Is prostitution really a “profession”? (Only when it serves men’s purposes.)
Quick! Name “the world’s oldest profession.”
If you said “prostitution,” then you are no doubt familiar with that well-known and oft-repeated notion about sex work – an idea that was actually first written down by Rudyard Kipling in 1888 in a story called “On the City Wall.” Kipling begins the piece with the line: “Lalun is a member of the most ancient profession in the world.”
(Kipling invented Lalun, the story’s female protagonist, as a high-class courtesan, but his statement about the ancient nature of prostitution has since been expanded to refer to all sex workers.)
And, according to Forrest Wickman, writing on Slate.com, when American doctors in the 1920s began trying to curtail prostitution as a way to control its adverse health impacts on society, they ran straight into naysayers who said that since prostitution was “the world’s oldest profession,” it was therefore an immutable fact of human society, and would be impossible to wipe out. (see: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2012/03/rush_limbaugh_calls_sandra_fluke_a_prostitute_is_prostitution_really_the_world_s_oldest_profession_.htm)
Wickman points out that prostitution is indeed an ancient and widespread practice. Many Old Testatment male rulers had numerous concubines, ancient Rome had brothels, and females in several other animal species have been observed engaging in the exchange of sex for food or for other desired objects.
So it seems that the commodification of male sexual access to female bodies is a long-standing practice, and one that is not limited only to humans. Some people then use these facts to argue that any efforts to ban prostitution are doomed to fail. That we have no choice but to accept its continued existence.
But if that is true – that the “profession” of prostitution is both ancient and inevitable – then why do we still so utterly fail to respect it as a trade? Why do we continue to treat sex workers as if they are nothing more than disposable human bodies to use and abuse as we see fit?
Quick! Name the most dangerous job that people do.
If you again said “prostitution,” you are correct!
But chances are that you didn’t say prostitution. If you are like the vast majority of us (myself included), when you are asked about the most dangerous professions, you think of being a logger or a commercial fisherperson or a cop. In fact, msn.com just listed what it perceives to be the most dangerous jobs, and “sex worker” was nowhere to be found. The jobs they listed were: crab boat worker, logger, hay farmer, ironworker, sanitation worker, commercial pilot, roofer, coal miner, power line mechanic, firefighter, truck driver, oil rig worker, taxi driver, construction worker, butcher, and police officer. (see: http://photos.ca.msn.com/slideshow/photo/most-dangerous-jobs/2t70a1w6#1)
Other internet searches reveal very similar lists.
But the data clearly show that those lists are wrong. That the on-the-job death rate for women engaged in prostitution is nearly double what it is for of fisherfolk. That for every one man (or woman – but most fisherfolk are men) who goes down with the ship, there are two women who are killed by johns or pimps.
According to work by Potterat et al. (2004), the overall annual mortality rate for women in prostitution is in any given year twice as high as it is for the general population, and women in prostitution are nearly eight times as likely to be murdered as are their female peers who are not involved in prostitution.
But when we are asked what the most dangerous jobs are, we think about getting snared in fishing nets, about being crushed by logs, about falling off roofs, and about being run over by tractors, combines, or earth moving equipment. You know, the sort of stuff that happens to men.
Because in a patriarchy, these are the only deaths that matter.
Why the disconnect?
So, is prostitution a profession – a job – or not?
We call it “the world’s oldest profession,” but at the same time it does not even register in our brains as a job! I think that part of the reason for this is that conceptualizing prostitution as a job interferes with the male fantasy about sex work: that the women involved are insatiable nymphomaniacs – wanton whores – who have sex with strange men as a compulsion. Almost a calling. Hell, given half a chance, they would probably even do it for free!
Of course, if these women are so wanton, why aren’t they doing it for free?
Oh yeah, because they gotta eat.
(And their kids gotta eat, too!)
(And there’s a good chance that they have a pimp who is trafficking them and wants to make damn sure he gets “his” money as well.)
We don’t want to think that what women and girls in prostitution do is actual work. And certainly not exploitative work. To think of sex workers as people in need of protection from exploitation – in need of protection from men like us – is to destroy the fantasy. It implies that what is happening in this flesh-for-money transaction has real consequences for the human being who is in the role of having to provide the flesh. And looking at it that way brings just a little bit too much humanity into the picture.
If they’re out there, they need protection.
I am no fan of the sex industry. Mainly because even in its best, rarest, safest, least exploitative, well-rewarded, pimp-free, “high-class-escort” manifestations, it still sells only a fantasy. A lie. A highly artificial experience masquerading as connection. A commercial transaction dressed up (or is it down?) in lingerie. A practice that merely reinforces the ancient pattern of men gaining easy sexual access to women’s and children’s bought-and-sold bodies.
And, at its-all-too-common worst, prostitution involves the kidnapping, trafficking, rape, torture and murder of women and girls.
(For a further discussion of the problems with prostitution, including for the women themselves, see Nina Burleigh’s recent piece on the Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nina-burleigh/human-trafficking_b_2702028.html)
But at this moment in time the sex industry remains an unfortunate social reality. And as long as women and girls (and men and boys) are out there selling themselves – and being sold by others – for sex, they need our protection.
Serial killers often target women who are in prostitution because no one looks that hard for them when they go missing. Especially not the cops. Gary Ridgway, the so-called “Green River Killer,” killed dozens of women during the 1980s and 1990s. After he was arrested, he said: "I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught." (quoted by Robin Hustle on Jezebel.com: http://jezebel.com/5969424/they-still-have-rights-the-search-for-humanity-and-justice-for-sex-workers)
Robert Pickton, of British Columbia, was another killer who preyed on women who worked the streets. But because many of these women who went missing were involved in prostitution, they were a low priority for law enforcement. In fact, there are reports of the police refusing to even take missing persons reports when these women disappeared!
As a response to the Ridgway murders and to other horrific incidents of violence against women in systems of prostitution, December 17th has been set aside as the annual International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. See: http://www.december17.org/
Robin Hustle, a sex worker herself, recorded a conversation she had with her friend Teresa, a fellow sex worker, about this violence. Here are some excerpts:
Hustle: The Day to End Violence started as a vigil to the victims of the Green River Killer. It's a day to remember and honor our dead, because no one else is doing that. The public isn't doing that, the media isn't doing that. So to have this day and mourn with other people who you don't have to explain yourself to is important. We know we are mostly alone in watching each other's backs. Our lives are pushed underground, criminalized, stigmatized, and we only have each other. A sex worker's biggest safety resource is another sex worker. We're not protected by law enforcement the way the rest of the population is.
Teresa: When one of us gets killed, it's almost as if I've forgotten until then that people hate me, that people think that I'm disposable, that I'm trash, and that I deserve to die. It takes my breath away, and I realize that people actually think that I deserve to be raped and killed. There are people who think that that is an expected repercussion of my job. It's actually a repercussion of my gender. I will never subscribe to that line of thinking. Women that have been in my life have been killed, mostly in my youth, as prostitutes. There's that police slang, NHI: No Human Involved, to refer to a dead prostitute, or other "nonhumans." And I think about all the people I love, my friends, and myself, and my girlfriend, and know that people are justifying this, and think we deserve to die.
When ambivalence kills.
The life of a woman or girl working in prostitution is full of danger. Even the Disney/Touchstone prostitution-as-Cinderella-story film Pretty Woman begins with a crime scene where a woman working the streets has been murdered.
No one deserves to be brutalized. No one deserves to be raped. No one deserves to be murdered. But as long as our society clings to its intense ambivalence about prostitution – quietly winking at it as “the world’s oldest profession” while at the same time doing absolutely nothing to protect the people who actually do this sort of work – then women and girls will continue to be trafficked, abused, raped, and killed.
And pitifully few of us will find it within ourselves to care.
As it stands now, we have shown ourselves to be unwilling to try to stop prostitution. To be unwilling to try to reduce men’s demand for rented access to women’s bodies. And yet we also seem unwilling to protect the people who work in the “profession.”
And that’s not right.
Women are dying – and our failure to take this issue seriously is killing them.