Sex, sex, naked woman, sex, nearly naked woman, alcohol, sex. That’s the pattern for most advertising, whether through television or splashed across billboards. We live in a sex-soaked culture, one that, in particular, likes to commodify women into nothing more than female bodies waiting to be fucked. Except once those women take agency over their bodies to sell sexual acts[WBJ1] . Only then does all the puritanical bullshit rears its holier-than-thou head and spits on the sinners.
Just some of the sinners, though. Selective shaming, when the women are sluts sucking dick for their next high and nothing but coked out whores with Julia Roberts smiles. Those Madonnas in disguise. Always women, too. Looking at media, you might as well believe male prostitution doesn’t exist and “sex worker” is synonymous with “woman.” It’s almost like people have a bigger problem with women expressing their sexuality than with men doing the same. Because prostitutes could never just be people who perform services, which happen to be for a sexual nature, for a predetermined price and then go about their daily lives. Just like literally every other service worker in America does. Right?
And it’s not just the media. This wouldn’t be the first time all that puritanical bullshit influenced lawmaking in the United States, but this could all be solved if prostitution were legalized and recognized as a legitimate occupation. Why? One sweet word: Regulation. If prostitution is legalized, it can be regulated, which wouldn’t so much cause a ripple effect on the current state of prostitution in America—it would cause a fucking riptide.
As an underground trade, prostitution is like that dirty glob of gum on the bottom of your shoe—you think if you just ignore it long enough, it’ll go away on its own. As if stomping on something long enough ever works. The criminalization of prostitution is what perpetuates all that is wrong with the current system. As it stands, many prostitutes are trapped in a seemingly permanent cycle of violence between pimps, clients, and the police, with no outlets for help. Think of it as having a bunch of kids picking on you in school— beating you up, calling you names — and when you tell a teacher, they throw you in jail to rot because you weren’t supposed to even be on the playground when the bullies gave you that black eye. Only worse because of sexual assault.
In fact, the illegality of prostitution has primed sex workers for exploitation and abuse by the police specifically, from officers not taking the reports of violence against prostitutes seriously to demanding sex in lieu of arrest. Many prostitutes have said that it’s not worth going to the police after being assaulted by clients or pimps, just to be laughed at or even hurt further by law enforcement. Of all arrests relating to prostitution, only ten percent were of clients. The remaining 90 percent were the sex workers.
So the criminalization of prostitution is clearly not a crime committed equally, at least in the eyes of the law. By treating prostitution as a crime, law enforcement officials look at prostitutes as the central criminals perpetuating illicit activity in this corner of the criminal underworld. In reality, prostitutes are often the victims, abused and unprotected. In many cases, prostitutes are victims of sex trafficking, forced to sell themselves through coercion and violence. But in a judge’s eyes, they’re all whores. They’re all criminals. Which leads to victims of sex trafficking sinking deeper into cycles of abuse and slavery with no chance of a rescuing hand. Meanwhile, in legitimate businesses, workers are simply that—legal employees, recorded in files neatly cataloged and made accessible to law enforcement and anti-trafficking organizations. The idea is to make it harder for sex traffickers to exploit women, not design a black market tailored to the buyers’ needs.
Sex trafficking itself continues to be one of the leading causes of the spread of STIs, and even prostitutes who aren’t victims of trafficking encounter serious health risks. Clients will actually pay more for sexual services performed without a condom, and prostitutes can be pressured into acting out violent sexual fantasies for customers. Or they're raped, which 80 percent of prostitutes are, often more than once. This can lead to severe vaginal tearing and a whole host of other physical and mental repercussions, and prostitutes have limited access to medical facilities, particularly where HIV is concerned. In places where prostitution is legalized, such as the Netherlands, prostitutes have a safer work environment that includes strict enforcement of condom use and other safe-sex practices, as well as rigorous testing for STIs. They also include elaborate safety systems that include surveillance and panic buttons, which reduce the unchecked abuse of sex workers on the job.
The problem that currently exists with prostitution in the United States is that the wrong people are in control. In a fantastic comic strip about living next to a strip club, author and artist Robot Hugs wrote that some sex workers claim that what attracted them to sex work was the reversal of the typically male-dominated power dynamic, where men have to literally pay the price to sexualize them (see full comic here). Sex work, when a chosen profession, is not inherently disempowering to women, but it is the pimps, the clients, the law, and the public that try to make it so to fulfill some twisted sense of moral righteousness. The entire business turns into the Wild West, where anything goes and no one’s held accountable except the victims, often for their own beatings, rapes, and suffering.
Prostitution will continue to exist whether we legalize it or not, so we might as well make it safe for all parties involved. Legalizing sex work would help to challenge the damaging public perceptions that demonize women who take control of their sexuality and would break down the abusive, underground sex trade that currently exists. While women have the right to do what they want with their own body, sex is the commodity. The woman who sells it is not.
Madeline Poage is a Writing, Literature, and Publishing major from New Jersey. She’s a recent
convert to tea drinking and enjoys Disney movies, punk rock, and realistic portrayals of women
in the media.