WHAT’S IN A NAME? THE INTERCONNECTEDNESS OF POWER TO THE CRIMINALISATION OF SEX WORK by Abena Okoampah

“Where are you going?” asked the Uber driver. I roll my eyes. They always ask this question. What is the use of the where to box on the uber app?  Why don’t they ever check that?

“It is on the same street as Jerry’s, you know Jerry’s right?” replied my travel companion.

“Oh yeah, it’s where the PPPrrroossstitutes line up right?”  I could not but hear the judgement and pride in his voice as he stressed the P word.  “They are known as sex workers”, I said to him—as politely as I could.

“Sister, aha dieh y3 fr3 wom prostitutes” he responded. I did not grace his unapologetic display of ignorance with another word.

For the next 5 minutes of the ride, I had zoned out. Only to hear him say, “those girls are disgusting. Like how can you stand there and sell your body.” I thought to myself, it is her body. I wondered why he will sit there and judge them as though it was not men like him who patronize their services and who from the demand base of the whole enterprise.

 Addressing sex work (or prostitution as some people would still like to address it) is almost a taboo in Ghana. Why it is, I do not understand. But I want to attempt to address the interconnectedness of power to the criminalization of commercial sex work. Before I continue this discussion, though, it is important to note that in this country, there are more female sex workers than male sex workers; thus in my deliberations, I shall address the sex workers as mostly she.

For most people, prostitute is just another way of saying sex worker. For such people, therefore, any attempt to distinguish them is seen as a frivolous dabbling in semantics. But not only is such a view simplistic in how it conveniently ignores the connotative variation of both words, it also conceals the true intent of why the word prostitute is particularly preferred. I think the first step to understanding the interconnectedness is to understand the effect of language and the role it plays. Carol Leigh was the first to use the term sex worker in the 1980’s when she argued that the term sex worker properly defines the work such people do rather than define them by their status. Lizzie Smith (2013) also argued that the term prostitute does not simply mean a person who sells her or his sexual labour, but brings with it layers of knowledge about worth, drug status, childhood, integrity, personal hygiene and sexual health. Moreover, prostitution is an inadequate term to describe the modern sex industry which includes cam-girls, phone sex operators, glamour models, porn stars and sugar babies, among others.

Many people refuse to recognize commercial sex work as an occupation and thus insist on calling it prostitution, because the term sex worker affords the sex workers a sense of choice and brings with it a sense of professionalism. Even more, since most men have felt entitled to women’s bodies for years, using the term sex worker, admits to the autonomy of the female body and that, unsurprisingly, brings in its wake some level of discomfort.

The effect of the use of the term prostitute is that it degrades, dehumanizes and shames sex workers. It also makes it easier to sway public opinion against them. If the public is against them, then sex work can be criminalized with very little public dissent. This, perhaps, explains why “prostitution” is still a criminal offence in many countries.

In Ghana, Section 274 (1) of the Criminal Offences Act, 1960 (Act 29) stipulates that (1) A person commits a misdemeanor who (a) knowingly lives wholly or in part on the earnings of prostitution, or (b) is proved to have, for the purposes of gain, exercised control, direction or influence over the movements of a prostitute in a manner as to aid, abet or compel the prostitution with any other person or generally.  It goes on further to state in Section 274 (2) that the Chairman ( which should be amended to chairperson) of a Regional Tribunal or a Justice who is satisfied by evidence upon oath (a) that there is a reason to suspect that any premises or part of that premises is used for the purposes of prostitution, and (b) that a person residing in or frequenting the premises is living wholly or in part on the earnings of a prostitute, may issue a warrant authorizing a police officer to enter and search the premises and to arrest that person.

This attempt at criminalizing sex work really boils down to power dynamics. Power is the ability to have something that other people desire.  In Ghana, many men feel they have control over women, whether or not they voice it out. It is evident every day when men objectify women on the street, turning them into sex objects. It manifests itself, often, in men catcalling women who do not fight back for fear of being verbally abused. What’s more, the men tend be physically stronger than the women; so it is typical that the women do not stand up for themselves. In such scenarios, it is usually the men that have the power. In fact, it has been said that the one doing the penetration in sex is the one with the power.  

Sex work changes this narrative. Rather than allowing men to objectify women’s bodies for free as is commonplace in a patriarchal society, these women use the power of the desires that men have to their advantage. The control lies with them and they have the ability and capacity to refuse the transaction and to hike up the prices for the sexual transaction. Sex workers here exercise their dominance over their customers either by denying such customers access to what they want, demanding immediate payments and or commanding higher prices. It thus comes as no surprise that such an activity would be criminalized under the disguise of lack of respectability.

Condemning sex work as shameful is an attempt to minimize the power these workers have, although these same “shamers” may also be involved in the exchange of sex and money.  For most men respectable women are women who are submissive and live under the protection of a powerful man. Commercial sex workers are usually not submissive to their clients (who are mostly men) as they have the propensity to call the shots in the commercial transaction.

Why can’t these sex workers get a proper job, you may ask? Among the litany of responses to this question is the lack of job opportunities. Another is that even when women find such “respectable jobs”, they experience sexual harassment frequently. From their superiors making unwanted sexual advances towards them, to some superiors asking them for sexual favors or demanding sex in order for the overqualified female to get that raise and or promotion she deserves based on her merits. Some people move in to sex work because they want to cash in on all the unwanted sexual attention they get when they are in such “respectable jobs”. Respectable jobs which usually do not pay a living wage. The so called respectability, it would seem, is a trap that is designed to put women at the mercy of men.

Another reason why sex work has been shunned is perhaps because in prostitution, the men cannot necessarily appropriate the labour of women. One prioritized indicator of the economy of a country is the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  It is common practice that the measurement of the GDP rests on many assumptions and judgments which omit the unpaid work done at home. Women do the majority of this unpaid work in Ghana, and because such work is not measured, it is generally overlooked by economic policy. Phyllis Deane argued that it was illogical to exclude the economic value of preparing and cooking food at home. She contended that such kinds of labour had historically been excluded because they were commonly viewed as women’s work. Although Deane tried to shed light on this injustice, very little has changed in the measurement of the GDP of a country.  Even now, the GDP of most countries exclude most of the woman’s labour done in the household. The appropriation of women’s labour continues. With sex work, women can be paid for their services, and can use such earnings for their own use.  The idea that earnings from sex work cannot be seized by men, perhaps contributes to men’s negative judgement of sex work.

Again, many conservatives believe in the idea that one should only have sex if the end result is reproduction. And most men believe that women have sex to serve the need of men, which includes giving them pleasure, acting as a receptacle for their sperm and serving as an incubator for their off springs. In light of these, how dare a woman choose to have sex to serve her own needs?  How dare she take power into her own hands and engage in sexual activity to make some financial gain and not bring forth children for men?

I am aware that there are some women who are against sex work, too, and claim objective reality as their basis for such a position. Objective reality simply refers to the collection of things that we are sure exist independently of us. According to Ann C. Scales, objective reality is a myth.  She recognizes that patriarchal myths are projections of the male psyche. Maleness has been made the norm of what is human. Thus this objective reality stance adopted by many women is just the act of imbibing patriarchal ideologies, which perpetuates the interests of men and endorses the repressive status quo.  Kathryn Abrams buttresses this point by stating that we must keep in mind that there are a range of factors that influence women’s choices. She gathers that women may be influenced by the internalization of essential elements of the dominant ideology, currently the patriarchy. She further explains that this internalization of and determination by ideology occurs beyond the conscious comprehension of women (the oppressed group). That although women may perceive their actions as freely chosen, this is far from the truth. They are influenced by the patriarchy. So can women safely say they are against sex work from an objective standpoint?  Are such women free from the influence of the male psyche?

The next time you are inclined to look down on a sex worker, think about the language power play and the false consciousness.

Credit to my travel companion for the edits  and the useful critiques.