Feminist Friday–On Not Legalizing Prostitution

It’s Feminist Friday again, and the Transatlantic Blonde’s theme for the week was Violence Against Women. I don’t really know what to say about violence against women that wouldn’t have been said already by someone with more information, insight, and sensitivity than me, but that’s never stopped me from writing before. So like all dutiful writers I look to my life for inspiration. We’ve been watching The Wire, Season 2, which opens with thirteen dead women in a shipping container bound for the brothels and strip clubs of the Eastern Seaboard. We haven’t seen the whole season yet or even talked to a woman who survived a trip in a shipping container, but I’m suspecting that we’re going to meet one and learn that she was coerced somehow into this position.

Supplying sex workers to meet international demand is not the only motivation for human trafficking, of course (but it makes up 79% of the problem, according to the UN source linked to below), but it’s the one I’m going to focus on right now. It’s the topic that keeps coming up in my life, from the Lifetime Network Human Trafficking miniseries to (light & cursory) research I did on Japan’s immigration issues to the FOX TV show Dollhouse, to a forum thread I participated in a long time ago, to this call for blogs about violence against women. I’d already shot my proverbial wad (to ironically use a sexual term) by posting the “Sexual Assault Prevention Tips” graphic last week, so here we are.

And yes, I will tie this to legalizing prostitution after the jump.

This is a link to the Feminist Friday hosting blog. Click it.

There is an argument that the recent research and reporting on the topic of human trafficking is evidence of a moral panic, and I would probably agree–if I were fully up-to-date on the issue–that it is very frequently portrayed as a problem for white European women far over proportion that it actually is for white European women (and far under proportion for women anywhere else). There is likely a wealth of resources to explore on the topic, but I haven’t looked them up. I am nonetheless inclined to accept the 2009 United Nations Global Report, which estimates that more than 2.5 million people have been caught by trafficking, which is a large enough figure for me to pay attention regardless of how the problem has been framed by the media.

Endure this clumsy segue to the topic of prostitution, in which I will explain my opinions without putting in a lot of effort to back them up fully, and certainly without providing any research to support the opposite point of view.

Prostitution is a tricky social problem. Much of the opposition to it is morality based, with the idea that sex is private/for marriage/constricted by God, which clogs up a lot of discourse about prostitution with  accusations of  “legislating morality.” Other discourse describes the issue as one of women’s right to choose what to do with their bodies, or free market talk about economics and paying for services. The fact remains, however, that prostitution is mostly not work women choose–unless they perceive that they have no other options. The trope “just a hooker” is so common in real life and in art (film and books) that it’s pretty clear prostitutes are a permanent underclass of women that men consider less worthy of respect than other women. Consider this excerpt and the included statements from men who visit prostitutes and who were interviewed by the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, in their document Deconstructing the Demand for Prostitution: Preliminary Insights from Interviews with Chicago Men Who Purchase Sex (opens a PDF):


Interviewees often compared women in prostitution to objects. To these men, women ceased to be individuals and instead became “products” that could be bought and used.

Some interviewees compared the women they bought to food, reinforcing their notion of prostitutes as commodities. It also suggests that women are something these men felt entitled to, like food, water and shelter.

“I usually call for a girl, you know, like a pizza.”

“… it’s on every corner. Good stores have good produce. Bad stores have bad produce, but the prices are cheap.”

“Like a grocery store where the food is tested and regulated, they should regulate prostitutes.”

“Prostitutes are like a product, like cereal. You go to the grocery, pick the brand you want, and pay for it. It’s business.”

If women in prostitution are viewed as objects for purchase, it is not surprising that the price of buying sex seemed to be of great importance to many interviewees. There were reoccurring themes of the desire to seek out what the men viewed as “the best bargain.” Men often expressed anger at feeling that, during a particular encounter, they did not get their “money’s worth.”

The men went on to say other, more disturbing things, too. Yes, “disturbing” is a loaded term, but I am judging them:

“Something at your job makes you mad, you can‘t beat your wife, you can’t beat your kids, and so you go out and have sex to take your frustration out.”

“Porn makes more men try things. Men who are shown porn at a younger age categorize women more and see it as a harmless crime because they don’t see them as a person.”

“I want to pay someone to do something a normal person wouldn’t do. To piss on someone or pay someone to do something degrading who is not my girlfriend.”

“20% of interviewees thought that they had bought sex from women who were traffcked from other countries.”

“When you take a woman to dinner or the movies, it’s basically the same thing. There’s the cost of flowers, dinner, a show, dancing – it’s $150-$200. By that point you might as well call a prostitute when the girl finally gives in.”

“She gave up her rights when she accepted my money.”

“Wouldn’t have to rape somebody if there are prostitutes. You don’t have to beat up your wife if prostitutes are  available.”

Prostitutes are not girlfriends, wives, or normal people, so it’s OK to treat them like consumable goods or punching bags. Even girls who decide to go out with you are basically prostitutes, too. And most economic transactions do not require the seller to give up his or her rights to the buyer once money changes hands.

Prostitution gets lumped in with the drug trade when people talk about how laws against it make it more dangerous. If you could just buy, say, cocaine at the pharmacy, you wouldn’t have to get caught up in the gang wars and inner city dramas that make such popular plots for television and platforms for political campaigns. It would all be perfectly civilized! Sure, some people would use drugs irresponsibly and hurt themselves or their families, but it wouldn’t be a social problem. Similar sentiments are voiced when talk of legalizing prostitution comes up. The women wouldn’t have to worry about exploitative pimps! They could freelance or work with a brothel, depending on the strength of their entrepreneurial spirit! The health board could regulate working conditions, and protect the providers and the consumers from sexually transmitted diseases! All these things could be true. Maybe the men who visit prostitutes in Chicago are aberrations, and the attitude that women are consumable, and prostitutes aren’t human is limited to the American Midwest. Maybe prostitutes aren’t in just as much physical danger from their customers as they are from their pimps, or even more. At least a pimp is financially motivated to keep a prostitute fit for work; customers have no such long-term interest.

Legalizing prostitution won’t help women so long as the image of prostitution as a disposal commodity persists. In fact, it might exacerbate the problem. The United States Department of State published a document linking the legalization of prostitution to increases in sex trafficking (The Link between Prostitution and Sex Trafficking, 2004–PDF). The document makes these three arguments about legal prostitution, all of which I agree with:

1. Women and children want to escape from prostitution. (My comment: Legalizing the service would frame them as business people instead of victims, and it would be harder to get help to escape.)

2. Prostitution is inherently harmful. (My comment: The American women working in legal brothels in the state of Nevada are unbelievably privileged, and you cannot reasonably compare their experience to the experience of most prostitutes in the world.)

3. Prostitution creates safe havens for criminals. (My comment: If brothels are legal, it will be harder to track down where the trafficked women and children are.)

You know what else happens when you legalize something? Demand goes up. Legalize prostitution, and more men will want more women, and those women have to come from somewhere. The supply of women who are willingly working as prostitutes is simply insufficient to meet market demand, and so women are brought into a region unwillingly. You don’t have to look very far for examples. Amsterdam is a good place to start. Brothels have been legalized there, and yet it’s estimated that at least half the women working in prostitution have been trafficked there. They aren’t healthier, they still suffer violence, and sexually transmitted diseases have not been eradicated.

But then there’s the case of Sweden. In 1999, the Swedish government passed a bill that decriminalized the sale of sex and criminalized the purchase of it. A few European nations have followed suit, as have a handful of cities across the United States. If penalizing suppliers of sex work isn’t eliminating prostitution, the idea is that penalizing the people who demand it will. The Internet is full of examples of how this is working exactly as planned and full of examples of how the practice just moves prostitution further out of public view. So I don’t know what to do. But I certainly know what I think, baseless or not, and now I am going to share it.

I think that prostitutes are tolerated because today’s society needs some women to be available to men for any reason, because the women who do have education and social and political capital aren’t freely available, and it’s considered unacceptable in general for men not to have some outlet for actual physical and sexual domination. I think the conversation about prostitution is loaded with terms about women’s choices because that supplies a loophole to blame women for what unsanctioned sex they do have, and if there are negative consequences to engaging in prostitution, then the women can be accused of having brought it on themselves. I think talking about prostitution as if it were a regular job is ludicrous, because actual employees in actual professions have legal protections from assault and don’t get put in jail for working. I think that punishing prostitutes and not customers undermines the idea that there are social safety nets for people (women) who need help escaping prostitution, and reinforces the idea that they are disposal people. I think that if people really thought prostitution was empowering, they would offer to pay their female friends for sex more often, or refer male friends who are looking for sex to their sisters and cousins. I think that until this idea that men have rights over women evaporates and we’ve dismantled the patriarchal hierarchy (yeah, yeah, same word root, get over it), then we’re stuck with this problem. Right now, making prostitution legal is moves us away from the post-sexist, post-patriarchal society that would–ironically–be able to include prostitution without making a permanent underclass of women.

And that’s all I have to say about that.


This post is far more ranty and rambling and likely than I set out for it to be, but I started writing it this morning and had lots and lots of interruptions. After more than twelve hours of stopping and starting, I can no longer assess it for coherence, and the idea of revisting it to clean it up is just depressing because the topic is depressing. What I’m going to do instead is post it, make a margarita, and then read some paleolithic romance set within a matriarchal society with lots of consensual, unattached sex that carries no negative cultural consequences. There’s also a funny dog. It’ll clear my head.

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  • Tai Fung  On June 18, 2011 at 4:51 am

    Ok, so now I figured out how to comment and let Twitter fill this in for me. Hopefully you deleted the botched comment. Anyway:

    I think I know the forum thread you’re talking about, although I was mostly over at ILS at the time of the thread’s activity. I only finally read it much later. On balance, I definitely come down on the side of the school of thought which says, “There are plenty of places on the internet to view those types of images, so why have them at that other site? That site is, I thought, mostly for thinking, or for thinking folks to chat.” I was surprised by the reaction of others.

  • Karen  On June 18, 2011 at 12:13 pm

    Botched comment never even posted, but it’s been deleted! And believe it or not, but the thread you are thinking of is a different thread than the one I had in mind for this blog entry. So many threads, so little time.

  • melaina25  On June 20, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    I think prostitution is extrememly tricky but I think you are right. In an ideal world those women who wanted to work in the sex industry would have rights, protection and work in a safe environment, but in the real world that’s not going to happen any time soon. Even Nevada isn’t perfect.

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