Thursday, May 24, 2007

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Being "on the game" is a Western euphemism that insults as well as harms. It insults because prostitution is hard and unpleasant and often dangerous work. It harms because society punishes those who sell their bodies outside marriage. Prostitution is no "game". Nonetheless, the euphemism is useful in that it reveals the usual contempt with which prostitutes are viewed and the consequent lack of provision for their specific needs, and for the needs of women in general.

In Western society prostitutes have formed unions and have taken to the streets to protest against the cynical morality of those who condone marriage of convenience but balk at their more straightforward counterpart.

In Eritrea, traditional attitudes towards unregulated sex are uncompromising; sex outside marriage is "prostitution" and the reaction to this societal threat is ostracism of the woman. The language reflects this with implacable bluntness; "Shermuta", "Menzra" and "Meamen" are all terms for "Whore". And they mean just that.

Before the 1998 war between Eritrea and Ethiopia, a survey by the Social Affair Authority (SAA) showed that the number of Eritrean and Ethiopian working girls in Asmara and other cities were almost equal. After the expulsion of all Ethiopian women who used to work in bars and hotels, the majority of prostitutes who work in the cities now are Eritreans.

Prevailing economic conditions as well as the inevitable changes arising from the growth of urban heterogeneity mean that the proportion of Eritrean prostitutes is rising. Sexual mores are changing among young people. The equation between extra-marital sex and prostitution means that losing her virginity makes a girl unmarriageable, and an outcast from her community. Lacking the educational qualifications necessary for work in the city, the girl may find employment in a bar where peer and financial pressures lead her to take the only immediate option for survival.

Girls as young as 16 years old are entering into Asmara, Keren and Massawa, from rural areas, and almost all who do become prostitutes. A lot of them support their families without telling them where the money is coming from. Some of them want to do it for a little time and then do something else, get married and have kids - the same dreams and aspirations as other women. But, no one gets a clean slate around the corner street of Asmara.

According to the Ministry of Health’s policy, every bar owner in Asmara and other cities and towns is required to register the prostitutes working from their premises. But fear of disclosure means that women try to avoid giving their names or operate from private, in unlicensed places called "Segretos". And pimps are unlikely to step forward and admit the source of their income.
Anonymity may save a woman from censure, but it makes her vulnerable to STD and AIDS. Although AIDS awareness among the known prostitutes is high, no survey has been conducted among other women who sell their body for quick cash in secret without the knowledge of their partners. Married women are ashamed to visit a clinic for a check-up in case they are spotted by someone who knows them.

Being "on the game" is not for a laugh; in the market economy, selling your body for sex is a form of wage slavery - exchanging the commodity you have (ie. Sex) for the one you don’t (money). There is also an ideological undertow dragged along in the wake of this modish new sex trade, the one about control of one’s own body. To sell yourself for sex, and be okay with, it is in the same league as tattooing or piercing your body.

The vast majority of those who enter into the sex trade have no control of their lives let alone their bodies. They do not have any other means of income except to trade sex for money.

Why should society criminalise these prostitutes? It is all hypocrisy. Those who campaigns for family values seem not to realise that marriage itself is but state-licenced prostitution. As members of the working class, who have nothing to sell but their labour power, prostitutes sell sexual satisfaction to male buyers. On the other hand, many women enter into marriage for little more than the financial security it offers.

In order to survive, to eat, to buy some clothes, it is tempting to accept the offer of the pimp who tells the young woman that she will be provided with security as an employee. Under the present social system if you are a member of the working class you need to sell what you possess, your mental and physical energies, to whomever will make a purchase. In many societies this is not just earning a little extra cash, but the very means of survival. They call it the oldest profession in the world. Indeed it is – it has been around since the birth of class society.

Michael Ghebre
African Socialist 5


Selam said...

Reading this entry I thought all along "it must be a pimp writing". At the end, surprise, surprise, the author is male!

ajohnstone said...

I'm not sure what your criticism of the article is , because you failed to offer one . Perhaps you should have expanded on that aspect , rather than the cheap reverse sexism of alluding to the author as a pimp .