Hypocrisy about prostitution is not a victimless crime

A great deal has already been written about the death, perhaps suicide, of Deborah Jane Palfrey, aka the DC Madam. Ms. Palfrey was convicted two weeks ago of running a prostitution ring that met the needs and desires of honchos in Washington. A couple of the honchos involved lost their jobs as a result of buying services from Ms Palfrey’s staff, but none lost their lives, or even livelihoods. One of them was Randy Tobias; he once controlled US$ 15 billion in spending to fight HIV and AIDS, and he wouldn’t give a penny of it to any organisation that did not actively pledge to oppose prostitution. Randy has to quit as head of USAID, but he’s now got a nice, cushy job as an airport manager.

Tobias typifies the hypocrisy about prostitution which riddles the United States. He says he only paid Palfrey’s staff for massages, not for sex. And Palfrey says that to her knowledge her staff only provided massages. She said it in court. He didn’t have to. She was convicted of a number of crimes. He wasn’t. She is dead.

Tobias presided over a programme that aimed to end prostitution in the world. (I am not making that up. Check it out in the Box headed “Violence Against Women and HIV/AIDS”: “The Emergency Plan will also support interventions to eradicate prostitution”.) For a round-up of what people whose livelihoods is to be eradicated think of that, see the links to posts about Palfrey’s death on Bound, Not Gagged. The supporters of this policy argue that the willing buyer, willing seller principle which drives most of American life does not apply in the area of sex. They argue that prostitution is not a victimless crime.

This self-serving moralising, this craven hypocrisy about the trading of sex, is the real crime. It has just claimed it latest victim, in the form of Deborah Jeane Palfrey. May she now find peace.

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This post was published on 02/05/08 in Ideology and HIV, The sex trade.

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  1. Comment by fidens, 04/05/08, 04:44:

    Hi, I just stumbled across this blog via this post, so forgive me for not knowing what I could probably glean from reading more widely. I understand that you are condemning hypocrisy, but could you clarify whether you think prostitution itself is, in a philosophical sense, ‘good’ or ‘morally neutral’? Or are you a pragmatist who simply believes that it’s here to stay, and we should make the best possible accommodation?


    Elizabeth replies: I think that if an adult wishes to sell sex and another adult wishes to buy it, they can agree on a price and there is no violence or coercion involved, then the sex trade is like any other; it should be treated as such, and regulated as such, with sensible but not excessive measures to maintain health and safety for workers and consumers. Clearly, many sexual transactions are not on the willing adult buyer, willing adult seller basis that I am neutral about. Forced or coercive sex is a bad thing whether or not it is paid for. I think if we had a less hypocritical and more sensible approach to willing transactional sex, we’d be better placed to minimise coercive sex of all kinds.

  2. Comment by Robert Duquette, 10/05/08, 10:49:

    I’m curious as to what you have found out about prostitution in your travels. How much of the trade is of the willing, mutually consensual variety that you wish for, and how much is coercive and exploitative?

    Also, do you think that legalization will solve the problems of exploitation? In parts of the world where poverty is rampant, even legal employment can be exploitative. Is it fair to expect young women to make a truly self-interested decision to enter the prostitution trade when other opportunities are rare or nonexistent?

  3. Comment by elizabeth, 11/05/08, 02:48:

    It’s hard for me to answer you with any precision. It’s a complex issue, discussed at some length in Chapter 6 of the Wisdom of Whores. I’ve talked to a lot of sex workers in poor countries and combed through data from a whole lot more, and I’ve only ever come across one girl who said she was forced into the job. But that’s going to underestimate coercive and exploitative prostitution hugely, because the women most likely to be exploited are the ones least likely to be talking to public health officials and researchers such as myself.

    Like coal mining or military service, prostitution is a high risk profession, though the financial premium compared to other available jobs tends to be higher for sex workers than for miners or squaddies. Even women (and men and transgenders) who choose prostitution are sometimes subjected to coercive sex. I don’t think legalisation will *solve” the problems of exploitation. But all the evidence points to this: where sex work is legal and regulated, exploitation is minimised and the provision of health and support services is maximised. (An aside: the most common perpetrators of coercive sex where prostitution is illegal are policemen.)

  4. Comment by Robert Duquette, 11/05/08, 05:40:

    Thanks for your reply. I don’t have any experience with prostitution other than what I read, so I welcome the input of people who have spent the time with people involved in the sex trade.

    I take an issue with your opinion that those who would want to eliminate prostitution (or at least limit it, since I doubt that it could ever be eliminated) are craven hypocrites. Some of them certainly are, but there are many more who, like myself, look at it as an exploitative practice that devalues the women who are caught up in it. Even if you disagree with that opinion, you should recognize that many people hold that opinion out of sincere and thoughtful motivations.

    Isn’t it also true that women who engage in prostitution have been sexually and physically abused as children at a much higher rate than women who do not? Wouldn’t that history of abuse skew a woman’s view of what is normal and healthy, and whether a choice to engage in sex work is well considered?

  5. Comment by Lee Rudolph, 11/05/08, 08:01:

    “Isn’t it also true that women who engage in prostitution have been sexually and physically abused as children at a much higher rate than women who do not?”

    That claim is made, and may be true, but I believe it is in dispute (I can and will check the literature, but not now; if I find anything of interest I will report back eventually, unless someone else has done the job first).

    Another claim is widely made (often, I believe, at the same time as the other, by the same people), namely, that (at least in the U.S.) as many as one in five or even one in four female children has been subjected to some form of sexual abuse. (You can find many instances of this claim by doing a Google search on the conjunction of the two phrases “sexually abused” and “one in four girls”.) If both claims are true (and, indeed, even if neither is true), it might be the case that “women who … have been sexually and physically abused as children” in fact “engage in prostitution” at a *lower* rate than others; a just-so story to account for such a correlation might go something like “Wouldn’t that history of abuse skew a woman’s view of what is normal and healthy, leading her to avoid sex both as work and as leisure, and whether a choice to be abstinent is well considered?”

    But of course just-so stories aren’t worth the pixels they’re written in. To answer empirical questions, empirical studies (with all axes, ground or unground, acknowledged) must be undertaken; and a necessary precondition for that (I think–practice may conflict with my preferences) is that there be either some agreed-on definitions of such terms as “normal”, “healthy”, and “abuse”, or an agreement to avoid using them.

  6. Comment by Amanda, 12/05/08, 12:37:

    The female sexual abuse statistic that gets tossed around is a ridiculous argument. If one truly believes that all sex workers are child abuse victims, then it would follow that 1 in 3 American women are or have been sex workers (the most common abuse statistic given).

    Though there are plenty of sex workers, I don’t think the number even approaches the number of women who have been abused. Not even close.

    And no, not all sex workers have traumatic pasts. Sometimes the financial truths of adulthood is the neccessary motivation.

  7. Comment by Robert Duquette, 13/05/08, 02:01:

    You’re confusing the argument. Saying that sex-workers show a higher rate of abusive pasts than non sex-workers doesn’t mean that every woman (or man) with an abusive past ends up being a sex worker.

    If you acknowledge that sex work is a high risk profession, doesn’t that argue for trying to eliminate it? You compared it to squaddies and coal miners. If we could somehow make war obsolete, would there be any reason to ask our young men to enter the military profession. Likewise if we could find clean and safe energy replacements for coal, would it make any sense to put people at risk in coal mines?

    What is the larger purpose that sex-work serves in our society that can’t be met by some other and better means, so as not to put young women and men at risk?

  8. Comment by Lee Rudolph, 13/05/08, 12:07:

    “If you acknowledge that sex work is a high risk profession, doesn’t that argue for trying to eliminate it?”

    In the USA (last time I checked), the absolute highest-risk job (riskier than firefighting and much riskier than being a police officer) was … commercial fishing. Perhaps there is no larger purpose that fish serves in our diet that can’t be met by some other and better means (quorn-fingers, anyone?). But perhaps not.

    Certainly I am all in favor of risk-reduction in the commercial fishing fleet, and I am equally in favor of a society in which men and women (not necessarily young; I know a lobsterwoman who’s in her fifties) have many freedoms and opportunities, including the freedom and opportunity to choose whether or not to fish, or fuck, for a living (or for pleasure, come to that–both, in the best circumstances).

    “What is the larger purpose that sex-work serves in our society that can’t be met by some other and better means […]?”

    By your choice of the words “larger” and “better”, you (appear to me to) assume your conclusion. The question is, are sex-workers *necessarily* at risk (due to whatever irreducible qualities of their work serve to make it “sex-work”) or simply *contingently* at risk (due to qualities of the ambient society of their work, which may be remediable by means that do not eliminate that sort of work entirely)?

    Workplace violence is a major problem (in the USA) across many types of jobs (cf. “going postal”); work-related injury and disease, likewise. Given the increasing unlikelihood that work itself, the curse of Adam, will be replaced any time soon by something “other and better”, I would like to see the risks of violence, injury, and disease reduced for *all* workers.

  9. Comment by Amanda, 13/05/08, 08:38:

    I don’t think I’m confusing my arugment, I think I didn’t state myself clearly. Happens a lot with blog comments. I was disctracted when I posted and left out some connecting thoughts.

    So…sex workers do not have any higher rate of child abuse in their past than any other female-dominated workforce (anyone care to poll domestic servants? hairdressers?). Believe it or not, a lot of child abuse victims are completely turned off of sex and don’t pursue any form of sex work. And sex workers come from a much bigger variety of backgrounds than simple child abuse.

    In my own random sampling of colleagues, the 1 in 3 statistic holds true. Which means that sex workers mirror the general population of women. Coming from a poor background seems to be more common than child abuse (so is this financial abuse?).

    Also remember that the statistics commonly gathered on sex workers are from street workers (often ones who have been arrested on various charges). They represent only 10-20% of the entire sex work population and are generally considered to be the population in the most dire circumstances.

  10. Comment by wrongdoing Boom, 16/03/09, 07:58:

    prostitution is always a prostitution and I don’t think legalisation will *solve” the problems of exploitation

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