Aline Rossi is a Brazilian feminist activist and member of the Feminist Assembly of Lisbon (Assembleia Feminista de Lisboa).
“Realising change” session
Just to give a little context, the first time I encountered the issue of prostitution was in 2011, here in Portugal. At the time, I went to an event on “Sex work”, after which a mini documentary was exhibited and was followed by a debate. They talked about the lack of rights for people in prostitution and how lack of legislation made them vulnerable, therefore it was very important to regulate as soon as possible. I left that conference totally convinced that regulating prostitution was the most urgent matter of the day. Because some people wanted to do it. Because people have the right to do it. I returned to Brazil with that certainty.
I was 19 years old. I was a student. I did not have any political training or real theoretical basis in feminist theory or any other area of social studies to reflect upon what I had heard before. Who was I to deny rights to people in prostitution? To oppose to their individual freedom?
But it was easy to imagine all of that in Portugal, particularly in my condition. In university, I didn’t need to work to pay my bills, I had a monthly grant from the Brazilian state which allowed me to live comfortably. It was easy to idealize prostitution. But then I returned to Brazil. And it is very hard to idealize in Brazil, particularly if you do not come from a rich family, like me. There, I participated in a project to alphabetize people who live in the streets. And most of those people, who could not read or write, were prostituted women. It was easy to understand the connection: lack of housing and job, meant prostitution.
None of them spoke about prostitution as work nor did they want to be in it. Those who were in prostitution less talked about it as a “temporary situation”, something “they had to do” then to get something better. They wanted out. They did not want to be known as prostitutes, they did not want to be “sex workers”. They wanted out of the streets. They wanted to make enough money to exist, survive, live – things any other human being is entitled to, right? Housing, health, respect, freedom from violence.
I met about 200 different women. Different ages, background, beliefs. They never dreamt of being prostitutes when they were children. And, of course, it goes without saying that 98% of the people I was with were women and the other 2% were trans. Then, my outlook changed. I started researching more about the countries that had regulated prostitution and the results were not good to look at or positive. In many of those countries, even the unions of prostituted women wanted to fight some of the changes. One of the texts that really opened my eyes was by Sabrinna Valisce in BBC. After that, I could not idealize anything any further.
But you can tell me: Portugal is not Brazil. Here, we hardly see any street prostitution. It is true, and I hope the goal is not to “become Brazil”. But you can’t ignore that a great amount of prostituted people in Portugal are migrants. Many Brazilian women come by themselves or are trafficked in the country to prostitute themselves in search of a better life. And that’s not all. You also have Romanians and Africans. Always women who come from poverty-stricken countries and devastated by colonialism. Running away from poverty cannot be thought of as any kind of choice- how low are our standards of humanity and dignity? There isn’t a pattern of humanity for women in Portugal and other in Brazil and another in India. If something can be done to women in Brazil, it can also be done to women in Portugal or India. Because we are women, that group to whom these things are done. Because of that, either politics are international or they are insufficient.
When I returned to Portugal in 2016, the narrative had changed. It changed from “we need to give more rights to people in prostitution” to “sex is a human right”. The focus changes from the person in prostitution, which used to need rights, to the buyer, so that any person may have the right to buy sex. And anyone who disagrees with that is a “whorephobic”, someone who hates prostituted women and has blood on their hands.
Mas a right implies a duty. When you say that someone is entitled to sex, that implies that someone else has to provide the sex. And the data is very clear on the gender bias here: women are the majority in prostitution and men are the majority of buyers. It is a matter of sexual oppression. Women do not owe sex to anyone. And if we believe that they do and recognize that legally: that women owe sex to men and men can buy women for sex, because sex is a right, then the situation is even worse than what we thought. That was exactly the idea behind the denial of “marital rape”, because sex was a right that woman owed man by marriage. And marriage was how women could find housing and support. Which equals money.
I am no longer that student. I work and I have a small child, who has specific needs. I have much more realistic notions of what it means to have and not have money and house to live in, specially because of him. And I think about it a lot, because the lack of shelter, of housing, it one of the pre-conditions for prostitution, mainly for mothers. Lisbon, and beyond, is going through a housing crisis and every day I see other people being thrown out of their houses and I have to face reality that, if I do not have the money to pay my rent, it’s going to be me and my son who are thrown out. Without a house, and being a woman in a society that normalizes the act of buying women for sexual use, I am much close to prostitution than all the academic that defend legalization of the demand, as individual freedom, while receiving grants and go out with friends, without even having kids to raise. I really do think about it a lot.
Because of that, and because I understand that we do not make it this far by accident, that there is a certain historical development that could only take us here – a development that involves women being legal property of men, being forbidden to work, to study, to inherit, open bank accounts in their own names, etc – I think a serious policy about prostitution must have a basis, a premise and a horizon. The basis is this: the historical construct of prostitution, the understanding that the organization of society pushed women to prostitution due to a lack of alternatives and not by choice; the premise is that is it wrong to use another person for our own sexual benefit, and the horizon is that a society free from prostitution in which no one requires or is forced to sell her body for sexual use in exchange for money to exist and survive and support her kids.
That can only be achieved through a policy that helps women exit that situation. That understand that it is not possible to “exit when you feel like it”, because you need money to pay the rent, you need to feed yourself. So, we need shelter, we need public investment and a policy that acts for the prevention, reparation and education. That criminalizes demand. That says clearly that no one has the right to pay and abuse the body of someone else, no one can buy another person, no one can pay to use the body of another person as a sex object. That is a serious policy, that must be seriously executed to produced effects. A public policy that does not criminalize nor punish women for the situation of vulnerability they are in, but that can punish and criminalize men who use social and economic power to abuse a vulnerable person, whether buying or selling. Does not matter the race and social standing of this man, he must be made accountable for it, so that there is a consciousness raising in society that no one can buy or sell another person and that sex is not a right or a duty. I am for an internationalist Nordic model, otherwise sex traffickers will only change the destination and women will continue to be at risk.
A whole generation of feminists fought for future generations. Thanks to my mom’s generation, I can get a divorce, work for the state, vote and denounce rape. I would like my generation to leave the following legacy for the next: legal and safe abortion and serious policies so that no other woman can be bought or sold in prostitution. My son will grow up knowing he will never have the right to pay to use another woman’s body just because he wants to have sex – and because she needs the money for shelter and food.