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We have a ‘duty to imagine a world without prostitution as we do a world without slavery, without apartheid, without gender-based violence, female infanticide and genital mutilation’. This statement revolves around a worldwide debate as to whether or not prostitution is a form of exploitation or if it is a profession that should be regulated – an argument strongly led by the feminist movement. The issue to be discussed is that, while the legitimisation of prostitution allows these women the rights they deserve, it also allows for ‘pimping, sex-buying and brothel owning’, and therefore, how this influences the socialisation of young boys, in terms of consent and the treatment of women. This will be done in reference to a popular Hollywood film, Pretty Woman, in order to highlight boundaries of consent in regards to prostitutes, and how this also influences the argument of decriminalisation and the true reflection of the violence women face at the hands of their consumers.
As prostitution is generally believed to be a lowly woman’s job, or one that a woman is forced to partake in, a stigma is then created around the boundaries of what is allowed to take place in this environment, an argument that moulds into the idea of the continued criminalisation of prostitution, and the affects that this may have on the safety of these women. Journalist, Genevieve Carbery writes, in an Irish Times article named, Prostitution should be classified as gender-based violence, that many sex-workers were reluctant to tell the Gardaí about violent attacks as they feared judgment. This is highly resonant of rape culture, in which this violence is normalised, which therefore implies that the stigma surrounding rape and gender-based violence, makes many women fearful to come forward. However, prostitutes face even larger obstacles, due to the socialisation of consent in the media, leading many to believe that the act of violence is justifiable as she is a prostitute.
While decriminalisation may arguably have these affects, it is clear through the representation of prostitution in popular culture, that there is already a degree of socialisation occurring, in regard to consent and how a woman is treated if she is associated with sex work. While Pretty Woman is marketed as a romantic comedy, this image is routinely shattered throughout the film. For instance, when during an argument, about how Edward had confided in others that Vivian is a prostitute, he stated, “I hate to point out the obvious, but you are in fact a hooker. You are my employee”.
While the two make amends a few minutes later, reforming the romantic plot, it is clear that their relationship is more so an arrangement based on monetary payment, which is again confirmed later in the movie, in which he proposes a trip to New York, but again offers her payment to do so. In a later scene, Vivian is alone with Edwards business partner, and despite the fact she had rejected him by both flinching away and telling him no , he stated, “what? you’re not a whore?”, before slapping her and pinning her to the ground, intending to rape her. He later justifies his actions when caught by proclaiming, “she’s a whore, man”.
This interaction is vital when in the context of socialisation. His justification arguably implies that because Vivian is a prostitute, the violent scene in which he slaps and attempts to rape her, is therefore justifiable. Not only does this reinforce the argument that the decriminalisation of prostitution may lead to the increased risk of gender-based violence, but it will also make it entirely legal. While it is important to note the potential problems with prostitutions legitimation here, Pretty Woman arguably offers an insight into the representation of prostitution in popular culture. The film evidently highlights the issue of consent and the treatment of prostitutes by men in power, however, the happy ending glosses over the reality of prostitution. Not only does it end with the idea that this wealthy, white, powerful man is ultimately saving the day, “so what happened after he climbed up the tower and rescued her?”, it also concludes with a fairy tale-esque ending, rendering Vivian a damsel in distress, who could have only be saved by her knight-in shining-armour, who just so happens to be the man who previously purchased her services.
In conclusion, the opposing beliefs of prostitutions legitimisation raises issues of both consent and gender-based violence. While some believe that prostitution should strictly be classified as gender-based violence, some feminists believe that women should have the right to control who or what uses their body, therefore, challenging traditional attitudes of the feminine body. In reference to, Pretty Woman, we can arguably conclude that popular culture has contributed to the stigma that has been created through the justification that violence and the lack of consent with prostitutes is acceptable as they are offering a service. Lastly, it is argued that decriminalisation will ultimately lead to both safety measures and union rights for these women or to the socialisation of younger boys in a world in which prostitution is regulated, therefore promoting the belief that a woman is an object or a product of a neoliberal, consumerist society.
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