Sunday, July 29, 2007

And suddenly I'm not so sure...

Although being exposed to many people who felt otherwise, I have always been of the opinion that prostitution is inherently harmful to the worker and, therefore, immoral for the john (see my previous post). I have tried to have an open mind about it, starting discussions with friends and unsuspecting acquaintances, but I could never before see past my pre-established assumptions. Yesterday I finished the book, Brothel: Mustang Ranch and Its Women by Alexa Albert (highly recommended). It is a first-hand account of a Harvard med student who gains access into a legalized brothel in Nevada to study condom use, but realizes she has access to something even more valuable and interesting: the prostitutes themselves. The book discusses the lives and thoughts of the actual women working in what is considered by some “the world’s oldest profession” and by others the world’s saddest.

I came into this read with both my previous feelings and my desire to learn more, but came out even more conflicted. With countless personal stories and quotations from the women, they become people who you grow to know, understand, and respect. Now, don’t get me wrong, my problem with legalizing prostitution was never that I thought the women who chose it were immoral people. It was more along the lines of: is prostitution ever really a choice in the first place? Isn’t it just a dehumanizing result of patriarchy, where men assert power and control over women’s bodies? Isn’t it psychologically damaging to the coerced women who suffer from being used by these men? I never considered how the women themselves think of their work or what it is really like to work in a legalized brothel in this country. I see now that the women were not subjects even in my mind and I did not give them agency.

Although I have laid out the questions, I still don’t have the answers. I don’t know if sex work is really a choice, if it would exist without patriarchy, or if it causes mental harm to the prostitute. I do know, however, that it is more complicated than I thought. Many women in legalized prostitution in Nevada love their job, their friends, and their life in and outside of the brothel. From the accounts in Brothel, the women take great pride in their work, discussing more required skills and techniques than I had imagined. Many see themselves as performing necessary social work like any other helping profession, some even considering themselves therapists of sort. They give their customers more than an orgasm; they give them the physical contact and closeness that many lack in their lives. And they make bank for it. They also make close friends in the business and, although there can be cliques and competition, they ultimately form a tight-nit family. I do have gripes about the reasons some women enter the business, such as pressure from men in their lives who then reap the financial benefits; the way the brothels are run, of course women-owned and operated, unionized, co-ops would be preferable; and the restrictions on the women who work and live there, having limited contact with the outside. Yet despite these current problems, I have begun to see the possibility of a legitimate profession. I have gained insight into the other side, not only the other side of the argument, but also the other side of the closed brothel gates.

So now I have the pros as well as the cons down. However, I am still left mostly unsatisfied without concrete answers. Always the social scientist, and tired of the opinion pieces littering the net, I jumped on PsychInfo to research scientific studies regarding pros and cons of legalized prostitution (you can search Google Scholar if you do not have access to a university library database search engine). I had read Melissa Farley’s work in the past, but wondered if that is all that is out there about the effects of legalized prostitution on the women involved. From my browsing I concluded that the researchers are as divided as the feminists. Some studies showed that legalization helped to decrease violence and the spread of STIs without lowering the women’s self-esteem or increasing their drug use. Other studies, such as those by Melissa Farley, disagreed. (You can find lots of general stats here.) So now with apologies, I leave you in the same place I started and the place most psychological research papers end, with a recommendation for further research.


Tracey said...

I'll have to read this book you just read, because it sounds really interesting.

I'm totally with you in being conflicted. The more I learn about it, the less it seems that prostitution is inherently harmful, but that a lot of the culture and ideas surrounding it are so tied up with sexism and misogyny that I'm not so sure what to make of it and really want to dismiss it as harmful. In a way, though, it seems really unfair to just want to do away with it when so many women depend on it for their livelihoods. But the feminist in me has HUGE problems with how unbalanced the institution is. I think I wouldn't have nearly so much of a problem with sex-work if it wasn't so one-sided and if it was more gender-equal. While decriminalization of prostitution seems scary because it's a step toward further condoning a practice that is almost entirely skewed toward exploitation of women's bodies, there's also the point to be made that the fact that is illegal makes it even more dangerous for the women who choose to engage in it and further stigmatizes them in society. SUCH a complicated issue. Sorry I went on so long. Thanks for the book recommendation.

Anonymous said...

I guess I don't get the conflict. Prostitution is something that women do when they are desperate for money. How many wealthy women choose to be prostitutes as a CHOICE?

There are very few prostitutes who weren't sexually abused as children. They need therapy, they don't need to be told that giving 5 gross strangers blow jobs every day for slave wages is "empowering."

Do yourself a favor and search for the word prostitute on Google news or your favorite news engine. Every week there are reports that women are beaten, killed, and tortured because they are in extreme danger, alone with the sickest of the sick, men who think it is ok to buy women and then act out the obvious logical role they have been given-the lord, master, and owner of this woman.

Plese don't let the rantings of a few severely damaged drug addicted, "sex positive" "sex workers" convince you for a minute that prostitution is good for people.

Prostitution is a horror. It's just as much a horror where it is legal since women then have to deal with the reality that the government is on the side of the pimps and the johns and her role is sanctioned by the government. Legal prostitution is a huge failure everywhere it has been attempted.

Thanks for listening. Peace to you.

Susan said...

Prostitution is a form of human rights abuse. Let's quit sugarcoating it. It's not a glamorous "career," this is abuse, basically rape, and, in several counties in Nevada and other countries, legal rape.

The media did a horrible injustice in the 1970s and 1980s through talk shows like Geraldo and Phil Donohue glamorizing this filth.

It isn't being a prude to say men don't have the right to use women as little more than toilets.