SheHUB Nigeria: Selling Sex-How Prostitution is a Barrier to Women’s Liberation

In a world where the commodification of women’s bodies is a norm and prostitution flourishes, rape culture will continue to thrive, and women’s liberation will fundamentally become impossible.

On Christmas Eve of 2019, 21-year-old Kelly shares her ordeal on record as a prostitute. For almost 30 minutes, without shedding a tear and desperate to tell it all, she reveals gory details of how she got into the sex trade industry and her trauma from the ordeal.

“I have never been to a high school. All I know is the streets. I got put into prostitution, and that’s really all I know. My pimp would make me sell myself. I’ve been selling my vagina since I was 11 years old, and before that, I got raped, abused, and tortured treacherously.

“I’ve been raped on the blade; I’ve had a gun put up to my head on a blade. The first time I was ever raped was at the age of five by my foster father. Now, my vagina is damaged. I don’t even like showing my lower body,” Kelly recounted.The history of prostitution stems from the need of bourgeois men to access the bodies of proletarian women. The misogynistic practice has, however, been sustained through decades via socio-cultural phenomena. Many sex buyers and liberal women often paint prostitution as an empowering act and call for decriminalisation. Most pro-sex trade activists argue that prostitution allows women to make good and easy cash with little to no negative consequences.

In the 2009 Journal opinion article titled A Feminist’s Argument On How Sex Work Can Benefit Women, European pro-sex trade activist Kelly J. Bell argues that “sex work can be very profitable for women.”

She adds, “Sex work is not inherently exploitative of women.”

Her argument couldn’t be farther from the truth, especially in Africa. In Angola, girls as young as 12 make as little as 40 cents when they engage in prostitution. The Emergency Director of World Vision in Angola, Robert Bulten, said a girl might get 500 kwanzas, estimated to be one dollar for sex – enough to buy about a kilo of beans or two kilos of maise – but could also get as little as 200 kwanzas.

Not only is the act of prostitution barely profitable for women who are involved, but unlike many pro-sex trade activists’ argument of it being a choice, for many Black prostitutes, women with the littlest choices often become working girls.
Robert Bulten reveals that due to the drought facing the south of Angola for decades, little girls in the country are forced to engage in the trade to feed their families and for their survival. Bulten’s explanation is consistent with the United Nations’ record that 45 million people in southern Africa face hunger amid a “silent catastrophe” caused by repeated drought, widespread flooding, and economic chaos.

Although prostitution is illegal in Angola– banned since the 1990s–women’s experiences in countries where it is legalised aren’t any better. Prostitution is legal in approximately 52 per cent of countries worldwide and limitedly legal in 12 per cent of countries.

Sierra Leone is one of the countries where prostitution is legalised, with 240,000 women in the country engaging in the sex trade, according to the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS. In a BBC documentary released on Feb. 8, 2021, Lady P and other prostitutes in the country shared their ordeals. Lady P said that one of their friends, a prostitute, was brutally murdered: “They cut her body and feet.”

In one study, the estimated death rate of women in prostitution is 40 times higher than the general population. Now, how is that empowering?

Aside from prostitution being anything but empowering, it inherently conflicts with consent culture. For sexual consent to be valid, it must be freely given, reversible, informed and enthusiastic. However, an Israeli survivor of prostitution, Dana Levy, noted that all these factors are barely present in the context of prostitution. Consent does not exist in prostitution, as it is never given unless money is involved. In a society where prostitution thrives, rape culture will continue to persist. It is also impossible to reconcile women’s agitation not to be raped while arguing that men should have the right to coerce women into sex so far as he has the money.

Also, while many pro-sex trade activists attempt to paint prostitution as liberating, it is dehumanising. On Nigerian Twitter, there is a regular trend of the word ‘Olosho,’ a degrading Yoruba term used to refer to women who participate in the sex trade, but also extends to any woman men do not like.

So, how can women be socially respected and viewed as equal to their male counterparts in a society where men can rent women’s bodies for ejaculation? It’s simply impossible. For women’s liberation to be a reality, the degrading notion of women’s bodies being up for sale must be eliminated.

Legally, prostitution should not be acceptable. However, while prostitution is banned in 35 per cent of countries in the world, to protect prostitutes, the Nordic model, which eliminates criminal penalties for selling sex but retains penalties for buyers, should be implemented instead in every continent. Although the nordic model might not be a perfect solution to the challenges of prostitutes, it is a start if there is to be any hope for women’s social, economic, and political liberation in society.

As a society, it is also important that we change our disposition toward prostitution and desist from encouraging girls to see the sex trade as a credible option for financial success. Feminists should dedicate resources to finding a sustainable solution to dismantling prostitution while providing provisional support for women in the industry.

Simbiat Bakare is a Nigeria-based freelancer.

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