No, Not All Sex Workers Want To Be Saved, Ctd

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A reader can relate to the title of our post:

When I undertook a photo project on Dominican sex workers, I became friends and a regular client of one of the women I met, and we have kept in touch through WhatsApp.  She went to work in a brothel in St. Maarten on a six-month contract and had a hard time adjusting to being away from home.  Her unhappiness was exacerbated by the limitations on movement imposed by the brothel during the first couple weeks she was there, where she also lived in an upstairs apartment with the other workers.  I was alarmed by the depression she seemed to be sinking into and asked how much it would take to buy out her contract.

She found out and I got the money together, but when it came time to carry out the plan, she asked, “Then what am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to live and pay for my daughter’s school?”

She decided to stick it out, and things got better.  She’s back in the Dominican Republic with her daughter and parents, able to make enough money to care for herself, her parents, and daughter with fewer but better clients.  (She’s the one mentioned in the interview having a house built for her family.)

Though the women I met in the DR did not elicit the rescue mentality in me, this one woman did for a moment when she was stuck and unhappy in St. Maarten.  But the question that has to be asked before going down that paternalistic path is, then what?  The rescue industry in Cambodia, made famous by Nicholas Kristof and Somaly Mam, appears to be a tool of the low-wage garment industry in that sewing cheap clothes for export to the US and Europe is the alternative offered, but because the garment industry does not provide a living wage, in reality, it is no alternative.

I hope that police officer in the reality show you posted on has something to offer that can match the sex work earnings of the women he tries to rescue.  Otherwise, he’s just offering cheap morality, and that doesn’t pay the bills.

(Photo by Peter Brian Schafer. Learn more about his work here.)

“The Only Time He’d Ever Felt ‘Sexiness'”

Alice Robb presents new findings on why some disabled men pay for sex:

[Sociologist Kirsty] Liddiard interviewed 25 physically disabled men and women, recruited through ads on websites and in publications for people with disabilities. (The ads didn’t mention that she was studying sex work.) Of the 16 men included in the study, seven said they had at some point purchased sex from a female sex worker. (None of the women had ever paid for sex.) This is consistent with other research that suggests disabled men seek out prostitutes or “sex surrogates” at higher rates than non-disabled men.

In a 2005 survey carried out by the British magazine Disability Now, 22 percent of the 1,115 disabled male respondents admitted they had at some point paid for sex, and 37.6 percent said they’d at least considered it. (Only 1 percent of disabled women had hired a sex worker, though 16.2 percent had thought about it.) Researchers estimate that about 10 percent of all British men have ever visited a prostitute. …

[Liddiard] found that for many of the men, it was as much about demonstrating their independence as it was about the sex. For Harjit, a 23-year-old-student whose parents had moved into his university residence to care for him, making secret arrangements was as much an accomplishment as the sex itself. “From the excitable way such stories were told, it appeared that a lot of the ‘buzz’ … was as much from exercising agency, autonomy, control and independence as it was about experiencing sexual fulfilment, pleasure, and satisfaction,” wrote Liddiard.

Other men simply wanted to have an experience they believed they wouldn’t have otherwise. “I wish I could go out and meet someone, but it’s not that easy,” one man complained. “I can’t go into a nightclub and easily pull, although I have in certain circumstances, but I can’t do it easily,” said another. Mark, a 35-year-old Liddiard interviewed in person, said that his experience with a sex worker was the only time he’d ever felt “sexiness.”

Every Sex Worker Is Somebody’s Daughter, Ctd

by Dish Staff

A reader adds his two cents to the discussion:

I wouldn’t want my daughter to make her living in porn, but not because I have a moral objection to it. My problem is with the career trajectory. A porn actress’s earning power peaks fairly early on. And after that happens and she wants to get a job outside of the adult industry, that porn history will put a pretty low glass ceiling over her head.

Another has a more philosophical objection:

We already make certain moral, qualitative distinctions between free commerce and other sectors of life.  You are not allowed to sell your enfranchisement, for example. Why not? Most people don’t use nearly all the votes to which they are entitled as citizens. Why can’t they offer a price to someone who wishes to make use of them? It’s easy enough to argue that votes are already bought when politicians vow certain breaks or benefits for their election. But that’s not the same thing as selling the vote itself before the fact.

You’re also not allowed to sell yourself into slavery, however much that might benefit your family or designated beneficiaries financially. Again, one may argue that all labor relations are just attenuated versions of precisely that already, but that’s not the same thing as selling the sum of one’s liberty and labor as such.

If we agree that there are already certain domains of life (e.g. enfranchisement, liberty, citizenship) where no amount of economic necessity can validate the commercialization thereof, then why is it hard to see sex as something similar? You don’t need to be a prude and you don’t need to see public law and family law as the same thing in order to recoil at legalized prostitution. If sex doesn’t rank up there with citizenship and the vote as a special, non-commercial endowment, then what principle would prevent a world of indentured servitude and commodified enfranchisement?

Every Sex Worker Is Somebody’s Daughter, Ctd

by Dish Staff

Noah Millman jumps in on Elizabeth’s sex-workers-as-daughters discussion:

You could call [Elizabeth’s take] a “moral libertarian” version of Rawls’s veil of ignorance. We don’t know what our daughter might decide to do when she is of age. She might decide to have sex for money. Therefore, we should examine our political (and moral) attitudes with a view to who would be most harmed by them – and the person most harmed by a morally condemnatory attitude is the daughter who decides to have sex for money, and would be condemned for it.

As with Rawls’s own perspective, this makes perfect sense if you take the existing distribution is a given – in Rawls’s case, of wealth; in Nolan Brown’s, of life choices. If you don’t assume that – if you assume instead that redistribution of wealth will lead to less production of wealth overall, or that a permissive moral attitude will lead to an increase in objectively poorer life choices – then you can’t blithely say that the only thing that matters is harm reduction for those who make those choices. You have to weigh the costs on all sides of the equation. This much should be obvious.

But I still think Nolan Brown’s critique has teeth, because she’s drawing a distinction between the daughter as thought experiment and the daughter in reality.

And Elizabeth responds:

I’m guessing not many people take forklift-driving positions because they just adore the work. People take jobs as forklift drivers for the same reason people take jobs in porn—to make a living—and we don’t hear complaints that this situation exploits forklift drivers because they are under economic pressure to accept dangerous work. Yet according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, there are about 85 deaths and 34,900 serious injuries related to forklifts each year, with 42 percent of these involving the forklift operator being crushed by a tipping vehicle. How many people are killed each year by porn?

Playing The Prostitution Shame Game, Ctd

by Elizabeth Nolan Brown

A reader agrees that a lot of anti-prostitution sentiment stems from an inability to look beyond personal aversion:

You wrote, “That is unless, like Allen, you can’t conceive of a world in which anyone could purchase sexual services from someone and still respect their humanity.” Spot-on. This whole notion that all sex workers are slaves is stripping a huge number of rational, adult people who choose to make money this way, for whatever reason, of their agency and their humanity. It also perpetuates the noxious notion that sex is something men take from women, and that sex is some kind of untouchable sacred cow that must never be involved in a commercial transaction.

Neither argument makes any sense. Sex is just another thing humans do with other humans. It can be given, taken, shared, or forced – just like most anything else. The trick is obviously to reduce the incidence of force in the equation, while enabling free expression and, yes, trade.

Indeed! And there’s even evidence that decriminalizing the sex trade could decrease the use of force in sex. Also: yes, yes, yes on the agency bit. The operating principle behind the trendy Nordic model of criminalizing sex work is that all prostitution is a form of male violence against women, who are legally defined as victims whether they consent to this sex or not. In terms of agency, it reduces women to the level of children and the developmentally impaired.

But, alas, people continue to champion the Nordic model as being more female-friendly than letting women use their own bodies as they see fit. From another reader:

Women are oppressed by men on the basis of reproductive capacity worldwide – legally, religiously, culturally – and are therefore not able to engage in the prostitution transaction in a way that is not inherently exploitative to womankind. Before a discussion of the legalization of prostitution can happen, robust action needs to be taken to address, at the very least:

(1) ample access to contraception and abortion and (2) equal pay and non-discriminatory work and school environments.  The johns at this point have little to complain about.  Prostitution, as you acknowledge, IS happening everywhere, with men getting off scot-free the vast majority of the time.  By comparison, women always have everything to lose, least of all legally.  Sex is fatally dangerous for women in many more ways than it is for men:  (1) the risk of violent partners; (2) STDs; (3) pregnancy and its associated ill affects depending on how misogynist the society is; (3) social banishment, and shame killings; (4) the emotional toll suffered by women who choose prostitution as a last resort.

I also think the very men who cheer this idea are focusing on unlimited access to female bodies.  Those same men, I believe would be appalled at and indifferent to implementing the regulatory infrastructure it would take to legitimize prostitution in a way that actually makes it safe for women.  As it stands, we don’t even have a legal system capable of dealing with rape!

As Catharine Mackinnon famously said, “women don’t work hard to beat the odds so they can prostitute themselves; women prostitute themselves when the odds beat them.”  Let’s increase the odds for women in our society by addressing the behemoth barriers they face to equal participation in society, so that they control the material reality of their lives, then have a discussion about making prostitution legal.

Well, at least we agree on part of that last part. Let’s do banish gender inequity and pull women worldwide out of poverty! But in the meantime, let’s not make sex workers’ lives worse just because we can’t make them perfect.

Previous Dish on the Nordic Model here.

Agree? Disagree? Email us at dish@andrewsullivan.com