Prostitution: Reconsidering Research

Appeared in Spintech, November 12, 1999

by Wendy McElroy

In March 1997, I spoke at the International Conference on Prostitution (ICOP), which was presented jointly by The Center for Sex Research at Cal State University Northridge and the sex workers' organization COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) L.A. To the casual observer, the conference appeared to run smoothly. Those who attended the luncheon address by the featured speaker -- former U.S. Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders -- were treated to a good natured sight. As Elders warmed to her theme of sex education for the young, she slipped into an evangelical tent-shaking delivery that prompted shouts of "Preach it sister!" from a table of prostitutes by the dais. The laughter and spontaneous applause veiled a sad fact: the journalists, researchers and academics sat together in tight clusters, apart from sex workers. Overwhelmingly, the segregation of 'non-pros' had been instituted by the prostitute-activists.

ICOP billed itself as "An Interface of Cultural, Legal and Social Issues." The conference was meant to bridge misunderstandings between researchers and prostitutes. The four organizers were Norma Jean Almodovar, the head of COYOTE Los Angeles, and Professors James E. Elias, Vern Bullough and Bonnie Bullough. (Bonnie died several months before ICOP opened.) Norma Jean tended to dominate. She had superior organizational skills and the credibility needed to convince prostitutes -- women who are law-breakers -- to attend a conference where they might be photographed. By the advent of ICOP, however, the organizers had become bitter foes, who almost came to blows.

The breach had been foreshadowed. Although ICOP opened its general session on a Friday morning, certain sympathetic researchers had been invited to pre-conference sessions with prostitute-advocates. I declined because I suspected a disaster was brewing. For well over a year before ICOP, I had participated in a online private e-mailing list called Whorenet. The list was part of the Prostitutes' Rights Movement (PRM) -- a vocal coalition of 'liberated' prostitutes. Whorenet was established in 1996 to allow prostitutes, researchers, and 'activist johns' to share information on political, sexual and personal matters.

The list became an unofficial clearing-house for ICOP. Many, if not most prostitute-activists expressed unrelenting hostility against even the most sympathetic non-pro researchers based largely on identity politics. The central tenet of identity politics is that only the members of a group (such as "blacks" or "prostitutes") can understand the oppression of that group. The PRM believed that regular women (non-pros) could not understand the injustice done to 'the prostitute.' Therefore, non-pros should defer to prostitutes and act as vehicles for their voices. This demand was often expressed with hostility. And, indeed, the researchers who attended the pre-conference sessions later spoke of being insulted. Some were told to leave the meetings to which they had been invited and attended at their own expense.

Like ICOP, Whorenet quickly evolved into what Tracy Quan of PONY (Prostitutes of New York) called "a caste system." In an August 1997 article in the on-line magazine Salon, Quan explained the caste system "...with sex workers sitting at the top and johns at the very bottom." Non-pro women seem to fall somewhere in between the extremes, landing closer to the bottom. Quan commented on the factionalism caused by the caste system, "A prostitutes' rights activist can score points by hinting that an opponent 'has never really been a hooker'."

Hostility spilled over from Whorenet into ICOP. For example, Norma Jean had asked the anti-prostitution feminist Kathleen Barry to be a keynote speaker in order to explore the radical feminist slant. Although willing to consider the invitation, Barry eventually declined because of threats to drown out her speech by heckling from the audience.

The threat of disruption was a woefully counter-productive tactic. Barry focuses upon streetwalkers, for whom abuse is common, rather than upon call girls for whom abuse is rarer. At ICOP, Barry would have met prostitutes who contradicted her paradigm and, perhaps, she would have revised her opinions. In this one instance, at least, a radical feminist was willing to open a dialogue. The rage of the PRM ensured silence.

The research conducted by sympathetic researchers has been damaged by identity politics as well. Consider one of the panels on which I spoke -- "Session 11: Studying Whores: Rethinking Research Methods and Ethics." My topic was "The Problem of Advocacy in Research." I explored the tension involved in being both an advocate who favored decriminalization and a researcher who strove for objectivity. For example, in conducting research interviews, there was pressure to 'respect the voices' of the research subjects by, for example, allowing them to rephrase questions. Thus, the subjects themselves partly determined the content of the research. This called the validity of the research into question. I also asked how researchers could ignore the critical voices of ex-prostitutes from anti-prostitution groups such as PROMISE.

From the podium, the researcher Priscilla Alexander later claimed that asking such a question encouraged the murder of sex workers on the streets. This backlash was not surprising. The conversations of several academics upon whose work I had drawn was more than surprising: it was shocking. One academic casually admitted to ignoring or skewing inconvenient data. Another spoke proudly about having sex and taking drugs with her subjects as part of "research."

Both the PRM and Whorenet had lost their value as sources of data on prostitution.

Research from the Opposing Side

In 1994, Christina Hoff Sommers, professor of philosophy at Clark University, published the book Who Stole Feminism?: How Women Have Betrayed Women. Sommers chronicled how a new style of feminist scholarship abandoned facts in order to pursue ideology.

Who Stole Feminism? caused a sensation because Sommers exposed some widely accepted "feminist" statistics as being utterly false. Perhaps the most notorious example was the feminist contention that approximately 150,000 females die each year of anorexia. The claim had caused a media furor, yet no one asked the most basic question: where did that number originate? Sommers followed the trail. Steinem's autobiographical Revolution from Within (1993) cited the figure, which came from Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth (1992), which came from Joan Brumberg's Fasting Girls (1988). Brumberg cited a 1985 newsletter of the American Anorexia and Bulimia Association as her source. When Sommers contacted the President of the Association, she learned that the figure 150,000 referred to the total number of females with any degree of anorexia. The death rate was less than 100 per year. Yet the inflated figures were being used to promote legislation and government grants.

Current feminist "data" on prostitution was particularly puzzling to me because the view of prostitution had shifted dramatically from the seventies to the eighties. When the PRM sprouted in the early '70s, mainstream feminism embraced it. For example, in 1973 NOW endorsed the decriminalization of prostitution. As late as 1979, COYOTE publicly aligned with NOW in an effort to secure the ERA.

By the mid-eighties, the AIDS epidemic had made prostitutes' rights politically unpopular, but the change in feminist perspective cannot be so easily explained. The change was ideological. Broadly speaking, mainstream feminism shifted from prosex liberalism toward an ideology that considered many forms of consensual sex to be forms of patriarchal oppression. This was the influence of radical feminism.

A key book behind the shift in position was Barry's Female Sexual Slavery (1979), in which she described women who are abducted or sold for sexual purposes. Translated into several languages, the book was the basis for a 1983 United Nations report that bluntly stated "prostitution is slavery". Also in 1983, Barry founded the International Feminist Network Against Female Sexual Slavery in Rotterdam, which was funded by the Dutch government and the Ford Foundation.

Soon, the most vocal feminist position on prostitution included an attack upon capitalism and women's self-ownership. For example, in her book The Sexual Contract, Carole Pateman explained that the principle 'a woman's body, a woman's right' enslaved women. She concluded, "...the individual as owner is the fulcrum on which modern patriarchy turns."(14)

If the feminist stance on prostitution was based on observable fact, how could the same act be liberating in the mid-seventies and enslaving a decade later? The realities of prostitution had not changed in ten years. Surely, the intelligence of researchers had not changed so significantly either. It seemed clear that research was being driven by ideology.

Unreliable Data on Both Sides

Emotion and ideology surround the issue of prostitution. And the people to whom the public looks for objective information -- researchers, journalists, and academics -- seem to distort the realities of the issue. It is difficult to trust studies or statistics, many of which contradict each other.

Yet reliable information is necessary to address social questions such as the relationship between prostitution and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), e.g. herpes, chlamydia, and gonorrhea. The United States has the highest rate of STDs of all Western nations, and some forms of prostitution seem to be vectors of transmission. For example, The Economist commented, "Black gonorrhea rates [gonorrhea among black Americans] are almost seven times higher than among Americans as a whole, partly because blacks have less access to health services and partly because of the spread of prostitution in exchange for crack cocaine." ("Barometer: the Invisible Worm" May 17, 1997) Dependable data is essential.

Is prostitution within America a vector of transmission? Some women on Whorenet thought it could be. One e-mail advised, "Don't brush your teeth before seeing a client. Chew gum, use mouthwash, whatever, but brushing may disturb the gums -- which is great for your gums, but it may cause enough of a breach to allow infections in."

In discussing STDs, it is important to distinguish between prostitution in America and in the Third World. Within countries like Thailand, prostitution unquestionably spreads even AIDS -- a relatively difficult STD to transmit. Consider the following excerpt from a yet-to-be published paper (reprinted with author's consent), "Globally, the incidence of HIV seropositivity among prostituted women is devastating. 58% of prostituted women in Burkina Faso, West Africa and 52% of Kenyan women in prostitution tested positive for HIV (Lankoande et a.l, 1988; Kaul et al., 1997)."

The PRM counters that: 1) American prostitutes are no more likely to be HIV infected than the normal female population because of widespread condom use; 2) the real vector of transmission is drug use; 3) criminalizing prostitution would increase infection by making prostitutes reluctant to seek medical information or assistance.

Nevertheless, the same paper claims, "Rates of HIV among U.S. prostituted women vary. For example, 57% in New Jersey. In Atlanta, Georgia -- 12% among women, 29% among men, and 68% among transgendered people in prostitution. (Elifson et al., 1999)."

The most interesting aspect of the excerpted paper is its source. Entitled "Prostitution: a critical review of the medical and social science literature in press, women & criminal justice," the paper was written by Melissa Farley and Vanessa Kelly. Farley is what the PRM calls an 'anti-sex' feminist who believes prostitution is a form of violence against women. Recently, Farley and I have conducted a modest exchange of research. I am not aware of another instance in which two ideologically opposed feminists cooperated on data relating to sex work.

Yet there is a crying need to get beyond ideology to good data. The public discussion on prostitution has become an ideological brawl in which both sides bend research to promote political agendas and to slander opponents. Those on the sidelines who feel bewildered by a conflicting flood of arguments and evidence should find solace in the fact that some researchers are just as bewildered.

There is reason for hope. For one thing, some radical feminists now call for the 'decriminalization' of prostitution for women, although not for johns. True, they are using the word somewhat differently than the PRM and their ultimate goal is the elimination of prostitution. Mine is still decriminalization. But, perhaps, we are beginnning to use the same words. And to co-operate... cautiously.