Thursday, March 27, 2008

See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil

By Merissa Nathan Gerson

We live in a culture grounded in a victim/oppressor mentality. Good vs. evil, right vs. wrong. In general we prefer to find a villain. When it comes to prostitution America doesn’t shift values. There is always the good one, the bad one, the poor one, and the advantage taker. There is the victim hooker and her oppressive John. Or else there is the villainous sex worker, the embodiment of evil, and the client, the guy who comes in and then leaves.

There is another way of looking at the Hooker-John dynamic, one that takes into account the culture around these two agents, a view that holds the man as accountable for his wounded nature as the often-victimized prostitute.

In various feminist circles there are large debates surrounding the notion of a sex worker possessing power. There are some feminist sex workers, like many of the performers at the renowned Sex Worker’s Art Show, for example, who see themselves as sexual healers. There is Xaviera Hollander, author of The Happy Hooker, who turned her job into a fine art. And there are sex workers who view themselves as therapists, catering to the needs of broken men, the bedroom their foray for sexual liberation and experimentation.

Then there is the flip side, the pimps, the psychological pasts of so many women involved in the industry. There is the abuse, the torture, and often, the inhumanity. At the Dumas Brothel Museum in Butte, Montana there were rooms underground with vibrators operated by 500 volts of electricity. These were for the clients to use, to “pleasure” the prostitutes. There are scenes in movies, like Ma Vie en Rose, that show what happens when a man, in a position of physical power over a woman, takes gruesome advantage.

Nudity, money, desire; these things combined put women in often-terrible slave-like conditions. There are the debatably happy hookers, those in charge of their own industry, and then there are those whose businesses are owned and run by men and others in positions of power, who often view their workers as dogs. There is the movie Milk Money, with Melanie Griffiths, that shows a good example of abuse within the trade. And there is the movie Nuts, with Barbara Streisand, which closely links childhood sexual abuse to her character’s prostitution habit.

What are so often looked at in these cases are the women; their mental state, the causes of their drive towards stripping or prostitution. But rarely do we evaluate the psychology of a man wishing to purchase sex. We might condemn him, like the Elliot Spitzer case in New York, but to ask what he reflects of a larger mindset is uncommon. Prostitution is huge, has been for years in cultures around the world. It is statistically a market that feeds the thirst of men. One wonders, though, why?

Someone might answer, animal desire. Others would say that’s how men are. But as much as someone might link childhood trauma to a sex worker’s involvement in the business, so might another view the man who pays a stranger to be intimate with his body.

We are sexually repressed as a culture. From normalized sexual expectations to an overall denial of pain and feelings in men, it is possible that they turn to sex workers for relief beyond the orgasm. Sex workers allow men to express and release feelings without consequence or commitment. They are an outlet to larger issues. Some feminists might even argue they aren’t an issue at all; that the desire to pay a stranger for sex is not to be judged.

When it comes down to solving the issue of sexual slavery, of prostitution gone wrong, turned abusive and oppressive, the victimization of the women involved does not alleviate the problem. Understanding the urge to purchase, dominate, and abuse; comprehending the market, the drive, the dilemma that pushes a culture to not only hide its sex workers, but to hide its desire to frequent them, this is what might curb future abuse.

Both the client and the worker are involved in a momentary relationship. This relationship not only reflects a great deal of suffering, but also shows the wounded nature of sexuality in a nation implicated in the push and pull of prostitution.


Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive

Prostitution Research

The Sex Workers Project- New York

Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA

National Coalition for Sexual Freedom

Annie Sprinkle’s Homepage

Whores and Other Feminists, Edited by Jill Nagle

Not for Sale: Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography, Edited by Rebecca Whisnant and Christine Stark


  1. But do you think it's impossible for women to make a living as prostitutes without being victimized or losing their dignity? Is paying for sex with a stranger always already an act of victimization? Or are the circumstances you describe particular to American culture? To what extent is it different in, say, Holland where prostitution is highly regulated and the women, theoretically at least, have institutions in place to enforce their rights? I don't mean these as rhetorical questions. I myself am divided and would be interested to know what you think.

  2. I do think a prostitute can possess power.  This is related to her financial situation, and her reasons for entering the trade.   Just because a man wants to pay for sex does not innately give him the power to oppress.  Victimization is also a matter of how and who we see as the oppressor.  

    Some women view sex differently than others, view the body differently.  Just within the United States alone there is an enormous variety in the nature of sex work.  This ranges from Manhattan call girls, to women bought and owned by the trade as sex objects, all the way to the legal brothels of Nevada.

    Legalizing prostitution does change its nature.  It becomes safer when women can report abusers, when laws enforce the use of condoms and STD tests, and when actions are not hidden and socially condemned.

    In my women's studies classes in college we debated these exact questions at length. There are tons of books addressing this specifically. Regardless of the many different ways prostitution manifests itself, be it legal or illegal, the question raised here is whether we are capable of looking at the scenario at large, rather than zooming in solely on the prostitutes themselves.  What happens when we exit the question of individual victimization and view prostitution as a piece of our cultural whole?

  3. Great article Merissa!

    There was just an entry on Jezebel that might interest you:
    Prostitutes Are The New Therapists

    Also, I understand that the legality of prostitution is not the subject of your article, but I'd love to see another article by you on the topic. It may be a topic that you're bored of, but most of us are rarely exposed to writing on the topic. :]

  4. Anonymous8:15 PM

    evil. purchased sex does not heal, it destroys. people wake up and open your eyes!

  5. Anonymous5:05 PM

    Sex is good. God made it good. He made us in his image especially in our sexuality. It is very powerful like fire. If we follow His way,as written in the Bible, great good is the fruit. If not, it leads to death. If we look at our own life and the lives of those we know we can see that truth.
    We are drawn to sex because it is good but we haven't been taught the truth about it.We have been perverted. People thought legalizing abortion would protect women and now we have a generation of people suffering from post traumatic stress at best and often many other horrors too. We need to do research.We need to do the math. We need to face the truth if anything is going to get better.