1.2.1 Prostitution

Prostitution, or “the provision of sexual services for money or its equivalent” (Harcourt & Donovan, 2005, p. 201), is a contested subject and related policy is inevitably shaped by moral judgement (Munro & Della Giusta, 2008). Policies on prostitution vary worldwide, ranging from its criminalization to its decriminalization and even its regulation. Generally speaking, there are two juxtaposing approaches to the subject. On the one hand, there is the abolitionist perspective that equates all forms of prostitution with violence against women, considering it by nature as a criminal (or deviant) practice. On the other hand, the regulationist approach considers prostitution a legitimate form of labour (Showden, 2011). Belgium’s federal legislation on prostitution states that soliciting and procuring clients is illegal, even if prostitution itself is legal; thereby limiting the extent of change that local policy makers can implement in its regulation, and allowing municipalities and their local police units to regulate prostitution in their respective tolerance zones (Boels, 2016; Loopmans et al., 2008; Vermeulen et al., 2007). The local government of Schaerbeek does not take sides in this debate; rather, it accepts the existence of prostitution on its territory and endeavours to eliminate nuisance and criminal activities associated with the activity (Brussels Hoofdstedelijk Gewest, 2015; Seinpost Adviesbureau, 2008; É. Haquin & H. Morvan, personal communication, October 18, 2018).

It is important to note that the authors do not take a moral stance in this debate nor feel the need to do so. Following authors like Persak and Vermeulen (2014), Kantola and Squires (2004), Outshoorn (2005), Brooks-Gordon (2006), and O'Neill et al. (2009), this book was written on the premise that adapting one perspective would have led to a one-sided and biased analysis. Even within the research team, there was a difference of ideas on sex work and prostitution, which we believe enhanced our understanding of the complexities of the subject. We do not consider all prostitution as violence against women, neither do we consider it a job like any other. We simply aimed to understand the meaning of prostitution and sex work from the perspective of the participants of this research and mirror their experiences in this book.

1.2.2 Choice of terminology

In research, using the correct and appropriate language and terminology is extremely important as doing so helps to reduce unintended bias throughout the research process (Van Helsdingen & Lawley, 2012). Prostitution or sex work is not a neutral term and the phrases “women working in prostitution” and “women in prostitution” were intentionally used to describe the women and their job in their own words, to best capture their experiences without imposing ours.

The term “sex workers”, though preferred by regulationists and deemed by some to be more neutral (Wagenaar et al., 2017), possesses a labour-rights connotation, which we only marginally encountered in the discourses of the participants. Most of the Nigerian and Ghanaian women in this study were ashamed of the work they did and hoped it would be temporary. Following Persak and Vermeulen’s argument, sex work “neglects the important stigmatizing aspect of prostitution” (2014, p. 16), which profoundly shapes the way it is practised and experienced. Thus, we preferred to use the term prostitution instead of sex work.’

Understanding and factoring in the Nigerian context influenced the researchers’ choice of terminology because women who sell sex are referred to as “ashewo/ashawo” in Nigeria (Otutubikey Izugbara, 2005). The words “ashewo” and “ashawo” literally translated in the Yoruba language mean “money changer” and “money picker/gatherer”. The terms may have been coined based on the premise that money exchanges hands between clients and women in prostitution. Importantly, a woman who is deemed as “loose” or “easy” is also referred to as an “ashewo’’/“ashawo” (Chernoff, 2004; Okonkwo, 2010; Plam-bech, 2014). Ashawo is also a word in the Ghanaian language, Twi, that means “slut, prostitute, loose/easy” (Glosbe, 2020; Urban Dictionary, 2012). The term, therefore, carries the same stigma as does “prostitution”.

It is therefore understandable that the women would refer to themselves as doing sex work, working in prostitution, and doing prostitution work but not as sex workers; thereby making prostitution and sex work an action that they take, rather than it being their identity (Plambech, 2014). The women referred to their job or the process of working in the red-light district of the carrés in these ways:

  • • “1 dey do prostitution work” (I do prostitution work).
  • • “1 dey do this work” (1 do this job).
  • • “1 dey work for this prostitution area” (I work in this area/field of prostitution).
  • • “1 dey do ashawo/ashewo/sex work” (1 do prostitution/sex work).

Labelling theory contends that minority groups and disadvantaged individuals and groups are more likely to experience labelling (Bern-burg, 2009). Thus, it was important to the researchers that they referred to the women and their job in their own words, which is why we used the terms “women in prostitution” and “women working in prostitution”.

1.2.3 Well-being and agency4

This project was commissioned by the municipality of Schaerbeek to inform policy, police, and other supportive services, hereby reflecting the political will to address the well-being and dignity of women working in the carrés. This research project is therefore situated within a perspective centred around human rights and human dignity as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 1948, art. 21.3).

First, it is important to begin by explaining why this is particularly relevant to women working in prostitution. Regardless of the moral stance, prostitution is regarded by all who are concerned as a high-risk activity (Kinnell, 2006; Persak & Vermeulen, 2014; Sanders, 2004). In 2016, Amnesty International called attention to the numerous human rights violations that sex workers suffer worldwide. Potential risks include exposure to different forms of violence, malevolent exploitation, substance abuse, stigma, harassment from police and communities, and health-related issues (Hubbard & Sanders, 2003; Pitcher, 2006).

Second, in line with recent research that considers prostitution a “complex social and relational object” (Persak & Vermeulen. 2014; Wagenaar et al., 2017), it is important to acknowledge the broader political and societal context that shapes the working conditions. Every red-light district has a distinct albeit constantly changing geographical and social fabric, which influences the well-being of the women working there.

While the concept of well-being risks being overused and becoming “void” of meaning, its holistic outlook is one of its key qualities (White, 2010). The concept of well-being does not assume objective categories with which to evaluate the lives of others (e.g. housing, health care, social network, etc.), but instead centres around what people value (Diener et al., 1997; Tiberius, 2014) and allows for diverging cultural perspectives, e.g. regarding individualistic and collective well-being (Suh et al., 1998). As such, well-being is simply understood as “doing well - feeling good” (White, 2010, p. 160)? We were interested in how the women were currently doing, therefore we did not dwell on past experiences (of their life back home or possibly their trafficked past) if they did not link their current challenges to past encounters, or bring them up themselves.

The decision not to probe into their past (regarding life back home or trafficking experiences) was taken by the researchers after the first few interviewees strongly declined to talk about it, saying that it is in the past and they would rather not discuss it. Whatever their reasons for declining may have been, they were entitled to do this and their decisions were respected. We were not seeking “trauma stories” (Brennan, 2005), but focused instead on what the women themselves considered as problematic or helpful.

Knowing how fast information (accurate or not) spread in the area, we decided to focus on the women’s present and recent past experiences concerning their well-being. This prevented us from being labelled as people digging into their past, which could have led to more suspicion and made it more difficult to recruit participants. We witnessed the speed at which information is shared among the women when we walked into a room to introduce ourselves and the woman there said: “I know who you are, you are the researchers from Ghent doing research here.” Therefore, to avoid the risk of being mis-labelled to our target group and others in the area, we adjusted our research questions to address the topic of our research and leave room for discussions about past experiences without expressly focusing on them.

When approaching the women, the Nigerian researcher mostly took the lead in initiating a conversation by introducing the researchers, asking where the women were from, and immediately switching to one of the local Nigerian or Ghanaian dialects, which seemed to put the women at ease. The researchers simply started interviews by asking in pidgin “how una dey now/how una dey do?”, which loosely translated into English means “how are you doing/how are things with you?”. As the conversation progressed on the women’s terms, this allowed for the identification of beneficial aspects, as well as certain “difficulties”, elements, or circumstances that threaten their well-being. It should be noted that the questions in pidgin English exude more depth and warmth than the English translation.

It is important to not dismiss the agency of the women in shaping and protecting their well-being (Maher et al., 2013; Persak & Vermeulen, 2014; Vermeulen et al., 2007), with the underlying premise being that individuals are “active meaning-makers who are constantly in the process of constructing, reconstructing, and defending the meaning of their lived realities” (Elabor-ldemudia, 2003, p. 117). The women have developed valuable tactics and strategies (de Certeau, 1984) to deal with the challenges that they face in their work lives. These dynamics are important to recognize and include in our assessment to draft adequate policy recommendations that will genuinely protect their wellbeing. We also addressed them as experts of their own lives and asked them directly: “what changes would improve your work situation?” and “which policy suggestions do you have for this area?”.

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