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Saturday, November 01, 2014

Prostitution: Facts and Fictions

Prostitution: Facts and Fictions by Ronald Weitzer

"The most popular monolithic perspective is that prostitution is an unqualified evil. According to this oppression model, exploitation, abuse, and misery are intrinsic to the sex trade. In this view, most prostitutes were physically or sexually abused as children, which helps to explain their entry into prostitution; most enter the trade as adolescents, around 13–14 years of age; most are tricked or forced into the trade by pimps or sex traffickers; drug addiction is rampant; customer violence against workers is routine and pervasive; working conditions are abysmal; and legalization would only worsen the situation.

Some writers go further, characterizing the “essential” nature of prostitution. Because prostitution is defined as an institution of extreme male domination over women, these writers say that violence and exploitation are inherent and omnipresent—transcending historical time period, national context, and type of prostitution. As Sheila Jeffreys writes, “Prostitution constitutes sexual violence against women in and of itself”; and according to Melissa Farley, prostitution is a “vicious institution” that is “intrinsically traumatizing to the person being prostituted.” Many writers who subscribe to the oppression model use dramatic language (“sexual slavery,” “paid rape,” “survivors,” and so on) and describe only the most disturbing cases, which they present as typical— rhetorical tricks designed to fuel public indignation.

The oppression model’s images of victimhood erase workers’ autonomy and agency, and preclude any possibility of organizing sex work in order to minimize harm and empower workers. This model holds that prostitution should be eradicated, not ameliorated. But much research challenges the oppression model as well as some other popular fictions.

Street prostitution differs sharply from indoor prostitution. Many of the problems associated with “prostitution” are actually concentrated in street prostitution and much less evident in the indoor sector...

Some [street prostitutes] work independently, without pimps (a Miami study found that only 7 percent had pimps, but the percentage varies greatly by city). Regarding age of entry, the oppression model’s claim of 13–14 years is clearly not the norm. A recent British study by Marianne Hester and Nicole Westmarland found that 20 percent of their sample had begun to sell sex before age 16 while almost half (48 percent) had begun after age 19. Childhood abuse (neglect, violence, incest) is indeed part of the biography of some prostitutes, but studies that compare matched samples of street prostitutes and nonprostitutes show mixed results; some find a statistically significant difference in experience of family abuse, while others find no difference. HIV infection rates are highest among street prostitutes who inject drugs and less common among others...

A study by Stephanie Church and colleagues found that 27 percent of a sample of street prostitutes had been assaulted, 37 percent robbed, and 22 percent raped. Criminologists John Lowman and Laura Fraser reported similar results: 39 percent assaulted, 37 percent robbed, and 37 percent sexually assaulted. Since random sampling of this population is impossible, we must approach all victimization figures cautiously, but victimization is apparently not nearly as prevalent, even among street prostitutes, as the oppression model asserts.

Unfortunately, much popular discourse and some academic writing extrapolate from (a caricature of) street prostitution to prostitution in general. What gets less attention is the hidden world of indoor prostitution in venues such as bars, brothels, massage parlors, tanning salons, or in services provided by escort agencies or independent call girls. An estimated 20 percent of all prostitutes work on the streets in the United States. Although this number is hard to substantiate at the national level, some city-level studies support it. Regardless of the exact numbers, indoor sex work clearly accounts for a large share of the market.

Less research has been conducted on indoor prostitution, but available studies indicate that, compared to streetwalkers, indoor workers have lower rates of childhood abuse, enter prostitution at an older age, and have more education. They are less drug-dependent and more likely to use softer drugs (marijuana instead of crack or heroin). Moreover, they use drugs for different reasons. Street workers consume drugs or alcohol to help them cope with the adversities of the job, whereas indoor workers use them both for coping and as part of their socializing with customers. Sexually transmitted diseases are fairly rare among call girls, escorts, and women who work in brothels where condom use is mandatory. Indoor workers tend to earn more money, are at lower risk of arrest, and are safer at work. They are in a better position to screen out dangerous customers (through a referral system for call girls and vetting by gatekeepers in brothels and massage parlors), and they have a higher proportion of low-risk, regular clients.

Studies conducted in a variety of countries have found that indoor sex workers are less likely to experience violence from customers than those who work on the streets. For example, Church found that few call girls and sauna workers had experienced violence (only 1 percent had ever been beaten, 2 percent raped, and 10 percent robbed). This and other studies support Lilly Plumridge and Gillian Abel’s conclusion that “street workers are significantly more at risk of more violence and more serious violence than indoor workers.” (Obviously, this does not apply to persons recruited by force or fraud and trafficked into brothels, who are at high risk for subsequent exploitation and abuse.)

Research finds that many indoor workers made conscious decisions to enter the trade; they do not see themselves as oppressed victims and do not feel that their work is degrading. Consequently, they express greater job satisfaction than their street-level counterparts. And they may differ little from nonprostitutes: A study by psychologist Sarah Romans and colleagues comparing indoor workers and an age-matched sample of nonprostitute women found no differences between the two groups in physical health, self-esteem, mental health, or the quality of their social networks.

Some prostitutes feel validated and empowered by their work. In some studies, a large percentage of indoor workers report an increase in self-esteem after they began working in prostitution, state that they are very satisfied with their work, or feel that their lives improved after entering prostitution. Escorts interviewed by sociologist Tanice Foltz took pride in their work and viewed themselves as morally superior to others: “They consider women who are not ‘in the life’ to be throwing away woman’s major source of power and control, while they as prostitutes are using it to their own advantage as well as for the benefit of society.” A study by the Australian government reported that half of the 82 call girls and 101 brothel workers interviewed felt their work was a “major source of satisfaction” in their lives; two-thirds of the brothel workers and seven out of ten call girls said they would “definitely choose this work” if they had it to do over again; and 86 percent in the brothels and 79 percent of call girls said that “my daily work is always varied and interesting.” Ann Lucas’s interviews with escorts and call girls revealed that these women had the “financial, social, and emotional wherewithal to structure their work largely in ways that suited them and provided ... the ability to maintain healthy self-images.” Other studies indicate that such control over working conditions greatly enhances overall job satisfaction among these workers.

Indoor and street prostitutes also differ in whether they engage in “emotion work” (providing intimacy, emotional support) in addition to sexual services. Emotion work is rare among streetwalkers, whose encounters are limited to quick, mechanical sex. But call girls and escorts (and, to a lesser degree, brothel and massage parlor workers) are often expected to support and counsel clients, and their encounters may resemble dating experiences, including conversation, gifts, hugging, massage, and kissing. Janet Lever and Deanne Dolnick’s comparative study of a large number of street and indoor workers in Los Angeles found striking differences between the two groups in the quantity and quality of their sexual and emotional interactions with clients. Emotion work is not necessarily easy; workers who feign intimacy or emotional support over an extended period of time may find the work quite draining.

Many customers are looking for more than sex from indoor workers. Reviews of several websites where customers discuss their preferences and experiences indicate that many seek women who are friendly, conversational, generous with time, and who engage in cuddling and foreplay. This has come to be known as a “girlfriend experience” (GFE), with elements of romance and intimacy in addition to sex. One client writing in the popular Punternet websites said that he had “a gentle GFE that was more lovemaking than sex,” and another stated, “There was intimacy and sweat and grinding and laughter, and those moments that are sexy and funny and warm and leave you with a grin on your face the next day. Girlfriend sex.” Escorts and call girls also contribute to these websites, and their comments make it clear that many do not believe the oppression model applies to them...

It’s time to replace the oppression model with a polymorphous model—a perspective that recognizes multiple structural and experiential realities.

According to the oppression model, legalization would only institutionalize exploitation and abuse. Antiprostitution groups insist that legalization is a recipe for misery and has a “corrosive effect on society as a whole,” according to the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. It is difficult to measure something as vague as a “corrosive effect,” but it is possible to evaluate some other dimensions of legalization, including the effects on workers themselves. To address this question, we need to examine cases where prostitution is legal and regulated by the government. Brothels are legal in a number of places, including Nevada, the Netherlands, Australia, and New Zealand...

Research suggests that, under the right conditions, legal prostitution can be organized in a way that increases workers’ health, safety, and job satisfaction...

A fair number of men have bought sex. According to the 2000 General Social Survey, 17 percent of American men have paid for sex at some time in their lives, and 3 percent have done so in the past year. Recent surveys indicate that 9 percent of British men and 16 percent of Australian men report paying for sex. The actual numbers are likely higher, given the stigma involved.

Despite the significant support for legalization and sizeable customer base, there has been almost no serious debate among American policymakers on alternatives to prohibition. As a 1999 task force in Buffalo, New York, reasoned, “Since it is unlikely that city or state officials could ever be convinced to decriminalize or legalize prostitution in Buffalo, there is nothing to be gained by debating the merits of either.” This logic seems to put the cart before the horse, but on those rare occasions when policy alternatives have been floated in other cities, they have met with the same status-quo outcome. When a San Francisco task force boldly recommended decriminalization in 1996, the city’s political leaders promptly rejected the idea. And in 2004 a Berkeley, California, ballot measure that called on police to refrain from enforcing prostitution laws was defeated: 64 percent voted against it. Opposition was likely due to the measure’s laissez-faire approach; people are more inclined to support some kind of regulation, just as they are with regard to some other vices. Still, despite the substantial minority of Americans who support legalization in principle, outside of Nevada the idea has attracted little public attention.

Although the issue of legalization is dormant in the contemporary United States, prostitution policy has recently become a hot issue. An antiprostitution coalition has gathered steam, composed of the religious right and abolitionist feminists. Judging by their publications and pronouncements, the coalition not only accepts the myths I have described but actively perpetuates them...

What began (in the 1990s) as a campaign focused on international trafficking has morphed into a frontal assault on the domestic sex industry in America...

Activists have been pressing the government to criminalize the commercial sex trade as a whole, contending that the oppression model applies to all forms of sex work. For example, in a 2005 report funded by the State Department, scholar-activist Donna Hughes condemned both stripping and pornography. She claimed that women and girls are trafficked to perform at strip clubs (though she found only six cases of this in the United States during 1998–2005) and that the producers of pornography “often rely on trafficked victims,” a charge made with no supporting evidence. Some government officials have echoed these claims."

See also:

The mental and physical health of female sex workers: a comparative study

"No evidence was found that sex work and increased adult psychiatric morbidity are inevitably associated, although there may be subgroups of workers with particular problems. The illegal and stigmatized nature of sex work are likely to make usual public health strategies more difficult to apply, considerations which should give concern from a preventive health standpoint"
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