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When the Tasmanian Branch of the Australian Nursing Federation several years ago drew attention to violence by patients against nurses no one spoke of “harm minimization”. Such violence was seen by government and hospital administrators as totally unacceptable and needing to be prevented.

Although no group of women can be regarded as immune to male violence prostitution has been called “uniquely dangerous” and prostitutes suffer levels of violence which if directed at the same percentage of waitresses or secretaries would horrify and outrage the community.

At the heart of any attempt to understand must be the concept of morals. I know this isn’t a popular word in the 21st century though we apparently have no problems with levels of violence unthinkable in a Neanderthal community. But morals simply refer to the way a society has chosen to regulate the behaviour of its people.

Prostitution was very rare in “primitive”, tribal, and traditional communities. People’s relationships occurred within intricately delineated kinship groups, they needed to avoid transgressing important taboos such as the incest taboo, and children were often absorbed into their father’s totem group. Though structures and beliefs varied children born without known fathers effectively belonged nowhere and without a totemic ancestor could be regarded as non-persons. Aboriginal societies were prostitution-less societies. It was only the intrusion of increasing numbers of foreign males without female companions—drovers, pastoralists, soldiers, traders, fishermen and sealers, bureaucrats, missionaries—who put pressures on traditional communities to provide women for sexual services and which led to the growing numbers of fatherless children who had no obvious place or role in such communities. Far from being part of the ‘glue’ holding communities together prostitution became a symptom of the breakdown of previously cohesive communities.

(In passing, it is incorrect to call prostitution a profession. This trivialises and misleads. It is precisely because prostitution targets the poorly educated and unskilled that it must be seen as an exploitative industry. I know that university graduates at times turn to prostitution to pay their fees, which says something about our failures to support students adequately, but brothels are not jam-packed with university graduates. And it is poor Asian girls without English who are being trafficked into Australia; not well-educated Australian girls being trafficked into Asia.) Whether we look at morals in terms of the Western religious tradition or from the point of the intricate rules which govern behaviour in tribal societies the concept comes back not to who we are but what we do. We have developed our police, legal systems, and government legislation based on the moral capacity of adult human beings to distinguish right from wrong (and to prove that this moral capacity is diminished or non-existent requires sufficient evidence to convince a court); but these avenues are geared to the grosser manifestations of moral breakdown. In fact morals underpin all our human interactions no matter how small. They are necessary to enable complex and crowded communities to function. Where they break down under extreme pressures—such as bombing raids, extreme weather events, prolonged conflict—an anarchic and dangerous society is likely to result.

Even if people have not come across Jesus’s request “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” they still hope that other human beings will respect their safety and their belongings and will treat them with reasonable decency, kindness, and respect. They are depending on the moral basis to all human interactions to make life liveable. Our status as moral beings is essential to our humanity.

Many years ago I heard a group of young Aussie sailors from a naval vessel which shall remain nameless talking about the hard time they had given the prostitutes in Singapore; in effect they were boasting about hurting a group of young women for no other reason than that the women were taking money for sex. If we heard a diner boasting about the way he had hurt the waitress who brought him his meal we would regard him as abnormal, weird, probably psychopathic. Yet we regard the hurting of prostitutes if not as normal then certainly as unsurprising.

Clearly the violence is widespread and systemic, not the occasional aberration of a psychopathic client. It exists whether prostitution is legal or illegal, whether it is regulated or not, whether it occurs indoors or out, whether it occurs in capital cities or remote mining camps; it occurs whether the prostitute is a poor woman earning a few pence in a Third World country or $1,000 a night in a plush hotel here.

We could say that it is simply another manifestation of general male violence against women but this does not explain the abuse of male prostitutes nor does it explain why male violence is not integral to all the work women do. If fathers picking up their children regularly split the lips or broke the bones or poured out a stream of filthy language on to childcare workers they would be blacklisted, the police would be involved, and there would quite likely be a national enquiry. Yet day in day out prostitutes suffer verbal violence, slapping, punching, biting, all kinds of mean and spiteful cruelties and humiliations, the refusal to stop uncomfortable or painful activities, right up to serious injuries and even death.

The ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ claimed it was a prostitute cheating him out of £5 which set him off on his murder trail which took the lives of more than ten prostitutes. And there were actually people who found this quite understandable. Yet if a man went out and murdered ten waitresses because of one small overcharge on one bill we would find this horrifying and inexplicable.

Other kinds of transactions involve two or more strangers but only in prostitution (and some medical interventions) does the transaction involve the most intimate physical contact possible between human beings and only in prostitution does the payment of money link to the removal of the moral dimension to the interaction. The client is not saying “Even though our relationship will be brief it will be marked out by mutual respect and concern”; rather he is saying “I am buying the right to use your body solely for my own reasons, the right to ignore your humanity, and the right to intrude upon your person in any way I wish because you are not a moral being during this exchange but merely a body with a number of orifices”.

But by denying her humanity by extension he undermines his own. His sense of self image is diminished, whether this is clearly understood or only vaguely intuited, because men are aware that men in happy loving relationships marked by mutual respect and concern for each other as human beings are not rushing to line up at the door of their nearest brothel.

It has been said that rape is not about sex but about rage or revenge. To suggest that prostitution is not about sex in a sex-saturated society may seem unrealistic. But I would suggest that it is about failure. Whatever reason or justification a client gives to himself to seek out and pay for sex with an anonymous person he is aware that it is an admission that he does not have relationships or that the relationships are flawed; at some level the mutuality of himself as a moral being relating to other moral beings has failed. Men seeking out prostitutes are more likely to have a poor self-image than men who would find such seeking unacceptable.

And the violence regularly visited on prostitutes, I would suggest, directly relates to this sense of failure. Even so, most men would contain such violence if they saw themselves as acting within moral boundaries. It is because prostitution explicitly or implicitly enables those boundaries to be set aside that the normal constraints fail. For the period during which the prostitute does not need to be seen as a moral being in her own right she can be seen as an object to be mistreated, humiliated, or exposed to behaviours which the moral underpinnings to society treat as unacceptable in the interaction of two autonomous moral beings.

He may call it “showing her who’s boss”, “putting her in her place”, “she asked for it”, “she enticed me by flaunting naked skin, talking dirty” and so on. You have probably heard the reasons men bring out to justify such violence. Or the violence may occur at a more visceral and unexamined level. But the violence like all violence designed to bolster a poor self-image (and this goes too for people like the schoolyard bully) only provides a brief moment of power, a brief respite from that self-image of failure—and ultimately lowers it further. A man who is violent to one prostitute will very likely be violent to another prostitute. Like an adrenalin rush or a drug high it doesn’t last long and leaves the perpetrator to again face his own sense of poor self-worth.

Down through the ages sages have looked at the way that violence is visited on the powerless. We often talk of blaming the victim, of those we know we have wronged, but without asking about the dynamics behind the violence. The victim is vulnerable to low self-esteem and studies have shown that young homeless girls in Russia drawn into prostitution failed to develop a genuine sense of self—but the perpetrator is also vulnerable.

Each bout of physical or verbal abuse further undermines that sense that a moral being does not behave in ways that step outside moral boundaries.

The sense of being human is a moral construct and we undermine it at our peril. When a newly redundant husband takes his frustration out on his wife he further undermines his sense of self-worth while doing nothing to find another job. Soldiers who have shot surrendering prisoners, men who have hurt or humiliated prostitutes … they are all struggling to convince themselves that the moral dimensions to human life don’t matter or don’t apply to them. And in doing so they further undermine themselves and make future violence (unless they get help) more likely.

So how might we as a society respond? First of all we can stop accepting violence against prostitutes as somehow natural, normal, understandable, even to be expected. We can throw out that bogus moral concept of “Harm Minimization”; no degree of harm is acceptable. Any human activity in which “harm” is not a mutually agreed possibility (such as boxing) must find the possibility of harm being visited on one party to a transaction morally repugnant and unacceptable.

And then we can throw open the doors to broader discussions on why we as a society have for so long either accepted or turned a blind eye to violence against prostitutes. Should we for instance make it mandatory that all such violence be reported? Should we bring Alternatives to Violence Programs into all schools? The Nordic Model which treats prostitutes as victims and clients as criminals has a counselling component but how well does this work and how are candidates for counselling selected and how might we adapt the idea?

We can tackle violence in all kinds of ways, from legislation to better parenting, but at the heart of it is a need to understand that violence and cruelty undermines our humanity and damages our society. We are not a better society for condoning violence against prostitutes. We are a worse one.