Andrea Hildebran

Sex, Exploitation and 'Victimless' Crimes

Filed By Andrea Hildebran | March 12, 2008 2:24 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement, The Movement
Tags: exploiting tragedy, morality, New York Times, prostitution, Resignation, sex crimes, Spitzer

Anyone who felt like defending Spitzer as having got caught in a "victimless" crime got slapped down today in a New York Times oped piece this morning. Now, I agree with a lot of what the authors say about prostitution. It's an industry designed to profit from despair, vulnerability and the oppression of women.

But even so, there are two things I am wary about with their arguments. First, as GLBT people we should always be skeptical of opening the Pandora's box of "sex crimes," especially as a tool of personal destruction. It's selective, it always leverages "morality" to achieve someone's agenda, and it is always available to re-direct towards other sexual relationships that someone is uncomfortable with, namely ours.

Secondly, I think that buying their framework only works if you're ignoring the exploitative and demeaning reality of most employment in today's economy and playing dumb to the fact that the pressures driving people into prostitution remain in place whether Elliot Spitzer is paying the bill or not.

Hmmm... what industries can we think of that were built to exploit despair, vulnerability and historic forms oppression? How about the rapacious banking and credit card industry asking poor and middle-class people to compensate for the health care, housing and educational opportunities we lack through bankrupting debt? Then there's commercial agriculture and livestock, whose profits rely on the vulnerability of undocumented immigrants, heinous cruelty to animals and constant destruction of the environment. Don't even get me started on the criminal justice system of prisons and police, dependent for its cash flow on poverty, racist sentencing laws and untreated addiction. I could go on. Shouldn't we be as concerned about the men and women who almost certainly work as domestic servants to the Spitzers as we are about the prostitutes?

The authors say that the prostitutes at Spitzer's alleged service were given a hard time about needing to pick their children up at school, suggesting that they were considered to have "extra baggage" if they had kids. Say it isn't so! If that's the injury they're concerned about they have to widen their focus to everyone with a day job (and night job!).

I am fully aware of the substantial risks and harms born by women and men who work as prostitutes, but the fact that the authors resort to including this tidbit is a clue to the shakiness of their premise overall. Exploitation of women (and men and children) is constantly justified and dismissed when its done at Walmart or Tyson foods because we've come to accept some very right wing notions about the rights of businesses versus the rights of workers and people in general. It has become normal to expect companies to underpay and overwork people, leave them without health care when they are injured and abandon them to poverty in old age. Without challenging those attitudes and norms we'll never make a dent in the factors that drive women into prostitution, addiction and all the other manifestations of poverty and oppression.

And I keep coming back to their assertion of prostitutes often being survivors of sexual abuse. Do we know how many women in other professions are survivors of childhood abuse? (Fill me in if you have information about this. I really don't know.) While hooking is one of the worst ways to have to make your money, you have to admit we have begun to accept dehumanization as normal in just about any hourly job you look at and there are any number of professions to choose from that will let a person play out a rock bottom self-esteem.

If we barred people from jobs and situations that replayed abuse dynamics, women wouldn't be allowed into graduate school where male professors can be demeaning and harassing and have complete control over one's success/survival. Most of the waitressing or hourly wage jobs I've worked would be appropriate either.

Spitzer's resignation won't close the door to this discussion. If our values as a nation were that the health, safety and dignity of every citizen, immigrant and guest was more important than corporate profits, we'd have fewer prostitutes, fewer johns, and fewer good public servants being destroyed for their personal failings.

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Thanks for writing this, I really appreciate it. You might want to check out a statement from a sex worker organization that I saw as well:

I've never understood why we don't say that construction workers, police officers, or anyone else with a physical and/or dangerous job is "renting out their body" to their employers.

If prostitution is illegal because is degrading and exploitative of prostitutes, then how come they are the ones that get arrested? And receive higher sentences than their clients?

It's illegal because you're being victimized, and that's why we have to put you away in prison? Yeah, right.

This ex what I was thinking when I read that op ed this morning, Andrea, but said a whole lot better that I could have articulated.

I think that they could have stood to do a little more research on how exploitative many industries are, not just prostitution.

It's interesting how people who've never cared before about working conditions for women get all up in arms about the working conditions for sex workers. It's an agenda!

As someone who spent half his life in Nevada, I've seen how legalized prostitution can be both less exploitive and more so. Legal brothels in Nevada entrap women by encouraging them to take loans from the house to cover their living expenses, then create interest rates so high that there's no way the women could realistically pay them back. On the other hand, the government regulations encourage better health care, stricter protections from violence, and legal recourse for contract breakers.

The problem with the NYT editorial is that it's taking a complex issue and encouraging society to make bright line rules where none exist. What about porn actors and actresses? How about the actors and actresses in movies like Shortbus or Lie to Me or Kids? What about models in general?

I know that organized prostitution is built on the exploitation of impoverished people. I get it. What I don't like it the NYT conclusion in this op-ed, "... the experience of being prostituted causes her immense psychological and physical harm." Where's the hard evidence for this? Without providing conclusive study, this is nothing more than "sex is shameful" mores. I've known many people involved in sex work who never experienced any kind of "immense psychological or physical harm," and while I don't pretend such experiences don't exist, I won't stereotype all sex workers as powerless victims either.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | March 12, 2008 9:42 PM

Exploitation of women (and men and children) is constantly justified and dismissed when its done at Walmart or Tyson foods because we've come to accept some very right wing notions about the rights of businesses versus the rights of workers and people in general.

Right on!!

Also, to say a prostitute was exploited who earned how many hundreds (thousands?) of dollars an hour for services to Spitzer performed in a luxury hotel strikes me as questionable and also unrepresentative of the profession as a whole.

Some quotes from Bailey's infamous Book "The Man Who Would be Queen"

"In order for a feminine boy to become transsexual, something extra must happen. What is the something extra? - - - Zucker found several predictors of adolescent GID: lower IQ, lower social class, immigrant status, non-intact family, and childhood behavior problems unrelated to gender identity disorder." p. 178-179
" - - - homosexual transsexuals are used to living on the margins of society" p. 184
"Homosexual transsexuals tend to have a short time horizon, with certain pleasure in the present worth great risks for the future." p. 184
"Prostitution is the single most common occupation that homosexual transsexuals in our study admitted to." p. 184
" - - - her ability to enjoy emotionally meaningless sex appears male-typical. In this sense, homosexual transsexuals might be especially well-suited to prostitution." p. 185
"Nearly all the homosexual transsexuals I know work as escorts after they have their surgery." p. 210

By "Homosexual transsexuals", Bailey means young girls with an Intersex condition that are attracted to men.

Bailey's book has been quoted approvingly in the New York Times and other mainstream publications, where he has been lauded for having the courage to "tell it like it is", in the face of the "powerful Transsexual Lobby", who as we all know, wields such enormous power behind the scenes.

Many in the GLB movement have no idea what TS and IS people have to face. The reason why so many young women with TS or IS conditions go into prostitution is because so many are thrown out of home in their early teens, or even before. Schools become places where they risk beatings, rape, and rarely even execution-style murder, as happened recently.

Such risks are also taken by young gay men and lesbian women, but it's the exception, not the norm. For overtly TS and IS people - and some can't help but be overt - it's nearly universal. Too often, parents cry in despair "Why couldn't you just have been GAY???" - before cutting them off. Or cutting them up. There's "Honor killings" too, kids just disappear, and their bodies are found decades later, if ever. We can only estimate the numbers from those who escaped with wounds.

The main reason I am working towards an ENDA that covers transsexual and intersexed people is because so very many youngsters have no alternative to prostitution. Think about it - many women's refuges won't take them, they require significant expenses for black-market hormones just to keep them thinking straight, and sometimes over a hundred thousand for necessary surgery.

That's difficult to find when you're living on the streets. But a "she male" can make far more money than other girls when "on the game". The temptation is enormous.

In my experience, about 1 in 10 make it. The rest get lost in the labyrinth of drugs, STDs, even snuff films. They're treated as meat, you see, and all too often see themselves as that. After all, their parents and churches tell them that's what they are, worthless. Low IQ, underclass, "Especially suited to Prostitution" in fact. Human trash, to be disposed of.

Or deleted from protective legislation without consultation or debate.

battybattybats battybattybats | March 12, 2008 10:45 PM

A friend of mine and his wife have been involved in a series of sociology studies of prostitution at the University of New England. Mostly in relation to how much popular ideas of prostitution and social and legal policies on the subject are in response to myths rather than actualities.

Unfortunately I wasn't able to find the studies results online and I've been out of contact with the friend for a while but I did find this while looking.

I hope you find the results, Batty. Send them to Andrea or I and we'll try to work a post out of it. It sounds fascinating.