I view the prostitute as one of the few women who is totally in control of her fate, totally in control of the realm of sex. The lesbian feminists tried to take control of female sexuality away from men — but the prostitute was doing that all along. – Camille Paglia
If I had to pick one single myth about whores which has done more damage to the cause of sex worker rights than any other, and which has inspired the greatest amount of wrongheaded, paternalistic legislation and the greatest number of dangerous, divisive, destructive policies, it would have to be the narrative that all or at least most women who do any kind of sex work (but especially prostitution) are dominated and controlled by violent “pimps”. Long before “sex trafficking” hysteria inflated the pimp legend into a cultic belief, laws against brothels and “living on the avails” were based upon the fallacious but widespread notion that whores are somehow more vulnerable to male domination than any other women, despite the obvious fact that the typical whore has far more experience handling men and resisting their aggressions than the typical amateur. Like the Madonna/whore duality and the myth of the wanton, the “pimp” myth is rooted in male insecurity; self-doubting men have a deep and abiding need to believe that sex is not under female control, so they immerse themselves in a lurid, exciting and adolescent fantasy that female sexuality is always controlled by men (pimps and customers), and that all heterosexual women who are not owned by husbands are instead owned by “pimps” and “traffickers”. Politicians who support “anti-pimp” and “anti-trafficking” laws thus cast themselves as white knights, “rescuing” helpless damsels from mustachioed villains who “exploit” them.
Female belief in the “pimp” myth comes from a similar direction: asexual or sexually immature women refuse to accept that other women might be so comfortable with sex that they can pragmatically employ it for income as one might employ any other skill, or might even actually enjoy it (with men even!) The idea that other women might be more sexually adept than they exacerbates their insecurities and must therefore be denied: the prohibitionist believes all women are as sexually stunted and unsatisfied as she is, therefore prostitutes must be forced into the trade by evil men (an idea which dovetails perfectly with the “male as oppressor” myth so beloved by radical feminists). The sex-hating female prohibitionist therefore becomes the ally of the “patriarchy” she so despises by supporting attempts to control female sexuality at gunpoint.
No matter what Western religions claim, sex is no different from any other human activity once the possibility of creating human life is removed by birth control. I strongly suspect that realization is the real driving force behind most of the current American anti-abortion, anti-birth control rhetoric: moralists (perhaps unconsciously) realize that without the threat of lifelong consequences, people will stop seeing sex as a magical sacrament which is “dangerous” without official sanctification. Without belief in the mystical significance of sex, prostitution is just another personal service like massage, hairdressing or wet-nursing; once one recognizes that one has to ask why feminists think it’s “progressive” for a man to be supported by a woman if she’s a politician or corporate executive, but “exploitative” if she’s a sex worker. In my column “Thought Experiment” I wrote,
…as I’ve pointed out on numerous occasions…the abusive, controlling pimp of legend is so rare we can consider him an anomaly. In fact, the fraction of prostitutes who have such an abusive pimp – roughly 1.5% – is so similar to the percentage of women who report that their husbands/boyfriends are either “extremely violent” (1.2%) or “extremely controlling” (2.3%) that it’s pointless to consider them a different phenomenon, especially when one considers that any non-client male found in the company of a whore will inevitably be labeled a “pimp” by cops or prohibitionists. The notion that hookers only have relationships with a certain kind of man, who is labeled a “pimp” by outsiders, derives from the Victorian fallacy (alas, still alive today) that we are somehow innately “different” from other women, and therefore our men are different as well. This is pure nonsense; the only consistent difference between the husbands of harlots and those of amateurs is that ours tend to be less hung up about sex.
The rest of that column presents an analogy between whores and barbers which may help you to see through to the truth of the matter. It’s very important that people do understand, because the “pimp” myth is wielded like a bludgeon by prohibitionists. Claims of “exploitation” are used to demonize anyone who has anything to do with a prostitute, including clients, drivers, boyfriends, secretaries, landlords, dependent adult family members and even other prostitutes working together for safety; a new law in New York even targets taxi drivers who “knowingly” carry hookers in their cabs. The penalties for these “offenses” are usually greater than those for simple prostitution; the latter is generally a misdemeanor while “pandering” and “avails” charges are often felonies, and if the prosecutor decides to label such relationships “human trafficking” they can result in asset seizure, decades-long sentences and consignment to “sex offender” registries. Even minor criminal charges are then used by prohibitionists to label those so accused as “pimps” in a flagrant attempt to further divide the sex work community against itself.
It is precisely because of these concerns and many others that the report of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law recommended absolute global decriminalization, including the removal of laws which are represented as “anti-pimp” measures. As Cheryl Overs explained in a recent article,
…the report explicitly recommends that sex businesses are made legal, not just the sex worker. The Commission has recognised what all sex workers know – that laws against sex businesses mean they have to work in criminalised and therefore dangerous places. The spectre of the “pimp” and understandable squeamishness on the part of policy makers to be seen to sanction “pimping” functions as a powerful barrier to supporting sex workers calls for removal of all laws against adult sex work even among human rights NGOs and advocates. The reality is that sex workers in legal workplaces can challenge exploitation with the same tools that are available to other workers. This is fundamental to the notion that “sex work is work” and it is the embodied on the slogan “Only Rights Can Stop the Wrongs”…Creation of the category “willing sex worker” as a subset of “sex worker”…suggests that very significant numbers of sex workers are enslaved, which is not borne out by experience or statistics. The risk is that programmes for health and human rights are seen as applicable only to a poorly defined subset of “willing” sex workers while sex workers deemed to be “unwilling” (or reluctant?) qualify only for raids, rehabilitation and anti-trafficking programmes. As I said in 2010, we don’t talk about “willing brides” because forced marriage exists or “consenting homosexuals” because some men are raped…
A free society is based in the conviction that every adult person has the right to make his or her own decisions, even if others don’t like those decisions or consider them foolish and/or self-destructive. Sex, whether or not one ascribes mystical qualities to it, is among the most personal of behaviors; it is therefore even less appropriate a realm for government interference than many others. Nobody but an individual has the right to decide which willing partners he will engage with, nor what their characteristics should be, nor how many at one time, nor how long the arrangement between them should last, nor why they choose to make that arrangement in the first place. Because human beings are imperfect it is inevitable that most of us will choose unwisely some of the time, and some of us will choose unwisely most of the time. And when those individuals are authoritarian leaders, the consequences of their bad choices are not only suffered by themselves, but by whomever they choose to inflict them upon…or by those who just happen to get in the way.