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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
found that my friends, now in their 40s, had finally left their
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.
found a reality of women losing their homes, some who were mothers
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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