Within the Egyptian milieu the suggestion or mere questioning of the legalisation of prostitution is deemed thunderously scandalous. There are many reasons why prostitution, as a paradigm of economic survival and moral choice, is resoundingly viewed as a mammoth negative elephant in the room of a seemingly conservative redoubt such as Egypt. But issues that appear to be clear cut are often not so. To fully appreciate an issue’s complexity one needs to straddle the line of attempted objectivity with an issue that is loaded with nuance, such as legalising prostitution in Egypt.
Even in a more definitively open Western setting, prostitution remains a so-called vice; so why should a country that insists on viewing and describing itself as ‘religious’, like Egypt, consider even entering into a discussion? Sex, discussions about it, public allusions and discourse concerning it, remain largely taboo in Egypt. Just this past week, Egyptian actress Intissar made the mistake of openly discussing Egyptian’s use of porn prior to marriage. She is being sued. She blistered: ‘’Not my problem that we are a society that likes to bury its head in the sand’’.
There are exceptions. Heba Kotb, whose Facebook page garners over 20,000 likes and whose frank talks about sex – from masturbation, commonly and tellingly known as the secret habit, to marital infidelity and back to lesbianism – are popular. But Kotb represents only the very tip of a sexual iceberg in Egypt.
Islam and Christianity, in their respective holy books, do not colour the subject matter Grey: to have sex you must do so within the institution of marriage. There is one major impediment to marriage in Egypt: cost. But unemployment among young men exceeds 30%, which exacerbates the issue of cost. In fact, the World Bank states unemployment in the 15-24 age bracket has exploded from a high 26%, in 2010, to a monstrous 39% in 2013. There is every reason to believe that in 2015 those figures are higher and will not fall anytime soon. After all, this a country where inflation and prices continue to rise ‘insanely’ to where a kilo of tomatoes has mushroomed from EGP 3-4 to EGP 12 in recent weeks. So what young men and women do to resolve their sexual needs and economic malaise should be obvious under such harsh economic lights.
A reasonable conclusion might be: men and women who cannot afford to marry should seek less economically troublesome options. For many Egyptians of the marriage age, that choice is the socially frowned upon option of ‘orfi marriage. Marriage, in the traditional realm, is conducted by representatives of either house of God. However, in ‘orfi, loosely translated as unofficial, a piece of paper outlining commitment between two partners is signed by both, and they are ‘married’. Understandably, within a society like Egypt’s, this solution, when found out, brings much shame on both parties but, naturally in a largely male dominated society, more so the woman. Negative results, check!
Thus, we arrive at the crux of the matter: in a repressed and simultaneously sexually obsessed society, how could we not have a prostitution dilemma? Try as it might to punish the offenders by shaming them, criticising harshly and morally policing this arena, Egypt has not been able to stamp out prostitution. In fact, since the revolution, the business of prostitution has only prospered. With rates as variable as a EGP 100 to thousands of Egyptian pounds per encounter, it is no wonder the economic lure of unregulated sex in a society with not many options continues to be an economic beacon for sex workers and a honey pot for potential clients. Make no mistake about it, there is nothing clear cut, simple, or easy about entering into mere discussion of the subject of prostitution. Even though Egyptian newspapers scream almost daily of another prostitution ring caught, the economic returns, the nearly impossible monitoring of such a large market – Egypt’s population is around the 90 million mark – and human need make the world’s oldest profession a reality in Egypt.
Whether it is via Bluetooth, the Internet, phone or personal connections, the profession continues to thrive. So does the state do its best ostrich imitation and act as though it doesn’t exist, or should the difficult step of public discussion take place? Ignoring the issue, other than the obvious implications of societal hypocrisy, also gravely increases the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, along with the ability of pimps and madams to increase the economic stranglehold on a vulnerable sector of society.
But there are practical impediments to legalising prostitution in a society that has proven all attempts at monitoring Egypt’s informal economy, thought to be 85% of Egypt’s small and medium sized enterprises, to be futile. Moreover, in a country where the notion of a woman’s honour continues to be a plague to many a woman’s freedom, to monitor and legalise prostitution you don’t only need a government decision. Pivotally, there needs to be a tidal wave of change in societal perception. The moral derision associated with the profession itself is at the core of the matter. Before protecting sex workers from violent customers, pimps and madams, you need to protect that worker from society itself. Just because the moral posture of a nation has dictated that an act or a business be judged as questionable should not make it automatically so.
Many of those who argue for legalisation for prostitution call it a victimless crime. The logic that powers such thinking argues that, at its most basic level, it is an economic transaction between willing adult partners with one side demanding sex and the other supplying it for a monetary return. Indeed, once you do criminalise it, more often than not, those on the receiving end of punishment tend to be the women, which society seeks to protect, more so than the men – that is the reality of a patriarchy that stampedes the vulnerable. Find it objectionable if you wish, but there are scholars who argue that by legalising sex work you may reverse the trend of victimising women and, instead, empower them. ‘’After legalization and normalization of private prostitution, more women will feel empowered to perceive their activities not as degrading or demeaning but, rather, as uplifting and beneficial,’’ argued a recent article in the International Journal of Humanities and Social Science.
To those who argue that sex work can cause and assist in the spread of sexual disease, the opposite can be true. Once you criminalise the act, disease can spread more rapidly as sex workers lurk beneath society’s radar and do not seek out the medical care required to reduce inherent risks.
In a society like Egypt, where feminism and its discourse are strongly outside the mainstream, violence against sex workers is not an issue that receives much, if any, attention. But ask yourself this: should criminals who attack sex workers receive a carte blanche? If the answer is yes, that society must examine itself and question the very religiosity that would permit wanton violence. But if the answer is no, then it is logically an argument for the legalisation of a currently dangerous profession.
Where sex work is illegal, the exploitation of minors often follows, and Egypt is by no means an exception. One of the dark secrets lurking beneath the surface of the trade in Egypt is the preponderance of summer marriages. That initially strange term describes business arrangements where, frequently, a Gulf Arab comes in for the summer and ‘marries’ an under-age Egyptian bride in a dark societal masquerade of a business deal, to be consummated with a broker or the impoverished family of that girl. One way to combat this social disaster is to bring this exploitation to light, while finding ways to regulate the industry so as to obliterate the presence of underage girls in it.
Though there are many other reasons for and against the legalisation of prostitution in Egypt’s case, with a burgeoning insurgency in many parts of the country, utilising valuable and finite police resources for such an issue is, at least, an issue which must be examined. Put bluntly, a nation fighting an enemy seeking to destabilise it needs to carefully think before expending tens of thousands of hours chasing sex workers. Society would benefit far more from a more robust and strategic use of security forces fighting terrorism, not prostitution.
Prostitution, and its potential legalisation, is in desperate need of examination by a country that has much to examine in the coming years.
Perhaps if one woman is saved from death or disease, as a society, Egypt will have been successful by opening a much needed discourse – albeit a radical one by MENA standards.
Remember this, there are reasons prostitution is the “world’s oldest profession”. Egypt should not run from it, it should face it.
Amr Khalifa is freelance journalist and commentator recently published by Ahram Online, Mada Masr, Muftah, the Tahrir Institute, and Arab Media Society.