Does the Portrayal of Women as Victims Cross the Line from Protecting to Patronizing?

Emma Cripps, Guest Writer

The importance of personal liberty is an issue that has long existed in American society. In fact, since the birth of the nation there has been debate involving where the statutory line between personal liberty and public safety should be drawn. We like to give people the right to make their own life decisions, but what if those decisions could potentially be harmful? At what point do citizens need to be protected from themselves? Throughout history, the way that this question has guided us has varied, but disputes about where the government’s priorities should lie have remained a debated topic. However, this is also a societal issue. Discussions about scenarios in which people can and can’t be held responsible for decisions are extremely inconsistent and, at times, degrading. Women are one of many groups of people affected by the government (and society as a whole) believing that they need to be protected from themselves. Although this seems like it could be helpful to them, it is actually extremely degrading and patronizing. In trying to protect women, the government and the public take away women’s equality and agency.

One clear example of women not being trusted with decisions regarding themselves can be seen through statutes and public opinion regarding prostitution. The issue of prostitution is fairly unique in that it disproportionately pertains to women and is primarily discussed in the context of women. This means that when laws are put in place to regulate it, it is hard for them not to target women. i94 can be incredibly dangerous and is often forced. In this way, some people need protection from it. However, if women are consciously deciding to participate in prostitution, they should legally and morally be given the responsibility for those decisions. Many statutes regarding prostitution cross the line from protecting to patronizing women.

Arguments about prostitution typically revolve around whether it is inherently degrading to women, whether elected prostitution tends to proliferate forced sex trafficking, and whether it is generally too unjust and dangerous for the government to condone. The issue with all these points is that they can be looked at from either perspective without seeming contrived. Whether prostitution is degrading to women is a perfect example of this. From one side, it objectifies women and suggests that their bodies are no more than tools of pleasure for men to rent. However, from the other side, it gives women a chance to be empowered and use their sexuality as a means of providing for themselves. Women are already sexualized, and, through prostitution, they can take control of that and use it to their advantage. These are both very sane and measured points, but they are also in direct contrast to each other. This polarity in public opinion makes it hard to figure out what sorts of statutes are most empowering (or least degrading) towards women.

Because of this topic’s polarizing tendency, there are varying related statutes about prostitution around the world. For the most part, they fall into three main categories. For the purpose of these basic descriptions, the word prostitute is used to refer to someone that consensually sells or rents their body, not a victim of human trafficking or any other forced prostitution. According to Cheryl Overs, the founder of The Global Network of Sexwork Projects, the first category, and the most common, is total criminalization of prostitution. This means that both the convicted prostitute and the convicted “John” (the term given to male solicitors of prostitutes) are either fined or given jail time, depending on the country and number of offences. The second type of legislation that Overs refers to makes prostitution legal (if it is in accordance with certain safety regulations that exist on a country by country basis). The third form of legislation is slightly newer. It is known as either partial legalization, partial criminalization, the Swedish Model, or the Nordic Model. In this kind of system, the sale of sex is permitted, but the purchase of sex is not. This means that a “John” can be prosecuted, but the associated prostitute cannot be charged with a crime. This only exists in Sweden, Norway, Northern Ireland, France, Canada and Ireland, so it is not very widespread (“What is the Nordic Model?”). Nonetheless, the countries in which it exists are influential enough that it is worth considering. The plethora of different ways that prostitution is dealt with around the world indicates how complicated the issue is to discuss.

Each category of laws attempt to eradicate prostitution, but only the latter makes the assumption that all prostitutes are victims of some kind. The idea behind the Nordic Model is that the vast majority of prostitutes don’t end up where they are of their own free will. They either end up there because they were directly forced into it or because their economic situation left them with no other viable option (“What is the Nordic Model?”). If this assumption is made, it is easy to say that the only criminals involved (also with the assumption that prostitution is entirely amoral and should be eradicated completely) are the people encouraging a woman to prostitute herself. Under this thinking, the prostitute cannot be held accountable because it wasn’t her fault. Instead, the prostitute, in most countries that have these kinds of laws, is given some kind of rehabilitation in an attempt to redirect them to a different path (“What is the Nordic Model?”). The Nordic Model gives no responsibility for prostitution to the women that are deciding to be sex workers.

The fact that other people are given the responsibility for the women’s decisions plays into an essential stereotype that is extremely detrimental to equality between the genders. The assumption is that women are incapable of making decisions for themselves. The Nordic Model is, according to The Huffington Post, “a return to the darkest periods of left-wing paternalism” (Mudde). To say that all women are victims, even if they’re legal adults, is to say that they cannot be trusted to make the right life choices for themselves. The sex-workers “that in large majority oppose the criminalization of people who buy sex […] are stripped of their agency” and “reduced to ‘victims’” (Mudde).

Although prostitution is frequently chosen because of financial need, it tends to be spoken about in a way that eliminates any decisionmaking on the part of the prostitutes. Barring the case of human trafficking, women should be given the responsibility of choosing her own occupation and path in life. Unless a woman is explicitly forced into prostitution or too young to consent, we cannot assume that she is being taken advantage of. A popular argument, and the one made by “What is the Nordic Model?”, is that most women enter prostitution because they feel like it is the most lucrative choice they have. Admittedly, most sex workers enter the business with the intent of supporting themselves, but that is the typical motivation for getting any job. Although a study on sex workers in Denmark found that 85% started because they needed money, it also found that half of them chose prostitution as their specific career because of an interest in sex (Karkov). This is evidently a large enough demographic of sex workers that it renders the assumption that all prostitutes are not happy with their occupation totally inconsistent with facts. Whether or not prostitution is morally wrong is a hefty topic to discuss, but the first step in having the discussion effectively is considering the fact that women are able to make conscious decisions. According to the same study, sex workers often feel stigmatized by society as victims and wish society would respect their decisions. Although encouraging prostitutes to turn their lives around in an understanding way seems like it would help them, to delegitimize their free-will is truly detrimental to the societal view of all women. In order for women to be viewed as equals, they must be treated as equals by the government.

The idea that any prostitute is a victim fails to account for the situations in which the women are using their own judgment. One of the main issues with prostitution is that the vast majority of women who become involved do so because they think that it is their best financial option. This allows people to argue that the prostitutes are unable to consent and are victims. If we compare this to another example of poverty, it is clear that there is a gendered double standard in relation to perceived decision making ability. Both genders experience poverty at similar rates and feel like they have limited financial options for that reason (“How Does Gender Relate to Poverty Status?”). For both genders, this leads to the options that can involve criminal actions. However, when sex works is selected, socially and legally perceived accountability is significantly lower than that when drug trafficking is selected. Since women disproportionately choose prostitution and men disproportionally choose drug trafficking, the double standard says that men are more apt to be held accountable for their actions than women. The connection between impoverished young males and drug trafficking is analyzed in Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner.

When young people (particularly boys) grow up in a low income household in a bad neighborhood, it is common for them to think the most lucrative option for them is selling drugs. According to Sudhir Venkatesh, as referenced in Freakonomics, young people that grow up in low income situations are attracted to the trafficking of drugs (especially through a gang) because it the best option they see. For people that have lived in neighborhoods that are run by gangs, “the path to a decent legitimate job [is] practically invisible” (95). As such, many people are attracted to low level positions that are associated with drug trafficking gangs. However, the benefits to choosing drug trade are minimal and the costs are high. According to Venkatesh’s analysis of a specific gang in Chicago over a four year period, a gang member was likely to be arrested 5.9 times and endure 2.9 nonfatal injuries. Additionally, there was a 25% chance of death. The average wage for a “foot soldier” (the lowest level crack sellers in the gang) was $3.30 per hour. From the perspective of an onlooker, choosing to sell drugs is a bad decision that results from a poor living situation. Nonetheless, there are extremely harsh legal penalties for the possession of drugs that are applied them to the seller instead of the buyer.

Prostitution is also risky, despite how glamorous or well-paying it may look to women in need of money. Prostitution is extremely dangerous. A prostitute runs the risk of catching an STI, being injured or sexually assaulted, or being killed. Unfortunately, statistics for these issues are impossible to determine due to the unofficial nature of prostitution. In this specific case of prostitution, the conditions are fairly similar to those associated with low level drug trafficking. In both cases, lack of money is causing people to do things that they wouldn’t ordinarily do with higher risks than they might ordinarily take. Maybe prostitutes and drug dealers should be held accountable for what they did as a result of poverty or maybe they shouldn’t. Either way, they must receive equal amounts of responsibility for their actions. These very similar situations cannot be treated differently because one involves primarily men and one involves primarily women. The Nordic Model allows women’s decisions be invalid due to poverty, but gives men the responsibility for very similar decisions.

The United States at this point in time does not employ partial criminalization of prostitution. Even so, there are flaws in the way that prostitution is discussed and in the ideology behind partial criminalization. There are several developed countries in the world that possess laws that strip women of their autonomy and imply that they are incapable of making decisions for themselves. There are undoubtedly situations in which women are victims of explicitly forced prostitution, but this is not always the case. It might seem like it is in women’s best interest to protect them from prostitution, but in some cases women don’t need that protection. Women need to be given the ability to make their own decisions and to be given the responsibility for them.

The Nordic Model implies that the government knows more about what is best for women than actual women do. It suggests that women don’t even make decisions for themselves and are  at the mercy of whatever other people decide to do with them. This subtle commitment to the passivity of females is a key part of the way sexism is implicitly ingrained in society. We can’t just allow women to be thought of as objects that things happen to. We need to think of women as individuals who act on their surroundings and play a role in their lives. Admittedly, this can be hard in a society where women are taken advantage of at such a high rate, especially regarding their sexuality. This thinking is easy to fall into because of the number of situations in which women are victims of sexual assault. Rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment are huge issues in America. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, in America, one in six women has been victim to attempted rape, and 82-90% of rape victims in the United States are women. With this terrible epidemic that disproportionately impacts women, it is hard to not think of sex as a terrible thing for women. It is easy to fall into the thinking that even objectively consensual sex is violent and degrading towards women. This, again, is only harmful to the same women that it is intended to protect.

One fairly recent example of this in the media arose through the “Me too” campaign. The “Me Too” campaign is a forum that allows women to speak up about having been sexually abused/assaulted in a way that encourages a united front against oppressors. An article was recently published on the feminist website Babe in which a woman who went on a date with Aziz Ansari (a famous comedian) had a bad experience. In the article, the story is framed as an extension of the “Me Too” social media movement despite there being no evidence of actual sexual assault or harassment. There was definitely sexual contact between the two individuals that was unwanted by one party. However, even the woman admits that she failed to make that fact clear. The key is that the article consistently cites “non-verbal cues” as indicators that she did not want to participate in sexual activities, even though she continued without any explicit objections. This takes the pressure off of her to make a conscious decision about her participation and suggests that she had to because he wanted to. This, again, paints her as an object instead of an individual with the right to speak up about what she does or does not want to do. This type of scenario can be hard to qualify as either sexual harassment or not because it is hard to say what the intentions were. The sexual advances were unwanted from one side, but once this fact was explicitly stated, all sexual advances were ceased.

This is undeniably indicative of societal issues relating to the pursuit of sexual contact, but it is not sexual assault. The problem, then, with the woman being viewed as the victim in this situation is that it belittles the whole “Me Too” movement. She continued to willingly participate despite the fact that she was uncomfortable. What happened to her was very unfortunate, and there are definitely issues with a culture that encourages men to keep pushing as long as they don’t receive a “no”. However, she was continuing to engage in the relations without an apparent enough objection. It is important that, in order for women to be totally empowered, they make a specific decision about sex. Obviously, there can be external pressures that keep a person from feeling comfortable objecting to sexual contact, but if possible she needs to make a clear statement about whether the sexual contact is wanted or not. If consent is left to be interpreted by a partner,  what happens to her body is left up to her partner. This is not okay. This kind of passivity takes away women’s autonomy and empowerment.

Another fairly intuitive example of the government trying to protect women is through the institution of the war draft. Although an active military draft hasn’t existed for men since the Vietnam War, men still have to register for the draft when they turn 18. If they do not, government financial aid can be withheld from them. As it stands, women have no such obligation in the U.S. When, in 1981, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that women should not be included in the draft, the reasoning was that they were not used in front-line combat (which is sexist in the same way). However, that has since changed. According to Time Magazine, as of 2015, women were able to participate in frontline combat, provided that they reach the physical requirements (Thompson). The only explanation that still exists is that the government is trying to protect women from combat. In fact, Senator Ted Cruz was quoted by Jennifer Steinhauer of the New York Times as saying that he “could not in good conscience vote to draft our daughters into the military.” But what about our sons? Why do we think that women need more protection from war than men do? This unequal protection of women does more to demean them and take away their power than anything else. It strips women of their agency and autonomy and says that they are incapable of taking care of themselves. In creating gender equality it is crucial that the responsibilities as well as the rights are equal for men and women.

Sexism is implicitly and explicitly ingrained in our society. It is apparent in the way we talk about and treat women in the U.S. and around the world. When we treat all women as victims no matter the situation and assume that all women need protecting, we take away the fundamental ability that makes them human. We take away their agency and their autonomy, and we say that they don’t deserve it. This pattern of thinking comes with good intentions. It comes from the terrible fact that the world is heavily populated with situations in which women are actually victims. Rape and sexual assault are all too common and it can be easy to think of women as victims in all situations. However, to assume that anytime something happens to a woman she is being victimized only exacerbates the  issue and creates a greater divide between equality and inequality. It is important that we start treating women as humans instead of as passive objects. If we treat women like they have a say in their lives maybe their wishes will play a larger role in what ends up happening to them. Although thinking like this may be uncomfortable at first, it will lead to greater equality among sexes and, hopefully, less gender-based violence as people begin to understand why they can’t do whatever they want to women.

Works Cited

“About RAINN.” About RAINN | RAINN,

“How Does Gender Relate to Poverty Status?” UC Davis Center for Poverty Research,

Karkov, Rasmus. “What Drives a Prostitute.” Sciencenordic,

Levitt, Steven D., and Stephen J. Dubner. Freakonomics. Harper Collins Publishers, 2006.

Mudde, Cas. “The Paternalistic Fallacy of the ‘Nordic Model’ of Prostitution.” The Huffington Post,, 7 Dec. 2017,

Overs, Cheryl. “Sex Workers’ Rights: Mapping Policy around the World.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 15 Sept. 2015,

Steinhauer, Jennifer. “Senate Votes to Require Women to Register for the Draft.” The New York Times, 14 June 2016,

Thompson, Mark. “Pentagon Opens All Frontline Combat Jobs to Women.” Time, 3 Dec. 2015,

“What Is the Nordic Model?” Nordic Model Now!, 5 Jan. 2018,