Sheila Jeffreys is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Melbourne. She is a founding member of the Australian branch of Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, www.catwa.com
She has been active in feminist campaigns against sexual violence and pornography, and in lesbian feminist politics since 1973. In UK in the 1980s she was involved in setting up Central London Women Against Violence Against Women, the London Lesbian History Group, the Lesbian Archive.
She moved from London to Melbourne in 1991. She is the author of 5 books on the politics of sexuality, including The Idea of Prostitution, 1997, Spinifex, and Unpacking Queer Politics, 2003, Polity.
In this interview, Sheila Jeffreys explains why prostitution should not be criminalised in Australia and why such an occupation should not exist in any form for women. Together with this interview is an article written by Sheila Jeffreys entitled, The Women in Pornography: a Response to Don Chip. Sheila Jeffreys, Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia. This article was written by Sheila Jeffreys in response to what Don Chip was to say to launch the porn industry exhibition, Sexpo, in Melbourne in November 2003.
Interview with Sheila Jeffreys
You have tried to impress upon the Australian Government to follow the example of Sweden in introducing a law as it did in 1999 that penalises the buyers of sexual services. To what do you attribute the government's reluctance to do so?
I think that Australian political culture is particularly masculine and the right of men to buy women for sex has been an important part of Australian history. Australia is still heavily imbued with this masculine ethos. It is possible that some male politicians have vested interests in prostitution i.e. they do not want their own male privilege of buying women for use to be curtailed.
In Sweden there has been more of a commitment to women's equality and prostitution does not seem to have been so much accepted historically. It would make a difference in Sweden if a politician was understood to have used women in prostitution. That would be a big deal, whereas in Australia I think he would be seen as a bit of a lad. It may be that the legalisation of prostitution in Australian states and territories simply enshrined in law a male 'right' that had never been effectively questioned. Also, unfortunately, many feminists in Australia seem to have taken a labourist line that prostitution was simply work and needed to be accepted as such, which suited the interests of the male buyers in and outside parliaments very well. There does not seem to have been a strong anti-pornography campaign here which was the springboard in other countries for understanding prostitution as violence against women. I think this is changing and more and more women in the anti-men's violence movement and services are becoming convinced that prostitution needs to be included in the range of forms of men's violence.
What are your views on the laws of Victoria where prostitution has been legalised, and in NSW where it has been deregulated? What do you see as being the repercussions of these laws on the human rights of women?
The laws have repercussions for women in three ways:
1/ The Victorian laws that legalise brothel prostitution set aside a section of women to be the appropriate objects for men's sexual use. Women in legal brothels are legally subjected to what I call commercial sexual violence i.e. the everyday practice of prostitution in which men penetrate women's vaginas, mouths and anuses whilst the women disassociate emotionally to survive the violation. The state becomes a pimp living of the earnings of this form of violence through licences and taxes. The state recognition teaches generations of young men that this form of violence is 'sex' and a reasonable male right. Boys going home from school or shopping at the family swimwear shop in Brunswick St opposite a brothel get the idea that this is fine.
The prostituted women in legal brothels are subjected to the physical and psychological harms of prostitution. A woman in prostitution cannot afford to make the male buyer angry so she has to check without him noticing that the condom is in place, if he has agreed to use one that is. If the condom breaks she has to work out what to use to minimise the risk of pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease. She suffers the constant harassment of the male buyer's hands, tongue and all the things she would rather not have him do, a form of legal and paid for sexual harassment. She may charge more money for anal penetration. It costs more because it is painful and the cost may depend on the size of the man's penis.
In sadomasochist prostitution, which is a growth area, most women are sex slaves, not dominatrixes. They suffer battering, cuts and branding. We know about the harms because of the details in the Occupational Health and Safety codes for legal brothels which describe these practices. Mary Sullivan's work on these codes will be published in a collection from Spinifex Press, Melbourne, this year called Not for Sale and edited by Chris Stark and Rebecca Whisnant.
Legalisation creates a massive illegal industry so that in Victoria police estimate there are 400 illegal brothels to 100 legal. The industry grows and more and more women are drawn in to suffer the harms of prostitution including women trafficked from poor countries and held in debt bondage, a modern form of slavery.
Street prostitution is not legalised but grows all the time and is the site of considerable violence against prostituted women.
2/ The effect of legalised prostitution on women outside prostitution is to lower the status of all women. Women are recognised by the state in this system as the appropriate objects of male penetration with no consideration for their personhood or pleasure. This teaches that the penetration and use of an unwilling woman is 'sex', an idea that lies at the root of sexual violence against women in general. There is no chance of developing a sexuality of equality in which women's pleasure, right to say no, and bodily integrity are respected whilst the violence of prostitution is allowed to continue with state support for men's behaviour.
3/ The effect of legalised prostitution is to create a huge obstacle to the possibility of equal relationships between women and men. How can a woman have equality with a male partner, boss, co-worker, male friend etc who uses women in brothels who disassociate to survive? What does this mean for how she can relate to such a man? Most women whose male partners buy women probably do not know, so their relationships, and there are many of them, are based on lies.
You have written: "Prostitution arises from unequal status. Women's so-called choice is constructed out of women's subordination (Jeffreys, 1997). Women are not in a position to choose to be prostitutes.
* Prostitution should be considered a Harmful Cultural Practice according to UN understandings i.e. it arises from the subordination of women it is for the benefit of men; it is supported by traditional/cultural attitudes; it reinforces stereotype roles for the sexes; it damages the health of women and girls (United Nations, 1995). In the same way that other harmful cultural practices like Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) should not be made into profitable industries, neither should Prostitution. From a Human Rights perspective, harmful cultural practices should not be decriminalised but eradicated." (Submission to Justice and Electoral Law Reform Select Committee New Zealand Parliament 2003)
What would you say to women who feel that they choose prostitution freely and see it as their job?
Prostitution emerges from the subordination of women. If that were not so then there would be men along the roadsides and women buying them. But men cannot 'choose' prostitution. Women do not have a sexuality of dominance and have not been reared to see men as objects for their use. Prostitution is about men's rights and privileges from male domination to treat women as objects for sexual use. If there was equality then women would not be able to 'choose' prostitution because it would not exist.
Sometimes an industry is so harmful, like the logging of old growth forests, that it has to stop despite the fact that some will lose their jobs. So the fact that some women say they 'choose' is not an argument against ending men's prostitution abuse of women.
Saying women choose is womanblaming. Prostitution is for men, not a welfare system for women and concentrating on why women are in prostitution allows the hiding of male responsibility and the role of men. The demand has to be stopped and the demand is from men.
There are many reasons why individual women enter prostitution. Some are inducted by their parents. Some are rounded up at children's homes by pimps and hooked on drugs to enable them to be sold. Some have heroin habits already. Some have debts or no other way of paying rent. Many have suffered so many other forms of abuse already that the violence of prostitution does not look so bad and they have already learnt to disassociate.
Has the emergence of sexual liberalism and economic individualism diminished for feminists and others, the seriousness of the abuse of women in prostitution who accept unforced or free prostitution as a legitimate work?
The development of rogue capitalism and its attendant ideologies of complete liberal individualism led to women's bodies being placed on the market. Women's body parts are sold in reproductive technology. Women's whole bodies are sold in reproductive surrogacy and prostitution. A massive international sex industry in trafficking to prostitution, mail order brides, sex tourism, pornography is making profits out of women's pain. All of these things are said to be about 'choice' because this ideology fetishises choice and tries to prevent recognition of the political and economic forces that are the foundation of this sale of women.
What educational and exit programs are in place in Australia for those who wish to leave the Sex industry?
There are no state funded educational and exit programs as far as I know. The Catholic Church funds Linda's House of Hope in Perth, run by Linda Watson, which is the only refuge in Australia which exists for women leaving prostitution. She gets women from all over Australia seeking refuge. Other catholic organisations do offer some support but there are no other refuges or actual programs.
The states that have legalised brothel prostitution might be expected to put in place such programs but if they did they might have to accept that women are desperate to leave prostitution and it is not just a job like any other. That could be embarrassing. How could you justify taking license fees and taxes from an industry that women were so desperate to seek refuge from, after all.
Are you saying that the way to go is that prostitution should not be >legalised meaning that if a woman is found to be a prostitute, she should not be charged criminally but, the male buyer and the brothel owner/pimp/trafficker/ should be charged. Although this would mean that the woman would not be able to earn an income prostituting herself because the men/traffickers would be afraid of legal prosecution, the woman would then choose to come out of the prostitution industry and would ideally be aided by a range of support programs to do this. Is this what you are advocating?
CATWA wants the women in prostitution to be decriminalised completely because they are the victims of this harmful practice. The male buyers, i.e. the perpetrators, and the third parties involved i.e. pimps, brothel owners, traffickers should be penalised. The fate of the male buyers would largely be in the hands of prostituted women who could choose if they wished to dob in a male buyer. If the men were afraid to buy women and the demand declined then the women would indeed have to find another occupation and there should be state funded training schemes and advice agencies to make this easier. The same thing happens with the end of old growth logging industries and the closing down of sawmills. Alternative employment needs to be found.
Taking into consideration your view, that women do not really have a choice in freely choosing prostitution but are driven to it due to circumstances which disempower them and teach them subjugation, do you expect that there would be a backlash from some women who have earned their income as prostitutes, if this did happen?
There will be some women who will be angry at the loss of their livelihood. That is to be expected and this happens in other industries that are closed down too. However this harmful practice and the vast and abusive international sex industry cannot be maintained just because some women will have to find other sources of income. Prostitution does not exist for women but for men. We want men's prostitution behaviour to be ended now, and this means that in future generations there will be no such occupation as prostitution in existence.
How did you create the Australian branch of Coalition Against Trafficking in Women? What was logistically involved in setting up the Australian and London Branch? Have you experienced any adverse reaction from members of the Sex Industry? How do you cope with this?
When I came to Australia from London in 1991 I had been involved in setting up organisations in the UK such as Women Against Violence Against Women and anti-pornography campaigns but there was no organisation dealing specifically with prostitution. I was astonished to find legal brothels on the street where I live in Melbourne and all over town. I asked Kathleen Barry, then director of the Coalition, if I could set up a branch in Australia in early 1994. I was on a panel with Janice G. Raymond, the present co-director, at the Feminist Bookfair in Melbourne in 1994 where she spoke about this issue. I announced I was setting up CATW Australia and collected names of those interested in joining with me. We then drew up a constitution, Thelma Solomon was very instrumental in this, and got incorporated association status under the 1981 legislation. We meet regularly in Melbourne and have an elist run by Carole Moschetti which interested women can join to discuss the issues, and a website run by Kathy Chambers, www.catwa.com.
I have received letters and email from the Eros Foundation, the lobby group for the sex industry and I know they keep an eye on what CATWA is doing.
Can you comment on what is being done about sexual exploitation of children in Australia?
Commercial sexual exploitation of children is within our brief i.e. child prostitution, porn, sex tourism. The law in Victoria says that children under 18 may not be used in legal brothels. This is not necessarily effective and the sale of children in a legal brothel in Fitzroy, Melbourne, was the subject of a court case. It would help if there was specific legislation making it an offence for men to buy children under the age of 18, for prostitution, pornography or stripping. This would help deter the male buyers and inhibit the industry.
It is ironic that there is an age limit of 18 which suggests that something changes when a girl reaches 18 even though she is quite likely to have entered prostitution below that age. As one 18 year old used in street prostitution from age 12 said in a Melbourne study, It is still rape. Internationally the vast majority of women in prostitution entered below 18 years.
How is the work of CATWA received by the United Nations?
The work of CATWA is well received in international meetings because we are able to say how disastrous the effects of legalisation have been in Australia and legalisation is a big issue on the international agenda presently. I spoke on a Swedish government panel at the Commission on The Status of Women at the UN in New York last March about the Australian situation and the several hundred delegates were very shocked. I think Australians need to know that legalisation is not necessarily seen as progressive in other countries. The European Women's League, for instance, which has 1700 women's organisations under its umbrella has the view that prostitution is violence against women. Indeed the Presidency of the EU is with Ireland just now and the new president wants all Europe to take up the Swedish solution of decriminalising women in prostitution and penalising the male buyers.
CATW International played an important role in the wording of the latest UN instrument on trafficking, the Protocol of the 2000 Convention on Transnational Organised Crime which says in Article 9 that states parties should seek to end the demand for trafficking i.e. in relation to prostitution, men's demand. There is a good deal of work going on internationally now on how to end men's demand. That will be a problem for Australia since clearly legalising brothel prostitution helps to create and sustain demand.