Friday, May 08, 2009

Prostitution: The Oldest Profession in the World

When it comes to sex trafficking, there is a lot of tension among abolitionists over the topic of prostitution. On the extreme ends, some see all prostitution as a form of trafficking while others make a clear distinction between a person who is a prostitute and someone who is a victim of trafficking. There is, of course, a lot of grey area in between. I bring this up though because today I'm feeling a little frustrated with people who make statements such as, "Prostitution is the oldest profession" or "It's been around for centuries," - as if that somehow proves a point or justifies anything in the prostitution vs. trafficking debate (or, the more common debate over whether prostitution should be legalized). I hate it when people point this out - as if it somehow legitimates anything. Just because something has been around for a long time, doesn't mean it's a good thing.

It's hard to say that women 2000+ years ago chose prostitution of their own free will - more likely, they chose it because it was the only option. It was certainly not some grand statement of female empowerment - rather it was a reaction to the social restrictions placed on women at the time. (Now, some might point to various societies where sex was not as taboo or wrapped up in morality as we see it today, and to them I say that we are talking about commercial transactions for sex - and that if someone can point out a society where prostitution was just as valid a decision as any other business endeavor, and garnered just as much respect and inclusion in society without any opportunity costs (such as marriage) that other business endeavors did not have - I'm willing to listen). ANYWAY - fast forward 2000 years and I wonder how much of this has changed - how much of the decision to become a sex worker today is an enthusiastic embracement of one's own sexuality and the desire to express it in a particular manner, and how much of the decisions is a product of circumstances.

In the present day tension, the idea that someone might choose or even be forced to become a sex worker because of certain circumstances is often overlooked. Now, it is true that, at least from a federal law perspective there has to be some sort of force, fraud, or coercion involved for a commercial transaction involving sex to be considered trafficking. What isn't so clear is what those three words mean. For many, there seems to be this idea that they refer to actions of violence - the woman was chained to the bed, or a gun was held to her head, or she was beaten until she finally submitted. Others consider a definition that afford a little more breadth, so that things like deliberate/blatant psychological coercion or manipulation will qualify as trafficking. Absent some egregious factor such as specific and/or severe physical, sexual, or psychological abuse (from a pimp or from her past) though, many people assume that a woman who is a sex worker is doing it of her own volition - she wants to be there, it was her choice, etc. I think though, that other circumstances play an important role in the idea of consent and that there is room in the idea of force, fraud, or coercion for a different interpretation of consent - one that considers background circumstances that may 'force' a woman into prostitution.

Consent in my mind means active and enthusiastic yes. This can include a woman who chooses, of her own accord, to engage in sexual acts for money. I do not deny that some women will and do choose, of their own volition, without any sort of past hardship or lack of opportunity, to become a sex worker - BUT I think the number of women who fit into this category is very, very small. I think that a large number of women who become sex workers are pushed to that decision by other factors in their life, and when you start adding those factors in, the line between consent and force, fraud, or coercion becomes blurry. What about the woman who did not have the opportunity for an education that would provide her with job skills? What about the woman who has kids to take care of but can't find a job that pays enough? What about the woman who grew up in foster care, or in a family environment surrounded by drug abuse, or the one who is just down on her luck? Are these women victims of trafficking, or are they consenting sex workers?

I am not in any way making a moral judgment here. For your purposes and mine, I have no opinion on the morality of sex workers. What I am trying to do is reframe the debate so people stop seeing it as a black and white, good vs bad issue. I'm asking people to look a little deeper, beyond the question of whether a woman should be allowed to choose to sell her body, beyond the question of whether the government has any right to outlaw a person's rights over their own body, and look beyond the apparent consenting adult ethos. Ask yourself what consent really means, and again, are these women victims of trafficking, or are they consenting sex workers?

My answer? I don't know. Maybe this type of circumstance-created sex work doesn't rise to the level of trafficking, but at the same time I hardly think you can view it as enthusiastic consent. I tend to think that many women who are sex workers would not be in that profession if they were given the opportunity for something else (and the idea of a different set of opportunities can go the whole way back to childhood). I also tend to think that the image we see of sex workers - on TV, on news shows that discuss the topic, etc - is a much more glamorous version of what most sex workers experience. I get a sense that the women who go on to news programs to advocate for sex workers (sometimes actual workers, sometimes not) are the exceptions to the rule - maybe even the ones that did have the opportunities others miss. (NB: that was a huge blanket statement there. Please excuse for the sake of the argument).

Now, for a full disclosure that hopefully won't distract from my above point - I don't know what I think about prostitution being legalized either. Some days I favor the idea of legalizing it - because a woman should be able to decide what she does with her body, and even if the only reason she is involved is due to circumstances that forced her there (money issues for example), far be it from me to limit the ways she has to escape those circumstances, or force her into a worse situation because that avenue of income is unavailable. Now, on those days I still favor prosecuting those who create the demand for such services to the maximum possible under the law. I have no time for people who pay for sex - I think it is wrong and pathetic and there is no way you will ever convince me that the payor is not exploiting the payee, even if the payee is a consenting adult. This is one of the few things I will express a judgment on with no reservations or qualifications whatsoever (although the law student in me still feels the need to reserve the right to change that statement, should anyone make a valid argument that convinces me I am wrong). For more on the idea of legalizing prostitution but outlawing the demand side, see Jennifer's post!

Oh - and also - take a moment to think about the phrase, "Prostitution is the oldest profession in history" before you use it to justify present day prostitution. Whether you are for or against the legalization, basing your argument on the reality of a few thousand years ago is just silly.


  1. Anonymous8:03 PM

    This is one the most interesting, comprehensive, well-written posts I've seen since I started following this blog a couple of months ago. Congratulations on effectively communicating your views while simultaneously stimulating conversation and deep thought for the reader.

  2. Anna - Thank you for those kind words (reading your comment was a spot of brightness on an otherwise gloomy day of studying the Federal Rules of Evidence).

    If you don't mind my asking, what are your thoughts on any of the issues I mentioned? Did the post make you think about anything in a different light? I'm very interested in hearing what you and other think on this subject (I really do think about it and struggle with it a lot).

  3. I really enjoyed reading your post. I found it intriguing to walk through your thought process. I also find your effort to stimulate debate on the topic admirable. I think trying to determine a standard for the definition of trafficking would then create an opportunity for the term to loose it's scope. For example, if it is decided that the circumstance related choice is not trafficking. Then there are numerous women in the profession, who would prefer to be elsewhere, that are left out of the definition. What if the circumstances simply align for them to be victims of a confused entrance to the profession. Are they trafficked or do they fall outside the definition?
    Does legalization then deter people from the trafficking trade? In simple terms it would seem that it would offer "choice" to women who would decide to enter the profession. However, if the network and framework for an illegal process is already in place, would it really simply fall apart now that it is no longer required they hide the front entrance of their trade? I am not willing to believe that legalization of prostitution would at all deter human trafficking. It would be naive to think that it would not remain a steady source of cheap labour. We already struggle with many legalized trades that use labour wherever they find it at it's cheapest. Would it be any different for prostitution? It would be nice to think that our society would somehow take a stand against this illegal trafficking. Unfortunately this is the same society that will happily buy a fake Louis Vuitton purse that was made by child labour, ignoring the fact that someone suffered so they could sport the latest fashion at a discount. I can't imagine that these same people would now take stand against the trafficking of sex slaves now that the final outcome of that trade has been legalized. I suppose at this point I amy be merely rambling out ideas that are popping into mind but it is late and I am lacking coffee at this point. I was inspred to enter discourse after reading your post. Thank-you for an intellectually stimulating piece, it is the first I have read since finding this page and I look forward to reading more.
    I am fairly naive when it comes to the ideas surrounding this terrible trade in human beings. However, recent research has resulted in my new awareness and understanding of my own ignorance. It is sad that these events go so incredibly unnoticed by so many. Myself included until recently.

  4. How could prostitution possibly be the "oldest profession"? That is ridiculous. Is someone saying that perhaps farming, or hunting came AFTER prostitution? Weird.

    Anyways. Great post. I too am passionate about freedom. In fact that is why on August 1, 2009 I will take my first steps on a 500 mile journey across the UK...IN CHAINS! I am doing this to change the lives of 27 million slaves.

    I am only one. BUT I AM ONE! I am inviting the world to join with me on the Save the Slaves Freedom March either in person or via my website:

    P.S. I'd love you to blog about this too!

  5. Chris -
    You brought up so many interesting issues - I hope we can continue this dialogue and have more people join us.

    The part I want to add my thoughts on is the legalization of prostitution. I agree with you completely and think you made an excellent point in saying that with the extensive networks already set up for the illegal enslavement of people, it is really unrealistic to think that legalizing the issue would put an end to those networks. I thought your comparison to the cheap labor and black market for other goods was an excellent illustration of your point.

    I have more thoughts but time is scarce at the moment - but I'll post some more in the coming days. In the meantime, I invite everyone else to chime in here and on the other posts - the more we talk, the more we learn and the better we will be at spreading the word and stopping human trafficking.

    Also - everyone go check out Eric's website - it sounds like a great idea!

  6. Hi my name is Reggie.I always look at people like they are arrows. And my particular arrow is keen set on building young girls and women up in such a way that the very thought of prostitution will never (EVER, she screams) touch their spirit, heart, mind. So much so that the the being doesn't even recognize such a fate. That is my piece of the puzzle. I really appreciated reading your blog. And I pray that you continue to tweak and educate the masses. You do it well. FIRE! You are like F.I.R.E. Believe it.

    You wrote "Consent in my mind means active and enthusiastic yes."

    Hmmm, consent. Legally and morally this has often been an interesting topic. My mind goes to slavery. Black women and having to service their masters. Some saw (see) the black female slave as a passionately willing vessel of consent. Additionally, there were many "liaisons" during that time between black women (freed women) and white men. Arrangements, I suppose is one word for it. I have often heard it said that these black women also consented to such relationships. Which always baffled me since these relationships were set against a system which had absolutely no regard for their rights or their dignity as human. How can one truly consent when the very system in which one exists has ripped and shredded away the beauty of the spirit, the strength, the senses, etc. Indeed. Hmmm! I guess the point is that, in terms of the issue of consent, it has to be analyzed against the system of the day. And how does that system view and regard the people that dwell upon its plains of existence.

    Yes, I realize that this issue (US slavery/black women) is a separate issue to prostitution. But, there are some common grey areas. Check this out for some historic info on the horrid Placage System:

    Thank you for your post.




  7. Reggie -
    I think your comment was a perfect example of what I was writing about - those common grey areas between prostitution, slavery, and the issue of consent are important things to talk about - to give people a better understanding of the complexity of issue of human trafficking, to better identify and help victims, and to prevent people from becoming victims.

    Just as the black women in your example were victims of the system they lived within - so too are the majority of sex workers (in my opinion). In fact, I think an analogy of black female slaves, and freed women who entered into 'arrangements', and present day sex workers is spot on. Looking back on the experiences of those women, would anyone really, honestly, truly question whether they had consented to have sex with the men who were their 'owners' (can someone please give me a better term for that? i'm at a loss for what to call it, but 'owner' does not sit well with me, and 'horrible human being' or 'rapist' doesn't really seem appropriate either...which isn't to say the men were not rapists - they were). That argument is not logical or viable. Those women were victims of circumstances beyond their control - just as many sex workers today are victims of circumstances beyond their control. Your example helps illustrate why I tend to see most people who are involved in sex work as victims of trafficking - victims of modern day slavery.

    Consent does indeed need to be analyzed in terms of the system in place in that time period. That, in turn, begs the question - how do we analyze our current 'system' as far as consent is concerned? Thoughts?

  8. Anonymous11:10 AM

    This is not the oldest proffesion because how did they eat to survive they had to have eaten food either hunted fished or farmed they are all professions BOOOM