March 31, 2008
Prostitution: After the Sensationalism
Well, it’s been a few weeks since the whole Spitzer-prostitute thing, and it would be an understatement to say the whole event created an online “buzz.” Some has been very good–as I wrote about previously, there has been much discussion about the criminality of prostitution, the differences between decriminalization and legalization, about the theoretical and “ethical” (?) distinctions between buying sex and selling it, and about how the prostitutes themselves (rather than their “pimps” or the “johns”) suffer the worst penalties and take the greatest risks. Some has been not so good, with the slut-shaming, and the objectification and dehumanizing critique of her body (“that’s worth $4,000?!), and the looking for any sexualized images of her that people might have, despite her lack of consent to the publishing context (yeah I’m taking about you, Girls Gone Wild and The New York Post).
While this story brought into relief the connection between male privilege and cheating via prostitution, indeed reminded us that paying for sexual services is often (not always) bound up in male privilege, I found myself frustrated, however, that this particular example of prostitution was the centerpiece of the discussion. For while Dupree’s “life story” (at 22 years old) is quite typical of sex workers generally–moved away from home at a young age, was homeless, drugs, no college education, possible abuse–her working conditions were not at all typical. It is easy to see why prostitution is “no big deal” and is just like any other physically exploitative labor-intensive work when you can hand-pick your clients and have to work very little to get a handsome paycheck.
This isn’t the truth of most prostitution work. And I think it’s important that we don’t forget that in all the glitz and glamor and sex-money-politics juiciness of this particular story that sound more like a made-for-TV movie. And not all of prostitution’s problems can be solved by legalizing and regulating it. Some of the violence and abuse on the job comes from how masculinity and sexual dominance and ownership is linked in out society. And sexual abuse and violence is a strong common denominator among those who get into sex work of all kinds, prostitution, stripping, porn, etc. When these things are so connected, it’s imporantant to not only talk about the legal issues but the social ones as well.
When becoming a sex worker is a way for women to cope, but not deal with, past sexual abuse, is it really beneficial to simply legalize it, call it their choice, and wash our hands of the damaging social factors that perpetuate both the “supply” and “demand”?: the social inequality of men and women, sexual violence against women, the objectification of women, the way men feel emasculates in a society where women have become more independent and in control but we have yet to produce a positive egalitarian idea of masculinity. Many of these women need emotional and physical counseling and support, they need help coming into a healthy relationship with their bodies; they don’t need to be alienating their bodies as a response to previous abuse. And we need a serious revolution in the ways we value women’s work. What does the instant fame, glamor, and big dollar sex contracts thrown at Ms. Dupree say to our young women working hard in school? When Lindsay Lohan is a train wreck and is throwing her life away, but stop the presses, because we may have found a video of her giving a blow job? When being called the Unsexiest Woman Alive can shake Sarah Jessica Parker, who on TV represented a self-reliant, successful, self-defined woman for so many woman my age? Whose post-TV work has been about women’s fashion and mothering, and not about bodily alterations or posing for men?** Just saying.
I am not saying some women who hasn’t been abused or is not in such economic dire straits that no other options are viable should not be able to choose prostitution or other sex work as an informed choice. But I think that sex work is a social and legal and cultural issue and needs to be addressed on both levels. We need to talk about how male privilege to (own) women’s bodies is part of the cultural breath we breathe. We need to talk about women’s connections to their bodies and sexualities and how social objectification, self-objectification, and sexual violence all disrupt that connection. And women’s bodies and desirability need to stop being the measure of a woman’s worth. Period. There need to be better economic options for women who are in desperate situations or who are single mothers (or both) so that prostitution and other sex work is not “choice” via coercion. Addressing these issues will help sex work being a truly informed choice. And further, we need to be aware of the realities of prostitution and other sex work when we are discussing and debating solutions, and not just what is glamorized by the media and films.
Here’s a visible look at some of the daily realities, lest we get too comfy with the pretty-young-choosy-expensive-glamorous prostitute image we have been inundated with lately. (image via Mentrual Poetry):
**(and as an actress, her target audience was for women’s entertainment and inspiration, not at all for men. And she’s the “unsexiest woman”? She also hasn’t caved in to “fix” her “Jewish” nose. Either one coincidence? Prolly not).