In Defense of Prostitutes

Appeared in Spintech, August 12, 2000

by Wendy McElroy

Perhaps the most fundamental question confronting anyone who takes a position on prostitutes' rights and wrongs is "what is a prostitute?"

The media and others doing research into prostitution often take an amazing tack on the question. Like many feminists who've done work in this area, I sometimes get phone calls from people writing articles, who ask fairly predictable questions: "What is prostitution? Who is 'the prostitute'?" I keep a list of four or five phone numbers and email addresses on my desk: they are from current and ex-prostitutes who are willing to make public statements about their lifestyle. When I am asked a question such as, 'Who is the prostitute?', I offer to provide the caller with one of the phone numbers or email addresses, adding any caveats I think may be helpful. (For example, if a particular prostitute is a call girl, I make sure the person knows that her realities will be very different from those of a street walker.)

Usually, the questioner has one of two reactions to my offer: either he expresses skepticism about the possibility of a prostitute having perspective about her situation, preferring instead to consult 'an authority'; or he takes down the information and later asks the prostitute salacious questions or ones about her victimization, leaving political questions for non-pros like me. All of us have seen this approach in action on television shows on prostitution that present clip after clip of feminists, academics, social workers, police officers, and their like -- all making comments on 'the life', all offering a glimpse of its realities through stats and studies. Somewhere in the show's mix, a prostitute or two will probably provide emotional testimony or be videoed as she walks down a street in a high hemlined, tight skirt as she leans provocatively toward the passenger window of a car.

We've all seen this media-research approach to 'Who is the prostitute?' so often that it may seem balanced and informative. Yet there is something bizarre about the methodology. Imagine a researcher writing an article entitled, 'Who is the fireman? What are his or her realities?' Now imagine that same writer insisting, 'Whatever else we do, let's not ask these questions of a fireman! Instead, let's consult academics and others who've done work on the subject, but have never experienced a fire directly.' If such a writer refused to take the accounts of firemen seriously, his research would and should be dismissed as skewed and irresponsible.

Yet refusing to listen to the voices of prostitutes who do not consider themselves to be victims is the most common approach employed by those who consider the question, 'Who is the prostitute?' Only the heart wrenching stories of ex-prostitutes who have been damaged by their experiences are given weight. Whatever the motives underlie this methodology, one thing is clear: most researchers approach the prostitute, both the call girl and the street walker, with a foregone conclusion of who she is. Among the predetermined characteristics of the prostitute: she does not understand the political implications of her situation and must have an outside authority interpret them for her. She does not grasp the implications of what she is doing with her own life and body.

From my point of view, the opposite is true. I believe the woman on the street corner knows tremendously more about her form of prostitution -- that is, street walking -- than I do. I believe a woman who has been beaten up and forced to perform sex acts by vice cops knows more about police abuse and its implications than I do. I think the high priced call girl -- especially the one who goes on to become a madam -- has a better bead on the economics of prostitution than me. All I can add to the many and diverse portraits of what it means to be a prostitute is the outside perspective of a feminist and of an average woman who has chosen a more 'respectable' sexual role.

Accordingly, I let the prostitutes I've dealt with answer for themselves the question, 'Who is the prostitute?' (A caveat: the majority of the answers come from the upper crust of the class structure that exists within the prostitute community. The responses are largely from call girls who are also active in prostitutes' rights: that is, from women who are both economically and psychologically secure enough to divert energy into pursu- ing political issues.)

Their answers come from a questionnaire I circulated to hundreds of active prostitutes who were members of a rights organization named COYOTE. My first response was from Salt Lake City. It was entirely blank except for a line scrawled across the front sheet: "I could not get past the words 'sex work'. I don't like how it sounds. It was a turn off." I had used the term in the survey because it sounded neutral to my ears and it was in common usage. Although no one else objected to the term, the woman's comment served as a vivid reminder that no consensus exists even within a fairly homogeneous organization like COYOTE.

For example, Priscilla Alexander, a former Director of COYOTE (though never a prostitute) waged a vigorous four-year campaign within the World Health Organization to prevent them from using the term 'commercial sex work', which had been originated by Family Health International. She argued that the word 'work' means an activity for which people are paid. The only purpose served by adding the adjective 'commercial' to the term 'sex work' was to emphasize in a peculiar manner the 'for sale' aspect of whoring. After all, people don't commonly say 'commercial bank clerk', 'commercial ditch digger' or 'commercial surgeon.' It is assumed that these are forms of paid labor. Why describe sex work differently? ...unless, of course, you indeed to treat it differently than other forms of work.

Interestingly, Alexander has no similar objection to the terms 'commercial sex' or 'commercialized sex.' Meanwhile, Margo St. James, the founder of COYOTE, has suggested with a bit of whimsy that prostitutes call themselves 'bawdy shop workers.'

In general, however, prostitute activists seem to prefer the word 'whore'. Norma Jean Almodovar, ex-prostitute and author of From Cop to Call Girl, uses the word 'whore' pre-emptively. Since she knows the term will be hurled at her as an insult, she embraces it as a badge of honor and replies 'thank you' to those who attempt to crush her with its weight.

The "Whore" Word

I am a woman...and if I get out of line, you call me a whore
And if I have a good time, you call me a whore
And if I speak my mind -- you call me a whore.
You throw the word at me when I stand on my own
You use the word often to hold me down.
You ever remind me that whores are the worst-- "You're just a whore!" you repeat like a mantra--
Like a shot of cold water to dampen my joy.
"You're just a whore -- so what do you know?
and what do I care of whatever you think!"
"You're a whore," is a dagger you drive through my heart
as you pound into my psyche that name.
You equate everything that I ever thought good -- with that word
which you spit out like venom -- to show me how awful I am.
But I ask you, please tell me, just what is a whore?
A whore says what she think and she thinks for herself...
She's independent and feisty -- so what? is there more?
Why does it frighten you so to know I've a mind of my own
and don't need you permission to live or to love or to be?
And what if I tell you
I don't care anyone if you call me a whore...
What will you call me now?

Whatever semantic disputes exist, politicized whores seem to agree on one point: the basic definition of whoring is 'the act of exchanging sexual favors for money or other material gain'. Some go on to address the emotional content of whoredom. Some question whether the exchange is a benefit. One woman, who described herself as an escort, explained to me:

"Now in my life, sex work for money is not a choice, but I feel, for myself that responsibilities, credit cards and monthly expenses, which I incurred years ago have still imprisoned me in this business."

Still other prostitute-activists claim that whoredom offers spiritual benefits. For example, Carol Leigh of the Prostitutes' Education Network is an advocate of the Old Religion which celebrates the Goddess within: the Sacred Whore. Prostitution is the manner in which this religion is expressed.

The majority of the hundreds of working prostitutes with whom I've spoken or corresponded fall somewhere between these polar positions, and usually land far closer to the 'purely for money' side. In other words, the emotional content of the word 'whore' seems to be something every prostitute defines for herself.