Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. - Thomas Paine
Every Friday the 13th I ask my readers, especially those who are not themselves sex workers, to speak out for decriminalization of prostitution. This is the third such occasion this year, but it’s also the last one for 14 months (until September 2013), so I want to make it a good one.
Though roughly 10% of modern women have taken money for sex at least once, the great majority of such cases are informal and the payer an acquaintance; only about 1% of women actually work as hookers at some point in their lives, and less than a third of that (just under 0.3%) are thus employed at any given time. That’s a pitifully small minority, smaller even than the fraction of the population who identify as homosexual (which is between 2-3%); in a more just world even the smallest minority would be treated fairly, but since that isn’t the case in this one it’s imperative we have help from outside our own group. Gay rights activists drew bisexuals and transgender people into a coalition, but even that would have been too small a minority to matter without the help of friends, family, libertarians and others.
Sex workers, on the other hand, have allowed our already-small numbers to be divided by laws which make arbitrary distinctions between “legal” sex work (such as stripping, phone sex and in some places porn acting) and “illegal” sex work (such as some forms of prostitution; in most of the US it’s all prostitution). But even if strippers, porn actresses and the various types of what I call “halfway whores” rallied together, I still can’t imagine that making up over 10% of the female population. As with gay rights, we’re going to need the help of friends, family, libertarians and even true feminists (as opposed to the anti-sex crowd I refer to as “neofeminists”).
Perhaps the most important group whose support needs to be enlisted is men, who make up roughly half the population but much more than half of people in positions of power. Kinsey found that 69% of men have directly paid for sex at least once in their lives; some recent studies have returned much lower numbers, but this probably has much more to do with increased social stigma in the past three decades and the construction of the questions (e.g. “have you ever procured a prostitute?” vs. “have you ever paid for sex?”) than with the material facts. Since roughly 67% of men have cheated on their wives or girlfriends, the 69% figure seems highly credible to me; it also jibes with my experience and that of other working girls with whom I’ve discussed the issue. Of those, fewer than half repeat the experience, and less than a tenth make a habit of it; roughly 20% of all men hire hookers occasionally (such as when they’re at conferences or on business trips) and 6% do so frequently.
Even if we assume that the 50% of men who never see a whore again after their first time were repelled by the experience, that still leaves a fifth of the male population who secretly support us (at least financially). So why don’t they speak up? Why are there so few prominent men who are willing to even support our rights as an abstract concept, much less actually admit to enjoying our company on occasion? Obviously it’s mostly due to the deep-rooted moral hypocrisy of our culture, whose members are willing to crucify exposed “sinners” for “offenses” they themselves have committed many times in secret. But there’s also the fact that a large fraction of the 90% of women who have not taken direct payment for sex labor under all sorts of illusions and delusions about harlotry, and even a dedicated contrarian who will enthusiastically fly in the face of social institutions may be (understandably) unwilling to risk the disapproval or even outright hostility of his wife, mother, sisters, daughters, etc.
These factors and others were mentioned in a comment by regular reader B.B. Wye on a column I wrote about the difficulties of “Coming Out”; he pointed out that as hard as it is for prostitutes to be “out”, it may be even harder for our clients, especially with “end demand” rhetoric in the ascendancy. Wye is a musician who expressed his feelings about his favorite type of whore in the song “Midtown Asian Sex Spa”, and in his comment he wrote of his desire to admit authorship of the song and to openly speak out for the rights of women who have given him a great deal of happiness and pleasure. Another reader who felt the same way wrote to ask me for suggestions on how he could find a middle path, speaking out for sex worker rights without admitting his personal interest in us; here are a few suggestions for him, for B.B., for other clients faced with the same quandary, for working girls who can’t come out themselves and for men and women who have never bought or sold sex, but just care about human rights.
If you’re generally libertarian or civil rights-oriented in your politics it’s easy; all you have to do is argue for decriminalization from a perspective of “people have the right to do what they like with their own bodies”. As I’ve pointed out in the past, every court decision (including Roe vs. Wade) which upholds abortion rights also upholds the right to sex on one’s own terms, even if money is involved (abortion isn’t free, after all); ditto court decisions overturning sodomy laws like Lawrence vs. Texas. And obviously, the arguments for drug decriminalization also apply to prostitution. If you’re an atheist or skeptic, that’s easy too; in addition to the arguments above you can make statements like “prostitution laws are based on religion and xenophobia, not facts” and “the sex trafficking hysteria is a moral panic like the Satanic Panic and the Red Scare”.
The harm reduction perspective is another good one, and is the approach generally favored by advocates who have a human rights background or strong religious affiliation (including some members of the Catholic clergy): Prostitution has always been with us and we can’t make it go away with laws any more than the “Drug War” has made drugs go away. All the Drug War has done is to subject innocent people to invasion of their privacy and make drug users vulnerable to impure drugs, not to mention all those caught in drug-related violence; similarly, anti-prostitution laws help nobody and force prostitutes into the shadows where they can be harmed and exploited. Furthermore, many governments (including those of New Zealand, New South Wales and Brazil) have recognized that illegal prostitution invariably leads to police corruption, just as alcohol Prohibition did and drug prohibition still does.
Finally, there’s the feminist approach: why does society have the right to tell women they can’t make a living with their natural sex-based attributes when it allows men to do so with boxing, bodyguard work, etc? Furthermore, laws against prostitution invariably subject women’s dress and mannerisms to police scrutiny; women are accused of prostitution for dressing sexily, acting sexily, carrying condoms in their purses, being in certain areas, not wearing underwear, etc. This is “slut shaming” with criminal consequences.
Even if you are unable to speak out openly you can post anonymous comments on anti-whore articles online (with links to my site and those of other rights advocates), you can donate money to advocacy groups, and you can of course vote (though there are pitifully few chances to employ that strategy in the United States). Even though any one person’s influence is small, lots of buckets eventually fill a pool. Readers, we need your help and that of every good man and woman, and anything you can do will be gratefully appreciated.