Prostitution is Exploitation

Dateline Paris, December 4, 2013:  the French National Assembly criminalizes the purchase of sex – under a Socialist government.  What are we to make of the fact that the French, renowned for their sexual liberality, have succumbed to what Ms. McNeill characterizes as anti-prostitution “hysteria?”

The main take-away is not that many feminists disagree with Ms. McNeill and find prostitution irreconcilable with the dignity of the women who are prostituted (it was principally they who drove this legal reform).  Dianne Post makes this argument eloquently.  The more relevant point here is that the French government was moved to act because a large majority of prostituted persons were from other countries, brought to France by criminal enterprises for the express purpose of being sexually exploited.  These victims of commercial sexual exploitation are not “workers,” they are not free agents acting voluntarily, they are enslaved.  And the French deemed this situation intolerable on human rights grounds.

Curious that the laws of supply and demand have been suspended in France:  how are we to understand that the demand for commercial sex so outstrips the available supply of willing providers that victims need to be dragooned, coerced, and held captive as part of a (very lucrative) criminal enterprise?  There is nothing in McNeill’s rosy characterization of the life of the prostituted person to explain why sexual entrepreneurs were not lined up to fill the demand gap.

The reality is that the vast majority of prostituted persons are not voluntary participants in any meaningful sense of that word.  And this is the logic of the “Swedish model:” precisely because prostituted persons are not usually acting with free will, they ought to be recognized as victims of a crime rather than perpetrators.  The exploiters (pimps) and buyers (johns) on the other hand are appropriately held to be culpable by virtue of their free-will participation in the crime of exploitation.  Nor is this standard a gender-biased condescension, as Ms. McNeill asserts; we need to bear in mind there are both male and female victims.

Consider the situation in the United States, where we find today a profoundly exploitative culture:  each year, 250,000 juveniles, that is, persons under the age of 18, are subjected to commercial sexual exploitation (under federal statute, any juvenile who engages in commercial sex is deemed to be a victim of human trafficking, and a juvenile cannot consent to sell sex).  This figure comes from a review of social science literature conducted by my organization, the Renewal Forum, and is the midpoint of various estimates.  If this seems to you an unrealistically huge number, know that in 2011 the states reported to the federal government 241,136 cases of serious physical, sexual, and psychological abuse, and the last time the federal government conducted research on runaways, 377,300 kids per year experienced a runaway episode in which they were gone a week or more.  What is especially disturbing about the latter figure is that only 21% of those incidences were reported to the police, indicating that the parents weren’t in any hurry to get their kids back.

This is how the trail of exploitation typically begins:  a child is denied the love he or she is due at home, and goes off (as runaways or throw-aways) looking for substitute love in the wrong places.  It is eerie how skilled the exploiters (pimps) are at detecting vulnerable kids.  Their enticement, of course, is the promise of love:  “come with me, baby, and I’ll take care of you.”

Oddly, there are no reliable figures as to the size of the adult population of prostituted persons, but what we do know is that many if not most began as children.  As a society we are providing virtually no services to either juvenile or adult victims, no help to get off the street, and no safe havens in which to rebuild their lives.  I can count almost on one hand the number of organizations across the nations helping victims to exit the life.

Evidently Ms. McNeill did not experience the many pathologies attendant to a life of sexual exploitation.  Lucky for her.  But her experience is atypical among victims.  I have read with disgust, frankly, Ms. McNeill’s cavalier dismissal of the testimony of survivors regarding the reality of their sexual exploitation.  “Next time you see one of these ‘survivor’ narratives,” she wrote in a blog, “compare it to the now-discredited accounts of satanic ritual abuse and the widely-ridiculed tales of alien medical experiments.”  The problem, Ms. McNeill, is the remarkable consistency of these narratives.  And pardon me if I put more credence in the first-person testimony of Kristy Childs (a survivor who is the founder of Veronica’s Voice in Kansas City, Veronica being a murdered friend in the life), Vednita Carter (a survivor and founder of Breaking Free in St. Paul, MN) and the late Norma Hotaling (a survivor and founder of SAGE in San Francisco).  These women have histories which can be corroborated and use their given names.  And they are heroes because they survived the life and are now reaching a hand back to help bring others to safety.

Norma, Vednita, Kristy, and others have shared with me their experiences of being shot, stabbed, held captive, and living through situations in which they were sure they were going to die.  Little wonder PTSD is ubiquitous among survivors.  The life of the prostituted person is an unrelenting horror of serial rape, trauma, and violence.  Dianne Post has already shared the research on the experience of typical victims:  most want out of the life; most are pimped-controlled (which means, inter alia, they did not keep the proceeds of their labor); most have experienced rape as well as assault; most are drug or alcohol dependent; many if not most began the life as juveniles.

A study in Canada found that the mortality rate for girls and women in prostitution was 40 times higher than the national average.  In fact, the incidence of murder and other crimes being perpetrated against prostituted persons with police indifference is so intolerable that my organization is looking for the right circumstance to bring a class action case for denial of equal protection.

In short, prostitution cannot be considered work.  “Sex work” is merely an attempt to put lipstick on the pig of commercial sexual exploitation, to normalize what is in fact a crime.  Where prostitution has been legalized but regulated, Ms. McNeill herself notes that most victims have remained extra-legal, due, she speculates, to the burden of regulation.  I think instead most victims remain outside the legal system because they are being controlled by criminal enterprises.

Finally we get to the question of what Ms. McNeill is actually proposing, and here her essay is a bit vague.  Is she advocating the repeal of all laws pertaining to prostitution?  The measure of the justice of this proposal is what the effect will be on those who are most vulnerable:  juvenile victims of commercial sexual exploitation, and adult victims who are desperate to get out of the life.  As it is, we are combatting official indifference and ineffectual window-dressing programs (here I suspect I agree with Ms. McNeill concerning the FBI’s Innocence Lost Initiative).  Signaling to law enforcement that there is no crime associated with prostitution will move our society in precisely the wrong direction.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Treating Sex Work as Work by Maggie McNeill

    Sex work is ubiquitous. Where a substantial demand exists, some people will inevitably try to meet that demand for a price. Retired call girl and madam Maggie McNeill reviews the various legal regimes that have been set up to regulate and/or prohibit sex work. She concludes that many approaches, particularly the most restrictive ones, increase the likelihood of harm to all participants. They tend to infantalize women and invest law enforcement with arbitrary and dangerous powers. She argues that the best approach is a regime of simple legalization, without licensing or heavy restrictions.

Response Essays

  • Prostitution as a Legal Institution by Ronald Weitzer

    Prof. Ronald Weitzer argues that prostitution should be treated as a legal commercial transaction. He finds that much of the conventional wisdom on the sex trade is the result of generalizing from experience under legal regimes where it is criminalized. He argues that in a legally tolerant regime, many of the problems we observe today would vanish. He argues for a set of “best practices” that would entail some government regulation of sex work, including subjecting business owners to background checks and licensing, zoning regulations, and restrictions on advertising. These measures would make decriminalization politically palatable and protect against a possible backlash. He also finds, contrary to McNeill’s claim, that no country has fully deregulated sex work.

  • Prostitution Cannot Be Squared with Human Rights or the Equality of Women by Dianne Post

    Dianne Post argues that prostitution is a form of exploitation, and that the only proper response is to abolish it. Prostitution, she argues, only exists because of material inequalities. Worse, it tends strongly to produce further inequalities – material, social, and political in nature. Prostitution traps women in economic dependency on men, and it encourages men to view women merely as commodities. Following this strong normative case against prostitution, Post looks at the empirical evidence, where she concludes that experiments with legalization have all been failures. She praises the “Nordic Model” approach to sex work, in which in which sex workers’ clients are prosecuted, rather than the women involved in prostitution.

The Conversation