In seventh grade, when career day rolled around at my small school in the Aleutians, I joyously plotted out my career as a writer, culminating with my Nobel Prize at the age of 35. My future planned, I leaned forward and asked the girl sitting in front of me what she was going to do when she grew up.
“I plan to enter the world’s oldest profession,” she said.
I was dumbfounded.
When at last I found my words, my response was, “Why would anyone want to be a farmer?”
I was raised in a strict religious upbringing.
She quickly set me straight.
That was my introduction to the idea of prostitution, a topic I found as fascinating then as I do now.
It’s easy to condemn. There is something unsettling about the commodification of humans. But in reality, it is a much more complicated issue.
The documentary “American Pimp” explains how states began to make prostitution illegal following the Civil War. The film argues the racist government was responding to the portion of just-freed female slaves who, having no family or education, turned to prostitution. By making prostitution illegal the government ultimately forced hundreds of women, who had no other means of providing for themselves, into low-paying manual labor.
The primary objections to prostitution are the same now as they were in the 1800s: it spreads disease, it is degrading to women and it is immoral.
Let’s look at these one at a time.
Prostitution is legal in other countries like the Netherlands, where the rates of S.T.D.s are drastically lower than in the U.S. In parts of Nevada where prostitution is legal, prostitutes report lower incidences of S.T.D.s than in other parts of the nation because their health is more strenuously monitored. Rules about condom use are also easily enforced, because these businesses have a legal right to refuse service. All indications are that legal prostitution is far less likely to contribute to the spread of disease than illegal prostitution.
Degradation is a stickier subject. Let’s make no mistake though. This is not solely a women’s issue. Both men and women practice prostitution. Both men and women visit prostitutes.
Playing the gender card is a sidestep here. Whether men or women are involved, prostitution is traditionally viewed as a degrading profession because of the relationships both between the prostitutes and their clients, and the prostitutes and their managers.
This hasn’t always been the case. In ancient Greece, the most respected women of the secular community were prostitutes, as evidenced in Plato’s “Symposium.” The prince Siddhartha, later known as Buddha, spent years learning under the tutelage of a highly regarded and wealthy prostitute. Solomon had hundreds of courtesans. In many parts of medieval Europe, prostitution was considered a necessary outlet for sexual energy.
Prostitution is only degrading because we’ve created and perpetuate a system that makes it so. Under current law, prostitutes have no legal recourse when either their clients or their managers take advantage of them. Being assaulted, beaten, robbed or raped while working is part and partial for prostitutes who cannot report these crimes to the police. Legalizing the act means that it could be regulated. Sex workers would be in a position to demand health care and benefits, vacation and maternity leave, decent wages and working conditions and even to unionize.
I recently had the opportunity to interview at length a female who worked for an escort service. This woman is a 30-something year old mother of three with a college education who quit a lucrative professional office job with benefits to become a prostitute. She said she made this decision because it meant she could work 6 to 10 hours each week, usually making much more than $1000 each night. She attends church and the PTA. I asked her if she felt she was being taken advantage of.
“I’m being paid hundreds of dollars to do something I like,” she said. “These men could probably get it for free if they tried, but they’re lazy. I feel like I’m taking advantage of them.”
Surely not every prostitute feels this way, but I’m convinced a lot more would if their profession were legal.
Is prostitution immoral? As a society, we don’t consider a sex act between two consenting adults to be immoral. Prostitution certainly falls under that definition.
There are social benefits to legalizing prostitution. It would eliminate the costs of prosecuting this victimless crime within our court systems. Also, like alcohol or cigarettes, it could be taxed and regulated.
The problems we associate with prostitution are really the problems of illegal prostitution, and those who oppose legalizing it are merely perpetuating the unhealthy and degrading system they claim to oppose.