Youth and prostitution: the Portuguese case~ 12 min

By Aline Rossi

The first time I came to live in Portugal, almost 10 years ago, I was 19. I came as a foreign student to the University of Coimbra, and the Brazilian government paid for everything.

My first surprise was to realize that many of the Portuguese people I met had never worked before the age of 21; this was especially true in the largest cities. Some were 25 or 27 and were looking for their first job ever. In Brazil, on the other hand, it is very common to start working earlier. Out of necessity, not because we are workaholics, of course. My first job experience happened when I was only 15.

My second surprise was that many people in their thirties were still living in their parents’ homes and had no prospect of leaving. That left a great impression, as I find it hard to believe that any young person between 25 and 30 wouldn’t like to have their own space and assert their autonomy.

The third surprise was that “public” universities were not actually free – in Brazil they were, and I took it for granted that they would be so everywhere else. What this implies is that those around me could obviously only be people whose families were able to afford their admission and permanence – not to say other ordinary family expenses, such as housing, electricity, water, food, clothing, leisure. After all, most young people didn’t work, and college was quite a full-time job. This also means that a significant portion of the people living in Portugal, Portuguese-born or not, had no access to higher education.

It was 2010, and Portugal was going through a crisis due to the austerity policies of the government. The situation was such that even I, a young student with a government grant and few financial responsibilities, felt the difference within the short space of two years. I felt the difference in the cost of grocery shopping (and I had no children to feed), I felt the increasing collective stress among the general population, and I especially saw in college that most of my classmates were quitting because they couldn’t afford to continue. Because their families were in debt. Those who were still there, if not simply rich, went to work in bars at night as part of a complicated effort to finish their studies.

During those years, I met the “sex work” activists who advocate for the legalization of prostitution – which is not illegal in Portugal but receives little to no attention from the State in the sense of having an effective policy of harm prevention and reduction. I went back to Brazil convinced that recognizing prostitution as “sex work” in Law was the best thing to do; because people might want to enter prostitution, because there was almost no street prostitution in Portugal, because many of the people in prostitution were even in college, because having a “sex work” contract meant rights. Most of us probably already know the arguments.

It took me a few years to find out, and I did so as I was becoming more and more a feminist activist, attending debates and participating in social intervention projects, that this was more an argumentative tactic than an observable concrete reality, and even less an effective proposal.

This image of the enlightened prostitute with a bachelor’s degree – which Rae Story, who was herself a prostitute, and is now an abolitionist campaigner, calls the “middle-classing of prostitution” – did not correspond, and still doesn’t, to the overwhelming reality of people, mostly women, in prostitution.

In fact, if in Portugal it was more common to find prostitutes in college than in, for example, Brazil, where it is pretty much visible that prostitution is a direct consequence of homelessness, poverty and hunger, it was only because college was inaccessible, and pushing women into prostitution. The tuition fees, the costs of going and staying in college as a young woman facing a precarious and underpaid labor market were unsustainable.

According to a study by the Directorate-General of Education and Science Statistics, nearly a third of students in Portugal drop out of higher education. 1 out of 2 people who enter from the age of 23 or older drop out of college without finishing (usually these are the ones who work and study after work, living an overloaded routine). The economic issue is even clearer when taking into consideration the data point that the 30% drop out in public universities is almost 40% in private universities. Unsurprisingly, women are the majority among the quitters.

And the glamorization of prostitution as empowering, as a fast-returns choice for “open-minded” people – which is, by the way, an increasingly hegemonic discourse in Academia – offers the most palpable and immediate alternative which can be reconciled with college’s schedules and demands. Of course, if you are a woman and have already been carpet-bombed during your lifetime by media references to women’s image as a sexual object for the consumption of men, this argument gains more significant weight.

The second time I moved back to Portugal, about 4 years ago, was and has been very different. I came as an immigrant with a 2-year-old son, and had to work like everyone else to provide for my family and myself.

And what I found was a job market probably worse than when I first left. I found housing rents that rose much higher than the minimum wage. Since living downtown was not possible due to the rental prices, I found out that, after all, there actually was a lot of street prostitution. Mainly on the countryside, but also in Lisbon. And they were mostly immigrant women, Brazilian like me, or African or Romanian. I also found out that my son had no day care and I would have to pay for it. I found out that paying for public transportation meant a burden on my family budget, and that not moving around would be, at the least, a violation of my civil rights.

I found that my friends, now in their 40s, had finally left their parents’ homes, but to live with 3 or 4 more people, because living on their own was impossible. How can one earn 600 euros a month and pay a 600 euros rent? What about everything else? I found out a new reality in which young people went to work earlier because they couldn’t afford college fees. I found that the student movement I followed years ago was still there with the same claims, because college is still inaccessible.

It was only now that I had become a feminist more attentive to the consequences of State policies on women’s lives that it was possible to see the reality in Portugal. The reality of earning less, which means you can afford less housing and less food, the reality of women who are immigrants working without a contract because “that’s life”, women who don’t have day care and quit their jobs when they get pregnant, or women who are cut out from job interviews because they are women and might get pregnant one day.

I found a reality of women losing their homes, some who were mothers of three or more, due to real estate speculation. And having no home, no income, while having children, is a synonym of prostitution. Especially if you are an immigrant and/or part of a racialized group.

My generation is called the “kangaroo generation” because, apparently, we “don’t want to leave our parents’ purse.”. Yes, we want to, but we can’t. We want to, but the political alternatives most governments are offering us are precariousness or prostitution. We are not the “kangaroo generation”, we are the precariousness generation.

We are the generation that has seen the explosion of the financial crises. We saw our families getting into debt from banks’ microcredit policies and, consequently, we had to find money to help out at home. We are the generation that has seen the reduction of social assistance and the increasing privatization of universities.

My generation was doomed to unstable jobs where we are called “entrepreneurs”, when we are in fact precarious, underpaid and unsure if we will have money the next month. My generation will have no home, no property, unless our parents leave it to us as inheritance; my generation need to split the rent in someone else’s house. And my generation is refusing to have children, because those of us who had children, like me, found themselves in a dead end where prostitution is not an empowering choice, but a threatening possibility sneaking about. Mostly for women.

And the political response they offer us is both unacceptable and unbelievable. We are now “able” to solve our situation by going through anal, vaginal, oral and gang-bang sex with strangers to earn a living and to have somewhere to live, something to eat and be able to study. Great, isn’t it?

What next? Will we receive vocational guidance in schools to become “sex workers”? Will we have prostitution internships and training? Will top-level, very expensive schools with alternative pedagogies, also offer, without hypocrisy, this “option” for the daughters and sons of eurodeputies, prime-ministers and presidents, so they can make a living out of selling sexual access to their bodies, reducing themselves to sex objects for someone else’s satisfaction, for anyone who can afford it? Or, predictably, is this a progressive solution for those young people, like me, of the working-class?

As if this wasn’t enough, the inevitable inequality promoted by the maintenance and the proposed naturalization of prostitution is what bothers me sharply, as a woman fighting for liberation.

We know empirically and statistically that prostitution mostly affects women. Even poor and homeless men are not as proportionally represented in prostitution as women. We find men over-represented at the forefront of business, in legal brothels that flourish like fast food franchises, and as investors in the porn industry. It’s mostly men who are selling and consuming mostly women. Young women. Often children, or adults emulating children, which is another way it affects youth, by endorsing a pedophilic culture.

And what the naturalization of the systems of prostitution teaches us, and especially young people, who will grow up receiving these cultural references, is that it is natural to sell their sexuality. It is natural to buy another human being because you want to be satisfied. It is natural for men to have power over women. After all, we are the majority who are there, serving them, and they are the majority both buying and selling us.

As a great feminist author once said, “that’s the same kind of power kings had in feudal societies: I want it, you do it. I want it now, you do it now. Bend the knee.” And if this is real, then we are not all equal. If it is real and considered normal, then there is a kind of citizen who is not that much a citizen; he, or most likely, she is a second class citizen, a “person” with less rights, who is less human because she can be bought and sold by other people. Because others have power over her and decide over her. And this second class is overwhelmingly made up of young women. Women who, while in prostitution, consequently, are pulled away from politics, from researching, from producing knowledge and from society’s productive work.

It is not the lack of a contract or a union that will make prostitution more palatable or less violent. Violence is intrinsic to prostitution because it reduces the existence of a human being, usually a woman and usually young, to sexual holes that can be bought by anyone who can afford it, usually a man. Violence is intrinsic to prostitution because it is the very condition of being bought and sold that makes prostitution violent, not a choice, not a job – and a “sex work” contract does not change this reality.

Abortion is a reality in prostitution, and the contract does not change that reality. Abuse is a reality in prostitution, and a contract does not change that reality. Poverty and sexism create prostitution, and my generation, we young people, are heavily coping with this, and having a “sex work” contract doesn’t change that reality. They are proposing the recognition in Law of violence and inequality, not a public policy to help women, men and children in prostitution. The proposal to legally recognize it as a work offers no way out. It doesn’t prevent or reduce harm. All it does is create and perpetuate a vicious cycle of state-legitimized sexual exploitation.

So as a woman, as a human being with the right to participate in politics and to be heard on what is being decided about my future, my present and my life, as a mother of a young child, as a feminist, I absolutely reject the offer from representatives of worldwide civil society for the professionalization of sexual violence against women as an alternative to having access to our most basic human rights: housing, health, education, food and sovereignty over our own bodies. This is nonnegotiable.

I reject a future based on political, economic and social inequality between the sexes. I refuse a precarious future, for our well-being and civil plenitude is not reconcilable with the commodification of something as intimate as our sexuality, our subjectivities and our bodies.

We demand proper political responses to address the conditions that make prostitution real: the precariousness of work, homelessness, the denial of citizenship rights to immigrant and refugee people, the lack of family assistance policies, the institutional male-chauvinism. We demand that real alternatives be offered to women who want to leave the system of prostitution, and if we agree that yes, it is violence indeed, as written in the CEDAW (Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women) international agreement, we demand that those who perpetuate it, whether as buyers, sellers or facilitators, be held responsible and re-educated.

We won’t accept the selling of the youth to pimps and sex traffickers under the name of “sex work”.

Aline Rossi writes in Portuguese at the blog Feminismo com Classe, where she also publishes translated feminist texts from all over the world at a prolific pace.

Liked the article? Consider subscribing to our newsletter. It allows us to reach you directly and avoid social network censorship.

Follow our work on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram or Telegram; or share it by using the pretty red buttons below.

Right Menu Icon