Raising funds by taxing prostitution is surely among the most wrong-headed, misinformed – and in the deepest sense immoral – ideas being pushed in America today. Thus The New York Times’ unusually light-hearted and splashy, four-columns, two-photos story by Charlie LeDuff on 6/28/03, which naively glamorized and implicitly promoted prostitution will give more fuel to all the critics who increasingly wonder when the respected paper will recover its critical faculties. Who selected this writer for this topic, Howard Stern, or Jason Blair? More important, the many layers of mis-information that it contained requires some more thoughtful response.
Prostitution is also a perfect lens through which to see some of the ways in which mainstream American society is moving in the wrong direction, since both Democrats and Republicans in Nevada have reportedly agreed “in principle” (sic.) to start collecting a “live entertainment tax” from human prostitution. ( Both great parties are saying, this could bring in maybe $5 million, so let’s take the money. We’ll say it’s for education.)
It seems almost too obvious to discuss that taxing a practice socially “legitimizes” it. It is equally obvious that gaining a regular source of tax money would give the state government a financial incentive to protect and, gradually no doubt, to promote and expand prostitution.
But there are psychological layers to this subject that are not so obvious. It is fascinating (Orwellian, in truth), to deconstruct how such terrible, gut-wrenching abuses of humans can be made virtually invisible, by the workings of verbal labels, cultural stereotypes, Hollywood myths.
It is revealing to compare two particular current issues, “Child pornography,” and “prostitution.” The U.S. and most of the world has come to recognize the terrible life-scarring damage to children that flows inevitably from the making and use of child pornography. Governments are taking stern measures, actively enforcing then. If there’s evidence that you are buying child pornography, your phone can be legally tapped, your door broken down. (The former ACLU position, that child pornography was “speech,” and so once made, should be freely available to all, was so repugnant and universally rejected that they quietly retracted it.) Yet: when the mental label for what is happening is simply changed to “prostitution, the exact same or worse devastation of vulnerable children somehow becomes a matter of casual acceptance.
Key Facts. Reliable facts about prostitution are hard to obtain; there is little funding of large scale social science research, and many of the groups and “Information Sources” in print and on the Web are actually fronts funded by the sex industry. But there has been enough independent research by social scientists to establish some significant facts.
Three separate published studies of prostitution each independently found that the average age of entering prostitution is… (What would be your guess?) The answer, in three separate investigations, was in each case, fourteen years of age (Weisberg, 1984; Silbert & Pines, 1982; Gray, 1973). (Obviously if the average age was 14, about half of these children had been prostituted at a younger age than 14.) In one study of 200 prostituted women in San Francisco, the average age of entering had been thirteen. A number of these little girls had been prostituted at nine, ten, and eleven years of age. (Silbert & Pines, 1982) (Girls as young as three have been reported used in prostitution.)
With their youth and inexperience, few have any resources for survival alone. Most have not completed high school, and most have had no employment experience (Giobbe, 1990, p.72).
The other most telling finding is that an astonishing percent had already been the victims of sexual abuse at home. This has now been reported by so many researchers that it cannot be doubted. Scholars in field research have reported that between 60% and 70% of prostituted young women had been previously sexually abused as children (Silbert & Pines, 1982, p.479; Weisberg, 1984, p. 4; James, 1980). Organizations serving formerly prostituted women have reported even higher percentages. Genesis House, in Chicago – 94%; The Mary Magdalene Project, in California – 80%; WHISPER, in Minnesota – 74% (Giobbe, 1990, p.78). Abuse by older male family members – usually fathers, stepfathers, and foster-fathers – is the most common. The average age of the child when sex abuse began was about ten (Weisberg, 1984; Silbert & Pines, 1982; Enablers Project, 1978).
Not all victims of childhood sex abuse become prostitutes, or vice versa; but there is such a strong statistical relation that it is clear that childhood victimization has catastrophic effects, and is a major precursor to becoming a runaway and being prostituted.
Also, 38% had been used as “models” for pornographic photographs before the age of 16, and 10% photographed before the age of 13 (Silbert & Pines, 1982). Pornography is another branch of the sex industry which shades indistinguishably into prostitution, although it harms an even wider circle of people indirectly, largely through eroticizing woman-abuse and making it feel “sexy” (Brannon,1991; Russell, 1993; Linz & Malamuth, 1993). Young women are often passed back and forth and used interchangeably by these industries.
A girl’s entry into prostitution is not a pretty one. A scared, desperate, emotionally wounded runaway girl of 12, 13, 14, or 15 is typically spotted by a pimp. She has no money, nowhere to run even if she could get away from him. As Dr. Kathleen Barry has documented, the young woman has often (in some sense) “agreed” to try prostitution, at the outset (though she had few alternatives), but she will very soon be in a situation of violence, abuse, and control that she is not able to leave; hence the title of Barry’s ground-breaking classic Female Sexual Slavery.
A “street” prostitute may be sexually used by ten or more men a day, one thousand, five hundred men, every year (Baldwin, 1989, p.123). But being beaten and abused and killed is also part of the “career” description. In one detailed study, 65% of prostituted women had been beaten and physically abused by “Johns” or customers, and 41% reported assaulted in some way by police officers (Silbert & Pines, 1981). Forty prostituted women were found murdered in Seattle alone in 1982-84 (Washington Post, 9/20/88). In one year in New York City, two hundred prostitutes were reported murdered (Rosen, 1981).
There is a drastic way to escape prostitution, and many choose it. Seventy five percent of the “call girls” in one sampling had already attempted suicide at least once. Public hospitals have stated that about fifteen percent of all suicide victims are prostitutes (Erbe,1984 ,p. 618-19).
The Happy Hooker Cover. But these ugly, repugnant truths of prostitution seem almost totally hidden by a far more popular image of the prostitute: a strong, sassy tough woman, in full control of her own fun, raunchy life, and making plenty of money. Think of how we all first “learned” about prostitution, from Pretty Woman, Klute, Belle du Jour, of all the appealing fictional whores created by Julia Roberts, Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton, Sigourney Weaver, Catherine Denuve. This cherished fiction was perfectly illustrated by the clueless article in the Times, with a huge (3-column) photo of a healthy, mature, broadly smiling happy-hooker blonde, all alone on a luxurious bed, wrapped in the U.S. stars and stripes! Incredibly, this Hollywood (B-grade) tableau was proudly staged by the Times’ own photographer, not by the brothel.
Do such Happy Hookers exist? Yes, It is true that there are at least some women engaged in prostitution, though certainly a small minority, who are genuinely free to choose, and have other available survival options, and so might fairly be described as freely and willingly prostituting. Some write books about it, do TV appearances, and are courted by hip academics. One “sex-positive” sociologist arranged to work for a day as a prostitute, to more deeply understand the phenomena. They do exist. But this glitzy, radical-intellectual circle is very far from the life-destroying reality of is really happening to the overwhelming majority of young women swept into prostitution. This small and well-connected fringe should not be the first concern of public policy.
Go Deeper. Now let’s peel another layer deeper into the visual imagery that hides the truth of prostitution. Why was the big photograph in the Times of a woman, and why were… no men at all visible? Close your eyes, say the word “prostitution,” and an image of… a woman will materialize. But the central enduring symbol of prostitution should be… two men, exchanging money: the Pimp and the John, the man who has total control of a young woman, and the other man who will pay to have access to her. The girl or woman is by far the least powerful of the three players, really just the commodity being exchanged.
Using the word “prostitute” subtly helps to keep the mental spotlight only on the woman, to hide the two men who exchanged her. The phrase “prostituted woman” is now used by some writers, because it helps to keep in focus who was in control of what happened, and who was not.
The Invisible Pimp. In the very center of our mental image then, whenever we think of “prostitution,” should be the party that is largely in control of it: the “pimp.” This word includes actually a range of “third parties who profit financially,” including guards, drivers, procurers, seasoners, madams, brothel owners, and others. In prostitution’s reality, it is the (usually invisible) pimp who plans and controls the exchange, makes the profits, and inflicts the most violence and misery. Yet of the three parties, the Pimp is by far the least visible in the popular mind.
Not all prostituted women are under the control of some form of Pimp, (i.e. take orders, live in fear of violence) but the great majority appear to be. A study of women prostituted out of hotels estimated that over 80% of them were controlled by pimps (Prus & Irini, 1980). Studies of “street-walking prostitutes” have concluded that of over 90% are controlled by a pimp (Barry, 1979). Of the women who have left prostitution and contacted the Council for Prostitution Alternatives in Portland, Oregon, by their count, 84% had been directly controlled by Pimps. The Pimp is largely in control of prostitution.
Are the “legal” brothels of Nevada somehow different? Not long ago at a conference in New York a woman spoke of her own nightmare years, of being prostituted in these legal Nevada brothels, of being abused and permanently injured by Johns, ruthlessly exploited by the Pimp-management. She was never in truth free to leave, and the other young women there were mostly under the control of some pimp. Pimps from major West coast cities would bring their stable to Nevada when things got “too hot” back in the City, check them into the locked-up rural brothels, then come back to retrieve their property weeks or months later, plus the profits. Surrounding the brothels are tall chain-link, razor-topped fences (clearly visible in the Times photograph), to “keep trouble-makers out;” more important, they help to keep the women inside.
There was a rich, powerful, high-flying pimp, said to control 1,000 prostituted women, prominently featured and quoted at length in the Times article from Nevada. The young male Times reporter kept this big important Pimp out of all the photographs, Invisible! (Instead, there was a photo of his front door.) But the reporter gushed about the Pimp in print, like a colorful minor celebrity (noting his hair style and his “steel blue eyes”, his political views, and his plan to run for U.S. President.) The reporter declared that he was known as “America’s Pimp,” and gratuitously called that “an honorific”.
It would be sad if this gullible, superficial article, which missed all the significant issues, fairly represented the intelligence and value of American journalism. Fortunately, it does not. But seldom are actual experts and thinkers about a profound and complex issue ever consulted by the mass media. Most of those who have led the way intellectually in understanding prostitution, such as Dr. Kathleen Barry, Professor Margaret Baldwin, Dr. Diana Russell, Evalina Giobbe, Dorchen Leidholt, Susan Hunter, Dr. Melissa Farley, Norma Hoteling, Janice Raymond, Twiss Butler,… are available today with a simple phone call, but probably unknown to the Editors, and would hardly be asked to respond to an amusing little story like taxing prostitution.
Prostitution of women is not a small, social side-issue; these icy waters run very deep. Law Professor Margaret Baldwin (1992) has written unforgettably about the meaning of these cryptic words by Evelina Giobbe: “Prostitution isn’t like anything else. Rather, everything else is like prostitution, because it is the model for women’s condition.”
The recognition is growing around the world that “prostitution,” as it is practiced, is not a “willing, sex-for-money, happy-hooker transaction”, but almost always, a devastating life-shattering exploitation of the most vulnerable young women and children, by powerful and callous men. There is growing international condemnation of one rather visible and horrific forms of prostitution, the international trafficking of huge numbers of young women, about two million per year, across the world from poor lands to wealthy ones, to be prostituted (Coalition Against Trafficking website, for the most information). Just four months ago, the Deputy Prime Minister of Sweden flew to Washington D.C. to bring the United States this message, so clear and direct that she hoped it might be heard even in Nevada:
What is “prostitution?” …. A serious form of male violence against women. Far too many men see women as objects, as something that can be bought and sold. According to Swedish law, it is no longer permitted to buy another human being for prostitution purposes. A woman’s body is not the same as a glass of brandy or an ice-cream after a good dinner. Women and girls are… human beings, and therefore they are not for sale. Prostitution and trafficking in women touch upon the issues of human rights, gender inequality, sex and racial discrimination, and economic depravation, as well as the rule of law, crime control, law enforcement and corruption… Women are not for sale. Stop the prostitution and trafficking in women and children. (Winberg, 2/24/2003, Washington D.C.)
Prostitution and the Law
The long history of government’s response to women’s prostitution has some lessons. In about 535 in Constantinople, Theodora, the Empress of Byzantium issued a decree making it punishable by death to entice a woman into prostitution, and she further converted one of her Imperial palaces into a shelter where women who had been used in prostitution could go to start new lives (Chicago, 1979, p.72). Governmental intelligence and compassion has never again approached that level for fourteen Centuries.
Modern variations of prostitution laws can seem baffling to compare, trying to deduce all the implications of “regulation,” “de-criminalization,” “prohibition,” “illegal-but-mostly-ignored,” and the particular experiments of Holland, Viet Nam, France, Thailand, Britain, China, etc. But a few deeper-level truths do jump out. One is that the various words and legal systems did not translate into anything very different, down at the brutal bottom of the patriarchy, where Pimps always still directed the use and abuse of young women and children. Though supposedly “illegal” in all the systems, Pimps were in fact in charge of what really happened, everywhere. Until that fact is addressed, it seems that none of the details of the legal system matter much.
Another little-known fact is that in the two or three times and places in the world that the government has made a genuine effort to eliminate the prostitution of women ( Barry, 1995, Ch.7, 299-301). it was apparently able to do so, quite completely, and without much delay. Pimps were locked up, prostituted women were given aid money and helped back to normal lives, and the institution disappeared, for as long as the government continued its effort and commitment. The prostitution of human beings can be ended, when there is a political consensus to do it.
Laws in the U.S. Prostitution is “illegal” in all of the U.S. except Nevada, though this actually means only a low-grade misdemeanor, with a fine in the $50-$100 range, and Pimping no more serious an infraction than being the one sold. But being “illegal” and subject to arrest keeps the business somewhat underground.
Police arrests are almost entirely of the prostituted woman, occasionally of Johns, very rarely of Pimps. In one typical year in NY state, there were 14,197 arrests for prostitution: 93% of arrests were of prostituted women, 5% of Johns, and (less than) 2% of all “Pimps,” including all guards, drivers, madams, and others who profited, broadly defined ( NYS Division of Criminal Justice Services: Table 7.1, Barry, 1995). That pimping is actually a “crime” at all is so little remembered that a pimp (in the famous Hugh Grant case) asked a judge to enforce his “contract” rights; he was politely reminded that his “business” is illegal, but not arrested (NY Post item).
In any reasonable system, the order of retribution should be just the opposite. Pimps (if anyone) should be pursued with relentless effort, much as child pornographers now are, for they are true predators who devastate the lives of vulnerable young people, and cynically profit. The John should pay fines, based on income, and perhaps given some useful information, as with D.W.I. offenders. The prostituted children and women don’t need to be arrested or jailed at all, but given a safe place to recover, heal, plan a future, go to school, regain a sense of autonomy, and dignity.
The best over-all social and legal approaches to this issue remain uncertain. A team of leaders in NOW including Lois Reckitt, Phyllis B. Frank, and Clarice Pollack developed a policy approach to prostitution based on a three-parties analysis that was a landmark and should be a starting point for future thinking (CSRR working paper #11). A pioneering law drafted by Professor Margaret Baldwin that gave prostituted women the right to seek financial damages was officially adopted by the state of Florida in 1991.
It has been a popular, “hip” position in the U.S. for years, from Jesse Ventura to Howard Stern to your next cocktail party, to scorn the reactionary old moralism of the traditional approaches to prostitution, and then proudly endorse… “legalization”. This kind of “let’s-be-realistic” thought is usually closely tied to the Hollywood fantasy of a sex-for-money exchange by two willing, antonymous people, which in the real world is rare. In current reality, legalization would be a windfall multi-billion dollar bonanza for pimps and the entire sex industry, and a nightmare for the thousands of new young victims over the years to be found, used and discarded. And being legal opens the door to other opportunities.
Bi-partisan Pimping. We are starting to see this now in Nevada. The economy is down, and there’s a search for money. In the parts of Nevada where selling women is legal, sales have been good. A fourth of the Las Vegas yellow pages is now ads for prostitution. So, in these tough times, the pragmatic Republican and Democratic leaders of Nevada have agreed, why not deal the great state of Nevada in for a cut of the financial action? Democratic leader Sheila Leslie: “You can laugh about it, but prostitution is a legal business in this state….” Republican leader Bill Raggio: “It’s a unique business. They sell it, you get it, and they still own it. Still, we’re going to tax it.” Perhaps there can be a sign at the door of the Assembly: “Republican Pimps seated right of the aisle, Democratic Pimps to the left.”
Easy to be scornful of Nevadans, harder and more important to admit some of our own times of blindness to abuses of women. Many of our leaders like ourselves have items on their records they cannot be proud of. President George W. Bush earned over $100,000 over ten years as a Board of Directors Member of Silver Screen Management, which created a horrific R-rated sex-and-violence slasher movie in 1986 featuring a pretty young woman’s body getting ripped into bloody parts, plus 24 other exploitation films. (“Bush Made Bundle on Movie Violence” read one lurid tabloid headline.) Perhaps before his term ends, our President will calculate what he earned from exploiting woman abuse, add 20 years’ interest, and send the check to one of the few struggling shelters for women exploited by the sex industry.
Senator Hillary Clinton has had a surprisingly deaf ear to some aspects of women’s exploitation, from a campaign finance director who owned the big Strip Club that pioneered nude lap dancing, to her own repeatedly endorsing a plan to combat only “forced” prostitution and trafficking, but to accept any trafficking that (could be claimed to be) “voluntary” and “willing,” (despite a letter of protest from Ellie Smeal, Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan, Patricia Ireland, and other women leaders). If she were a man, people might say she “doesn’t get it.”.
The truth of the”voluntary” loophole is that here is no meaningful “consent” for a desperately poor third-world girl, unwanted and handed over by her parents; little free-choice for a hungry fourteen-year old runaway who’s been sexually abused at home already. The “voluntary-trafficking-is-ok” loophole would let the entire sex-ploitation industry off the hook, since scared and dominated young women can so easily be made to say or sign anything the Pimp demands. It’s a cruel loophole, and would be catastrophic. And a defense actually offered for it by our State Department has been: “not to alienate countries” that allow prostitution “such as The Netherlands and Turkey.” (Washington Post, 1/15/2000). No ÔProfiles in Courage’ in sight on this issue.
For money speaks so powerfully. In a world where wealth is so vastly unequal, selling sexual access to young women and children, including boys, can bring in huge sums. Prostitution is now Thailand’s number one national source of income, a widespread industry in South Korea, a pillar of the economy in Cuba, a growth industry throughout Eastern Europe, especially Serbia, and in Russia. It is bringing in huge sums all over the world. But do we not have other core values? Is profitability the only basis of U.S. social policy? (Just think of the money Nevada could bring in selling drugs, or nuclear weapons, or anthrax…)
It is reportedly “legal” to stone and be-head women for adultery in Saudi Arabia, legal to kill one’s wife or sister or daughter for reasons of male “honor” in Brazil, Jordan, and other countries. And yes, the commercial prostitution of young women is legal and picking up steam in ten counties of Nevada, as in much of the world.
Rather than taxing and promoting the abuse of young women and children, which prostitution so fundamentally is, the elected leaders of Nevada must move now toward ending it. We all must.
Dr. Brannon is a Social Psychologist at Brooklyn College C.U.N.Y. and Director of the Center for Sex Role Research, and has focused on issues of objectification and violence against women,. He currently serves as chair of The National Task Group on Prostitution and Pornography of NOMAS.
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Winberg, Margareta, Deputy Prime Minister of Sweden, at conference on “Path-breaking Strategies in the Global Fight Against Sex Trafficking,” Monday 24 February, 2003, Hyatt Regency Hotel, Washington D.C., USA
Working Paper 11, “Clarification of NOW Position on Prostitution.” Available for $1 from Center for Sex Role Research, Psychology Department, Brooklyn College, Brooklyn, NY, 11210.