Freedom to sell sex? Prostitution debate continues


“Theran Prostitute,” art by Shirin Fakhim

Should prostitution remain a crime? On Monday, November 16, 2009, four panelists, Professor Samantha Majic, Dr. Melissa Farley, Ms. Vednita Carter, and Dr. Elizabeth Wood, gathered to reframe the issue in their own terms. The eager audience included Harvard law and government students, members of the Massachusetts and Rhode Island task forces against human trafficking, and professors from several schools.

Prof. Majic is an assistant professor of political science at CUNY. She spoke on the difference between decriminalization and legalization of sex work, advocating for decriminalization so that sex workers could more effectively access social services and the legal system.

Dr. Wood, a professor at Nassau Community College and prolific blogger, views coercion and violence as distinct and separable from sex work.   She found that explicit exchanges of sex for money do not equate to exploitation or violence, and described the conflation of sex and rape as “troubling.”  Dr. Wood pointed out that women also experience violence within marriages or the military, but we do not seek to abolish these; rather, we try to improve civil liberties for the people within these social institutions. In one of the most controversially received comments, Dr. Wood confirmed her support of a statement on her blog that bestiality or zoophilia can be noncoercive.

Dr. Farley, whose research focuses on prostitution and sex trafficking, explained that women are forced into prostitution by a series of “invisible coercions.”  In her work, she has found that the rates of PTSD in prostitutes rival those found in rape victims, torture survivors, and combat veterans.  Dr. Farley conceptualized prostitution as a form of “paid rape,” and explained that the conditions for consent simply could not exist within prostitution. She cited statistics from Victoria, Australia, that showed legalizing prostitution created a great increase in illegal prostitution and organized crime, although Prof. Majic disagreed with Dr. Farley’s interpretation of those statistics.

Ms. Carter, a survivor of prostitution, runs Breaking Free, a center in St. Paul, Minnesota for African-American women escaping prostitution. She drew parallels between current prostituting of African-American women and historical enslavement.  Ms. Carter related the difference between street and “indoor” prostitution to the difference between slaves who worked in the field and those who worked in the “big house.”  Although the house slaves were better off in some ways, and the conditions of slavery could be improved, the facts of enslavement and oppression could not be changed.

Harvard LL.M. student Alejandra Suero asked about the assumptions underlying the panelists’ definitions of sex, and about the distinction between sex work and other types of paid labor.  Dr. Wood responded that “sex” can include a broad range of activities which are private and not usually discussed.  She drew parallels to nurses’ aides, who are continually in very physical and intimate contact with their patients, yet do not draw the same social stigma as sex workers do. Ms. Carter stated that sex and prostitution are separated by differences in process and interpersonal dynamic, in the same way that sex and rape are differentiated.  Dr. Farley focused on the prostituted woman’s emotional presence, and pointed out that many prostituted women dissociate emotionally during their acts, either through emotional means or through substance abuse.

All the panelists agreed on what they would say if President Obama called to ask their advice on prostitution, unanimously stating that they would decriminalize the selling of sexual acts, and increase social services such as health care and housing.  However, Dr. Wood and Professor Majic wanted to decriminalize both selling and buying sex, while implementing labor laws and regulations on the industry.  Dr. Wood felt that this would help sex workers access courts for real violations of their rights, in that the workers would not fear prosecution.  Ms. Carter and Dr. Farley, on the other hand, both argued in favor of holding “johns” or customers accountable, and shifting the criminal burden from supply to demand. Dr. Farley cited research in Sweden that showed criminalizing the demand side of prostitution actually decreased sex trafficking by a large margin.

After two hours of debate, Professor Glenn Cohen, the event’s moderator,  thanked the audience for being “feisty,” but some participants were not yet ready to leave. Professor Majic continued to emphasize the importance of the language and terms that frame the issue, but Dr. Farley got in the last word: “Legalizing prostitution is a fantasy.”

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