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Why would a work on legalizing prostitution have thirty five pages of closely printed notes and a bibliography running to almost sixteen pages? The answer lies in the incendiary nature of the subject matter. Emotions frequently run high when it comes to discussing the sex trade and there doesn't seem to be any middle ground. Ronald Weitzer, Professor of Sociology at George Washington University is determined to bring some calm dispassionate reasoning based on solid research to the debate. Too often, he says, this debate is still stuck in what Popper termed the pre-scientific stage. Arguments are formulated on impressionistic, untested assumptions. Hence when it comes to prostitution, given that only a minority of the population ever experience prostitutes in the flesh as it were – between 15 – 18 per cent across the Western world - then the debate is coloured by impressions gathered from the media, from literature, from films and plays and from the more high profile street prostitutes on view in any large city.
My own impressions were formed when the neighbourhood where I live, at the time a decaying inner city suburb of large Victorian houses, many of them sublet, was invaded by a posse of street prostitutes who had been driven out from the city's traditional 'red light' area by angry residents taking direct action. His broadly researched description of this form of selling sex match my own observations as we, as residents, strove with the help of the police, the civil courts, city officers and social workers to get them to desist or move on and stop using our neighbourhood as their place of work and all the attendant ills it visited on us. He lists these: the initial transaction is in a public place: the sex act takes place in a public or semi-public place: many underage prostitutes are runaways in a new locale with no resources and little recourse but to engage in some kind of criminal activity - theft, drug dealing, selling sex. They sell sex out of dire necessity or to support a drug habit.
Many street workers use addictive drugs, work in crime-ridden areas, are socially isolated and disconnected from support services, engage in risky sex, are exploited and abused by pimps, and are vulnerable to being assaulted, robbed raped or killed on the streets. Professor Weitzer is adamant that street prostitution should not become the paradigm that stands for prostitution as a whole. It should be treated as an exception and discouraged as an activity. It is associated with myriad problems that would not exist in a different context and with protective legislation. That is why he chooses to restrict his comments to the sexual practices that take place in an indoor setting where most prostitution occurs and on which a regulatory system can be imposed.
But anyone attempting to formulate proposals to align the sex industry with modern work practices needs to pick their way through the heated debate that rages round this topic. Weitzer divides the warring camps into two -- the followers of the empowerment paradigm and the followers of the oppression paradigm.
The empowerment paradigm highlights the ways in which sexual services qualify as work, involve human agency and may be potentially validating or empowering for workers. This paradigm holds there is nothing inherent in sex work that would prevent it from being organized for mutual gain to all parties -- just as in other economic transactions. But some writers go further and make bold claims that, according to Wietzer, romanticise sex work, neatly summed up by Camille Paglia when she argues that the prostitute is the "ultimate liberated woman, who lives on the edge and whose sexuality belongs to no one."
The oppression paradigm is a formulation of radical feminism. According to this paradigm sex work is the quintessential expression of patriarchal gender relations and male domination. Not only does the sex industry objectify and commodify women's bodies; it also gives men the idea that they have 'a right' to buy erotic entertainment from women, thus reinforcing women's subordination to men. Supporters of this paradigm argue that exploitation, subjugation and violence are intrinsic to and ineradicable from sex work. Their solution is the total elimination of prostitution, pornography, strip clubs and all other commercial sex. The author notes that this paradigm focuses exclusively on the negative. They also neglect in their writings male and transgender sex work for the almost exclusive theorizing of prostitution as an institution that victimizes women and girls.
These two paradigms, says, Weitzer, are one-dimensional and essentialist. The oppression paradigm especially is first and foremost a pres-scientific ideology. Its central tenets are not derived from carefully conducted research, which would contradict or radically qualify those very tenets. It is not powered by the canons of scientific objectivity but by its advocates' overriding commitment to abolishing sex work. He proposes instead a more nuanced paradigm, one he calls polymorphous, based on the current state of research which identifies a constellation of occupational arrangements, power relations and participants' experiences.
A growing body of research, he says, documents tremendous international diversity in how sex work is organized and experienced by workers, clients and third parties, undermining some deep-rooted myths. Victimization, exploitation, agency, job satisfaction, self-esteem and other dimensions should be treated as variables (not constants) that differ between types of sex work, geographical locations and other structural conditions. He brings forward evidence to show prostitution can have positive benefits for both worker and client on terms of equality.
Weitzer says his book can be read as a first step in imagining an alternative to the conventional wisdom, where sex work is characterized, in the words of the philosopher, Christine Overall, by "relative safety, security, freedom, hygiene and personal control." Most countries which have brought a degree of regulation to the sex industry, which Weitzer examines in the book, have, in his opinion, registered a degree of success in achieving one or more of these goals for at least some categories of sex workers, although none has fully realised all of these ideals.
Weitzer sets out an exhaustive schedule of standards which should be present in any legislative programme. His starting point is that consensual adult prostitution be officially recognised as work and that participants be accorded the rights and protections available to those involved in other occupations.
Notwithstanding the evidence that Weitzer cites, that prostitutes can enjoy job satisfaction and high self-esteem in their work: that they can supply something akin to therapy for those unsuccessful in their personal relationships: that the demand for their services is rarely predatory, he does acknowledge that there is still a large stigma attached to this activity which can prove a stumbling block for those wanting to frame legislation that satisfies all parties.
What he proposes will call for negative capability on the part of society, that is why being discreet, almost to the point of invisibility tops his list and not having any dedicated urban red light zones. A society that has evolved a system of socializing and supporting its new members through monogamous relationships and the family unit, is bound to feel conflicted by an industry whose values militate against these social arrangements. However, a significant number of our citizens persist in supplying and availing themselves of these services. By not taking thoroughgoing legislative action to regulate this industry, we are leaving the field open to ruthless criminals, national and international, operating in this twilight world. It is estimated, for instance, that 800,000 women are trafficked into the EU every year. Nine out ten of these are forced to be sex workers in brothels. A thorough reading of Professor Weitzer's book and its recommendations would help our legislators bring some order to situations like these and follow in the steps of Western Australia whose legislature in 2008 voted to legalize prostitution because of its harm-reduction potential.
© 2012 Chris Vaughan
Chris Vaughan writes about himself: I live in Birmingham, England. I am now retired after a career in the pharma industry and am very much involved in community activities. I am a board member of the Birmingham Environmental Partnership and chair a local patient network. I have written a book on the British Health Service and I currently write for a health website. I am very interested in the mind-body.