Is 'Sex Work' Pro-Woman?

"Sex work" advocates promote prostitution as a legitimate occupational choice for women.  Leftist activists equate sex work with workers' and women's rights.  The recent SESTA legislation (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act), which strikes at the demand aspect of human-trafficking, has become a rallying point for those on the left who argue that the legislation is "controversial."  According to the left, sex work is inherently pro-woman; it is "moral and should be legalized." 

One of the latest groups to glamorize prostitution is the Women's Center at DePaul University, a private Catholic university that recently sponsored a forum to declare that sex work is a "valid" choice for women.  The promoters, and others, argue that prostituted women deserve the "freedom and agency" to choose such an "empowering" occupation and "deserve" to enjoy their occupation "in safety" because it is "sexy" and "fun."  Those who engage in "sex work," they declare, are "attractive" and "happy" individuals.

Such arguments are totally divorced from the bitter realities of life as a prostitute and are based on the myth – stubbornly and endlessly hawked by Hollywood – of the glamorous prostitute, such as the one played by Julia Roberts in the 1990 hit movie Pretty Woman.  The big money and glamorous lifestyle of the fairy-tale "pretty woman" is hardly the story of the street prostitutes whose pimps force them to service up to 15 men a night.  The street prostitutes age rapidly, often ending up drug-addicted, battered, and used up by age 30 or earlier.  These victims are living proof that violence is part of the daily grind of the job, with drug and alcohol addiction necessary to endure the assaults and STDs that are a predictable consequence of the "occupation." 

Nor is the "pretty woman" myth the story of the women in brothels – even so-called high-end ones – or of the "call girls" marketing the highly remunerated "girlfriend experience" to businessmen in major cities around the world.

Only leftist proponents have a "pretty woman" view of "sex work" at any level!

The actual prostituted women provide a more realistic, honest picture: they refer to their work as "paid rape."  They remind us that prostituted women live with abuse – 80 percent say they have been assaulted by their pimps, and more than one third claim to have had death threats.  Researchers report that over one half attempt suicide, and a reported 85-90 percent desperately "want out" of what is more accurately called "modern-day slavery."  Indeed, pimps control 80-95 percent of all forms of prostitution, and fully 70 percent of those in prostitution started before they were even 16 years of age. 

Those countries that have tried decriminalization or legalization of prostitution also provide a more realistic picture of what happens.  Any time demand exceeds supply, the result is sex-trafficking.  There are simply not enough girls who willingly choose or are blindly duped into "sex work" as a profession.  Amsterdam found that 80 percent of the prostituted girls and women were there by force.  Germany found that 60 percent were foreigners, and Spain discovered that foreigners made up 80 percent of the girls and women, with many of those identified as victims coerced by the gangs and organized crime.  

Everywhere decriminalization and legalization have been tried, they have failed because the women do not want or the pimps won't allow them to perform the "safety" measures that are supposed to protect them.  They don't register because they don't want to be labeled.  Records indicate that they don't show up for the regular health checks.  Most importantly, the customers – the johns – are willing to pay extra for sex without a condom and other "unsafe" practices.  One john bluntly stated the reality of "sex work."  He said, "Men pay to get what they want; they go to prostitutes because 'real women' won't put up with their demands."

As to the tax revenue income that supposedly is a prime benefit of decriminalization and/or legalization?  The pimps and prostituted women find ways to avoid paying the taxes necessary for regulation.  Germany found that legalization did not increase tax revenues.  Mafias and criminal networks don't pay taxes.  Worse, legalization increases the number of illegal brothels.  In Australia, after legalization, the illegal brothels increased by 300 percent, pulling thousands of vulnerable women into prostitution and increasing HIV cases by 91 percent in two years!  Amsterdam closed one third of its legal brothels because organized crime moved in and illegal brothels thrived outside town, winning the competition with the legal brothels.  In the Netherlands, legalization and decriminalization are considered a "failed experiment."

Those who have actually studied anti-trafficking research or talked to survivors know what happens in the real world; "sex work" is not even close to the reality that the vast majority of prostituted women experience.  It's time for real men to know the truth about the industry and for boys to be taught that it is never okay to "use" a woman as a sex object.  As long as proponents give the industry the pseudo-sophisticated status and stamp of legitimacy conveyed by calling it "sex work," sexual slavery will continue to be a blight on our humanity and a heinous threat to vulnerable girls and women around the world.

Janice Shaw Crouse, Ph.D. was awarded the U.S. State Department's Abolitionist Award for her anti-trafficking research, writing and activism during the George W. Bush administration.

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