. Selected Extracts of the Swedish Government Report SOU 2010-49 “The Ban Against the Purchase of Sexual Services: An Evaluation” 1999-2008

6. Ditto

7. Working Paper: Prostitution, Trafficking and Modern Slavery in Europe, Committee on Equality and Non-Discrimination by Special Rapporteur Jose Mendes Bota, Portugal, European Parliament Assembly

8. Ditto

9. Der Spiegel, “How Legalizing Prostitution Has Failed”   May 30, 2014

10. The Garden of Truth: The Prostitution and Trafficking of Native Women of Minnesota. By Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition and the Prostitution Research and Education. Authored by Melissa Farley, Nicole Matthews, Sarah Deer, Guadalupe Lopez, Christine Stark, Eileen Hudon

11. Statement of Support for “Stop Sex Buying” Initiative by 15 German mental health professionals. Translated by Sabina Becker.


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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1