The Republic of T.

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Nice Work If You Can Get It?

I know I said I would not comment on the Eliot Spitzer affair. And I’m not, per se. But it does appear to have made prostitution — and whether or not it should be legalized — the subject of public debate again.

I wrote about the subject last year, focusing on three different cases that raised questions on both sides of of the debate, and I tended to come down on the side of legalization, but lately I’ve heard some arguments that make a convincing case, if not in favor of legalization, then not in favor of full decriminalization.

It had been in the back of my mind to revisit the whole question of prostitution, but it was a comment on a previous post — along with some of the news and commentary I’ve been reading — that pushed me beyond thinking about it, because it pushed me to reconsider my earlier support for legalizing prostitution. There are, it turns out, some things that I didn’t really consider before.

In my post, I looked the Deborah Jean Palfrey story alongside the story of a woman who trafficked in women forced into sex work, a D.C.-area woman who committed suicide as her trial on prostitution charges approached, and a group of nuns who bought the services of a prostitute to fulfill a handicapped young man’s dying wish. Afterwards, I asked a question.

Are they all part of the same story?

After reading a few things lately, I’m inclined to think that they are part of the same story, in some ways.

The point of view that prostitution should be legalized — or at least that the selling of sex should be decriminalize — is pretty well represented in Emily Bazelon’s Slate post, “Why Is Prostitution Still Illegal?”.

The case for making it against the law to buy sex begins with the premise that it’s base and exploitative and demeaning to sex workers. Legalizing prostitution expands it, the argument goes, and also helps pimps, fails to protect women, and leads to more back-alley violence, not less.

And while Bazelon actually strikes a middle ground on the question, Samara O’Shea asks “Isn’t It Time to Finally Legalize Prostitution?”.

Consider, for a moment, legality. Prostitution is now legal, and therefore can be regulated. Prostitutes can be required to take systematic STD tests, which will aide in abating the spread. Prostitutes can also seek legal recourse in the event that they suffer abuse at the hand of their employers or clients. There can be a legal age implemented — making it easier to spot minor prostitutes and, more importantly, the people who force them into such work. Finally, prostitutes will be tax-paying citizens, and the service itself can be taxed.

In the post she referenced in her comment, exelizabeth points out that it isn’t quite that way for a great man women doing sex work.

It is a logical enough train of thought in a capitalist system that prostitution would be an extension of “choice” as applied to reproductive rights. Unfortunately, “choice” has an economic rather than moral connotation, and these are not economic issues. They are moral ones. The Left shies away from talking about morality, because we (selectively) find imposing our morality on others distasteful. However, I don’t think being anti-prostitution is imposing morality; it’s being anti-exploitation. But more on that in a minute.

But it was Chris’ post that put the question of legalization into sharp focus for me, and made it clear that it is not just question of freedom of choice, but also a question of economics and — as exelizabeth pointed out — exploitation. Chris underscored the difference between Spitzer’s position and that of many sex workers.

At the very least, knowing and working with a number of folks who work for ministries to prostitutes, I am deeply disturbed by any legal effort that focuses on putting prostitutes in jail while leaving johns and management out on the street.

But what has been most disturbing in all this is seeing the huge number of people who want to absolve Eliot Spitzer of most of his wrongdoing while at the same time applying appalling labels to the sex worker involved (who is not “at the center” of this controversy, but has been put there by the national media). Spitzer is a married man and the father of three daughters — he not only broke his vows to his wife, but engaged in financial malfeasance and allegedly wanted to endanger the sex worker he paid by asking her to have sex without a condom.

…The sex workers of the world are in a different position. Believe it or not many are married — most go about their work with their spouses’ knowledge, and often, sadly, after being forced or prodded to do so by those very spouses. The vast majority throughout the world are in poverty.

…Certainly some women do not want to leave this lifestyle. But the most tragic stories I hear from friends are of talented, bright women who desperately want to leave the sex trade but seem to keep falling back into it, despite receiving help from outside. Some do eventually find their way out. Many have a sense that this is not what they want to be doing with their lives. I don’t see how jail sentences can help this situation in the least.

Would legalization help these women? Or is part of the problem a deeper matter of economics. If they are, in part, forced by economics, would legalization give them some greater degree of control, and protection? That question was answered, in part, by Bazelon, who also pointed out the wide gulf between street walkers and “high class call girls” like the young woman Spitzer patronized.

Martha Nussbaum, a law and philosophy professor at the University of Chicago, argues that lots of work involves the sale of bodily services and that lots of the work that poor women do involves bad working conditions. For her, it’s all about context—there’s a big difference between a street worker controlled by a pimp and a high-end call girl who picks her own clients, and the real question is how to increase poor women’s access to decent and safe work in general. Legalizing prostitution “is likely to make things a little better for women who have too few options to begin with,” Nussbaum writes.

And exelizabeth notes that legalization hasn’t helped women in some places.

In Australia, the state of Victoria has legalized prostitution (made it legal to buy and sell sexual services, as well as run a business that provides sexual services). Turns out, it’s not working so well. The women don’t have any more control over their situations, and trafficking, including that of children, has been increasing ever since legalization. They don’t have a means of transitioning out of prostitution (since no other legal job requires state-supported transition programs).

It’s easy to argue that legalization would take the exploitive element out of prostitution. But if poverty is figured into the picture, and economics help drive women into prostitution, then legalization alone may not end exploitation.

Certainly, Ashley Alexanra Dupré isn’t entirely worse off for the services she performed for Spitzer and other clients. An aspiring singer, she’s taken advantage of her current noteriety and the internet to boost her singing career, and she has become a millionaire in the process.

When do you go from an aspiring singer to a successful one? Ashley Alexandra Dupré, the high-priced call girl at the center of the scandal that felled New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, may just have crossed that threshold — if the answer is “when you make a million dollars off your music.” Since her identity was revealed on the New York Times website on Wednesday evening, the singer/lady-of-the-night formerly known as “Kristen” has reportedly seen her two singles downloaded off the internet music site Amie Street Music as many as two million times — which means that she’s pulled in approximately $1.4 million in two days off her two songs, thanks to the Amie Street business model, which nets artists 70% of their online proceeds. That nets her 69 cents per sale. Yes, really.

Indeed, Dupré is in a different class than the average sex worker on the street, as she’s among those who can use technology to their advantage.

Not only can prostitutes and escort services now run more efficient businesses, but they can leverage word-of-mouth advertising in new ways to build their brands and troll for clients. Online social communities built around the escort and sex worker industries can solidify customer loyalty.

There are a host of online message boards where clients or potential clients can discuss, rate and exchange information about individual women.

Again, the sex-worker on the street doesn’t have the advantage of an online community where she can advertise her services or check out potential clients. She may have a community of sex-workers on the street with her who can pass on information about which johns are to be avoided. But there’s an inherent increased risk the sex worker on the street faces largely due to reasons related to class and economics.

And sex workers also can use high-tech measures to avoid getting caught.

High-end call girls might use bug- and camera-detection equipment to look for surveillance devices, said Jimmie Mesis, editor in chief of Professional Investigator Magazine.

Again, a distinction has to be drawn, because the sex worker on the street is unlikely to have access to such devices, even if she has the knowledge of how to use them. So, she faces a greater risk of encountering law enforcement.

Years ago, I lived in downtown apartment in northwest D.C., right on the border where everything shifted from office space to residential space. I was a five minute walk from work, and a couple of blocks from K Street. While I lived there, I saw things I’d never seen before — things that just didn’t factor into my middle class upbringing in the suburbs. From my vantage point on the sixth floor, I could lie in my bed and watch sex workers walk up and down the street. My bedroom window was right above the street where they worked.

On weekends, I’d walk past them on my way home at night. (None of them ever tried to pick me up. Perhaps they knew it would be a waste of time.) And after I got home I’d watch them. Sometimes I’d hear shouts and yelling between them. I witnessed a more than a few fights. And it wasn’t unusual to be awakened by sirens, and open my eyes to flashing red light coming through my window. Some Monday mornings, on my way to work in the morning, I’d walk past some of them on their way back from work. I always wanted to talk to them, to find out what path had taken then into doing sex work. I’d forgotten about that experience until now.

Maybe some of them were forced into that line of work or prodded into it by husbands or boyfriends, as Chris pointed out. Maybe some them wanted out of that line of work, but — perhaps lacking education or other skills — had few alternatives.

Of course, there’s a whole other discussion to be had about gender and prostitution, and I won’t try to have it here in this post. But I think the question of legalizing prostitution, I’ll think of the women who worked just below my window all those years ago, and consider whether legalization will help them. Right now, there’s a convincing argument that it won’t.

One Comment

  1. I see the point about exploitation of sex workers as well as the difference between those walking the street corners, and those with high-end, selective clientele. However, if the problem is really exploitation — by leaving “sex” out, then the argument can be made in any low wage jobs with minimal qualification requirements.

    For instance, how is exploitation of women in the sex industry any different from farms hiring illegal immigrants, exploiting the immigrants’ lack of legal status, perhaps providing them with poor housing conditions and little pay?

    How is it any different from the low-wage position flipping burgers at the local burger chain? Where the owners keep costs down by hiring only part-time workers to avoid benefits required for full-time employees?

    At the very least, I think, legalization would partially lift the shame and shine some light to shadowy corners in the world of prostitution and allow the authorities to provide more resource to those sex workers who wanted a path out of prostitution. At best, prostitution would become a fully regulated industry to provide a service to fulfill natural inclination of many in a safe and pleasant environment — both for those provide and those who receive those services.