|At the age of eighteen, my
roommate and best friend entered the sex industry.
Although prostitution in New South Wales, the state of
Australia in which we were living, has been
decriminalized, she chose not to tell me for several
weeks due to the associated stigma of sex work and her
fear of my rejection. Her decision to work as a
prostitute in a brothel, and later as a professional
dominatrix, did not stem from economic need. Nor was she
a hapless victim, forced into the lurid sex industry by a
boyfriend or pimp. Her decision to become a sex worker
was exactly that: a valid and rational choice.
Ever since Mary Wollstonecraft characterized the prostitute as a "poor little wretch [that] has little power", being "depraved by circumstances" and forced to undertake the profession only out of economic necessity (81), feminist discourse has denied the fact that a woman could make the choice to become a sex worker. It has been the unquestioned assumption of such feminists that women who willingly participate in the sex industry are victims of "false consciousness". It is assumed that they have somehow been forced to submit to sexual exploitation by pimps or caught in a cycle of either physical or sexual abuse that has perpetuated itself since childhood. As a result of the perception of sex-workers as victims, the rights of prostitutes, first as women and then as workers, have largely been ignored by the feminist movement, which has instead focused on increasing the enforcement of prostitution-related laws in an effort to abolish prostitution altogether. While not necessarily with this intent, the fight for the abolition of prostitution and "trafficking" of women has served only to increase the marginalization and systematic degradation of sex workers.
It is easy to characterize a whole class of women as victims when the time is not taken to speak with these women. In fact, when researchers have made efforts to contact sex workers directly they have found, as Simone DeBeauvior recounts, that they are not "feeble-minded" victims, but rather that "the majority are normal, some highly intelligent" (556). When addressing the issue of why women enter the sex industry, she reasons that "there will be people to enter any profession that is open; as long as a police force and prostitution exist, there will be policemen and prostitutes, more especially as these occupations pay better than many others" (556-557). Sex workers themselves give varying reasons for entering the sex industry, from personal and sexual empowerment, to prostitution as a well-paying means to support families, while allowing flexible work schedules, to the support of their art.
It would be unrealistic to deny that some prostitutes may enter the industry unwillingly and may very well be victims of sexual exploitation. Women in this situation, if they so desire, should be given every opportunity to escape. In our capitalist society, however, we must recognize that worker exploitation has the potential to occur in every profession (Queen 135). Jo Bindman comments that because of sex workers' marginalization in mainstream society, due to its illegality and associated stigma, these women face an increased risk at being exploited, and becoming victims of abuse and violence. She attributes this to sex workers' historical denial of "whatever international, national or customary protection from abuse available to others as citizens, women or workers" (66). Indeed, where prostitution is not legal, sex workers have universally reported a lack of access to legal protection, health care services and, as sex work is not considered "work" in the traditional sense, are denied the rights integral to all other workers, such as workers' compensation, disability benefits and health insurance.
The International Committee for Prostitutes' Rights, formed out of the first World Whores Congress in 1985, has issued a World Charter, in which the first item is a call for the decriminalization of "all aspects of adult prostitution resulting from individual choice" (305). Decriminalization is generally advocated by sex workers as preferable to legalization, as criminal laws would be repealed and the regulation of prostitution passed from law enforcement agencies to local government, which would be required to regulate the sex industry as it does any other legitimate business operation. Legalization, however, as exists in the United States in some rural counties of Nevada, has resulted in strict legislative control and more regulation, often requiring prostitutes to submit to discriminatory physical exams and the undue regulation of their personal lives and activities (McElroy 208). In the 15 years since the first World Whores Congress, decriminalization or partial decriminalization of the sex industry has occurred only in the Netherlands and some States of Australia.
The brothel in which my friend worked was beautiful, and allowed its workers a safe and controlled environment in which to practice their profession. The sex workers had absolute control over which clients they saw, and those they did not. If they did not like the appearance of a client, they could reject him without recrimination. The house rule was no condoms, no sex. If a client refused he was denied services, and since the payment was made up front, the sex worker still got paid. Condoms were provided free of charge, as were lubricants and sea sponges. The Madame required only three things: a pelvic exam every six weeks; H.I.V. testing every three months; and no recreational drug use. Violence was not an issue. Nor was fear of police busts or criminal records. The neighbors did not complain and the pay was great: my friend could earn $2,000 or more per week, depending on how often she chose to work. This is the reality of decriminalized contractual and consensual adult sex.
The most progressive sex work policies in the world exist in the Australian Capital Territory, where all consensual adult prostitution has been decriminalized. As a result the government funded sex workers' advocacy group ACT (WISE) has found that "when prostitution and its surrounding laws are repealed, then the sex industry loses its attraction for the criminal elements of society. In the A.C.T. we have no police corruption involved in the sex industry, no organized crime controlling sex workers, no widespread drug dealing, no pimping, and a massively low incidence of violence against prostitutes when compared with other jurisdictions where prostitution law is more restrictive" ("History").
Sex workers in Victoria, the ACT and NSW are the only sex workers that have successfully formed a local under the Australian Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union. This allows them a collective bargaining position, which reduces worker exploitation, guarantees good wages, provides them with legal assistance and access to the benefits available to all other workers in Australia: workers' compensation, disability benefits, paid maternity leave, superannuation and job security.
Workers in these states have also worked with their respective governments to develop Occupational Safety and Health regulations. These regulations ensure safe working conditions, mandate the use and provision of condoms, provide regulation regarding condom disposal and addresses other safety concerns specific to the sex industry.
In contrast, the United States has amongst the most restrictive anti-prostitution laws in the world. While prostitution takes place on many levels in the United States, the most targeted demographic for the purposes the enforcement of anti-prostitution laws, and those with the least ability to protect themselves from exploitation, violence and health risks are street prostitutes. It is estimated that only 10-20% of all prostitutes work from the street, yet due to their visibility 85-90% of all sex workers arrested are "streetwalkers" (Alexander 206).
When Mayor of New York City, Rudolph Giuliani, was elected to office he initiated a safe streets program, putting additional police officers on the street to target "quality of life crimes" such as street-prostitution. In 1997, the last year for which the New York State Department of Criminal Justice has released statistics, 7,350 people were arrested in New York City for the crimes of specific crimes of promoting prostitution, prostitution and patronizing prostitution. While the crackdown may have superficially reduced the number of prostitutes on the streets, sex workers' rights advocates and sex workers themselves have indicated that the crackdown has succeeded only in the forced migration of prostitutes to other areas and in pushing the sex work industry further underground (West 282). In being forced to migrate, prostitutes are also forced to abandon their safety and social network of co-workers who often look out for each other while on the street, thus increasing their risk of violence and abuse.
Once arrested for prostitution, the sex workers' ability to choose an alternate profession decreases, by providing them with a criminal record. The system of punishing women for engaging in consensual paid sexual intercourse, therefore, perpetuates their systematic degradation by pushing them into the lifestyle in order to support themselves, for which they are condemned.
Street prostitutes in the United States tend to be of a lower socioeconomic class than the 80-90% of prostitutes that work off the streets. As a result of this, they are also more susceptible to ill-health and drug addiction (Alexander 192). Indeed, Priscilla Alexander recounts numerous studies that show the rate of HIV infection of street prostitutes in Newark, where approximately 95% use intravenous drugs, is almost 50%, whereas the rate of infection of brothel-based prostitutes in Nevada, where drug-use is significantly lower and condom-use is required, is nil (216). Police enforcement of anti-prostitution laws has not served to decrease these women's health risks. Rather, it has increased it by discouraging these women from seeking health care and the services of HIV/AIDs and Sex Worker Outreach groups that distribute educational material regarding safe sex practices, condoms and dental dams and referrals to sex-positive physicians when necessary. During her work with FROST'D, a New York City based HIV/AIDs outreach program, Alexander noted that in 1997 and 1998, at the height of Giuliani's crackdown on street-prostitution, the number of prostitutes that accessed their services dropped from an average of 700 per month to under 300 (210).
While all prostitutes in the United States are at increased risk of violent crimes than are those where prostitution has been decriminalized, street prostitutes' risks tend to be greater due to their visibility. On October 8, 1999 the New York Times, reported that police believed the murders of two recent female prostitutes in Williamsburg, Brooklyn were committed by the same perpetrator (Chivers). Since that time there has been no media mention of any ongoing police investigation or any further investigation by the press into the circumstances of the murders.
When it comes to dealing with crimes against sex workers, whether the crimes are rape, murder or physical abuse, media attention to the crimes is glaringly absent and police barely investigate and rarely prosecute, if they even concede to accept the complaint at all. As Alexander so succinctly summarizes, "police, prosecutors and judges all too often believe that a prostitute, by definition, cannot be raped, and refuse to enforce the law when one is. When prostitutes are murdered, police make little effort to find the killer unless or until he kills someone who is not a prostitute. Far too often, the murders go unsolved, even unacknowledged" (92). Due to the media portrayal of prostitutes and their association with criminality, the general public tends to turn a blind eye to these injustices. Norma Jean Almodovar, a former Los Angeles Police Department Officer who later became a call girl and president of the LA Chapter of COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), recalls on her website the police code NHI, which stands for "No Humans Involved." She states this term was used to describe crimes against prostitutes or the homeless ("Bio"). Unfortunately, that code too adequately describes how many people view sex workers: as less than human.
Founder of the Network for Sex Work Projects, Cheryl Overs, has noted in an interview with Joe Doezema, that sex workers have consistently indicated that if allowances were made for them to work legally indoors, they would be willing move from the streets (207). This would not only resolve the "quality of life" issues that tend to concern non-sex workers, but would increase the health and safety of sex-workers by providing them with a legitimate environment in which they could work and, most importantly, control their working conditions. In fact, in the ACT sex workers work exclusively off the street ("History").
Sex work is not going to stop. Decriminalization can be an effective means in preserving the rights of sex workers on all levels: as humans, women and workers. Furthermore, as it did in the A.C.T., decriminalization can facilitate the ultimate goal of anti-prostitution feminists: the liberation of those women forced into the sex industry by eliminating the interests of pimps and other organized crime leaders, thus truly giving women the choice. The laws as they stand in the United States have few positive effects upon our society and succeed only in subjecting a certain demographic of women to unnecessary risk, violence and degradation.
Almovodar, Norma Jean. "Norma Jean Bio Page" <http://www.freedomusa.org/njbiopg.html> Apr 3, 2000.
Alexander, Priscilla. "Prostitution: Still a Difficult Issue for Feminists." Sex Work. Ed. Frederique Delacoste and Priscilla Alexander. 2nd Ed. San Francisco, California: Cleiss Press, 1998.
Bindman, Jo. "An International Perspective on Slavery in the Sex Industry." Global Sex Workers: Rights, Resistance, and Redefinition. Ed. Kamala Kempadoo and Joe Doezema. New York: Routledge, 1998.
Chivers, C.J. "Fear is Stalking the Streets After Williamsburg Killings" The New York Times. Metropolitan Life Beat. October 8, 1999.
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