Red alert over red light debate

April 18, 1997

THINKING of prostitution as a normal job does not empower the prostituted women, as some sociologists suggest, and could be counter-productive in debates over legalising the practice, researchers at the University of Westminster have argued, writes Phil Baty.

Ruth Swirsky and Celia Jenkins, of the university's Harrow Business School, argued at the BSA conference that those who portray prostitution as an occupation like any other, with its unique skills, structure and conditions, often wrongly assume an element of free-choice and ignore the fact that many prostitutes are forced into the practice.

"The debate over prostitution revolves around issues of choice, the nature of work, gendered power relations, exploitation and violence," the researchers said.

"Drawing on evidence in ethnographic studies of prostitutes, we argue that conceptualising prostitution as work serves in the long run to disempower prostituted women, for whom physical violence and abuse from pimps and punters is common place," they said. It was important to air this view in the political debate about legalising brothels or zoning.

Brunel University's Melissa Friedberg told the conference she had found a link between women who had been in care and prostitution.

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