Somebody asked me a question about prostitution only today. While I cannot remember what the question was exactly, I recall that it was something to do with the “problem” of prostitution in Namibia.
This set me thinking about the moral dilemma that exists between feminism and prostitution or sex work. On the one hand, it is indicative of the power relations that exist between men and women and the exploitative nature of sex work. There is no question that human trafficking – which ultimately is what prostitution is about – is morally deplorable and that society and the state should take a firm stand against it.
However, I am constantly bothered by attitudes that prevail in Namibia about sex workers or prostitutes. For in our society, we have opted to condemn the prostitute. She becomes that promiscuous harlot whose (only) function in life it is to seduce our men in return for money. The prostitute is morally corrupt, therefore is not deserving of our empathy or sympathy – even if she is abused, cheated, raped and sometimes killed. She after all, “deserved” this abuse either because she was wearing short/ revealing clothing, was loitering for sex on the street at night, she is a loose woman, or because she is a drug addict. She is never seen as someone’s daughter, sister or mother.
In Namibia, we very rarely – if ever – condemn either the users/ clients, or the pimps to the same extent that the prostitute is denounced. They (the users) after all were lured into the web of a wily spider who is after his money or his sex. Therefore we all would support government action to outlaw prostitutes and their trade. They are criminals and should be removed from the streets of our city and towns. As a consequence, when in December 2012, police in Rundu arrested women in mini dresses and hot pants, they were removing crime from the street. Anyone with decency could see that and we remained mum at the time. In fact, we almost allowed Inspector General Ndeitunga to criminalise all women who he considered to have loose morals on the basis of their/ our clothing.
However, there is another approach; Because sex work or prostitution is a symptom of a world in which women typically have to bear the brunt of poverty, exploitation and domination, we can decide to side with the sex worker – the victims.
We could, for instance create a legal context that protects the sex worker from the exploitation of either the pimp or the user. Criminalise the not only the handlers and human traffickers, but also the users, those predatory men who prey on the vulnerability of many women (and girls) in our society. For they, after all are the ones who are really benefitting from selling a person’s sexuality, dignity, autonomy and physical and mental wellbeing.
On this International Women’s Day, we urge all to spare a thought for the plight of our most marginalised sister and to begin to consider a shift in paradigm where we can have solidarity with the weak and the forlorn in our communities, namely those women and girls who have slipped into the hands of pimps and traffickers and who continue to be at the mercy of ruthless men, whose only goal is their own perversions and sexual gratification. They, not the poor woman who does not have a choice in her domination and exploitation, should be the ones who should be taken off our streets.