May 24th, 2009

Perception, Profession, and Decriminalization

I have encountered a few things lately to which I have felt a pressing response from a perspective of supporting the decriminalization of prostitution (which I do). One of them was this letter to the editor in the New York Times in response to an article about proposed legalization of prostitution in the United States. (Note: I support decriminalization rather than legalization of prostitution — descriptions of the distinction may be found here).

Author of the letter Norma Ramos states in regard to prostitution:

“It is the world’s oldest oppression that stems from the world’s oldest inequality — that of women.”

When I read this the first response in me was, could it be that this is more about sex than about women? More on that in a bit.

The letter says later:

“By all accounts, the countries that have legalized prostitution have become magnets for human trafficking and other crimes.”

This is not backed up with evidence in the letter, and I would challenge it to be. Statistics may of course be skewed and biased and repeatedly have been in social research, so I myself hesitate to utilize them as prominent support for presenting the perspective in me, but I will point out that this assertion of “all accounts” seems erroneous to me. Further, it’s not as though strict criminalization laws around prostitution have been free of criticism.

In reference to the prostitution laws of “Sweden, Norway and most recently Iceland” the author says,

“Their law is premised on the recognition that women and girls are human beings and therefore cannot be bought or sold.”

In a prostitution exchange, if one does choose to take the perspective that a body is being “sold,” its selling is relinquished upon the end of the exchange (which is why this description does not resonate with me). If one wants to claim that a body is “sold” for a certain period of time, that makes more sense to me, though the vernacular still doesn’t resonate particularly with me. The body is a part of what is being presented as the professional exchange of a service. How exactly is this different from the professional offerings/exchanges of actors, models, and athletes, for example?

Could it be, again, that this is about sex and certain underlying biases or associations we have with it?

I feel as though I would appreciate it if this were at least recognized. There seems to be an automatic “prostitution is bad, wrong, exploitative, harmful” perspective throughout virtually the entirety of society that seems to me to rest on little more than, “well, that’s just the way it is.” Why? Why is sex so much different from all the other myriad services that aren’t even blinked at when they are commodified and used in the context of (rampant) capitalism?

In response to accusations that prostitution has often been surrounded by “vice,” why does it not seem to occur to us that rather than somehow just inherently being surrounded by violence, crime, drugs (which by the way I see as something else associated with crime and an underground world because of its criminalized status rather than some given “attraction” it has to them), etc., prostitution has in modern times been surrounded by such things because it has been criminalized and thus pushed to an underground status in society where those partaking and participating in it are not apt to interact with law enforcement and other protective agencies in its context? Why is it that we assume these associations came first, so the practice was criminalized, rather than that perhaps the practice was criminalized for some other reason(s), and as it was ostracized into an illegal profession, crime and other facets of the underground society rose around it?

If one doesn’t feel comfortable with the idea of doing sex for a job, fine. It is not as though decriminalizing prostitution suddenly eliminates anyone’s right to not engage in it. I would not dream of saying that anyone who doesn’t want to have sex be a job for him or her should do so.

Which seques into the subject of sex trafficking. It seems to me that criminalizing prostitution does not seem at all a sensible way to help eradicate nonconsensual sex work; that indeed, criminalizing the whole trade simply forces it underground where it is even more difficult to examine and discern who is really in a situation of abuse and in need of assistance. How does outlawing consensual action help to more easily discover abusive activity within the same working area of action? It also calls for law enforcement to devote time and resources similarly to discovering and pursuing situations in which abuse is occurring and situations in which individuals are working freely and willingly since the law, due to the nature of the work being performed, conflates these two occurrences.

Interestingly, while human trafficking occurs in work areas other than prostitution, the focus has continued to seem almost exclusively on sex trafficking in the media and societal conversation. Why is this? Or more to the point at the moment, why are we not having a conversation threatening to outlaw all manual labor, farm/outdoor labor, and domestic work since these things have been found to be areas in which trafficking has occurred as well? Once again it seems fundamentally the question has to do with sex, sex work, and underlying perceptions about it rather than perhaps the seemingly obvious issue of the abhorrence of nonconsensual sex work.

None of that is said with any intention on my part to undermine what I see as the crushingly heartbreaking and appalling nature of sex trafficking (or indeed any human trafficking). The idea of not finding nonconsensual sex work or nonconsensual sex of any kind harrowing and abhorrent is unequivocally foreign to me.

In closing, it happens that the indefatigable Dr. Dick recently interviewed for his new series “Sex EDGE-U-cation” the Modern Hooker (whose identity remains anonymous since the profession in which she works is illegal). Modern Hooker’s description is not a glossed-over, glamorized account of prostitution — some of it is not pretty, indeed. It seemed to me a straightforward, open discussion about her work, and I deeply appreciated it as such. I had in fact appreciated this interview so much that I was wanting to mention it here anyway, and since it happens I am writing this post right now, this seems an exemplary opportunity to do so. Thank you again to both Dr. Dick and Modern Hooker for this beautiful offering.

Namaste.

Love,
Emerald

“But tasting a bit of freedom is quickly turning this happy hooker into a defiant whore.”
-Juliet November, in an article entitled “Hooking Without Crooking

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9 Responses “Perception, Profession, and Decriminalization”

  1. Excellent post, Emerald.

    I agree that criminalization of prostitution is the reason that vice surrounds it. Consider the period of Prohibition in U.S. history and the vice that came to surround liquor, or maybe better stated how liquor was absorbed into vice.

    It a chicken versus the egg puzzle with an easy resolution.

    The notion of a woman “selling her body” invites the question of motivation. If a woman is is truly being forced into the business, it is clear she is being sold. Yes, this goes beyond sex; it is a simple matter of slavery. The place where it becomes tricky, is when a woman is down on her luck and turns to prostitution to get by. Is she being “forced” into prostitution by poverty, or is it a simple matter of an opportunity to make a living?

    The first trick is to peel past the outer stigmas and see things for what they are.

    With the risk of STD’s I do think that some degree of regulation is in order.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this complicated subject!

  2. Oh, Emerald, this was an amazing post. So eloquent and thought-provoking. I totally agree that our deep-rooted fear of sex is clouding judgment of what’s really going on.

    Why is sex so much different from all the other myriad services that aren’t even blinked at when they are commodified and used in the context of (rampant) capitalism?

    An excellent point and the answer is, it is not different. Besides sex workers most often offer much more than just a body, it is a complex service, often a healing encounter given our society’s unwillingness to look at sexuality in a mature, nuanced way. I could go on and on, but I’d actually like to hear more from you! I think I’ll go reread your post. And I look forward to listening to the intereview. Dr. Dick rocks@

  3. JM Stone says:

    Hi Emerald,
    Your post is very thought provoking and reminds me of a conversation my husband and I had.

    Last winter, I was thoroughly engrossed in Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series. I definitely suggest them to anyone. In it, prostitution does not exist, at least, not in the way that we think of it.
    Instead, a woman or man would lie down with another as an exchange of goods for service, and it was also a religious thing as well. It’s hard to explain, but a fascinating look.

    I have never really seen prostitution as a matter of “selling your body”. Just like I exchange my mental abilities and skills for wages with my employer, so does someone in that trade. They are merely trading something different. It is not their body, but their ability to have sex.

    Granted, there is a great deal wrong with the sex trade, but the majority of that does spring from the well of criminality that prostitution has been forced to share with drug traffickers and so forth. The same with slavery/human trafficking.

    So many people have such collections of hangups about sex that it has suffused our “society” with close minded legislation. Personally, while I would never choose to sell sex for a living, I think it’s fucked up that the choice of that living has been denied for what basically boils down to religion reasons.

    It makes me think of the movie…ooooh, I can’t think of which blogger recommended it… but it’s called “Dangeous Beauty” and is about a Venetian courtesan – very fascinating.

    Thank you for a very thought provoking post, and I will have to read those articles later!

    ~J

  4. Emerald says:

    Craig, thank you so much for coming by and for your comment. I much appreciate it.

    “The place where it becomes tricky, is when a woman is down on her luck and turns to prostitution to get by. Is she being ‘forced’ into prostitution by poverty, or is it a simple matter of an opportunity to make a living?”

    Fair enough, Craig. It does seem to me that many of us have done (or do) jobs that we feel are exploitative and/or degrading that we do because we feel we must in order to financially support ourselves. That being said, the idea of anyone working as a prostitute because s/he feels s/he has no other choice seems extremely demoralizing to me (though really I feel that way about anyone’s feeling in that situation with any job s/he finds exploitative or degrading). I appreciate your point that it is a complex subject. Of course, propagating laws around something does not always seem to be a helpful response to a complex subject. In this case, it seems to me quite misguided and shrouded in (intrusive/inappropriate) pretense.

    Thank you again for commenting!

  5. Emerald says:

    Donna, thank you so much.

    “it is a complex service, often a healing encounter given our society’s unwillingness to look at sexuality in a mature, nuanced way”

    I completely agree, and in this way I see sex work as an avenue of enormous opportunity and potential — and have felt so befuddled and disheartened at the seeming lack or denigration of this perspective societally speaking. The idea of sex work and of truly caring about it (the way I dare say everyone who has commented here and myself seem to care about writing about sex, for example) is so beautiful to me, and it seems to make it all the more harsh and glaring when that does not seem even recognized, much less respected.

  6. Emerald says:

    It was Kristina Wright, JM. She embedded a clip of it into her Blow Hard Tour post. I still haven’t watched that movie, but I sure felt like I wanted to when I watched that clip.

    “Just like I exchange my mental abilities and skills for wages with my employer, so does someone in that trade. They are merely trading something different.”

    Indeed, this seems quite obvious to me too. So much so that it makes the fuss I’ve seen around it seem seriously astonishing.

  7. Emerald says:

    I want to thank all three of you so much for coming by, and for commenting, and for commenting so openly. I feel truly heartened by each of your responses. As I said in my own interview with Dr. Dick, it is an inspiration to me that there are people such as yourselves who agree that sex is simply important. And respect it as such.

    Thank you. Really.

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