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This article discusses and analyzes empirical data on the harms of prostitution, pornography and trafficking. This information has to be culturally, psychologically, and legally denied because to know it would interfere with the business of sexual exploitation.
"Wise governments," an editor in the Economist opined, "will accept that paid sex is ineradicable, and concentrate on keeping the business clean, safe and inconspicuous."1 That third adjective, "inconspicuous," and its relation to keeping prostitution "ineradicable," is the focus of this Article. Why should the sex business be invisible? What is it about the sex industry that makes most people want to look away, to pretend that it is not really as bad as we know it is? What motivates politicians to do what they can to hide it while at the same time ensuring that it runs smoothly? What is the connection between not seeing prostitution and keeping it in existence?
There is an economic motive to hiding the violence in prostitution and trafficking. Although other types of gender-based violence such as incest, rape, and wife beating are similarly hidden and their prevalence denied, they are not sources of mass revenue. Prostitution is sexual violence that results in massive economic profit for some of its perpetrators.2 The sex industry, like other global enterprises, has domestic and international sectors, marketing sectors, a range of physical locations out of which it operates in each community, is controlled by many different owners and managers, and is constantly expanding as technology, law, and public opinion permit. Many governments protect commercial sex businesses because of the monstrous profits. Like slavery, prostitution is a lucrative form of oppression.3 And both slavery and prostitution are rife with every imaginable type of physical and sexual violence.
The institutions of prostitution and slavery have existed for thousands of years, and are so deeply embedded in cultures that they are invisible to some. In Mauritania, for example, there are 90,000 Africans enslaved by Arabs. Human rights activists have traveled to Mauritania to report on slavery, but because they think they know what slavery looks like and because they do not see precisely that stereotype in action-for example, if they do not see bidding for shackled people on auction blocks-they conclude that the Africans working in the fields in front of them are voluntary laborers who are receiving food and shelter as salary.4
Similarly, if people do not see exactly the stereotype of what they think "harmful" prostitution/trafficking is, for example, if they do not see a girl being dragged at gunpoint from one location to another, or if they see an eighteen year old who says, "I like this job and I'm getting rich," then they do not see the harm. Prostitution tourists and local johns see smiling girls waving at them from windows in Amsterdam, brothels in Mumbai, or strip clubs in Las Vegas. Johns and their friends decide that prostitution is a free choice.
On the other hand, survivors of prostitution have described it as "volunteer slavery"5 and as "the choice made by those who have no choice."6 If you're a woman or girl, global forces that choose you for prostitution are sex discrimination, race discrimination, poverty, abandonment, debilitating sexual and verbal abuse, poor education or no education, and a job that does not pay a living wage. All drive girls and women into the commercial sex industry.7 Defined as whores when they were young, women who appear to choose prostitution have been sexually abused as children at much higher rates than other women. One way that women end up 'choosing' prostitution is that they are paid for the abuse that they have already grown up with. They assume that's all they are good for.8
In this analysis, prostitution is a gendered survival strategy based on the assumption of unreasonable risks by the person in it. Regardless of prostitution's legal status (legal, illegal, zoned, or decriminalized) or its physical location (strip club, massage parlor, street, escort/home/hotel), prostitution is extremely dangerous for women. Prostituted women are unrecognized victims of intimate partner violence by customers as well as pimps.9 Pimps and customers use methods of coercion and control like those of other batterers: economic exploitation, social isolation, verbal abuse, threats, physical violence, sexual assault, captivity, minimization and denial of their use of physical violence and abuse.10
Prostitution/trafficking/pornography thus systematically discriminate against women, against the young, against the poor and against ethnically subordinated groups. When prostitution is conceptually morphed into sex work, brutal exploitation by pimps becomes an employer-employee relationship. When prostitution is defined as labor, the predatory, pedophiliac purchase of a human being by a john becomes a banal business transaction.11 Prostitution is sometimes embraced in the media, in public health, and in the academy as "sex work," and in that one word-work-the sexism, racism, and violent degradation of prostitution fade from sight.
U.S. prostitution can be understood in the context of the cultural normalization of prostitution as a glamorous and wealth-producing "job" for girls who lack emotional support, education, and employment opportunities. The sexual exploitation of children and women in prostitution is often indistinguishable from incest, intimate partner violence, and rape.12 Indian feminist Jean D'Cunha asked, "What will be the. . . outcome of struggles against sexual harassment and violence in the home, the workplace, or the street, if men can buy the right to perpetrate these very acts against women in prostitution?"13
This Article discusses and analyzes some of the empirical data on the harms of prostitution, pornography and trafficking. This information has to be culturally, psychologically, and legally denied because to know it would interfere with the business of sexual exploitation.
1. In order to view prostitution as a job, and in order to keep the business of sexual exploitation running smoothly, we can not know that prostitution is extremely violent.
Each act of violence that has been made visible as a result of the women's movement-incest, sexual harassment, misogynist verbal abuse, stalking, rape, battering, and sexual torture-is one point on the continuum of violence occurring in prostitution. As one survivor explained:
There are thousands of books and classes that provide women with information on self-defense and rape "avoidance" strategies. Some of the basic lessons they teach us are not to walk alone at night on dark deserted streets, not to get into cars with strange men, not to pick up guys in a bar, not to even let a delivery man into your home when you're by yourself. Yet this is what the "job" of prostitution requires; that women put themselves in jeopardy every time they turn a trick. And then we ask, "How do you prevent it from leading to danger?" The answer is, you can't. Count the bodies.14
In the past two decades, a number of authors have documented or analyzed the sexual and physical violence that is the normative experience for women in prostitution.15 Today, there is a significant peer-reviewed literature documenting the violence in prostitution. Familial sexual abuse functions as a training ground for prostitution. Survivors link childhood physical, sexual, and emotional abuse as children to later prostitution.16 Many studies lend support to this analysis. Seventy percent of the adult women in prostitution in one study said that their childhood sexual abuse led to entry into prostitution.17 Early adolescence is the most frequently reported age of entry into any type of prostitution. As one girl said,
We've all been molested. Over and over, and raped. We were all molested and sexually abused as children, don't you know that? We ran to get away. . . . We were thrown out, thrown away. We've been on the street since we were 12, 13, 14."18
According to the empirical data (but not according to single-person, 'happy-hooker' narratives) familial abuse or neglect is almost universal among prostituted women. Of fifty-five survivors of prostitution at the Council for Prostitution Alternatives in Portland, eighty-five percent reported a history of incest, ninety percent a history of physical abuse, and ninety-eight percent a history of emotional abuse.19 Multiple perpetrators of sexual and physical abuse were the rule rather than the exception.
Sexual violence and physical assault are the norm for women in all types of prostitution. One Canadian observer noted that ninety-nine percent of women in prostitution were victims of violence, with more frequent injuries "than workers in [those] occupations considered . . . most dangerous, like mining, forestry, and firefighting."20 Prostituted women in Glasgow said that violence from customers was their primary fear.21 Physical abuse was considered part of the job of prostitution, with the payment sometimes determined by each individual blow of a beating or whipping.22
Violence is commonplace in prostitution whether it is legal or illegal.23 Eighty-five percent of prostituted women interviewed in Minneapolis-St. Paul had been raped in prostitution.24 Another study found that eighty percent of women who had been domestically or transnationally trafficked suffered violence-related injuries.25 Of 854 people in prostitution in nine countries, eighty-nine percent wanted to leave prostitution but did not have other options for survival.26 Researchers have found that two factors are consistently associated with greater violence in prostitution: poverty and length of time in prostitution. The more customers serviced, the more women reported severe physical symptoms.27 The longer women remained in prostitution, the higher their rates of sexually transmitted diseases.28 When prostitution is assumed to be a reasonable "job option," women's intense longing to escape it is made invisible.29
Copyright © 2006 by the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism