Ghosts of prostitution debates past
Halloween is my Christmas. Even if I wasn’t born on November 1st and named after a witch, the Samhain season would still be holiday numero uno for me due to the candy, costumes, and supernatural spookies celebrated in the absence of religious, nationalist or familial obligations.
Since autumn reaps harvests of nostalgia, I thought it might be festive to brush aromatic leaves off the headstones of pro-prostitution arguments put in the ground years ago. Not the dippy slogan “sex work is work”, not comparisons to Prohibition regularly karate chopped with reminders that women are people and not beverages, I’m talking the doozies that haven’t horrified me with their lazy logic in a long time.
Only flyby commenters and paid-by-the-pageview writers pull out the “world’s oldest profession” artifact anymore because there’s no winning reply to the retort that slavery is historical but shouldn’t be legal. However, it pokes its victim-blaming dicktip into the media enough to be disqualified from my criteria that these moans haven’t been heard by me in the last year. Progress!
1. Men will use prostituted children less if legal, adult prostitutes are made available.
Anyone with the slightest sociological curiosity could have debunked the catharsis theory where men can ejaculate the will to rape children out of their systems. Note the twisted appeal to “think of the children!” while offering up young women’s bodies as collateral damage.
As ruthlessly libertarian as the champions of swapping gals for girls imagine themselves, the precedent hasn’t been set in any marketplace because men who want to rape little girls don’t do so in the absence of adult women owned by the same pimp. Libertarians have gone apoplectic when I propose the precedent they’re actually operating from is the misogynistic, homophobic Bible story of Lot giving gay rapists his daughters so they wouldn’t sodomize male angels:
“Now behold, I have two daughters who have not had relations with man; please let me bring them out to you, and do to them whatever you like; only do nothing to these men, inasmuch as they have come under the shelter of my roof,” (Gen. 19:8).
The oxymoronic variant, “Men will rape some women less if allowed to rape some women more” remains popular but the specific appeal to reduce pedophilia with prostitution hasn’t made me want to punch someone for about a decade.
2. Legal prostitution will lead women to pay for sex in nearly the numbers men pay for sex.
Here’s one that used to ride with the equally addlebrained, “More porn for women will improve the porn industry” some morbidly optimistic yahoos still believe. Folks, even Susie Bright has stopped repeating that mainstay of her repertoire, give it a rest.
The last time I encountered this ghost was 2009 when convicted pimp Heidi Fleiss opened the Shady Lady Ranch for women despite the Nevada law forbidding convicted pimps from running brothels. After two months and less than ten paying customers, Nevada’s first legal male prostitute Markus quit and the brothel went kaput soon after. I think women are a statistically insignificant number of prostitute-users for the same reason 80-85% of men don’t use prostitutes, because the idea of being intimate with a stranger faking desire for you is repugnant.
Every feminist has met the Women-Do-It-Too dude who insists women are inherently just as violent as men. Many women believe that too, unfortunately, and they show off their use of pornstituted women (mainly through porn and strippers) as a performance of how aspirationally masculine their sexuality is. I’ll never forget the woman who beamed to me with pride that her lover said she fucked like a man.
Men’s sadistic sexuality, including prostitutes used in the flesh and via the canned cunt of porn, is the default norm in our culture. It takes a whole lot of capitalistic indoctrination to come to the conclusion that women NOT paying for sex is a misogynistic aberration that will be fixed when women have enough economic and social power to comfortably consume sex workers.
I hope this argument is vanishing because we have evolved from wishing women could be as equally exploitative as men we to considering that men can be just as bad as women and rape as infrequently as women do.
3. Making condoms 100% mandatory, as was done in Thailand in the 1990s, saves sex worker lives.
In 1991, Thailand put concerted effort into reducing the spread of HIV by adopting a goal of 100% condom usage in the illegal brothels. It was a successful campaign with some reports stating new infections had decreased 75% in five years, and Thailand’s safer sex example was held up as an international model. Disease rates have since risen and research from 2009 reports that Thailand has the highest prevalence of HIV in all of Asia.
Prostitution defenders praised the mandatory condom policy as a lifesaver. Abolitionists and sex capitalists alike agreed that mandatory health regulations were necessary, so what happened to this seemingly rational policy to push it out of favor with sex capitalists?
The proverbial poop flew when healthcare professionals in California decided to import Thailand’s model to the porn industry which had gotten used to getting away with ignoring workplace safety laws. Suddenly the same pro-prostitution mouthpieces who praised the Thai model and supported an ACLU lawsuit premised on selling condoms cheaply in Asian brothels began trashing condoms as more dangerous to sex workers than unprotected sex.
Pornographers like Nina Hartley and pornstitution profiteers like Charlie Glickman and Hugo Schwyzer writing for Jezebel.com declared themselves more knowledgeable about condoms than the venerable Alan Guttmacher Institute. They told stories of potential death by latex allergies, condom friction increasing disease transmission, and threats to move porn production into dangerous underground lairs if forced to protect employee health. I can’t think of a reason why they would say mandating condoms will push Californian sex workers underground when they had lauded mandatory condoms for Thai sex workers as a means to bring brothels ‘above ground’ where transparency provides safety. Oh wait, I forgot racism, greed, and sexsationalistic clickbaiting.
The contradictions and fake science coming from the porn lobby were bad public relations that inhibited a slick retreat to their prior “yay condoms!” stance. This particular specter is one I wouldn’t mind seeing sex worker rights groups reincarnate.
4. Under the Nordic Model, women (not necessarily sex workers) will make fake accusations of prostitution solicitation to blackmail men.
When the Swedish law passed in 1999, a flurry of blogs, articles, and position papers were published decrying the injustice to men. Professor Don Kulick wrote a paper implying that women with the ability to accuse men of commercial sexual predation will abuse it to hurt innocent men because women are conniving gold-diggers like that:
“The only positive thing for sexworkers that perhaps can to be said to have emerged from this law is that it seems that some of them have used it to rob clients or blackmail them, telling them that if they didn’t cough up more money, they would turn them into the police.”
Kulick doesn’t provide examples or sources to verify if any femme fatale extortions happened and he offers a mild counter argument:
“Of course, both robbery and blackmail are much more serious crimes than purchasing sexual services, so if a client goes to the police, the sexworker risks much harsher penalties than the client she robbed or attempted to blackmail.”
Because Kulick is a man incapable of empathizing with prostituted women, he neglects what women know about the kinds of “harsher penalties” men inflict on disobedient prostitutes.
While it’s theoretically possible women might pretend to be prostitutes (who don’t fear men’s insane amount of violence towards hookers for some reason) to extort money from men, women have been able to “cry rape” against any man, punter or not, for many years and that hasn’t been occurring.
5. The worst harm of prostitution is the shame/stigma.
Some “professional erotic technicians” have said the weight of the shame should their families and friends discover their criminal secret is their biggest problem. Frankly, as someone who had a loved one suffer and die from prostitution, I find that declaration a relief because I believe sex workers when they say they haven’t dealt with violent johns or pimps and I’m grateful for their good luck.
The tightest argument against stigma causing the bulk of damage to sex workers is that the men most likely to seriously harm them are precisely the pimps and johns most likely to accept prostitution as a natural, necessary business transaction. By the stigma rationale, paying johns should be the least likely to harm prostituted women, yet the evidence overwhelmingly shows otherwise. The oft-repeated description of men’s experiences with prostitutes being “emotionless” sex doesn’t translate into “stigmaless” sex, but someone intent on attributing rape to criminalization instead of toxic masculinity has to detach the rapist from his motivation to rape somehow.
On the sex worker side of things I agree that feeling ashamed sucks, but I can provide a very long list of prostitution-related harms that suck a whole lot more. Thanks to trafficking awareness campaigns plus the eternally creative imaginations of pimpographers, the average citizen can also whip up a hefty list of brutal nasties faced by the average prostituted woman which transcend shame. Consequently, I more commonly see stigma listed among prostitution’s many problems or as a thematic connection between a group of problems than as The Problem.
Industry lobbyists think they can replace the well-known threat pimps and johns pose to prostitutes with the specious assertion that feminists and police officers are worse. Fortunately that’s not been working well for them.
I tried to think of a new pro-prostitution argument encountered in the past year and the only one that comes to mind declares Sweden a sexually repressive, totalitarian gender dystopia disguised as a socialist democracy. Iceland also got some slander slapped on it in 2013 when they stopped pretending that the women in pornography can be sex workers without consumers of pornography being sex worker clients, aka johns.
Such weak lobs play well to the Julian Assange fanclub but I’m quite sure, “Scandinavia hates sexual freedom” has fresh dirt under its nails from digging a grave in the cemetery of pointless pro-prostitution polemics.
Samantha Berg is an activist, journalist and founder of the blog JohnStompers, as well as the website Genderberg, a radical feminist community since 2005. She speaks about sexual violence at conferences, on radio, and in print media and is the National Coordinator for Stop Porn Culture.