Valgerður H. Bjarnadóttir, director of the Centre for Gender Equality, Iceland
Chairman, excellencies, ministers, distinguished sisters and brothers ….
The common belief that prostitution is women’s earliest profession is a misunderstanding, but the history of prostitution is nevertheless a long and complex one. The earliest records of prostitutes include ancient stories of the Sumerian goddess Inanna and the Babylonian Ishtar, called Sacred Harlots in the myths. The Norse goddess Freyja was said to have made love to all the gods, elves, dwarfs and giants. In exchange for four nights with the dwarfs, she aquired her priceless jewel, symbol of power, the Brísingamen. She was free to exchange sex for jewels, she was powerful and proud and her sexuality was sacred. The priestesses of the Roman Vesta and the Greek Horaes performed sacred sexual rituals, as representatives of the Goddess. They were respected, held in high esteem. In Greece and Asia minor a woman who had the background of a harlot, was sought after as a bride by kings and emperors. Mary Magdalene is probably the most renowned of the early priestesses of sexuality, but even though Christ chose her as his mate, by that time prostitutes had lost their sacred status and power. Women had lost their place as equals to men. Men ruled in a patriarchal world and defined the roles of women. They still do to a large extend, as we have heard here.
There is a direct link between the general political and financial situation and power of women and the sexual health of the society. Our societies are sexually unhealthy and the situation of today’s harlot is as far from the early picture of the myths as one can imagine. Although some of the old respect lingers in tales of the happy whore, the reality of today’s prostitutes all over the world is nothing less than sickening. Theirs is the life of an enslaved prisoner, either literally or indirectly. Research shows that 50-90% of the victims of prostitution have been victims of sexual abuse in childhood. A direct link is between the sex industry and the illegal drug industry. The victims of modern prostitution are sold and bought, mistreated, exploited, humiliated in ways that we, the fortunate ones, cannot even imagine. This is nothing new. In the 19th century Gold Rush in the US, shiploads of young Chinese girls were trafficked over the Pacific. The Singsong girls were sold into slavery, chained to their beds, where they were raped and mutilated by their own countrymen as well as others, days and nights, until they gave up and died, always leaving great profit for their exploiters, in those days thought to be more secure than gold digging. In Victorian England, esteemed gentlemen were willing to pay high prizes to be able to deflower young virgins, enslaved children. As a sport so-called gentlemen killed and tortured the prostitutes, often cutting the sinews of their legs to punish and cripple them for life.
Until recently the so-called civilized world chose to think of these tales as stories belonging to a dark and gone age. In the small and friendly welfare state of Iceland prostitution was a well hidden secret until recently. New research shows that prostitution exists there as elsewhere, with all its dark sides, oppression, exploitation, violence, abuse, some say even trafficking and slavery. Now we all know that there are young women, girls and boys all over the world of today, exploited for more illegal profit than any other business gives. Hotels and resorts in exotic places where we relax from our daily work, are being built for profit money from prostitution and trafficking. A huge stream in the global economy, in which we are all taking part, derives from the terrifying enslavement of our sisters and children all over the world.
The authorities of the countries taking part in this conference are all guilty of having neglected to acknowledge this reality, until very recently. There is now a general awakening among authorities as well as the public, but still we have a long way to go. I know the road is not without pitfalls and dead ends. The official politics in those 12 countries vary from legal condemnation or criminalizing of the buyers of women and children’s sexual services, known as the Swedish approach, to the general acceptance and legalisation of the sex exploitation industry. Some countries wish to bring the profit of the industry into the public economy. We must however not forget the high cost, both direct and indirect of the health problems and waste of lives involved in this business. No nation can profit from prostitution. In discussions around the legalisation of prostitution the freedom factor has been in focus. We are probably all confused at this time by conflicting ideas of sexuality and freedom ruled by our time’s greatest deity, the god of global economy. We have lived for centuries thinking of sexuality as a sin, and women as sinful. We live in a world where everything, from the most sacred to the most destructing, is sold at the marketplace, and if not legally then underground and in cyberspace. The sacredness of sexuality and human life is disregarded in that marketplace. In that context, all talk of freedom for the workers in the sex business is pointless. The freedom of choice does not exist for the women, let alone the children.
Women and men of this audience. Authorities, researchers and NGO’s on national and international levels have to join forces to combat this ugly spot in our societies. The issues discussed in all the other workshops need to be addressed, because the many problems are all puzzles in one picture. We want to be able to live and develop in male/female balanced, democratic spocieties, but how can we even talk of democracy, while slavery is allowed to flourish among us.