Tag Archives: freedom

a trojan horse. (morality and sex work part three)

This is the third (and final?) post in my Morality and Sex Work mini-series.

The inspiration for the title comes from the famous story in Greek mythology about “cunning Odysseus” (his epithet in the ancient Greek is mētis, which is also translates to mean “crafty” or “skilled”) hatching a plan to offer a giant wooden horse as an offering to the enemies, who bring the gift into their city, only to be destroyed after those hidden inside the horse crawl out in the dead of night and open the gates for a surprise attack.

It is impossible to talk about sex work and especially morality without getting into some interconnected aspects that are tricky to address…

Trojan Horse in front of the Schilemann Museum in Ankershagen, Germany (photo by Christof Bobzin)

After my post last week, I received two questions/comments via Facebook that I’d like to share here. The first was from my friend, Kristen, who suggested that it is important to consider whether or not working in the sex industry has negative psychological consequences, or is psychologically damaging, even in the most ideal circumstances:

Also, what are the consequences, professional AND relational, for women when they leave the profession, as I’m assuming the vast majority inevitably do. These are the questions I have about porn workers as well.

I bet Kristen is thinking at least in part about Linda Lovelace, whose story—what I know of it from watching Inside Deep Throat and the biopic that came out more recently—was pretty tragic, before, during, and after her experience making that infamous film. She hardly got paid for it and was in an abusive situation. Before dying young, she apparently came to feel like making that movie ruined her life. There are also positive stories like Nina Hartley, for example, who’s spent the last thirty years in porn and is using her celebrity + experience in adult film as a platform for sex education (which is also something that gets said about porn and often is not true, but in this case it is)…

Someone else (who wrote me in a personal message and so I won’t name her here unless she lets me know it’s okay to credit her) also offered some thoughts and questions:

How likely is it that these ladies had experienced sexual abuse, physical abuse, and/or neglect as children before ending up in these Wallace “whorehouses” (most of the people I knew growing up in Wallace referred to them as such). I also wonder how many of them experienced being involved with a pimp prior to their employment in Wallace. And what about the part of drug/alcohol abuse and it’s impact on the women? Recently watched A Path Appears on Independent Lens and made me think of you and your blog. Sex trafficking articles abound which speak to the above abuses among prostitutes. I wonder about the damage done to them before they ever started prostitution. I wonder what emotional, physical, psychological, spiritual and then possibly financial state they were in when they made this decision or if they really had a choice. Or if their choice was taken away and if their worth was stripped before they “decided” to become a prostitute. Or perhaps they were runaways and met a pimp who helped them into the business.

I hadn’t seen A Path Appears, so I watched it this past weekend while I was snowed in (it’s available to on Amazon Instant, if you missed it on TV or would rather stream it). For those of you who aren’t familiar, it’s the follow-up to Half the Sky, a morality-based and economic-based argument for the value of empowering women, by journalists Sheryl WuDunn and Nick Kristof. Their argument in Half the Sky was basically that if we aren’t enabling the talent, intelligence, and skills of half the people in the world (women and girls), we are missing out on huge opportunities and contributions. They have found evidence that education and economic opportunity are lasting solutions that recruit others and have a ripple effect on everyone in the community.

In A Path Appears, Kristof and WuDunn have zoomed in to try to better understand specific challenges and offer solutions by pointing us toward models that are working to make a difference (in a world where “talent is universal, but opportunity is not”). It’s a three part documentary, with the first part specifically addressing sex trafficking in the U.S., the second part addressing poverty in West Virginia, Haiti, and Colombia, and the third part going into solutions that respond effectively to intimate partner violence in Atlanta, Georgia and sexual violence in the home in Kenya.

I liked that the documentary series was both about what’s going on in other countries as well as what’s happening right here in the U.S., especially regarding sex trafficking: it highlights the vulnerability of the girls who are targeted, offers law enforcement strategies that don’t repeat the trauma or engage in victim-blaming, and showcases nonprofits helping survivors build new lives. The title is taken from a saying written in 1921 by Lu Xun about how hope is like a path through the countryside: at first you can’t see a way but then after enough people begin to walk the same way again and again, a path (or solution) appears.

Here are some quotes I found compelling and wrote down as I watched:

“I don’t think most Americans appreciate how much or how brutal the sex trafficking is right here at home.”

“The bootcamp for prostitution is child rape.”

“If that’s your choice, what are the options? The truth is it takes a lot of failed communities to get them out there [on the streets], and it takes communities to bring them back [to safety].”

We need to put the shame back onto the abusers where it belongs.

Vulnerability, childhood trauma, addiction, neglect, and abuse in the home create “this horrible maelstrom” of feeling “trapped and forced into prostitution.” Drugs, prostitution, trafficking, “it’s all so interwoven,” that a victimless crime business arrangement between consenting adults is not the reality.

“He knew better than i did that all i wanted was to have a family and to be loved…. I was arrested 167 times and he was arrested zero. And I would have done life in prison before testifying against that man [her pimp]…. There has to be a better way.”

There are 10 times as many johns as there are people selling sex, but 60% of arrests are the women. “If there were no johns there would be no prostitution…. There are an awful lot of men who buy sex and have a lot to lose.”

Regarding an economic empowerment solution: “The products we’re making are a by-product of what we’re trying to do.”

Over and over again, the stories we see feature women who were not really choosing to sell sex, but often were running away from instability in the home, introduced to prostitution by parents or other family members, and survivors of sexual abuse of some kind. The producers make the argument that investing in prevention and providing holistic long-term answers through rescue, safe houses, and skills training, creating jobs, is much cheaper than criminalizing the women and sending them to prison at the same time as it also intervenes into the cycle of abuse and/or poverty.

One thing really sticks with me at this point. Some of the girls said that they didn’t realize until later that they had been sexually abused, since their family members were the ones perpetrating the violence when they were young (I’m thinking back to the story of the woman I talked about in my Provisional Diagnosis: Prostitution post), and several mentioned not knowing they’d been trafficked, essentially because they hadn’t named it as such until it was diagnosed as such by others after they had been able to extract themselves. This is at least in part a testament to the psychological manipulation and skilled control of the men (they are mostly men) who target vulnerable girls and women they can live off of.

Which brings me back to the Trojan horse. Some things are not what they seem to be, and it appears likely that many sex work situations at this point in time, at least in the U.S., are not what we could call freely chosen, but rather the byproduct of a trafficking situation, which involves “force, fraud or coercion,” and also “manipulation, control,” according to Kate Mogulescu in the film. In the U.S. at this point in time, I don’t know if there is room in the solution for a more libertarian legalization answer until we better address difficult systemic problems like poverty, addiction, violence in the home, child abuse, and rape. I have not been to Germany, but it sounds like that country’s brothel-based model features some aspects that appear to be more positive, and I’ve heard that in London they have a decriminalized and mostly escort-based system that might also be more positive system, but I don’t know if that’s reality or not.

On the other hand, this is also a trojan horse because many people advancing the sex trafficking argument are actually conflating sex trafficking with sex work, focusing not on people who *do* freely choose sex work, but instead generalizing out to them using the experiences of the ones who have been trafficked. And others conflate labor trafficking with sex trafficking (LSE paper, I’m looking at you). More on all of this in a later post…

Another reason this post is a Trojan horse is that it wasn’t really about sex work in the Silver Valley. So in the next post I’ll return to the Shoshone County Sheriff’s Office files and talk about this stuff specifically in the case of Wallace.

masters of sex, serial, and telling real people’s stories (morality and sex work part one)

“You pretended to have an orgasm? Is that a common practice among prostitutes?”

“It’s a common practice amongst anyone with a twat.[…]”

“But why, why would a woman lie about something like that?”

“Gawd almighty, this is… Okay, I’m gonna be honest with you but only cause I like you and you seem real dedicated about your project with your penguin suit and all, with the charts and the timer, but seriously, if you really want to learn about sex then you’re gonna have to get yourself a female partner.”

Masters of Sex, Pilot, 2013

I was just re-reading provisional diagnosis: prostitution because I was thinking about how I didn’t get around to the main point I originally intended to discuss when I began that post. I wanted to say something more about the ethics of telling real people’s stories. Since then, I’ve checked out a couple relevant items of pop culture my friends told me about and revisited two books I read over the summer:

1. the Showtime series, Masters of Sex (based on a book about revolutionary human sexuality researchers Masters and Johnson),

2. the new podcast series, Serial, which re-investigates the murder of a teenage girl in 1999,

3. Karen Abbott’s book, Sin in the Second City, a historical account of the Everleigh Club, the famous early 20th century-era Chicago brothel, and

4. Alexa Albert’s Brothel: Mustang Ranch and its Women.

I’ve only seen four episodes of Masters of Sex, and so far I’ve been drawn in by the subject matter, of course, but I’ve also been impressed by the show’s attention to the research itself. The exchange I quoted above, which occurs between Dr. Bill Masters and a woman he found in one of St. Louis’s brothels, illustrates just one important role sex workers played in his initial research. Although the TV version changes things a bit, according to Maier’s book, it was the suggestion of one college-educated woman “‘amplifying her income for an impending marriage’ by dabbling in the sex trade” that “changed everything” for Masters (82), opening his eyes to the importance of finding a female research partner. [Sidenote: I thought Lizzy Caplan was awesome in Mean Girls and True Blood, but she’s really a great match for this role, as Gini Johnson.] I love how the first few episodes highlight the simultaneous importance and difficulty of studying or talking about sex in a culture that is mostly square and/or opposed to women having sex outside the confines of marriage.

After listening to the first two episodes of Serial, I have been inspired by the production quality–Sarah Koenig’s storytelling is compelling and experiments with the podcast genre in cool ways–and I’ve also been drawn into the meta-level-story-about-the-story, which involves real life people. A recent article by Michelle Dean in The Guardian features the following commentary about the consequences of documenting the lives of living people:

“But in the post-listening haze, as I poked around myself and discovered the social media undergrowth amassing under it, I began to have questions about what I was participating in. Serial is, after all, not a work of fiction. It is about real people.”

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meditations on coercion, common law, and a perfect world

Two related thoughts, questions and meditation:

— I went to a party last night and ended up having a great conversation that had me thinking about my research from the angle of common law or accepted custom. Used to be, in Idaho, if you lived with someone for ten years you were considered married to that person via “common law.” They have since done away with this convention, but some states still have it in place, I think.

— I didn’t know this until last night, but there are other examples of common law or custom being accepted practice–the UDHR, apparently, is one [declaration without teeth] instance that the international community has basically agreed should be a goal for a perfect world.

— In said perfect world, would anyone choose to be a sex worker?

Seems to me that in cases like Wallace, where there has been a century of tradition built up to indicate community support for open secret yet extralegal economies like the sex trade and gambling, local custom should be the law, despite what is written into code and despite what the state or federal government dictate. That is, of course, why the sheriff was never convicted under the so-called RICO act during two trials: the defense successfully argued that he was being scapegoated and any other sheriff would have done the same or else been voted out of office (“that was just the way things worked in Wallace”). There was no need for corruption. The mafia was effectively shut out of the community through local agreement and regulation (although it’s probable some of the women who cycled through Wallace were recruited into the profession in other places through pimps who were involved in organized crime).

Shouldn’t accepted custom be the law of the land, in self-regulating communities? Why is it that outsiders think they know what’s best and come in to change things? Economics and morality, I think. Somebody always wants a piece of the action. And others think they are justified in enforcing their morals on other people.

Putting aside the question of the federal and/or state government wanting a piece of the economic action or else perhaps just being bored and wanting to flex their muscles and control or dominate, I want to address the morality part:

— I don’t think there is anything morally wrong with prostitution. Call me crazy, but I think we should be able to do what we want with our bodies, as long as it’s not infringing on other people’s rights. Public health and safety has always been the case against that, but let’s say the sex workers get regular health check ups, use condoms, and the patrons understand the risks they assume, it’s not really drastically different from eating out at a restaurant where you might get food poisoning or taking a whitewater rafting trip where you might drown, right?

government propaganda sent to corporations to post as part of the "war against prostitution" during wwi, archival document from the university of idaho library's special collections (potlatch papers)

government propaganda sent to corporations to post as part of the “war against prostitution” during wwi, archival document from the university of idaho library’s special collections (potlatch papers)

— That said, it’s probably the case that most people who are currently sex workers feel *economically coerced* (I use this phrase to differentiate between choice and “choice” that doesn’t feel like a choice) into the profession. In part because it’s underground/illegal and or stigmatized, the wages for sex are high and pull people in who perhaps wouldn’t otherwise choose to participate. So I would say that it’s possible some percentage of sex workers would choose other professions if they didn’t feel pressured in some way (by debt, or lack of education coupled with the need to support children, or addiction). And these other pressures indicate the presence of social problems we need to resolve.

— But let’s say we’ve resolved those social problems that cause some to feel coerced into sex work. Let’s say we’ve done away with the stigma and made it legal. Would people still “freely choose” (insofar as we humans are compelled to act as though we have choice, and given the privilege of living in a circumstance under conditions we call freedom) to become sex workers? Would prostitution, the oldest profession, as they say, continue to exist?

— I say yes, people would still choose sex work as a profession, even in a perfect-ish world, for the same reasons anyone chooses any profession, because they have a talent and a passion for it and/or it brings meaning to their life.

For possible future meditations:

Think about this question specifically in the case of Wallace.

Think about this question in global terms: Is there research on gender distribution generally (are women more often offering and men more often patronizing)? Comparisons across countries? Does legal sex work affect demand for the non-consensual sex trade and trafficking market (making a possible moral case for intervention)?