Thursday, February 7, 2013

Sex Work: Faulty Culture, Faulty Systems, Faulty Solutions

If you want a different perspective on sex work and sex worker's rights, I recommend these YouTubers  who often vlog about sex work (among other things), have personal experience with the subject and who frequently favorite other informative videos to that end.

Laws against this kill women. To prohibit it does not stop it. When women feel it is absolutely necessary or if they want to, they will choose to, in dangerous circumstances. When it is illegal millions of women do it illegally. Some die, some are hurt. All are forced to behave as if they were criminals. Legalizing it and providing safe circumstances for the practice helps protect the health and well being of the women involved.

If this argument sounds familiar to you, that's because it is one of the most common arguments heard in support of legalized abortion. It is rare that one hears a pro-life advocate pointing out the dangers of back-alley abortions as a reason why abortion is inherently bad and should be illegal. Strangely enough, I hear anti-sex work advocates use this train of thought constantly to justify laws against prostitution. I think everyone can safely agree that some prostitution as it exists now in most of the United States is a nasty business. So was back-alley butchery before abortion was legal. Regardless of the morality issues that may arise in discourse on either issue, we should not base our opinions of legal, honest sex work on the disgusting and dangerous nature of sex trafficking. I think that much is clear.

One of my Facebook friends post a link on Facebook today to a Guardian article from 2007. It reports on the findings of a book by Melissa Farley on problems in legal brothels in Nevada. This being an old article, I do not know how much of it still holds true, but I think it brings up some legitimate concerns. However, I do not think that Farley's conclusion that "legal prostitution is an institution that just can't be fixed up or made a little better. It has to be abolished" follows well from her presented facts and premises at all. It seems that Farley falls prey to the same pitfalls as those who oppose sex work and sex worker's rights in general based on the vices of illegal prostitution as mentioned above.

The article in question begins by explaining that, while legal brothels are actually fairly rare in Nevada, the ones that do exist are very good at PR campaigns. It then mentions an HBO series, Cathouse, that presents a rather positive view of one particular brothel. I had an eyebrow raised as soon a I read the first paragraph. There seemed to be an implication that this positive portrayal of the brothel in Cathouse was due to the fact that it was intended to by the brothel for PR purposes. I have yet to see any evidence that the documentary series in question was paid for or commissioned by the featured brothel. I am led to believe that this muddying of the waters may be in order to downplay potential overgeneralizations made in the paragraphs following. That is to say, we are being led to believe, possibly inaccurately, that the only reason some brothels are shown positively is because the brothels themselves manipulate the images we see. I could be wrong, but the lack of evidence seemed rather fishy to me.

The article continues:
"Melissa Farley, visited eight legal brothels in Nevada, interviewing 45 women and a number of brothel owners. Far from enjoying better conditions than those who work illegally, the prostitutes she spoke to are often subject to slave-like conditions."

Here lies the crux of Farley's argument: women in legal brothels are treated just as badly as illegal prostitutes, therefore legal prostitution should be abolished.  

 Let's analyze some of her observations:

"Described as "pussy penitentiaries" by one interviewee, the brothels tend to be in the middle of nowhere, out of sight of ordinary Nevadans. (Brothels are officially allowed only in counties with populations of fewer than 400,000, so prostitution remains an illegal - though vast - trade in conurbations such as Las Vegas."

Despite this point having been made explicitly from the start, Farley never once even thinks to correlate the lack of accountability of brothels implied here with the problems in those brothels. Even if sex work is legal, if its kept out of sight and largely ignored due to pre-existing stigma, this gives even the most unscrupulous owners free reign over their business. If sex work were treated as any other business and conducted in populated areas, people would quickly notice some of the more obvious problems and seek correction. Women in brothels located in populous areas would have more places to go to help in cases of abuse. The workers of most other industries are protected by laws or unions. Why not so with sex workers?

"The rooms all have panic buttons, but many women told her that they had experienced violent and sexual abuse from the customers and pimps."

Again, these are problems that could be solved by demanding accountability from brothel owners, instituting tighter controls and outlawing pimping rather than sex work as a whole.

"Another pimp told Farley matter-of-factly that many of the women working for him had histories of sexual abuse and mental ill-health. "Most," he said, "have been sexually abused as kids. Some are bipolar, some are schizophrenic.""

This is at best a non sequitur. If I walked into a store and interviewed the employees only to find that most of them suffered from some sort of mental illness, I would not mention their illnesses as a negative aspect of the store. To do so would be discriminatory against the mentally ill. What this point actually is, is an allusion to the all too common half-argument, half-stereotype that workers in the sex industry suffer from mental illness or abuse; no woman in her right mind would ever choose to become a sex worker. Not only is this point inaccurate, but even if it were true, it would still not be a good argument against prostitution. People use alcohol to cope with mental illness and abuse as well, often to a much more harmful extent than supposedly mentally ill prostitutes do. Should we ban the sale of alcohol to prevent this problem and implicitly accuse alcohol companies of profiting from the pain of alcoholics? No, we should seek to end the stigma surrounding mental illness and provide better treatment. In the case of prostitution, it seems rational to apply the same principles.

"The women must present their medical clearance to the police station and be finger-printed, even though such registration is detrimental: if a woman is known to work as a prostitute, she may be refused health insurance, face discrimination in housing or future employment, or endure accusations of unfit motherhood. In addition, there are countries that will not permit registered prostitutes to settle, so their movement is severely restricted."

None of these problems are the result of prostitution. All of them stem from our culture's stigmatization of prostitution. Discrimination is never that fault of the victim or the advocates for the rights of the victim, it's the fault of the discriminator and the society that primes for the underlying prejudice.

"Those who support the system claim that the regulations may help prevent pimping, which they see as a worse form of exploitation to that which occurs in brothels. According to Farley's research though, most women in legal brothels have pimps outside anyway, be they husbands or boyfriends. And, as Chong Kim, a survivor of prostitution who has worked with Farley, says, some of the legal brothel owners "are worse than any pimp. They abuse and imprison women and are fully protected by the state.""

Again, this is not a sex work issue, it's a domestic abuse issue. As for women being imprisoned by legal brothel owners, we could unionize sex workers restrict the number of hours they are required to stay at work. Or brothels could be set up communally, rather than hierarchically, so that the sex workers themselves own the establishment. Farley points out many, many problems that can be solved with tighter restrictions and expectations like the ones I keep mentioning.

"Investigating the sex industry - even the legal part - can be dangerous. During one visit to a brothel, Farley asked the owner what the women thought of their work. "I was polite," she writes in her book, "as he condescendingly explained what a satisfying and lucrative business prostitution was for his 'ladies'. I tried to keep my facial muscles expressionless, but I didn't succeed. He whipped a revolver out of his waistband, aimed it at my head and said: 'You don't know nothing about Nevada prostitution, lady. You don't even know whether I will kill you in the next five minutes.'""

Unfortunately, this brand of jerk exists both inside and outside the sex industry. A friend of mine from the Michigan backwoods up north reports having witnessed (and experienced) this kind of reaction to things as simple as a verbal insult. It's wrong, but when it comes to prostitution specifically, its a non sequitur.

"The effect of all this on the women in the brothels is "negative and profound," according to Farley. "Many were suffering what I'd describe as the traumatic effects of ongoing sexual assaults, and those that had been in the brothels for some time were institutionalised. That is, they were passive, timid, compliant, and deeply resigned."

To this point, we are compelled to ask whether these facts are the result of legalized prostitution as a whole or the result of the conditions in these particular institutions. Perhaps the suffering these women experience was the result of something else entirely. Also to this point is the fact that Farley's sample size for this investigation is painfully small. She only visited 8 brothels and interviewed 45 women. This is only 40% of the 20 legal brothels in Nevada and at best a fraction of the brothels that exist legally around the world. We do not know what Farley's criteria was for selecting these particular brothels or women either. If she seeks to demonstrate the effects of sex work on women, she is making massive generalizations based on the small amount of data that she actually has.

"Meanwhile, illegal brothels are on the increase in Nevada, as they are in other parts of the world where brothels are legalised. Nevada's illegal prostitution industry is already nine times greater than the state's legal brothels. "Legalising this industry does not result in the closing down of illegal sex establishments," says Farley, "it merely gives them further permission to exist.""

All this proves is that, even when business is legal, there are often still black markets. It's not a concern that is unique to prostitution.

"Farley found evidence, for example, that the existence of state-sanctioned brothels can have a direct effect on attitudes to women and sexual violence. Her survey of 131 young men at the University of Nevada found the majority viewed prostitution as normal, assumed that it was not possible to rape a prostitute, and were more likely than young men in other states to use women in both legal and illegal prostitution."

This information is very sketchy. For example, what's wrong with thinking prostitution normal? For all intents and purposes, prostitution is "normal". It exists in every culture, in every city, legal or illegal. How does Farley know that the reason why these students have sexist, rape-apologetic attitudes is a result of prostitution being legal and not a result of sexism in general? These questions are never answered. The fact that Farley automatically correlates sex work with rape and "using" women indicates a very strong bias against sex work from the outset. It is the lack of objectivity that really poisons the rest of her investigation, even though she does bring up legitimate concerns. 

The idea that sex work is inherently wrong because the workers are being "used" has always seemed fundamentally flawed to me. All manual laborers are required to use their body parts at their own risk for relatively little pay. It shouldn't matter which organs we choose to use. Unless of course we subscribe to the idea that sex organs are somehow "special" or that the worth of a woman is tied up in her sexuality. Both of these views are fallacious and rather sexist.

I have also heard concerns voiced about how sex with a prostitute is basically "masturbating into a human". This same argument could be made against any sort of unattached, unemotional casual sex. It could be made against relationships in which one person is only pretending to care about the other in order to get into that person's pants. I think there might actually be a question as to the morality of these actions, but certainly not a question of legality.

In Michigan, abortion clinics are so heavily regulated now that it's actually extremely difficult to get an abortion. If we can institute crackdowns of this nature on a necessary medical procedure, we can do so on the sex work industry in order to make it safer. We can also work to change the attitude that allows even legal brothels to become dens of iniquity. I personally am against infantilizing women of any sort. Even if prostitution is philosophically wrong, the "there should be a law!" attitude is never more productive than respectful, rational discourse.

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