Prostitution -- question of choice or result of patriarchy?

The issue -- one of the most divisive among feminists -- is being discussed in France and Italy because of recent interventions by the constitutional courts of the two countries.

Ingrid Colanicchia
Ingrid Colanicchia MicroMega, Italy
Source: MicroMega
Prostitution -- question of choice or result of patriarchy? - NewsMavens
Constitutional Court, Rome, Wikimedia Commons

Why this story matters:

If we exclude the question of sex trafficking, the heated feminist debate on prostitution can be summed up with three viewpoints. There are those who see prostitution as an intrinsically oppressive expression of patriarchal domination; then there are those who emphasize the dimension of self-determination and choice; and finally there are those who think that prostitution is a legitimate occupation and should be regulated as such.

The question is complex and has always intrigued me, most of all because it ties in so closely with power. This connection has been identified and described among others by the Italian anthropologist Paola Tabet in her book La Grande Beffa/The Great Joke, in which she demonstrates on the basis of extensive documentation that remuneration in exchange for intimacy and promiscuity are "neither specific to prostitution alone nor sufficient to recognize all forms of sexual relations defined as prostitution". 

The label "prostitute" or "whore" is not about a woman's specific traits, but a type of interaction.

"It is a function of the rules of ownership of a woman's body in different societies. More precisely, it is the transgression, the breaking of these rules. And it looks scandalous because it touches on the fundamental rules of family and reproduction, the pillars on which social relations between genders are based. This is the rationale underlying all the definitions of apparently unrelated acts -- the ideological basis that makes the discourse on prostitution an expression of male power, and which defines all the different manifestations of this power in various societies."

If one wants to criticize male power, one has to address the rules of ownership over women's bodies. Who decides what control women have over their bodies, and who else controls women's bodies? It is an illusion that eliminating the sex market would solve the structural inequality behind prostitution and so many other phenomena in which male power impacts the bodies of women, explains researcher Giorgia Serughetti, author of the book Uomini Che Pagano Le Donne/Men Who Pay Women.

Details from the story:

  • On February 1, 2019 the French Constitutional Court found the first paragraph of Article 225-12-1 and Article 611-1 of the Criminal Code to be in conformity with the Constitution, in the formulation resulting from Law no. 444 of April 13, 2016 concerning the fight against prostitution.
  • Article 611-1 of the Penal Code -- as reformed by Law no. 444 of 2016 -- introduces a fine of 1,500 euros for those who solicit, accept or obtain sexual relations in exchange for compensation, remuneration, advantages or benefits. The first paragraph of article 225-12-1 of the same Code raises the fine to € 3,750 if the offense is repeated; the second paragraph introduces a sentence of three years in prison and a fine of € 45,000 if those behaviors are carried out with a minor or with a person who has a particular vulnerability.
  • The Court was invoked by a group of associations who considered the sanction to be against the principle of personal freedom in the case of consenting adults.
  • Similarly, on March 5, 2019 the Italian Constitutional Court will discuss the constitutionality of Law no. 75 of 1958, which makes recruitment and aiding of prostitution, carried out "in any way", even voluntarily, a punishable offense resulting in two to six years imprisonment plus a fine ranging from 258 euros to 10,329 euros. The Constitutional Court has been challenged by the Court of Appeal of Bari, which maintains that the 1958 law violates the freedom of sexual self-determination and freedom of economic initiative, as  well as the principle of criminal legality, according to which non-socially dangerous acts should not be punished.
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