Thursday, March 1, 2007

legal prostitution?

So I recently started watching Penn & Teller: Bullshit! on Showtime. For those who aren't familiar with the show, it's pretty good. Penn & Teller, the well-known magicians, go around the country and deal with different controversial issues, pretty much calling bullshit on one side. The first one I watched was really good; it was about the Boy Scouts of America and how they exclude gays and atheists. The second one was about illegal prostitution. Overall I thought that they made some really good points in favor of legalizing prostitution, using Nevada as an example. However, I was pretty annoyed at the fact that they completely brushed over many of the other more complex issues. At the beginning of the episode they had two women who are Sex Worker advocates; the two women both spoke out against prostitution saying that it exploited women and reinforced the idea that women can be bought and sold. These two women were basically treated as not credible, which I thought to be unfortunate.

On the one hand legal prostitution has its pluses. In the Nevada brothels women must undergo weekly physicals and be tested for STDs -- apparently there has never been a Nevada brothel worker that has tested positive for HIV. Since the brothels are regulated, they are clean and pretty upscale looking places. If a woman is a victim of violence, she doesn't have to worry about reporting it to the police. On the show they featured a number of different sex workers proclaiming how much they loved their jobs and how they should have the right to do what they want with their bodies. After all, it's sex between consenting adults, right? Sounds good to me.

But unfortunately the show failed miserably in documenting the many many cases of young girls and women who fall into that life because they have no other choice. Sure maybe there are a lot of sex workers who enjoy their job, but that doesn't mean that there aren't thousands of girls that are being sexually exploited. Yeah maybe Nevada's brothels are all nice and regulated, but does that mean that legalized prostitution would result in a whole bunch of luxury brothels spread throughout the country? Let's take a look at a country where prostitution is legal -- India. If anyone hasn't seen the 2004 documentary Born Into Brothels (view a trailer here), I would highly recommend it. This film won an Oscar for its portrayal of the children of sex workers in Calcutta's red light district. What you have are destitute women who get into prostitution because there is always a market for women's bodies. They then have children who consistently are ending up following the same path as their mothers. I know that some would argue "Oh, but that's India, that's third world. That wouldn't happen here." Bullshit. It does happen here. And that does not equal sex between consenting adults. Adults though they may be, they didn't have a choice. I just did some quick research so that I might actually sound like I know what I'm talking about. I read a BBC article that said that U.S. is estimated to have at least 400,000 young people in the sex trade. Many of these are homeless teens and runaways. The social worker interviewed in this story noted that many of these youth use "survival sex" to obtain basic items such as food and clothing. Sure, if prostitution were legal it still wouldn't be legal for these kids to be selling themselves. But it would be legal once they're 18 and I certainly don't think anyone would be arguing that they would qualify as a "consenting adult." Call me cynical, but I don't think that legalization is going to stop all of this from happening. It will only make the profession a more viable option for desperate women and girls.

Another argument that Penn & Teller gave was that legalizing prostitution would decrease the violence against women because women would then not be afraid to go to the police. Okay, well again that sounds good. But the very nature of the profession makes a woman inherently more vulnerable to violence. When men pay for women's bodies they are objectifying them; when someone is objectified it becomes easier to take advantage of them. I believe that there are probably many men who respect sex workers, but I also believe that there are just as many who don't. Look at how frequently prostitutes are victims of serial killers or other psychopaths -- Jack the Ripper, one of the most notorious serial killers of all time, targeted prostitutes. I did a little research here also to see if there were any statistics, although in cases of violence against women statistics are never very reliable since it is often widely underreported. Reports seem to vary, but I read several articles saying that an estimated 80% of street sex-workers suffered from work-related violence. And in case anyone found that Jack the Ripper example a bit outdated, just this past fall four female sex workers were murdered in Atlantic City. Another public case was that of Gary Ridgway, known as the "Green River Killer" of Seattle. He was convicted of killing at least 48 prostitutes over a 21 year period. According to the article he thought "he could kill as many prostitutes as he wanted without getting caught." Well, it only took 21 years. And on the issue of rape: I wonder if they have any idea of how many women (women who are NOT involved in illegal activities) never report their rapes. So all of a sudden prostitutes are going to be reporting this with greater frequency than other women who are raped? I would think they would be even more ashamed, since it happened to them while at work, when they are supposed to be "in control" of the situation. It seems amazingly idealistic to think that legalization of prostitution would eliminate violence. The show also claimed that legalizing prostitution would get rid of all the "pimps." I am not clear as to how this would happen. I don't think that legalized prostitution would clear the streets of "corner hookers" or "pimps" or "madames" or whatever. Especially with the large number of gangs in the U.S. who often lure in young women and put them into sex work. Read this article about Hmong girls in Minnesota and their risk of sexual exploitation. Which brings me to my next point...

I read in an editorial somewhere the point that those high class brothels in Nevada are quite pricey. I don't think that every man wanting to hire a prostitute is going to be able to shell out a few hundred dollars for an hour. It's not like only the affluent hire women for sex. So you have a bunch of legal brothels open up all over the place ... there are still going to be women out on the streets who are willing to work for far less. And I can envision that they will be women who are unable to get jobs in esteemed brothels -- think, undocumented sex-workers, young runaway girls, women who do have STDs or who have substance abuse problems ... and the cycle continues. Let's also not forget the issue of human sex-trafficking, which is becoming an increasingly significant issue in the U.S. Here is an article about the devastating number of women from South America, Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe being sold into the U.S. sex trade. How does legalized prostitution help them?

I think that these are really serious issues that need to be considered. They can't be ignored simply because some sex workers choose their jobs and enjoy them. It absolutely does not change the fact that this is a profession that was built off of the sexual exploitation of women's bodies. Sure, maybe that is changing as women "reclaim" their sexuality, etc. But for many women there has been no reclaiming. I'm worried that legalizing prostitution would only make the vulnerable even more vulnerable. What I think really needs to be focused on are the issues that bring these women and girls into prostitution in the first place: abject poverty, systemic racism, xenophobia, child abuse, violence against women, sexism, etc. Only when women really have control over their bodies do I think that prostitution can safely be legalized.

I myself have mixed feelings on the issue. On the one hand I am a huge advocate of women's rights and a strong believer that women should have control over their own bodies. However, I really struggle with the feeling that selling one's body is inherently objectifying. Maybe it's just because it would feel incredibly disempowering for myself. But obviously other women don't feel this way, so I guess maybe it's alright for them. I don't know. The people on the show talked about how people are against prostitution because they think that sex is dirty and because of the Western Christian tradition, etc. I think that's true for some people. But it's a sweeping generalization. For people like me it has more to do with the history of female inequality, exploitation and objectification. It has nothing to do with sex. I think sex is great in lots of situations. It can be empowering and beautiful, etc. etc. But I don't know... there's something about female prostitution that unsettles me...

But here I am falling into the exact same trap that the show fell into -- something that bothered me greatly and that I almost forgot to mention here. The show focused completely on female prostitutes engaging in heterosexual sex. There was no mention of male sex workers or of sex workers catering to those of the same sex. I found this to be a glaring omission. But perhaps not surprising, since prostitution seems to be inherently associated with women being bought by men. Perhaps once again going back to the objectification of the female body and the male gaze, etc. Ahhh, I'm repeating myself I know. But I think it's interesting that those issues were left out. Oooohh, also issues of race would have been good to touch on because all those "high-class" prostitutes were white women. Would there be discrimination within legalized brothels? Or brothels devoted to the exoticization of women of color? White men coming to "purchase" "exotic" women? Ughh... I can see it now. Damn, I've taken too many women's studies classes. But yeah, share any thoughts you might have. This is pretty much a stream of consciousness flow as I haven't fully thought out these ideas.

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