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.
-Juliet November, in an article entitled “Hooking Without Crooking”
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