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.