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This paper starts with a reflection on the main tactic adopted during the Taipei prostitutes' movement, namely, the "poverty as force" rationale, and argues that a campaign strategy that focuses on the justification of prostitutes' consent to their job does not help them much; instead, it reinforces the stigma on "voluntary" prostitutes. I suggest that sex workers' activism abandons the now dominant "voluntary vs. forced" division of prostitution and, emphasizes the working conditions of sex workers rather than the reasons that underlie those workers' consent. This suggestion by no means implies that we neglect the critical moral value of consent. Rather, in light of the vague, contingent, and relative nature of consent, I argue that a focus on the practical working condition of sex workers is a more realistic and feasible strategy to prevent sex workers from being victimized. Finally, the examination of the workers' consent, while necessary, should be placed on a macro level, and to encourage the realization that prostitution and more readily accepted social institutions are equally a repetition of certain hegemonies. It is only through this approach that sex work and sex workers can gradually be de-specialized and de-stigmatized.
Keywords: prostitution, consent, whore stigma, sex workers' activism
On the morning of September 1st 1997, almost one hundred licensed prostitutes showed up at the Taipei City Council. They came to protest against the then Taipei City mayor Chen Shui-Bian, who ordered shut down all licensed brothels that had existed for four decades. Broadcast through overwhelming media coverage, their public appearance was literally a shocking scene to the general public in Taiwan. Although the prostitutes' movement only succeeded in obtaining a two-year grace period, (3) it triggered deep reflection among feminist activists and intellectuals, and the first sex workers' activist group, COSWAS (Collective Of Sex Workers And Supporters), was established in Taipei in 1999 as a legacy of the movement, with the main agenda to decriminalize and de-stigmatize prostitution.
This paper begins with a reflection on the main tactic adopted during the licensed prostitutes' movement, namely, the "poverty as force" rationale. After extensive interviews with related policy actors, including local and migrant prostitutes, clients, pimps, the police, city councilors, women's activists, and community residents in person or online, (4) I found that the licensed prostitutes' movement, while perhaps generating a more widespread and profound recognition of the licensed prostitutes' hardships, crystallized a subtler form of whore stigma on "voluntary" prostitutes. Moreover, the definition of voluntary prostitutes is so arbitrary that it can include any prostitute who is not violently coerced by another person or oppressed by extreme poverty. In other words, most prostitutes, if not all, still suffer from whore stigma, which is now a more rigorously modified concept with which to rebut any claim that prostitutes might use in justifying their decision to sell sex.
Therefore, following Jo Doezema (1998), I suggest that sex workers' activism abandons the now dominant "voluntary vs. forced" division of prostitution and, emphasizes the working conditions of sex workers rather than the reasons that underlie those workers' consent. This suggestion by no means implies that we neglect the critical moral value of consent. Rather, in light of the vague, contingent, and relative nature of consent, as will be shown in this paper, I argue that a focus on the practical working condition of sex workers is a more realistic and feasible strategy to prevent sex workers from being victimized. Indeed, this approach will not only cover the "typical" trafficked victims, defined as who "never consented" and "under ongoing exploitation ... to generate illicit profits for the traffickers," (5) but also those who might have "consented" to travel at the initial stage, but then changed their mind due to unbearable or indisposed working conditions.
Note, moreover, that 'consent' is seldom an issue that concerns other occupations (e.g., we seldom question why a woman consents to being a supermarket clerk). So long as we treat sex work as a form of labor, the criticism against prostitution should apply the same standards as those used against other gendered institutions like politics, the beauty industry, marriage, and so on. It is only through this approach that sex work and sex workers can gradually be de-specialized and de-stigmatized.
Abandonment of the voluntary-forced dichotomy does not mean that we neglect the different forces that underlie a prostitute's choice and consent. On the contrary, I agree with radical feminists' criticism of a liberal contractual perspective of consent wherein "only extreme, literal, and easily validated forms of 'coercion' or violence will qualify as an abrogation of the sexual will that must be 'interfered against'" (Haag, 1999:181). An affirmation of prostitution as work, therefore, does not preclude feminists from criticizing the sexist, classist, racist and other dominant practices embodied by this institution.
In the following, I start with a brief review of prostitutes' activism in Taiwan and the campaign strategy that COSWAS has adopted in recent years. Then I explore how the discourse about whore stigma has been modified in reaction to the licensed prostitutes' appeals, for example, to condemn only voluntary prostitutes. I further show that it is increasingly difficult to draw a line between voluntary and forced prostitutes--especially in the case of migrant prostitutes; hence, the definition of voluntary prostitutes could be expanded to such an extent that most prostitutes would be included, therein, and thus subject to discrimination. In conclusion, I suggest that on one hand, we focus on the "prostitution as sex work" strategy and the de-stigmatization of all sex workers; on the other hand, we continue to critically examine the underlying forces that confine all people's consent on a macro level. Such an examination should be used not to single out prostitution as problematic but to encourage the realization that prostitution and more readily accepted social institutions are equally a repetition of certain hegemonies.
The problem with the voluntary-forced prostitution dichotomy
In her groundbreaking essay "Forced to choose: beyond the voluntary v. forced prostitution dichotomy" (1998), Doezema shows that since the mid-1980s, the dominant abolitionist ideology against prostitution has been replaced by a new discourse that distinguishes voluntary from forced prostitution, and contends that only the latter should be abolished. Superficially, this shift seems to symbolize a respect for prostitutes' fight to self-determination. Yet Doezema warns of the danger of promoting such a distinction in that it reproduces the Whore-Madonna division among prostitutes:
The Madonna is the "forced prostitute"--the child, the victim of trafficking; she who, by virtue of her victim status, is exonerated from sexual wrong-doing. The "whore" is the voluntary prostitute: because of her transgression, she deserves whatever she gets (1998:47).
Doezema points out that not only the majority of international agreements, but …