The Happy Hooker – It looks like The oldest profession is here to stay.
by Susan Roston
While sex saturates American advertising, quite legally,
prostitution festers in the foul play that deregulation
allows, yet thrives in the darkness of political denial.
Yes, I’ll admit it. At the end of my junior spring semester, which I had spent “studying” in the south of France, I made the pilgrimage to the mecca of all left-leaning American collegians: I went to Amsterdam. I was going to buy flowers and wooden footwear, visit Anne Frank’s house, and, dammit, I was going to hang out in coffee shops and embrace the chance to liberally explore my rights. Having been raised on the left, I looked forward to the opportunity to embrace the freedoms celebrated by this chill north-European city of Vermeer, negligible housing codes, tall people, and canals. They know how to live, I thought. I’ll feel like I’ve landed amongst my people. And yet, a week later, I found myself terribly stoned and alone at night, wandering the Red Light District, staring as women of all ages, shapes, and sizes tried to entice onlookers into their closets. Embracing the moment to over analyze I started to wonder just how “liberal” I truly was. There I stood, out on the public streets, mouth agape, gawking at the perfectly legal prostitutes. Growing up vying for Michael Dukakis, I thought: voting rights, good; birth control, good; health care for all, good; prostitution… ummmm, prostitution?
As Americans, we celebrate our first amendment rights by praying often to our revered gods of sex and capitalism. One could argue that two of our major breakthroughs in the past century were the sexual revolution and the defeat of Stalin’s harsh legacy and interpretation of dialectical materialism. We cannot avoid the images of sex and money that have become the wallpaper of our lives. And we wax towards hybridization of these two guilty obsessions with our risqué couture, music, TV, books (thank you, Candace Bushnell), and movies, all the way through the porn industry. But it pretty much stops there. Prostitution is simply not present in our daylight dialogue, which may be why I didn’t know whether to feel horrified by women selling their bodies to make a living or to accept the scene as part of the liberal landscape. In this country, where we are all about taking sides, self-identifying through blanket party platforms, and tearing our opponents to a shameful pulp on cable television, how could it be that I couldn’t rack my political science major brain for a debate on prostitution? In our country of Britney’s boobs and Bill’s blowjobs, how is it that we could be such… prudes?
In the American media, when the topic of prostitution does arise, it is often on an international scale with the horrific stories of young girls forced into the sex trade, resulting in abuse and disease. Just this August, the American Journal of Health released findings from a study conducted on women that had been trafficked from Nepal into India as sex slaves. They found that 38% of sex-trafficked women (with a median age of 17) returned home HIV positive and 61% under the age of 15 did; shocking statistics, especially horrifying that many victims are so young. And similar patterns have been discovered in China, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan based on cross-border sex trafficking. There is no question that there needs to be both NGO and political intervention to protect these people from such traumatic abuses. Yet, from a public political standpoint, the majority of our country stands behind the staunch assumption that this is happening because prostitution is naughty and invariably linked to HIV/AIDS transmission… not because the sex industry, when poorly monitored, can be cruel, abusive, and deadly. Unfortunately, it is not like we haven’t had the opportunity to take a stand on the issue. In 1949, the UN General Assembly adopted a convention stating that “forced prostitution is incompatible with human dignity.” Eighty-nine countries stood up and got behind the petition, but the United States did not participate.
So continues the long-standing tradition of ours… wag our fingers, but refuse to take action.
It can be difficult with so much tragedy to consider that there could be such a thing as a safe, empowered, consensual sex worker, but statistics show that they do exist. Prostitution is legal in Canada, much of Europe, South America, most of Asia, Israel, Australia, and certain counties in Nevada, right here in America. And amongst these examples there exists a private sex industry where all parties are legal adults and can perform their consensual capitalistic exchange in a protected space. In Australia there are reportedly sex worker organizations that regularly visit both home workers and brothels in order to offer free services like condoms, lubrication, testing, and counseling. As a result of the support and excellent preventative education, sex workers (those who do not partake in intravenous drugs) are amongst the lowest HIV-risk communities in Australia.
In Nevada, brothels can be legally licensed, though only in counties whose census caps out at 400,000, thus ironically excluding the infamous smarmy den of sin that is Las Vegas. According to the Nevada Department of Health, no prostitute or legal sex worker in any of the 28 brothels has tested positive for HIV since 1986. There has even been some speculation that Nevada’s legal prostitution industry is the only arena of sexual activity in the world that is entirely HIV-free. Meanwhile, in the 1990s, over 50% of all the sex workers in Washington DC, New York City, and Newark (where prostitution was, and still is, illegal) were HIV-positive. Research also indicated that in the last decade, roughly one in every six American men had willingly paid a prostitute for sexual services… all over the country. This begs the question: if we legalized prostitution throughout the US, wouldn’t we be protecting people from sexually transmitted infections, instead of turning the other cheek while they continue to spread?
So it appears that in some venues, prostitution is safe, professional, and legal. But is it humane? There exists a decided split between feminists: those who believe prostitution is inherently exploitative, such as author Andrea Dworkin, (herself an ex-prostitute) who believed that commercial sex can be considered rape enforced by poverty and often overt violence by pimps, and others who fight for legislation and legalization believing that this will ensure sex workers basic human rights. Anti-prostitution advocates argue that legalization will only increase trafficking, thus legalizing “rape” and making the state, in essence, a “pimp” with imminent control over women’s bodies. Members of the second camp, many of whom affiliate with pro-legalization groups such as Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics (COYOTE), state that sex is a part of our well-being, and the fact that we advertise sex in every magazine while it is still illegal to sell, is hypocritical. They argue that the negative association many have with prostitution comes into play only when sex workers are forced into the illegal arena with violence and drugs and that legalization will just protect women in an industry. According to COYOTE prostitution will continue to exist regardless of legalization, but with the law on their side, sex workers would be able to call for police protection. And that’s the brunt of it. Will legalization promote the sex industry until we spiral out of control, or can we truly put a stop to this industry if enough people are adamantly against it?
Personally, I’d like to hope that we learned something from the prohibition. We all know that alcohol can be extremely detrimental and deadly, but once we are 21, you better believe we are going to celebrate our freedom to partake. In reality, prostitution in America isn’t incomparable to the counties where it is legal. Look in any phone booth, bar bathroom, at the back pages of the Village Voice, Craigslist, or my street corner in Brooklyn once the sun sets, and you will see the red light district of New York City come to life, perfectly accessible for all to partake in, if one wants to delve into either the rank underbelly or the prestigious, extremely expensive world of the high-end escort. When it comes to safety, regulation, and legislation (and we are encroaching upon a big election year here) you could hear the crickets chirp. Unless you are former Minnesota governor Jesse “The Body” Ventura, taking a stance on prostitution deems political suicide. Conservatives do not need to address the issue since it is already outlawed and falls under the sinful “below the belt” category that they so abhor. That is unless they are linking it to their favorite fear factor political methods, such as when the former US Attorney General John Ashcroft legitimized the arrest of a prostitute in conjunction with the Patriot Act deeming that prostitution is a form of domestic sex trafficking and thus a means of terrorism (she served 6 months). Liberals are not much better: they often shy away—since it would make them sway “libertarian” and thus too close to the laissez-faire economic structure of the Wall Street evildoers. So, other than the wealthy libertarian bastards who look suspicious for being so adamantly in favor of purchasable pleasure, prostitution is a controversial non-issue.
It all ends in a battle between our perceptions and reality. Despite the fairy tale, not every prostitute’s story will end like Vivian, “the hooker with a heart of gold,” from Pretty Woman…rescued from poverty by her handsome, sensitive businessman. Yet the hard facts do show that legalization and regulation could lead to a safer sex industry. In our country, where we are wary of governmental control over anything for fear regulation will sneak into our marketplace and end with us all living in cement apartment buildings and working 35-hour work weeks, who knows if regulating the sex industry will ever fly in the national political arena? One would think with our free market system, why not follow Australia’s example where sex workers are a legitimate part of the economy? Thus creating opportunity for citizens to purchase shares in one of the prostitution companies and follow their invested cash in the stock market. If we made this business public we could make it safer and profitable to (God Bless America!) capitalism. Regardless, I’d venture to say that it’s high time for some serious discourse. And perhaps the liberal in me shines through regardless of the uncertain taste Amsterdam left in my mouth, as I’d rather live in a world where regulation is reality and denial lies safely and silently in the past, along with pre-formed impenetrable political party platforms. I choose to remember that in a society, legalization does not a mandate make. It just opens us up to choices, which is why I can walk away from Dutch prostitutes and those damn uncomfortable wooden shoes, happy to know that as long as their sex market exists, at least they will be acknowledged and protected.