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Red Lights and the Grind

Legalizing prostitution is an art of execution

Massive extremes of profit, pleasure and pain in the sex industry are as timeless as the trade itself. Just take a peek inside Love for Sale, Nils Johan Ringdal's encyclopedic history of prostitution. Apparently, in the Babylonian period, women exchanged sex for status and precious metals. In contemporary times, however, the nature of that "status" has evolved, as has the multitude of questions that surround the sex trade. We no longer ask why people prostitute themselves, but if accommodations should be made to improve and legitimize their trade. Is selling one's body still a form of exploitation to be abolished or a justified occupation to be regulated for the good of all parties involved? Are prostitutes entitled to workers' rights, benefits and legal protection? And would legalization reduce the oppression experienced by some of the women involved?

One of the major divisions in the prostitution debate is between those who work in brothels and "streetwalkers." While the former job may seem more attractive than the latter, that is not always the case-even in places where prostitution is legal. Take Martha Duvall, for instance. A few weeks ago, her boss cut her earnings by 50 percent: As if the gynecologist's fees and parlour rent hadn't dented her paycheque enough, on Monday she was fined $200 for not shaving her legs. Tuesday, she forked over another $100 for not decorating her fingers and toes with matching nail polish. And later in the week, Duvall was forced to pay $75 for being six minutes late. The thirty-two-year-old prostitute may be one of the highest paid hookers in Montreal, but because she works in a legal brothel, she rarely sees a third of her earnings. With a system of fines in place for over fifty possible "misdemeanours" (like wearing lingerie without a garter), the brothel's shareholders effectively act as strict wardens.

"Every time I spread my legs, the managers get most of the cash," says Duvall, who entertains-legally-about twenty-five clients a week. "There's something terribly wrong with this scenario-even in the world of whoring-but I refuse to take my career to the street, where there's a thousand used-up junkies." She adds that sex at the brothel is at least accompanied by fine interiors, a kitchen full of refreshments for workers and clients alike, and a great stock of toiletries.

Streetwalkers represent the other side of the international flesh-for-hire business. Tracy Quan, a former prostitute and author of the novel Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl, sums up the differences: "The street prostitutes I meet regard the sexual behaviour of the call girl with horror. They think we have too much physical contact with the clients." As a result, streetwalkers claim they sell sex in a more dignified manner than competitors like Duvall who clock in at bordellos.

A member of the organization Prostitutes of New York (PONY) and frequent contributor to, Quan doesn't just write sexy, tell-all books about "the life." She openly advocates for the decriminalization of prostitution and speaks out for the rights of all sex workers. In this fight, Quan stresses the importance of sex workers' similarities, not their differences. "What we do have in common is the need to be entrepreneurial. In a brothel, there is a layer of management that brings the client to the prostitute; it's more like a nine-to-five job. Brothel prostitutes often complain about management, but they receive more services from management. Call girls and streetwalkers generally have to hustle and fend for themselves."

PONY is not alone-a strong pro-legalization movement has been picking up steam across the globe. Organizations such as the Red Thread in the Netherlands and the Network of Sex Work Projects work not only to legitimize prostitution in the eyes of the law, but also to challenge public stigmas, fight for the right of prostitutes to form unions, demand laws against rape and push for safe working conditions. Members claim their endeavours combat a complicated bedrock of sexism and misogyny.

"The problem with anti-prostitution campaigners is that we, prostitutes, are seen as a category," says Quan. "When you erase the person and turn her into a trope, you can more easily pass laws that discriminate against her. What they do is very dehumanizing. They see us as sociological freaks when, in fact, we are a normal part of the social fabric-the part you don't see or don't want to see."

Dr. Claire Sterk, a professor of behavioural sciences and health education at Emory University, agrees with Quan that this categorization and the public stigmas about prostitution promote inequalities. "Legalization does not mean social acceptance. So, whereas the fear of arrest is non-existent, the threat of abuse and violence by a customer remains, as does the stigmatization by society," says Sterk, a well-known ethnographer who has researched prostitution in Atlanta, New York and Amsterdam, where she lived for twenty-five years, primarily in the Red Light District. "This is a moral issue. Historically, female prostitutes have been blamed, for instance, for spreading STDs and for breaking up marriages. Clearly, they are a convenient scapegoat."

Sterk also points out the significant shifts in prostitution in the last few decades. First, there are some indications of global trends of "trade" in women who often have no idea that they are being recruited into prostitution. It's important to remember that some women enter voluntarily, whereas others are "white slaves." Second, as a result of the crack epidemic, a new form of prostitution has emerged in which women barter sex directly for drugs.

Most anti-hooking advocates aren't concerned with sexual power theories or finding the middle ground between prostitutes who fuck for a $500 shopping spree at Saks and those who fuck for a $5 hit of crack cocaine. To such people, documents like the World Charter for Prostitutes' Rights are preposterous because "sex work" is not a respectable way to earn income. All sex work is considered immoral and deviant, a view exemplified by prominent researcher Dr. Melissa Farley of the anti-hooking group Prostitution Research and Education. During a heated discussion with Quan on National Public Radio after the release of Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl, Farley urged listeners not to support "an industry that essentially destroys women-emotionally, spiritually and physically."

"First of all," said Farley, "in order to continue in prostitution, you either have to be psychologically or voluntarily dissociated. You cannot do fifteen blowjobs a night, or get fucked by ten men and stay in your body. The human mind protects us from experiences like that. And if you can't dissociate, then you've got to have drugs."

Perhaps Nashville, Tennessee, a city overrun by streetwalkers and drug pushers, best epitomizes Farley's position. The general consensus in Nashville is that there are no high-paid, healthy sex workers-all prostitutes must be poor, mentally ill and addicted to drugs. Rescue ministries therefore punish "johns" while trying to rehabilitate and redeem hookers using a religious model. One such group is the Magdalene project. Started seven years ago by an Episcopal priest, Magdalene provides a rehabilitation program for former streetwalkers, paid for by penalty fees assessed on convicted johns. Once in the program, former prostitutes are given intensive drug and alcohol treatment, guidance counselling and job training instead of jail time. Johns who are busted trying to solicit a prostitute are sentenced to something called "John's School" by the county's criminal court.

Some anti-hooking advocates insist that programs like Magdalene should be instituted in all corners of the world. But if adults are willing to pay for sex and prostitutes willingly exist to sell it, why should the government attempt to suppress a worldwide industry? In this ongoing debate, one pressing distinction must be made: forced prostitution, or sex trafficking, is not voluntary prostitution and is a criminal offence everywhere. Human trafficking is a malicious form of slavery that demeans millions of men, women and children, and this severe crisis cannot be rationalized. However, those who want to abolish prostitution argue there is no real distinction between "voluntary" and "involuntary."

International client Paul Pisces vehemently debates that notion. A computer programmer who lives in London, Pisces has chronicled his adventures with "girlfriends for hire" in the 2004 book Desperately Seeking Sex and Sobriety. "I basically use prostitutes (or professional girlfriends) as a replacement for a real girlfriend or a wife. I like the girls, enjoy their company and have real affection for them. I even like the very few who have robbed or mistreated me," says Pisces, who has paid for sex in Manila, San Francisco, Bangkok and Berlin. "Don't misunderstand me: I know that their lives are probably much worse than mine and I am, by comparison, extremely lucky. I think prostitution can be empowering if the girl has control. I feel it is more honourable to be honest and pay for a service than to seek out one-night stands or a girlfriend who you do not have a genuine long-term interest in."

Is Pisces the shining example of an ideal client? Educated at the best universities, he claims to be easily pleased, compassionate, in tune with his feminine side and willing to pay top dollar for good sex.

And that seems to be the bottom line: people enjoy sex. Governments cannot stop it from happening in our bedrooms, hotels, alleyways, beaches or anywhere where the primal instinct begs to be met. As history has proven, the government is ultimately incapable of preventing people from paying for sex. So why not collect taxes on this massive industry?

Millions of paying clients everywhere participate in the exchange of flesh-for-hire because of plain need, without a whole lot of theorizing on morality. Like "Jake," who recently posted on "What I prefer is paying a hot woman to give me exactly what I want without complaining or insulting me. At least that way I know what her intentions are right from the start and I can't fault her for it. To these women, I am the greatest lover, I have the greatest penis and I can do no wrong."

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