Saturday, May 9, 2009

Prostitution: The Oldest Profession in the World

When it comes to sex trafficking, there is a lot of tension among abolitionists over the topic of prostitution. On the extreme ends, some see all prostitution as a form of trafficking while others make a clear distinction between a person who is a prostitute and someone who is a victim of trafficking. There is, of course, a lot of grey area in between. I bring this up though because today I'm feeling a little frustrated with people who make statements such as, "Prostitution is the oldest profession" or "It's been around for centuries," - as if that somehow proves a point or justifies anything in the prostitution vs. trafficking debate (or, the more common debate over whether prostitution should be legalized). I hate it when people point this out - as if it somehow legitimates anything. Just because something has been around for a long time, doesn't mean it's a good thing.

It's hard to say that women 2000+ years ago chose prostitution of their own free will - more likely, they chose it because it was the only option. It was certainly not some grand statement of female empowerment - rather it was a reaction to the social restrictions placed on women at the time. (Now, some might point to various societies where sex was not as taboo or wrapped up in morality as we see it today, and to them I say that we are talking about commercial transactions for sex - and that if someone can point out a society where prostitution was just as valid a decision as any other business endeavor, and garnered just as much respect and inclusion in society without any opportunity costs (such as marriage) that other business endeavors did not have - I'm willing to listen). ANYWAY - fast forward 2000 years and I wonder how much of this has changed - how much of the decision to become a sex worker today is an enthusiastic embracement of one's own sexuality and the desire to express it in a particular manner, and how much of the decisions is a product of circumstances.

In the present day tension, the idea that someone might choose or even be forced to become a sex worker because of certain circumstances is often overlooked. Now, it is true that, at least from a federal law perspective there has to be some sort of force, fraud, or coercion involved for a commercial transaction involving sex to be considered trafficking. What isn't so clear is what those three words mean. For many, there seems to be this idea that they refer to actions of violence - the woman was chained to the bed, or a gun was held to her head, or she was beaten until she finally submitted. Others consider a definition that afford a little more breadth, so that things like deliberate/blatant psychological coercion or manipulation will qualify as trafficking. Absent some
egregious factor such as specific and/or severe physical, sexual, or psychological abuse (from a pimp or from her past) though, many people assume that a woman who is a sex worker is doing it of her own volition - she wants to be there, it was her choice, etc. I think though, that other circumstances play an important role in the idea of consent and that there is room in the idea of force, fraud, or coercion for a different interpretation of consent - one that considers background circumstances that may 'force' a woman into prostitution.

Consent in my mind means active and enthusiastic yes. This can include a woman who chooses, of her own accord, to engage in sexual acts for money. I do not deny that some women will and do choose, of their own volition, without any sort of past hardship or lack of opportunity, to become a sex worker - BUT I think the number of women who fit into this category is very, very small. I think that a large number of women who become sex workers are pushed to that decision by other factors in their life, and when you start adding those factors in, the line between consent and force,
fraud, or coercion becomes blurry. What about the woman who did not have the opportunity for an education that would provide her with job skills? What about the woman who has kids to take care of but can't find a job that pays enough? What about the woman who grew up in foster care, or in a family environment surrounded by drug abuse, or the one who is just down on her luck? Are these women victims of trafficking, or are they consenting sex workers?

I am not in any way making a moral judgment here. For your purposes and mine, I have no opinion on the morality of sex workers. What I am trying to do is reframe the debate so people stop seeing it as a black and white, good vs bad issue. I'm asking people to look a little deeper, beyond the question of whether a woman should be allowed to choose to sell her body, beyond the question of whether the government has any right to outlaw a person's rights over their own body, and look beyond the apparent consenting adult ethos. Ask yourself what consent really means, and again, are these women victims of trafficking, or are they consenting sex workers?

My answer? I don't know. Maybe this type of circumstance-created sex work doesn't rise to the level of trafficking, but at the same time I hardly think you can view it as enthusiastic consent. I tend to think that many women who are sex workers would not be in that profession if they were given the opportunity for something else (and the idea of a different set of opportunities can go the whole way back to childhood). I also tend to think that the image we see of sex workers - on TV, on news shows that discuss the topic, etc - is a much more glamorous version of what most sex workers experience. I get a sense that the women who go on to news programs to advocate for sex workers (sometimes actual workers, sometimes not) are the exceptions to the rule - maybe even the ones that did have the opportunities others miss. (NB: that was a huge blanket statement there. Please excuse for the sake of the argument).

Now, for a full disclosure that hopefully won't distract from my above point - I don't know what I think about prostitution being legalized either. Some days I favor the idea of legalizing it - because a woman should be able to decide what she does with her body, and even if the only reason she is involved is due to circumstances that forced her there (money issues for example), far be it from me to limit the ways she has to escape those circumstances, or force her into a worse situation because that avenue of income is unavailable. Now, on those days I still favor prosecuting those who create the demand for such services to the maximum possible under the law. I have no time for people who pay for sex - I think it is wrong and pathetic and there is no way you will ever convince me that the payor is not exploiting the payee, even if the payee is a consenting adult. This is one of the few things I will express a judgment on with no reservations or qualifications whatsoever (although the law student in me still feels the need to reserve the right to change that statement, should anyone make a valid argument that convinces me I am wrong). For more on the idea of legalizing prostitution but outlawing the demand side, see Jennifer's post!

Oh - and also - take a moment to think about the phrase, "Prostitution is the oldest profession in history" before you use it to justify present day prostitution. Whether you are for or against the legalization, basing
your argument on the reality of a few thousand years ago is just silly.

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