(WOMENSENEWS)–On March 16, Women’s eNews published a commentary by Juhu Thukral, a lawyer with the Sex Workers Project, the day before New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned from office after being implicated in a prostitution scandal. Her piece took a broader look at the overall issue of criminalizing prostitution and the impact to women.
Prostitution evokes multiple viewpoints, especially among women’s groups that approach it with different philosophies and ideas about reform. Posted here are several responses we’ve received from readers, including a formal rebuttal to Thukral’s piece from Equality Now.
A Right Not to Be Prostituted
Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s alleged involvement as a "client" in a prostitution ring is anything but a "personal" matter about his sex life as casually described by Juhu Thukral on this page. However ironic this scandal given Spitzer’s outstanding leadership on legislation regarding sex tourism, human trafficking and prostitution, his reported actions offer us a teachable moment on "johns" and the commercial sexual exploitation of women. We are all in agreement that women in prostitution must be given protection and justice. Where we don’t agree is how to protect the human rights of these women under laws and policies and how the commercial sex industry is the root of the problem.
The New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition, of which Equality Now was a member, along with over 80 statewide organizations, also worked closely with Gov. Spitzer’s administration on the human trafficking law enacted last year. We believe the New York anti-trafficking law is one of the strongest state anti-trafficking laws in the country, precisely because it addresses the demand for prostitution by raising penalties for patronizing prostitution. Gov. Spitzer, like the class of "johns" he has joined, did not engage in private sexual acts but rather commercial sexual acts that violated the law, and if he had purchased another human being for sex in New York, he would have violated the very law he promoted and signed.
National and international statistics confirm that the majority of people trafficked around the world are women and children who wind up in the commercial sex trade. Women and girls are trafficked into the sex industry because prostitution is its backbone and its raison d’etre. While not all women in prostitution are trafficking victims, without prostitution there would be no sex trafficking. So let’s focus on prostitution.
Reports indicate that the average age of entry into prostitution in the United States is 14 years old. The profile of the prostituted girl or woman is similar in many ways to that of the woman identified as "Kristen" in the Spitzer scandal: abused or incested as a child, drug user, homeless, having dropped out of school. In this case, "Kristen" is neither poor nor black or Latina, the other common characteristics of American girls at risk of being sold into the sex trade by violent pimps covering as benevolent boyfriends. We don’t know yet when "Kristen" was first sold into prostitution, but for the average prostituted girl, our national psyche somehow accepts without blinking that once she turns 18, she miraculously becomes a "consenting adult" who freely enters prostitution or continues to sell herself willingly, with glee even, at the prospect of making a lucrative living in a very dangerous occupation.
Many highlight that "Kristen" has an easier exit than the poorer women who are trafficked without hope of escape from their pimps and traffickers. This may certainly be the case, but the point is that their exploiters are the same. Whether she enters into a parked car on an inner-city street or into a five-star hotel room, the young woman is the same object of commercial purchase, facing a significant level of danger, degradation and violence.
The research of Dr. Melissa Farley of Prostitution Research and Education indicates that among those prostituted women surveyed, an overwhelming majority want to leave prostitution but see no exit; the majority have experienced violence in prostitution, including multiple rapes; and like "Kristen" a large percentage have experienced childhood abuse, homelessness and drug addiction. Hardly an "acceptable livelihood." In fact Dr. Farley found that 80 percent of all women in prostitution, regardless of whether they were in countries where prostitution was legalized, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Decades ago, the debate on domestic violence swirled around whether we believed the woman was deserving of protection depending on her emotional attachment to her batterer, her economic class, her ability to leave her home. This analysis was always deemed void of compassion to those of us in the business of ending violence against women, and yet many of us feel quite comfortable extending the notion of consent, agency and self-infliction to prostituted women and girls.
Ms. Thukral is right that the laws should change and our current laws don’t go far enough. We live in states where a child cannot consent to sex under statutory rape laws, but if in prostitution, will be arrested and convicted. For every six women criminally charged for prostitution, only one "john" is arrested to get a slap on the wrist, remaining invisible to the penal system. The risk of violence, exploitation and even murder is inherent to prostitution, whether it is conducted in a brothel, on the street, in escort services or in a suburban home. Is this an acceptable livelihood that should be legalized?
Legalizing prostitution fuels sex trafficking, as demonstrated by the global sex trafficking hub of Amsterdam, and in effect turns governments into surrogate pimps promoting and reaping profits from the sex trade. This is harmful to women–all women. In fact Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen himself stated in a Reuters article in December 2007 that the city was considering a partial reversal of the Netherlands law that legalizes prostitution because it had not achieved its aim of protecting women from violence in prostitution. Instead, both federal and state policymakers need to adopt stronger laws that reflect Sweden’s model law recognizing that prostitution is a form of gender-based violence and discrimination. Those who exploit women should be criminalized, not the prostituted women.
Human rights standards have established that every human being has a fundamental right to live a life free of violence, degradation and discrimination and to a life with dignity. These principles are antithetical to allowing the perpetuation of buying women and girls for the profit of the commercial sex industry. We must address the gender, race and class discrimination that upholds prostitution and sex trafficking. Allowing those, including "johns," who prey on and profit from prostituted women to do so with impunity is promoting gender-based oppression from the brothels of India to the suites of the Mayflower hotel.
–Taina Bien-Aime is the executive director of Equality Now, an international human rights organization established in 1992 to work for an end to all forms of violence and discrimination against women.
Little Has Changed in a Century
I want to thank Juhu Thukral for this clear exposition of the different valences of prostitution and trafficking.
In my own research, which concentrates on the culture of Central Europe in the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries, I have found that the protection of prostitutes, trafficked women, and women bearing children "out of wedlock" was central to the women’s movement in Germany and Austria, all falling under the rubric of the "mother protection" movement.
Although they called it "white slavery," girls and young women, many Turkish and Jewish, from the outlying areas of the Austrian Empire, were brought forcibly or under deception to the cities of central Europe to provide sexual services.
It astonishes me how little certain things have changed in the last 100 years, both the practice of trafficking women and children and the "moral" enforcement that so little takes into account the circumstances of the women in question.
–Elizabeth Keathley, Ph.D. Assistant Professor, Historical Musicology School of Music University of North Carolina, Greensboro
A Uniform Voice
It seems that Women’s eNews assumes that there is a uniform feminist voice regarding prostitution. Why have you not represented the important work of SAGE and Norma Hotaling which would be a better model for New York State law and for the protection of women in the sex industries?
[Editor’s Note: Women’s eNews has previously included Norma Hotaling in stories from 2005 (Sex Workers Offered Seminar on Law, Safety ) and 2003 Experts Now Focusing on Demand-Side of Sex Trade). More recent coverage of prostitution issues and sex trafficking can be found here, (Paraguay’s Traffic Hub Imperils Female Teens) here (Sex Workers Plan Brothel in 2010 Olympics City) and here.
Prostitution Is a Real Crime
I laughed a little bitterly when I saw that Eliot Spitzer’s own office had been arguing for tougher penalties for the prostitutes, even as he was part of this Emperor’s Club nonsense.
The rest of this piece troubled me, though. I’m troubled by the continuing insistence that prostitutes and their johns be treated as "consenting adults" and left alone. Prostitution is a crime.
I’d like women to stop sending mixed messages to men. A nice, clear, consistent "NO" to any form of buying and selling of women would be good. I’d like a little female solidarity on this. We should all be turning in the johns, no matter who they are, and we should not be pretending that being a prostitute is just another OK career choice.
Our feminist efforts on behalf of prostitutes should not be about the legalizing or tolerating of prostitution, but rather should be geared to making sure that johns do more time than the women, that women have other available jobs that will pay a living wage, that drug treatment is available, that the rape, disappearance, or murder of a prostitute is taken seriously as a crime, and that there are agencies to help women leave the sex trade.
Making a distinction between trafficking and prostitution is fine, but it misses the point. When sex workers call up trying to figure out if what they are doing is illegal, the correct answer is "Yes. You are breaking the law." The response we should be giving is to help people get out of that line of work.
Stop enabling the men who hurt and exploit women. Stop pretending that there is more nuance and more of a moral gradience on this issue than actually exists. Stop supplying flesh-for-rent. Stop privatizing this problem, as if the law was sort of optional or arbitrary and not a real law.