Saturday, November 14, 2009

Prostitution and Society

A typical response that I get when I tell people that I’m for the legalization of prostitution is the following question (which I suppose is intended to be rhetorical):

‘How would you like it if your daughter chose prostitution as a career?’

To which I reply,

‘I probably wouldn’t like it, but I probably wouldn’t like it if my daughter chose to work at a fast food restaurant either.’

The point being, I would want my child to choose a career that would be likely to make them feel happy and fulfilled. As a civil libertarian, I believe most career paths and life choices should be on the table for everyone, whatever my personal opinion of those different occupations may be. As a pragmatist, I can’t help but think the illegality of prostitution (and many other taboo things) only pushes them underground, where seedy environments and unethical people only serve to worsen matters. I believe that our country’s neurotic history with sex is unhealthy.

Much as certain puritanical attitudes have unnecessarily submerged other elements of our carnal nature beneath the deep waters of repression, they have really tried to bury our sexual nature in a place that only angler fish and dead mobsters will ever have a chance to see it. But as is the rule whenever we decide to ignore a part of our true selves, it will manifest itself later in a way that is often ugly and violent. Our darker aspects* become angry when they are ignored, and can manifest themselves in our lives, our communities, and our public policies, in strange and unsettling ways. If there was any one recognizable theme of our previous century, it was this: The truth will make us face it. What is hid in the dark will be brought to the light.

A section of Marie Stopes’s ‘Married Life’ can be used as anecdotal evidence for this unhealthy attitude. The portion of the book where she is discussing the way a married man might compare his wife to a woman whom he ‘bought love from’ previously is telling on a variety of levels. On the most superficial level, She quotes sources who refer to prostitutes as ‘automotons’, seeming to agree with the verdict, and later in the book seems to endorse the ending of the ‘social disease’ of prostitution, although she thinks the movement would be better served if it possessed a deeper understanding of some of the less obvious perks to hiring a prostitute (companionship, gaiety, sympathy, etc).

I don’t want to judge the goodness or badness of sex work. What I am judging (negatively) is our collective response to prostitution, and our handling of the issue. There is such deep and complex neurosis associated with the issue, that it’s hard to imagine that we all don’t internalize the stereotypes and clichés and negative public attitudes that relate to the field. I imagine that just as it is possible to hold an enlightened view of working in fast food, or in a bank, or as a dancer, or as a wrestler, it is also possible to hold an enlightened view of working in the sex business. Marie Stopes is write to note society’s attitude towards women & sex as unhealthy. For so long (and still today) many view a woman who has engaged in sex as somehow soiled, and woman-as-a-tool-for-man has also been standard operating procedure for too long.

Maybe our cultural attitude towards sex, and towards the role of woman isn’t in an ideal enough spot to give a full throated endorsement to the legalization of prostitution, but I would say that leaving the business in the shadows is worse. It reinforces notions of shame, ugliness, and woman-as-commodity, and leaves the defining of the practice to far less sophisticated minds. Those who philosophize in the shadows are more likely to form and advocate worldviews that will expand the darkness, rather than eradicate it.

So what can we do to prepare our society for the inevitable legalization of the sex trade? Well, conversation always helps. Transparency is a big plus. If we were to fully embrace the idea of the welfare state, we could move away from the sad fact quoted in the popular women's health book Our Bodies Ourselves that ‘…poverty is the major force that drives people, especially women of color and runaway teenagers, into prostitution.’

We are still a Capitalist Nation; even if we are so only in a mixed-model sense**. The deepening of our commitment to the welfare state, where leisure is respected, incomes are equalized, and a strong and well funded safety net is set firmly in place, will not eliminate prostitution, but it will go a-ways to eliminating the base kind of prostitution that is referred to in the OBO quote. A re-commitment to the Welfare state, and an emerging cultural understanding of both human sexuality and religion (both are evolving) will go ways to eliminating what is bad about the current state of the sex business, and (perhaps) ennoble what is good about it.

*Darker, because we keep them in shadows, not because they are ‘evil’ or ‘sinful’

** Show me a 'pure' system, and I will show you a stone slab trying to pass as a boat.

cross posted at The Daily Kos


Alpha:Omega said...

I think it's the acceptance of women having sex that has driven down the demand for prostitutes. Pre-marital sex is okay now days and so is "Sex in the City" type women (I still call them sluts), but the behavioral changes of women have made sex okay in society and more importantly FREE!

Alpha:Omega said...

You make some good points here though. I know in a legitimized business the violence and death rate of prostitutes would drop if not disappear. And other info suggests those women have improved their lives and the lives of their children do to poverty and other economic conditions it was the best option by far. Sad stuff though. I don't think any of them like it. But hey I dont like my job either! Very insightful Spencer, as usual.

Willie Y said...

Great post Spencer. Our country seems to have it's collective head in the sand about a lot of things. (prostitution, marijana use, being gay)

This is the first paragraph of the website Decriminalize Prostitution Now Coalition

Prostitution is LEGAL (with some restrictions that aren't that bad) in Canada, most all of Europe including England, France, Wales, Denmark, etc., most of South America including most of Mexico (often in special zones), Brazil, Israel (Tel Aviv known as the brothel capital of the world), Australia, and many other countries. It is either legal or very tolerated in most all of Asia and even Iran has "temporary wives" which can be for only a few hours! New Zealand passed in 2003 one of the most comprehensive decriminalization acts which even made street hookers legal which is causing many concerns. I do NOT support public nuisance street hookers being legal unless in special zones. But PRIVATE consenting adult sex work should be legal as it is in most of the world except the U.S.

Spencer Troxell said...

I think feminism has certainly changed a lot of attitudes about sex, and has done a whole lot to combat the commodification of women. We also know that prostitutes aren't automotons now, and have some understanding of the terrible things most of them have to suffer.

While I'm not sure the demand for prostitutes is down, I am pretty sure of this: We can clean up the industry, and make it safer and more transparent. I'm also fairly confident that wherever there's a hole in the market, someone will try to fill it.

Sic Semper Tyrannis said...

While I don't believe prostitution should be illegal, I really don't want billboards for it or to have to walk past a line of possibly illegal aliens handing out trading cards and coupons like they have in vegas. I don't know what the right answer is here but I'd listen to any option. Legalization would make it safer for all those involved and you wouldn't ruin someones life becasue they were willing to pay to get some human contact and get their rocks off. The negatives are that people would be selling themselves and that cannot be good for them long term. It's not just a woman issue, men sell themselves as well.

Spencer Troxell said...

It's certainly a difficult issue, because (especially as the industry & society's relationship to the industry)the upside to prostitution isn't as easily apparent as the upside to legalizing it and reconsidering our attitudes about sex.

I find it very easy to sympathize with people who fall on either side of this issue.

PS, did you click on the link to the Daily Kos at the bottom of this blog? This post has gotten 327 comments!

Prostitution is a hot issue.

Lodo Grdzak said...

"The inevitable legalization of the sex trade?" Really?

While I certainly believe prostitution should be legal, I'm afraid I don't see most of America moving in that direction anytime soon. Police make a lot of money off prostitution and they aren't going to be happy about giving that up. Police love prostitution!

And in 2010, the dumbass Republicans are gonna come back running campaigns based on their bullshit conservative "vision," (an oxymoron I know). Look at how hard its been to get something as innocuous as marijuana legalized. Hell they're dragging their feet on it here in New York for God's sake! So prostitution? Maybe in certain areas of the country like NYC (practically legal already--just give the cops their share!) or Miami. But for the rest of this country, prostitution's too adult an issue for them to deal with. They still think America went to Iraq over 9/11.

Spencer Troxell said...


Yeah, but I could be wrong.

Lodo Grdzak said...

I guess I was just provoking you Spence. Sorry 'bout that. But I do have to stick with my assertion that there's only a few cities in this country that could deal with legalized prostitution: Miami; New York; Vegas; Atlanta; San Francisco. The rest of the country...they'd never go for it.

Spencer Troxell said...

No offense taken. And by no means do I expect legalization of prostitution to be high on anyone's agenda. Of the polarizing social issues, I think pot and gay marriage are going to get dealt with first, in that order.

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