An Overview of "Solutions" to Prostitution

By Wendy McElroy

Different societies have viewed prostitution in widely divergent ways. Some cultures stoned whores to death. In ancient Greece, however, prostitutes were an integral part of religious rites. In Napoleonic France, courtesans were educated and talented women. They were not simply respected: they were adored and often eagerly sought out as wives. Other societies have grudgingly tolerated prostitution as a safeguard for the family. It was deemed to prevent rape and to shield virtuous wives from the unsavory sexual appetites of their husbands.

The feminist movement has also expressed different opinions on the issue of prostitution. The pioneering 18th century British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft considered street prostitution to be a more honest pursuit than marriage, which she called 'legal prostitution.' Over a century later, the American socialist feminist Emma Goldman maintained "it is merely a question of degree whether [a woman] sells herself to one man, in or out of marriage, or to many men."

Still other 19th century feminists, who were involved in the purity crusades that characterized the Progressive Era, vilified prostitution. In her essay Not Repeating History, the contemporary advocate for prostitutes' rights Gail Pheterson reflects on the advice offered by Josephine Butler. Butler was a 19th century British radical who championed the rights of prostitutes:

"In 1897, Butler warned her political associates to '...beware of purity workers (who are)...ready to accept and endorse any amount of coercive and degrading treatment of their fellow creatures in the fatuous belief that you can oblige human beings to be moral by force."

Controversy over the issue of prostitution has clouded feminist movements throughout history. It is a controversy that often reveals more about the ideology of the movement at that time -- or of a faction within the movement -- than it does about prostitution itself. The modern debate reveals deep and fundamental ideological conflicts.

Liberal feminism is divided on the issue. Old fashioned liberals, who remember the slogan "a woman's body, a woman's right," tend to favor prostitutes' rights. Still riding the wave of tolerance that swept the '60s and '70s, these liberals tend to view prostitution as a victimless crime: that is, an activity in which all parties are consenting adults, an activity that is a crime only because it offends the moral sensibilities of uninvolved and uninjured third parties. Some liberals carry tolerance one step farther into advocacy. They defend prostitution as an extension of the right of consenting adults to perform whatever sexual acts they wish.

Individualist feminists, arguing from the principle of self-ownership, also advocate the rights of prostitutes. To them, prostitution is the reverse of rape during which a woman's body is taken without her consent. In prostitution, a woman fully consents to sex and often initiates it. If society respects a woman's right to say 'no' to sex, they argue that society must also respect her right to say 'yes'.

There is a difference, of course, between prostitution and straight consensual sex. Prostitution is not merely an exchange of sexual favors; it is a financial exchange. At this point, individualist feminists rise to defend the free market as well as a woman's self-ownership. This is expressed by the question: "Prostitution is a combination of sex and the free market. Which one are you against?"

Both '60s liberal and individualist feminism view prostitutes as women in control of their own sexuality...that is, prostitutes set the price, the timing and circumstances of the sexual exchange. So what's the problem? Isn't Camille Paglia correct when she states 'the prostitute is not, as feminists claim, the victim of men, but rather their conqueror...?'

Paglia sees the real problem with prostitution arising from the hypocrisy and double standards of society. The current second-class citizen status of prostitutes is a reflection of American Puritanism more than anything inherent in the profession. Our society tells women to 'marry well', to get things from men, and to use flirtation to gain favors. Advertising presents sex as a commodity, as part of the medium of exchange. Prostitution is just the logical extension of this societal attitude. But, because prostitutes flagrantly reveal attitudes that are usually left unstated, they are reviled.

To a point, gender (or radical) feminists agree: society is to blame, not the prostitutes. More specifically, male-dominated society -- as expressed through capitalism and patriarchy -- is to blame. But this realization does not sway them toward advocating the rights of prostitutes. Quite the contrary. Gender feminists seek to eliminate the oldest profession because it is a creation of patriarchy and, thus, an inherent act of violence against women as a class.

In her essay, "Prostitution in Contemporary American Society" JoAnn L. Miller explains how a seemingly voluntary exchange is actually an act of force:

"Prostitution involves one gender's taking advantage of its superior social status and manipulating the other gender...Because members of this less powerful group are compelled or forced, physically or psychologically to engage in a sexual act, prostitution is fundamentally coercive and exploitative."

Prostitution, it is claimed, legitimizes the social attitudes that subjugate women as a class. Thus, prostitutes have a moral and political obligation to stop selling their bodies because these transactions fortify the cultural assumptions that damage women. These assumptions are said to have dire consequences. Specifically, prostitution is said to lead to rape. Thus, prostitutes are contributing to the rape culture.

In her pioneering book Against Our Will, Susan Brownmiller insists:

"The case against toleration of prostitution [is] central to the fight against rape, and if it angers a large part of the liberal population to be so informed, then I would question in turn the political understanding of such liberals and their true concern for the rights of women."

What Should be the Legal Status of Prostitution?

The starting point of any debate should be to define the key terms of the discussion so that everyone understands what is being said. The key terms of the this particular debate are 'abolition,' 'legalization,' and 'decriminalization.'

1. Abolition (or suppression): government attempts to prohibit all acts of prostitution, as well as the activities that promote it, such as keeping a brothel. Abolition -- or absolute criminalization -- is often considered to be the extreme opposite of legalizing prostitution. Actually, it is the ultimate in state control of that profession. Abolitionists call for all forms of prostitution to be considered a criminal offense and suppressed by force of law.

2. Legalization (or regulation): government has registered prostitutes with the police and subjected them to rules meant to protect health and public decency. Legalization refers to some form of state controlled prostitution. It often includes mandatory medical exams, special taxes, licensing, or the creation of red light districts. It always includes a government record of who is a prostitute, information which is commonly used for other government purposes. For example, some countries in Europe indicate whether a person is a prostitute on his or her passport. This restricts that person's ability to travel since many countries will automatically refuse entry on that basis. Controlling legalized prostitution usually falls to the police.

3. Decriminalization (or tolerance): all laws against prostitution have been abolished. It refers to the removal of all laws against prostitution, including laws against pimping. Almost all prostitutes' rights groups in North America call for the decriminalization of consensual adult sex on the grounds that laws against such sex violate civil liberties, such as the freedom of association.

The individualist feminist approach to prostitution is to advocate decriminalization: that is, the abolition of all laws against selling sex. There are several reasons for this:

1. Laws against prostitution have historically been used to harass and oppress women in the sex industry, not the men who are customers. This means that laws against prostitution almost amount to de facto laws against women.

Even laws against pimps (assumed to be men) add to the persecution of prostitutes. This is because pimping is defined in economic terms; a pimp is merely an associate of a prostitute who receives any of her earnings. It has nothing to do with whether or not the woman is forced to perform sex. This definition of a pimp is so broad it includes roommates, lovers, male adult children, and friends. The associates of prostitutes are often rounded up under the charge of pimping. This violates the prostitute's right of free association.

Moreover, since pimps are almost defined as 'those habitually in the company of prostitutes', anti-pimping laws interfere with the prostitute's right to marry. A husband would automatically open himself up to charges of pimping.

2. Laws against activities associated with prostitution also become de facto laws against women. For example, laws against running a brothel... In 1949, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a legal guideline, ostensibly meant to protect prostitutes. The document entitled "Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others". It read, in part:

"The parties to the present convention further agree to punish any person who:

Keeps or manages, or knowingly finances or takes part in the financing of a brothel;

Knowingly lets or rents a building or other place or any part thereof for the purpose of the prostitution of others."

Such laws effectively deny prostitutes the right to work indoors in a warm, safe, and clean place. They also make it difficult for women to band together for safety because those work in tandem could be charged with running a brothel. Anti-brothel laws make prostitutes isolated and vulnerable.

3. Anti-prostitution laws ensure that prostitutes will be unable to report violence committed against them to the police. Because the complaints come from criminals, they are next to never taken seriously or pursued. Even the murder of a prostitute is often ignored. On the contrary, prostitutes who complain to the police are likely to be further abused. Margo St. James claims that 20% of violence against prostitutes comes from pimps, 20% from police, and 60% from clients...about whom prostitutes cannot go to the police.

Prostitutes receive no protection from the state, even though they give a fortune to it by paying off fines.

4. Criminalizing prostitution has driven the profession underground and resulted in horrible working conditions for the women involved. Moreover, its black market nature attracts other illegal activities to the trade. This, in turn, creates a vicious cycle. For example, the stigma and awful working conditions of prostitution drive women toward drugs, which are then cited as a reason to strengthen laws against prostitution. Yet drug addiction is a problem that can be linked to many professions, not the least of all the medical profession. Only in the case of prostitution are laws enacted against the profession itself.

5. Anti-prostitution laws function as a form of censorship against women, because they keep prostitutes from speaking up for fear of being targeted by police. In Europe, for example, many countries stamp the passports of prostitutes to identify them as such. Other countries may refuse to admit them. This serves to restrict the prostitute's travel and activities.

To avoid being branded, prostitutes lie about what they do and keep silent. Speaking out might result in losing custody of their children and opening up lovers and friends to charges of pimping. In some countries, everything a prostitute owns can be taken away from her as the proceeds of illegal activity. Such repression also hinders the ability of prostitutes to organize politically.

6. To the extent that prostitution creates a public nuisance, laws already exist to prevent these problems. The most commonly cited public nuisances include: children may have to walk by prostitutes and, so, suffer psychological trauma; prostitutes may destroy the image and safety of a neighborhood; they cause noise and fights during the night; non-prostitutes may be more vulnerable to harassment due to the presence of whores.

Feminists should realize that public nuisance arguments for anti-prostitute laws are smoke screens. These laws are not aimed at removing a nuisance -- namely, what prostitutes do, e.g. cause noise or disturbances. They are aimed at removing what prostitutes are -- women who sell sex. This is clear from the many anti-prostitute ordinances that require no evidence of bad behavior for a charge to be brought. After all, any real nuisance that a prostitute creates could be dealt with under existing public order laws that make it illegal to publicly hurl threats, abuse or obscenity. The purpose of anti-prostitution laws is to target a specific category of women for persecution.

As for straight women who are afraid to be out at night...the real problem lies not with the prostitutes, but with the men who harass and/or physically abuse any category of woman. Male violence cannot be blamed on prostitutes, any more than domestic violence can be blamed on wives.

If gender feminists are concerned with the safety and dignity of women, they should join hands with prostitutes and help them to walk out of the shadows in which they now live and work. They should cease to feel sorry for prostitutes and start talking to them as equals. Feminists need the insights of prostitutes as much as prostitutes need the political clout of feminists.

Feminists of all stripes should speak with one voice to demand the safety of these women by granting them the same protection as any other woman can expect. Only decriminalization can provide this.

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