What do professional athletes, construction workers, models, warehouse employees, porn stars, fishermen, and strippers have in common? All of them use their bodies to earn their living. In fact, most of the world's population provides some sort of physical activity for which they are paid. So why should prostitutes be any different?
Those opposed to legalizing prostitution argue that selling sex victimizes women. As Melissa Farley and Victor Malarek wrote in an op-ed piece in yesterday's New York Times, "most women in prostitution, including those working for escort services, have been sexually abused as children." Today's column by Nicholas Kristof offers evidence that is even more damning. He writes:
Studies suggest that up to two-thirds of prostitutes have been sexually abused as girls, a majority have drug dependencies or mental illnesses, one-third have been threatened with death by pimps, and almost half have attempted suicide.
Melissa Farley, a psychologist who has written extensively about the subject, says that girls typically become prostitutes at age 13 or 14. She conducted a study finding that 89 percent of prostitutes urgently wanted to escape the work, and that two-thirds have post-traumatic stress disorder — not a problem for even the most frustrated burger-flipper.
The mortality data for prostitutes is staggering. The American Journal of Epidemiology published a meticulous study finding that the “workplace homicide rate for prostitutes” is 51 times that of the next most dangerous occupation for women, working in a liquor store. The average age of death of the prostitutes in the study was 34.
“Women engaged in prostitution face the most dangerous occupational environment in the United States,” The Journal concluded.
Of course, one of the most obvious reasons that prostitution is so dangerous is because it is illegal. Prostitutes have almost no recourse for crimes committed against them because to seek legal help, they reveal that they are breaking the law themselves. This inability to turn to the law for protection adds extra vulnerability to a woman who is already socially maligned, and possibly abused, addicted to substances, or mentally ill.
In other cases, prostitutes who are caught in the web of sex trafficking are also unable to seek assistance from the very sources who should be protecting them. In most places, the law makes no distinction between a prostitute who was kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery and a prostitute, who for whatever reason, entered the business. This makes trafficked individuals doubly victimized: they can go to prison with their tormentors.
Kristof concludes that legalizing prostitution will only increase the problems found in the sex trade. He cites experiences in the Netherlands, which legalized prostitution in 2000 and found that trafficking flourished. He also noted that Sweden took a different tack: they made it legal to sell sex, but illegal to buy it. This dramatically drove down demand for paid sexual services.
I think legalizing the sale of sex is a good step, but it is only halfway there. It still indicates that there is something wrong with the purchase and sale of sexual acts. As Alyssa Royse commented on Lisa Stone's post about Eliot Spitzer and prostitution:
…we have created a society in which his sexual needs (which were strong enough that he was willing to risk EVERYTHING for them) had to be swept into dark corners and deemed "filth." How must that feel to wake up everyday longing for something deep inside your soul that you - and everyone around you - deems filthy? That's the kind of thing that erodes people. And it makes me sad.
I have friends who are strippers and dominatrix and tantricas, and I absolutely respect their ability to sell their services to people who need and want to purchase them. What makes me sad is that most of their clients don't feel that they can tell their life-partners that they want these things.....
Criminalizing prostitution comes from a deep discomfort with sexual desire. It is a moralistic law that creates as many problems as it sometimes seeks to solve. If we want to end sex trafficking, we have to be honest with ourselves about our human desires and wants. It is the very nature of making normal desires illicit (and "filthy") that allows criminality to flourish in the sex trade.
Legalizing prostitution, providing social services to abused women, drug addicts, and the mentally ill, and severely punishing sex traffickers will go much further toward improving the lives of prostitutes than "protecting" them with law that actually victimize them ever will.
More thoughts on legalizing prostitution at:
Suzanne also blogs at Campaign for Unshaved Snatch (CUSS) & Other Rants
Editor's Note: Comments have been closed due to spam attacks on this post. 7/16/9