There’s a lot of talk about decriminalizing women’s bodies: allowing breastfeeding in public without fear of censure, protecting abortion rights, even the right of women to walk topless down the streets of NYC (which has been legal since 1992). But what about other forms of decriminalization? Yes, I’m talking about prostitution.
A few years ago, I would have said prostitution should never be made legal, that it is always a manipulative practice that subjugates women in some form. I still believe this in some ways. But I’m also in a different stage in life right now. More specifically: I’m in a different economic class right than I was when I first formed my opinions about the legalization of prostitution. I know first-hand what poverty and desperation can do to a person. I know what it feels like to run out of options, to get to a point at which — solely because of a profound lack of money — I will no longer be able to see my children or buy food in a grocery store. These are very real issues, ones that are not fabricated for sympathy or twisted into hyperbole.
Do I still believe prostitution demoralizes its participants (male and female)? Yes. Do I still believe it’s a tragedy anyone would decide to become a prostitute because all other options have been exhausted? Yes. Do I still believe there should be social services and protections in place so that people don’t have to make that difficult choice? Yes. A thousand times yes on all of those questions and a thousand other related questions.
I also now believe that prostitution should be legalized (and regulated, to ensure the safety of its participants). And that prostitution should be legalized so that, when (not if) people choose to sell their bodies (because social services and protections simply do not exist to the extent that many people think they do), there will not be the additional terror and worry that they will now have a criminal record in addition to being in poverty.
Why do people become prostitutes (or porn stars)? Okay, there’s the urban legend that they do so to put themselves through law school or because they really like sex and want to share with the world. But the vast majority of people involved in the sex industry get there because they’ve been abused in some way (often as a child) or because there are no other options. (There may be options like “work at Wal-Mart for $7.25 an hour and still not have enough money to afford to both eat and have a safe place to live,” but these are not “choices” in the same way as it might be to choose between working at Ernst & Young or PricewaterhouseCoopers.)
Take away funding for mental health services (as has been incrementally happening for at least the last 30 years). Take away welfare, food stamps, unemployment insurance, Medicaid, housing assistance, child care subsidies, and educational grants. What do you think people do when they can’t find legitimate work despite trying as hard as they can? When all of the channels suggested to them by hundreds of people turn up nothing? When family members have helped them as much as possible?
If you’re a woman (or a certain kind of man), the “escort wanted” ads on Craigslist start to look appealing. First you might look at the fetish ads: someone wanting to buy your old stockings or pay you to step on their hands while you’re wearing high-heels. Then you think about the “massage wanted” ads, or the ones asking for GFE; you’ve faked passion with past boyfriends, so how hard can it be to do it with someone that’s only a few hundred dollars different from a one-night stand? And who knows where it goes from there.
Except for one thing: it’s all illegal. And dangerous. And a criminal record could seriously hamper your ability to get a job in the future (if the economy ever does turn around). If you get killed (not entirely impossible) by meeting the wrong person in the wrong place, your kids won’t have a mom — and the memory of their mom will be tainted by what she was doing when she was killed.
I haven’t done any of these things. But I’d be lying to say that they haven’t crossed my mind. Like I said, I know what it feels like to run out of options.
And even though I still believe all of those things I said I still believed above… I also now believe that decriminalizing prostitution can empower women to do what they can with the only thing they have left — yes, their vaginas, I said it — to prevent that dark and terrifying slide into the kind of despair and poverty that’s nearly impossible to escape.
I know many feminists who say they want abortion to be “safe, legal, and rare.” The idea is that with education, free/readily available birth control, sufficient pre- and post-natal social services, and options counseling, women (and their partners) can make a real decision about whether to abort (rather than feeling pressured into one choice or the other by the options available to them by a society that offers very little in the way of education, birth control, or any social services). Meanwhile, in absence of those factors that would serve to make abortion “safe, legal, and rare,” we nonetheless (if we are pro-choice feminists) say to every woman who chooses to have an abortion that we understand the difficulties, we are not going to judge her, and that we have her back if and when she needs help getting through the process.
What I’m saying is that we can take a similar approach toward prostitution.
Is it ideal that any woman would feel prostitution is necessitated by her economic situation? No, of course not. But — as with abortion — instead of criminalizing women’s bodies, why don’t we (feminists) also say that we understand the difficulties and aren’t going to judge women who make that choice and that we will support those who need our help to get through the process? And that we’ll work to make it “safe, legal, and rare,” too?
I know this is a fantasy, given our current political climate. And maybe I’m naive (in fact, I probably am). But I think it’s worth saying, because I don’t hear anyone else saying it.