How the prostitution debate reveals unspoken societal problems
Prostitution is one of the world’s oldest and most notorious professions. The occupation has been around since the Hanging Gardens o f Babylon to the corners of Seventh Avenue in New York City. Opinions of prostitution have varied throughout history. In Ancient Babylon, every woman was expected to have sex with a foreigner as a show of Babylonian hospitality and her devotion to her nation. Today, there is extreme controversy surrounding prostitution for various reasons.
Prostitution is currently illegal in every state except isolated pockets in northern Nevada, which allow legal brothels. Supporters of legalization feel that it would protect the sex workers by providing them with a safer environment. According to OnlineSchools.org, a site providing information on various professions, prostitution has been deemed “the most dangerous job in the U.S.” with the highest murder rate: 204 out of every 100,000 prostitutes are murdered.
If it was legalized, the government could regulate it, possibly preventing abuse that runs rampant in the sex worker industry. According to Priscilla Alexander, a contributing writer in the book Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry, many prostitutes who reported being sexually assaulted while on the job were either ignored or arrested. Only four percent of rapes against prostitutes are reported, and barely any ever end with a conviction.
Also, sex trafficking, drug addictions and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases could decrease drastically. For instance, the legal brothels in Nevada do routine blood tests and screening for STDs and the HIV virus.
Others feel the legalization of prostitution would overlook the economic issues associated with it.
“[Prostitution is an] industry where women and girls are treated as commodities that can be bought, sold and exploited,” said Kristen Berg, program officer for Equality Now, an international organization that works to end violence and discrimination against women.
Some women enter prostitution because they feel trapped in their financial situation. 70 percent of those in poverty in the world are women. In the United States, according to the 2009 Human Development Report, women are still making 62 percent of what men make in the same jobs. The average salary of a prostitute is $48,000. The hourly rate for “high-class” escorts is $10,000 alone, while streetwalkers in Chicago make on average $25 dollars an hour — compare that to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
Underlying the debate on the legalization of prostitution, may be the biggest problem of all: our taboo toward sex.
Critics say prostitution dehumanizes women as strictly sexual commodities. However, if you look at advertisements today, nearly every advertisement uses a model to sell their products.
“I think the question of women or anyone being objectified comes more from our culture than necessarily one profession that is sex-based,” said Maria Shishmanian, a member of IC Feminists. “If we want to look at the objectification of women, look at our advertising, look at our fashion ads that we have. We are teaching ourselves to objectify people.”
We advertise sex, we hint at it, suggest it and talk about it. But we never seem to want to think about it actually happening. Interestingly enough, this prudish sexual stance in our culture seems to be having the opposite effect in wiping out prostitution.
Iwan Bloch, author of Die Prostitution said, “Prostitution appears among primitive people wherever free sexual intercourse is curtailed or limited.”
Europe has long been known for its liberality toward sex. There are 25 countries in the European Union that have legalized prostitution. The United States, for all our sexually suggestive advertising, has long held a suffocating grip on an almost Puritanical ideology on what sex is “supposed” to be. We leave barely any room for interpretation and impose a “one-size-fits-all” mentality on sex, instead of leaving it up to the individuals to decide what sex is and means for them. Society has long demanded women to walk a straight line when it comes to sexuality. Any deviance from her set path results in ostracism and judgment from her community and peers.
Today, the legalization of prostitution remains a complex issue. Although the legalization may provide prostitutes with more protection, it may, in turn, neglect the larger economic structures that force women into prostitution in the first place. Yet, underneath it all, our society is still too taboo toward sex to accept prostitution as a profession and legalize it. In the end, the discussion of whether or not to legalize prostitution may actually serve as an illustration of our greater societal problems of sexual and economic inequality, and of our prudish resistance to indulging in pleasure.
Sydney Fusto is a freshman journalism major who likes to parade around in her 7 ½ inch stripper shoes with gun barrel heels. Email her at sfusto1[at]ithaca.edu.