Prostitutes, Feminists, and Economic Associates

Wendy McElroy

A troubling situation has been haunting the issue of prostitution, and that is the growing antagonism between the Prostitutes' Rights Movement, as expressed through organizations such as COYOTE, and those contemporary feminists who are anti-prostitution, which is the major of contemporary feminists. The conflict arises because most feminists maintain that their theories and policies help prostitutes, who are women victimized by male culture. The major of prostitute activists, on the other hand, consider themselves to be sexually liberated women who are being harmed by the feminist theories and policies that claim to protect them.

The radical feminist Andrea Dworkin captures the anti prostitute view of whoredom well: "The only analogy I can think of concerning prostitution is that it is more like gang rape than it is like anything else...The gang rape is punctuated by a money exchange. That's all. That's the only difference."[1]

To prostitutes who consider themselves to be liberated, the philosopher Laurie Shrage explains that they are being duped by the patriarchal system, "Because of the cultural context in which prostitution operates, it epitomizes and perpetuates pernicious patriarchal beliefs and values and therefore is both damaging to the women who sell sex and, as an organized social practice, to all women in our society."[2]

At a feminist conference in 1987, a representative of CORP (Canadian Organization for the Rights of Prostitutes) related the impact that the anti-prostitution attitude was having on whores: "They find it necessary to interpret prostitutes experience of their lives and then feed it back to the prostitutes to tell them what's really happening, whereas they wouldn't dare be so condescending or patronizing with any other group of women. Why is that?"[3]

Peggy Miller of CORP was more direct: "You're a bunch of fucking madonnas!"[4]

The purpose of my paper is to investigate the conflict between prostitute activists and anti-prostitution feminists in one area -- namely, the treatment of the economic associates of whores,[5] particularly of the men. Most people might assume that this conflict, and others, is the natural state of affairs between willing prostitutes, who sell themselves sexually to men, and most feminists, who decry the sexual exploitation of women by men. This assumption is wrong. Prominent spokeswomen in the '60s, such as Ti Atkinson, referred to prostitutes as the paradigm of a liberated woman. And a brief history of the Prostitutes' Rights Movement illustrates that co-operation, and not conflict, characterized the early years.

The Early Prostitutes' Rights Movement and Feminism

The Prostitutes' Rights Movement first appeared through the organization known as COYOTE, an acronym for 'Call Off Your Tired Old Ethics'. In early 1973, COYOTE emerged in San Francisco from a preceding group which was named WHO: Whores, Housewives, and Others. The 'Others' referred to were 'lesbians' -- a word no one even whispered aloud at that political juncture in time. And the willingness of prostitutes to embrace the cause of lesbian rights was one of their early and strongest links with many feminists of that time.

The founder of COYOTE Margo St. James became convinced that a prostitute-based group was necessary because the feminist movement would not take the issue of prostitution seriously until whores themselves spoke out. Earlier, the lesbian community had reached a similar conclusion about the need to speak out for themselves.

The mid-70s were a propitious time for prostitute rights. The '60s had created sympathy toward decriminalizing victimless crimes. The abortion crusade had embedded the principle 'a woman's body, a woman's right' into American society. The Gay Rights Movement in San Francisco had highlighted police abuse of sexual minorities.

Originally COYOTE limited itself to providing services to prostitutes in San Francisco, but a national Prostitutes' Rights Movement soon began to coalesce around the local San Francisco model. By the end of 1974, COYOTE boasted a membership of over ten thousand and three COYOTE affiliates had emerged: Associated Seattle Prostitutes, Prostitutes of New York [PONY], and Seattle Prostitutes Against Rigid Rules over Women [SPARROW].

The feminist movement reacted with applause. In 1973, for example, NOW endorsed the decriminalization of prostitution, and this is still the 'official' policy -- at least, on paper.[6] Ms magazine lauded both the efforts and the personality of Margo St. James. As late as 1979, prostitutes and mainstream feminists were actively co-operating. For example, COYOTE aligned with NOW in what was called a Kiss and Tell campaign to further the ERA effort. A 1979 issue of COYOTE Howls, the organization's newsletter, declared:

"COYOTE has called on all prostitutes to join the international "Kiss and Tell" campaign to convince legislators that it is in their best interest to support...issues of importance to women. The organizers of the campaign are urging that the names of legislators who have consistently voted against those issues, yet are regular patrons of prostitutes, be turned over to feminist organizations for their use."[7]

In the mid-80s, the Prostitutes' Rights Movement was decisively killed by an unexpected assassin: the AIDS virus. In the understandable social backlash that surrounded AIDS, prostitution came to be seen as a source of contagion every bit as virulent as IV needle use. The Prostitutes' Rights Movement could not advance out of the shadow of AIDS. Around this time, mainstream feminism also turned against the Prostitutes' Rights Movement and began publicly to excoriate prostitution as a form of patriarchal abuse of women. In 1985, Margo St. James left the United States to live in France. She cited the sexually conservative swing in the American feminist movement as one of her motives in leaving.

A New Image of the Prostitute

In 1985, with the decline of the Prostitutes' Rights Movement in America, the image of the liberated whore declined as well. A new image took over almost entirely: the whore was viewed as a pathetic victim of male oppression, a victim of patriarchy, and prostitution become inherently an act of violence against women. To recall Dworkin's words, "...prostitution is...more like gang rape than it is anything else..."

Prostitution is rape, gang rape. The whore is, definition- ally, a sexually abused and exploited woman. She is a victim whether or not she declares herself to be a willing partner to prostitution, and whether or not -- in the presence of other reasonable options -- she pursues paid sex. Her belief that she has consented is merely a delusion.

A great deal of feminist research has been conducted, seemingly with the goal of establishing this image of the whore. Some of the research is valuable, but -- at least in terms of its value in forming any general policy on prostitution -- the research is deeply flawed. This is because the sampling is almost always drawn from the street walking segment of the prostitute community, and usually from the further subcategory of street walkers who are in prison, who seek treatment for drug problems or who otherwise enter programs to get off the street. In other words, these samples self-select for the women who are most likely to have been victimized by prostitution and most likely to want out of the profession. Moreover, the women seeking treatment or leniency in prison are likely to give authority figures -- the researcher -- whatever answer they believe he or she wishes.

There is another reason that the studies on street walkers, in terms of forming general policy on prostitution, are inadequate. The National Task Force on Prostitution estimates that, of the entire female prostitute community in America, only five to twenty percent are street walkers. The percentage spread depends on the size of the city. Eighty to ninety-five percent of prostitutes work either incall or outcall. But because street walkers are the most visible of all prostitutes -- in terms of public awareness, arrest records and social work programs -- they are incorrectly perceived as being 'the paradigm of a prostitute'. In reality, they form the smallest portion of the community, and they are by far the portion in which the problems associated with prostitution are most likely to occur: drug addiction, violence, police abuse, and disease.

The anti-prostitute feminists Melissa Farley and Norma Hotaling have conducted an interesting study of street walkers [10] from street areas of San Francisco, particularly the strolls frequented by homeless, drug-using prostitutes, or particularly young whores. These are the whores who are easy targets for violence: they are not necessary representative even of the street walking community. Yet this study has been used by anti prostitution groups to present a portrait not simply of the most vulnerable of street walkers, but of 'the prostitute'.[11]

Farley and Hotaling entered into their research to test the hypothesis that street walkers suffered from post traumatic syndrome and compared the psychological states of whores to those of hostages and torture victims. From a sample of 130 prostitutes, which included some male and transgendered ones, Farley and Hotaling arrived at disturbing statistics. 82% reported having been physically assaulted since entering prostitution. 75% stated that they had or did have a drug problem. 88% wanted to leave prostitution.

In 1995, I conducted an intensive study of forty-one female members of COYOTE. Thirty-four of the respondents were, or had been, prostitutes. 71% of the women reported having experienced no violence over the years of sex work: 29% had experienced violence, more often from the police or a co-worker than from a client. One prostitute responded, "If you are on the street and you are dealing with someone who can remain anonymous, it is more likely that people you will encounter will be violent." None of the women stated, or evidenced, a drug problem. 17% of the women wished to leave sex work, with 24% not being sure. [12]

Needless to say, there is discrepancy between my results and those of such researchers as Farley and Hotaling. The difference grows deeper as I speak of the articulate politically-aware whores with whom I deal daily and as anti-prostitution feminists report the heart-breaking stories of ex-prostitutes who have been damaged on the streets. These are women such as those involved in the organization WHISPER, Women Hurt in Systems of Prostitution Engaged in Revolt.

I don't dispute the stories of damaged ex-prostitutes. My point is not that Farley and Hotaling are wrong, and that I am right. They surveyed the lowest rung of prostitution (street walkers in notoriously bad strolls), where abuse is rampant, while I dealt with the upper rung (callgirls), where abuse is uncommon. The phenomenon of feminists researching different segments of the prostitute community can easily devolve into a circus of confrontation with each side claiming to have 'better whores'.

I am not saying this. What I am saying is that truth is usually more complicated than any one perspective can capture. Prostitution is not a monolith. Each woman experiences the profession in a different manner.And nothing can be gained by having different groups of feminists or prostitutes -- all of whom are probably telling the truth of their own experiences -- attempting to discredit each other.

The day-to-day realities of a street walker cannot be extended to say anything that is necessarily, or even probably, true of the daily routine of a woman in a massage parlor or of an exclusive call girl or of a stripper who hooks on the side. About the only political interest all women in prostitution seem to share is that -- whatever their circumstances -- it is better for every woman *not* to be arrested and legally persecuted for the choices she makes with her own body. It is better for prostitu- tion to be decriminalized.

And this brings us more directly to the policies most feminists now advocate against the economic associates of whores, and which prostitute activists decry.

Decriminalization v. Legalization

Traditionally, society has legally approached 'the problem' of prostitution in three general ways: suppression, or abolition; regulation, or legalization; and, tolerance, or decriminalization.

The meaning of abolition is fairly clear.

Legalization refers to some form of state controlled prostitution, for example, the creation of red light districts. It almost 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 someone is a prostitute on her passport, and other countries automatically refuse entry to her on that basis.

Decriminalization is the opposite of legalization. It refers to the elimination of all laws against prostitution, including laws against those who associate with whores: is, madams, pimps, and johns.

With startling consistency, the Prostitutes' Rights Movement calls for the decriminalization of all aspects of prostitution. You will sometimes hear anti-prostitution feminists describe their position as 'decriminalization with the goal of abolition'. But, in using the term 'decriminalization', each side means something very different. Prostitute activists mean that all aspects of prostitution must be legally tolerated. Anti prostitution feminists mean that the police should not arrest the prostitutes, only the men (the pimps and johns) and the women who act as pimps (madams).

And -- with the support of such feminists -- there has been a sea change in how many police departments in North America legally address the nitty-gritty of street walking. Namely, they are now arresting the men. In discussions with the vice cops who were invited speakers at the International Congress on Prostitution, all but one them said that arrests now ran about 50/50 for prostitutes and for johns. This is opposed to something like 2% for the men in the past. Some police departments go even further, like the Edmonton Police Services in Canada which declared 1992 the Year of the John and concentrated on charging clients.

When I speak of co-operation between anti-prostitution feminists and vice cops I am referring specifically to the Schools for Johns, a phenomenon that seems to be sweeping North America, city-by-city. It began in San Francisco, when Norma Hotaling teamed up with the vice department to formulate new policy on prostitution.13 Instead of ignoring johns as they normally did, police arrested them and gave first-time johns an option: they could erase the arrest from their records by paying a fee and by attending a one-day seminar during which they would be lectured, usually by feminists and damaged ex-prostitutes, on the turpitude of their ways. Some cities, like Chicago, have added the touch of publishing the names and addresses of men so arrested in major newspapers.

The dozens of prostitutes I've spoken with are appalled by this development. One of their arguments is that the School for Johns is making the streets less safe for prostitutes. The force of such laws will not, and historically never has, determined how many women will turn to the streets. But, prostitute activists argue, the laws will discourage a certain class of men from seeking out street walkers. Men who are married, with respectable careers and a reputation to protect will not risk being publicly exposed as a john. On the other hand, men who are criminally inclined toward prostitutes will not be discouraged by the prospect of a police fine. Thus, police/feminist policy keeps peaceful johns off the streets, and leaves women to compete more vigorously and screen less rigorously for the johns who still approach them. Is it any wonder that violence against street walkers is rising in many North American cities?

Arresting the economic associates of prostitutes represents a farther step toward state control, rather than a step toward decriminalization. To the women who *chose* prostitution as a profession, arresting the men on whom they rely to make a living is a direct attack upon them.

Proceed to Part Two

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