To depend upon a profession is a less odious form of slavery than to depend upon a father. – Virginia Woolf
The neofeminist prohibitionists claim that all prostitutes are helpless victims of male dominance, slaves to “patriarchal oppressors”, and even many Americans who are rational but ill-informed have come to believe enough of the propaganda that they think “most” of us are coerced; even some escorts have bought into this notion sufficiently that they believe there are two and only two kinds of prostitutes, free-willed high-dollar independent escorts and pimped, coerced slaves. This, of course, is pure poppycock; human relationships and even free will itself are never as cut-and-dried as either the neofeminists or the dualists want to pretend. The notion that all prostitutes (or all workers, or all humans) must be either free or enslaved is a false duality which ignores both the realities of the human condition and the necessities of material existence.
The only people who can truly claim to have made an absolutely free choice to do any kind of work are the Paris Hiltons of the world, those who have a guaranteed inheritance, income and secured future no matter what they choose to do with the present. Every other person has no choice but to work in some fashion; the choice not to work at all simply doesn’t exist unless one considers starvation an option. At that point, then, the choice boils down to what kind of work one is able and willing to do. I’d just love to be paid to do what I’m doing right now – namely, writing about whatever I want to write whenever I want to write it, without answering to anybody – but in the real world very few people who aren’t already bestselling authors get that opportunity. Conversely, there are lots of things I’m quite able to do, but wouldn’t be willing to do regularly for pay. As I’ve described before, I eventually settled on sex work as the best way to get everything I wanted career-wise (high income, flexibility, freedom from arbitrary schedules and rules and no confiscatory “withholding”) while doing something I was already good at. In other words, escorting provided the greatest advantages for the least compromise. Eventually I made a slightly different choice, namely housewifery, when I came to a point in my life where it provided an even better fit than escorting had; the money was less and the responsibility greater, but the work was lighter and IMHO even more pleasant.
And I’m not remotely alone; millions of women all over the world and throughout history have chosen prostitution for similar reasons to mine. Each of them took stock of her assets, needs and preferences and decided that whoring was the best way to accomplish her goals. The neofeminists claim that only women with no other choice decide to become prostitutes, but that’s as ridiculous an assertion as it is simplistic; there are many, many poor, unskilled women in this world who would never choose whoredom, and many, many educated, talented women who do. Harlotry is not right for everyone, but then neither is teaching, nursing, motherhood, secretarial work or any other career. All but a very small number of us must work, and everyone who isn’t actually compelled by force to do some particular form of work has some choice, however limited it may be.
But what about those who are literally compelled? Obviously there are cases like the “comfort women”, but in modern times such forcible enslavement is comparatively rare, as our friend Jill Brenneman can tell you. Some of what the rescue industry calls “slavery” is actually debt bondage (a condition with which I daresay much of the American middle class is intimately familiar), but some of it isn’t even that; as Laura Agustín has discussed on numerous occasions, a great deal of the “trafficking” mythology is rooted in the racist assumption that people (especially women) from undeveloped countries are childlike simpletons who can easily be manipulated by oh-so-superior Westerners, and so they are “enslaved” by the evil white men and can only be “rescued” by the good white men. The “rescuers” presume that any foreign woman selling sex in Europe or the US is “trafficked”, when in reality the majority of them come of their own free will and the people who are labeled as “traffickers” are usually simply those who transported them and/or arranged for false papers. Not to be outdone, the fanatics are now trying to claim that the reason migrants deny being enslaved is not because it’s the truth, but rather because they’re suffering from “Stockholm Syndrome”! They simply cannot accept that some people really do prefer doing sex work to being virtual slaves in a sweatshop, and that they migrate not because they’re passively “trafficked” but because they’re actively looking for a better life than they could find in their own countries.
Of course, pointing any of this out to a trafficking fanatic will merely trigger an avalanche of “enslaved children” rhetoric. But even that isn’t as it’s represented; as I’ve pointed out before, fewer than 250 underage prostitutes in America report having been coerced into the trade, and their average age at the time they become prostitutes is 16 rather than the 13 claimed by trafficking fetishists. Considering that 16 is of legal age to consent to sex in 39 American states, I hardly think that qualifies as a “child”. And in the developing world, 16 is in many cases an adult no matter what the UN may declare; even in the West the concept of 18 as a “magic number” of adulthood is a relatively recent one, and in most of the world such a distinction simply doesn’t exist. Despite the efforts of ivory-tower idealists to declare adolescents “innocent children”, the fact is that legal minors often do leave home, sometimes with good reason, and many of them survive by selling sex…with nary a pimp nor “trafficker” in sight.
And what of the pimps? Even though they’re pretty rare, certainly we can all agree that for a man to force a woman into prostitution and then take her money is wrong, can’t we? Well…sort of. I’d agree that for a man to use force and intimidation to control a woman is wrong, but the percentage of prostitutes with abusive, controlling pimps is very similar to the percentage of women with abusive, controlling husbands or boyfriends; some men are just bastards and some women are (for whatever reason) willing to put up with it, and whores are no exception. At the most basic level, what is a pimp but a man who is supported by a woman’s work? Sex work is work like any other, so a prostitute supporting a pimp who lacks a literal hold on her is no morally different from any other woman supporting her husband or boyfriend with any other kind of work. Personally, I think for a wife to support an able-bodied man who isn’t a full-time student is pretty creepy, but I wouldn’t want it to be illegal because people have the right to make their own decisions, even if I or others think those decisions are bad, stupid or self-destructive. Besides, so-called “anti-pimping” laws do much more harm than good; under many legalization regimes it is illegal (usually felonious) to “live off the avails” (i.e. derive a large portion of one’s support from someone else’s prostitution), which means that a prostitute is barred from being married, supporting adult family members such as university-age children or invalid parents, or even hiring employees such as secretaries or bodyguards. Such laws are so obviously discriminatory that they were struck down last September in Ontario and Indian sex workers are fighting them, too.
Real life is not like a silent melodrama; the baddies do not all wear black hats and sport waxed moustaches, and many of the women who are tied to the railroad tracks are there because they consented to be and will not appreciate ham-fisted attempts at “rescue”. There is a whole spectrum between the party girl whoring herself for thrills and the chained sex slave, and the number of prostitutes at the one end is no higher than that at the other. The vast majority of us, like the vast majority of the human race, exist in the murky grey area between absolute freedom and abject slavery, trying our best to balance the pursuit of happiness with the toil necessary for survival.