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Make Prostitution Legal Essay, Research Paper

Prostitution Theory 101

by Yvonne Abraham with Sarah McNaught

Few things have divided feminists as much as the sex industry. Theorists

who agree on a vast swath of issues — economic equality, affirmative

action, even sexual liberation — often find themselves bitterly opposed over

pornography and prostitution.

Most 19th-century feminists opposed prostitution and considered prostitutes

to be victims of male exploitation. But just as the suffragette and

temperance movements were bound together at the turn of the century, so

too were feminist and contemporary moral objections to prostitution.

Women, the argument went, were repositories of moral virtue, and

prostitution tainted their purity: the sale of sex was, like alcohol, both cause

and symptom of the decadence into which society had sunk.

By the 1960s and ’70s, when Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer asserted

that sexual liberation was integral to women’s liberation, feminists were

reluctant to oppose prostitution on moral grounds. Traditional morality, Greer

argued, had helped to repress women sexually, had made their needs

secondary to men’s. That sexual subordination compounded women’s

economic and political subordination.

Today, some feminists see hooking as a form of sexual slavery; others, as a

route to sexual self-determination. And in between are those who see

prostitution as a form of work that, like it or not, is here to stay.

Radical feminists such as lawyer Catharine MacKinnon and

antipornography theorist Andrea Dworkin oppose sex work in any form.

They argue that it exploits women and reinforces their status as sexual

objects, undoing many of the gains women have made over the past century.

Others detect in this attitude a strain of neo-Victorianism, a condescending

belief that prostitutes don’t know what they’re doing and need somebody

with more education to protect them. Some women, these dissenters point

out, actually choose the profession.

Feminists who question the antiprostitution radicals also point out that

Dworkin and MacKinnon sometimes sound eerily like their nemeses on the

religious right. Phyllis Schlafly, a rabid family-values crusader, has even

cited Dworkin in her antipornography promotional materials. This kind of

thing has not improved the radicals’ image among feminists.

At the other extreme from Dworkin and MacKinnon are sex-radical

feminists like Susie Bright and Pat Califia. They argue that sex work can be

a good thing: a bold form of liberation for women, a way for some to take

control of their lives. The problem there, though, is that the life of a

prostitute is often more Leaving Las Vegas than Pretty Woman (see “Pop


Many feminists fall somewhere in between the rad-fem and sex-radical

poles. Wendy Chapkis, professor of sociology and women’s studies at the

University of Southern Maine and the author of the Live Sex Acts: Women

Performing Erotic Labor (Routledge, 1997), is one of them. For nine years,

Chapkis studied prostitution in California and the Netherlands, as well as in

Britain and Finland, and conducted interviews with 50 sex workers. Chapkis

says she sees the profession as it is: many of her interviews confirmed much

of the ugliness that radical feminists abhor, as well as the empowerment that

sex radicals perceive.

“I don’t think prostitution is the ultimate in women’s liberation,” she says.

“But I think it’s better understood as work than as inevitably a form of

sexual violence.” What prostitutes need, she argues, is not a bunch of

goody-goodies looking down on them, but decent working conditions.

Chapkis believes prostitution should be decriminalized. Just because it can

be lousy work doesn’t mean it should be stamped out, she argues. After all,

she says, “there are lots of jobs in which women are underpaid,

underappreciated, and exploited.” Criminalizing the profession just

exacerbates prostitutes’ problems by isolating them from the law and leaving

them vulnerable to abusive pimps and johns. “In a profession where women

traditionally are not treated well, aren’t empowered, and should be able to go

to the police for protection and assistance,” she says, “we make the police

an extra obstacle, another threat.”

In the Netherlands, by contrast, where prostitution is decriminalized, police

and prostitutes are on the same side: hookers speak at police academies to

educate the officers about their work, and Chapkis says the communication

pays off in safer working conditions for the women.

But what of the radical feminists’ claim that prostitution is too patriarchal to

be tolerated? Chapkis points out that many things in modern life began as

patriarchal institutions — marriage, for example. Problems within marriage,

she says, can be addressed without resorting to abolition: these days, marital

property is distributed more fairly, and abused wives have places to go for

help. Even Catharine MacKinnon has found a way to reconcile herself to

the idea of getting married. Why can’t prostitution be similarly transformed?

Still, Chapkis isn’t so naive as to see prostitution as benign. There are no

easy generalizations about sex workers’ lives, she says: “I interviewed street

prostitutes who feel powerful and in control and are making a lot of money,

and I met many high-class call girls who hate their jobs.”

Either way, Chapkis is certain that the only option is decriminalization, which

would prevent prostitutes from getting arrested. “I’m as concerned as any of

the abolitionists to deal with the problems of prostitution — violence, drug

use, poverty,” she says. “But you can’t solve those problems by further

criminalizing prostitution, driving it further underground. [That makes] it

more difficult for women to access what help there is.”

Which is where a lot of prostitutes’ organizations stand, too. Tracy Quan,

director of the Prostitutes’ Organization of New York (PONY), a support

group of more than 300 sex workers, has been in the movement to

decriminalize prostitution since 1975. “Prostitutes are just a part of the whole

mix of society, whether people like it or not,” she says. “Prostitution must be

treated like an industry.”

But many workers are careful to distinguish between decriminalization and

legalization, which would create new laws and regulations governing the

industry. That, many sex workers and advocates believe, would only place

additional demands on women whose lives are difficult enough already.

Carmen, a 28-year-old who has been a sex worker for four years, questions

the benefits of legalization, as demonstrated in Nevada. “Under the current

system,” she says, “if you are arrested and incarcerated, you are put behind

bars. Legalization would be the same thing. You’re being put behind barbed

wire, and it is dictated to you where you can go, when you can go there, and

who you can talk to. That’s certainly not enticing to me.”

Norma Jean Almodovar of COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), a

national advocacy and assistance organization for sex industry workers,

explains that “those of us who are out-and-out whores want our [fellow

workers] to be free.” Quan adds that although some prostitutes find that

legal brothels such as those in Nevada work for them, others choose illegal

action because they want to be in control.

“Nevada doesn’t encourage hookers to become madams,” Quan says. “And,

to us, it is very much an industry just like any other money-making career.

We want to know there is a level of hierarchy where upward mobility is


And many prostitutes are as cynical about the government and the cops as

they are about pimps and johns. “There have been numerous examples of

how law enforcement officials have used laws as a form of extortion,” says

Almodovar. ” `Blow me for your license’ is not the answer.”


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