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Network for Peace through Dialogue

May 15, 2008

Prostitution: Is it Really a Choice?

"Prostitute," "sex worker," "prostituted woman," "commercially exploited child or youth." What words do we choose when we discuss the sex industry and the people caught in it? The language we use affects how we think about the industry and policy decisions about it.

"Prostituted woman" and "commercially exploited child or youth" were the terms favored by Rachel Lloyd, Executive Director of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS) when she spoke at a Living Room Dialogue on May 15. The topic for the evening was "Prostitution: Is It Really a Choice?" Her answer to the question was a resounding "No." The issue is not about choice, but lack of choice, she said.

GEMS provides services for young women who are at risk for or are involved in sexual exploitation and violence. When talking to the teen-agers and young women who come into her program, she refers to them as "commercially exploited" and stresses that "this happened TO you," "adults did this to you." The average age for entering the sex trade is 12 to 14 years old.

"Is a 12- or 14-year-old likely to decide on her own to go into the street at Hunts Point and solicit sex?" Rachel asked. For sure there's going to be a predatory male behind her telling her what to do. In the case of adult women involved in the sex trade, she pointed out that most (70-90%) were abused as children and only a tiny minority enter the business as adults.

To her the term "prostitute" suggests level of choice that does not exist. It implies that you freely decided to engage in commercial sex and did so because you are a flawed person, a slut. Maybe in a utopian society where everybody feels equal to everybody else, everybody has the food, shelter, education and opportunities they need, and nobody is sexually abused as a child, a person might freely choose to enter this occupation. But that isn't the case so far.

A dialogue participant suggested that using the term "sex worker" might help to take away the stigma attached to being prostituted because it points to the need for economic survival that keeps many people "in the life." It also speaks to the lack of choice she mentioned.

Rachel was adamantly against using this language. She believes using the term "worker" lends legitimacy to exploitation. Commercial sex is quite different in important ways from what we usually consider to be work. The work she does at GEMS gives her a sense of accomplishment that a person has just sexually serviced 10 men is not likely to feel, she said. Moreover, a worker usually doesn't have to worry about whether her boss or customers are going to beat or kill her.

That a few women in the high-paying end of the industry have claimed that their trade is empowering doesn't persuade her. "You have to stay in some form of denial to do it," she said, "turn yourself off." Many times the victims don't recognize themselves as exploited in the beginning. Furthermore, if you probe deeper into their lives and thinking, you are likely to find that they were brought into the trade at 12- or 14-years old.

Girls are recruited at an age when they are most vulnerable. Often they have come from such a dysfunctional home and/or have experienced sexual abuse that they already feel that they and their bodies are worth nothing. They can be easily lured by an older man who treats them nicely in any way. One girl told Rachel how exciting it was to be taken out for dinner to "a fancy place," Red Lobster. What works is a combination of coercion and what might seem to be love.

One bizarre feature of our justice system is that if a girl under 16 has sex with an older man, he can be charged with statutory rape, but if a man pays that same girl for sex, she can be arrested for prostitution. Another is that the treatment of young people of color is different than that accorded young whites. People of color are more likely than whites to be incarcerated even though the offence is the same.

Another word that should be reconsidered is "john" used in reference to men who buy sex. John has a very innocent sound, whereas actual "johns" can be predators who drug children or who menace or beat the commercially exploited person.

One dialogue participant asked about the market for sex. Demand is what fuels it and the demand is huge. It's a billion-dollar industry, very profitable, and just keeps growing. For example, in Amsterdam, the Dutch tried legalizing it and found that for every legalized brothel, five illegal ones popped up. Rates of trafficking of girls and women from other countries skyrocketed.

One dialogue participant asked about the market for sex. Demand is what fuels it and the demand is huge. It's a billion-dollar industry, very profitable, and just keeps growing. For example, in Amsterdam, the Dutch tried legalizing it and found that for every legalized brothel, five illegal ones popped up. Rates of trafficking of girls and women from other countries skyrocketed.

Some other questions participants asked Rachel:

  • "What can we do?" First, she advised, change the language we are using. That will help to change public perceptions of the problem. Talk to people you know. See what you can figure out what you can do in your community, maybe have a clothing or fund drive.
  • "Where do "johns" come from?" Some of the reasons: The ways men are socialized to see woman as madonnas or whores - the wives at home with the children vs. the bad girls. We know that rape is about power and control and so is this. Sex without any responsibility for the other person can be attractive to some. The easy availability of pornography on the internet - it's been shown that pornography desensitizes you to thinking that the other you are using sexually is not anybody like you or your family and that it's OK to do anything you want with her.
  • "How do people come to you?" Through street outreach, juvenile detention centers, group homes, guidance counselors, social workers, but mostly by court mandate (about 60%). At GEMS, they learn there are resources for them and that the pimp can be replaced by a new community. There is some transitional housing.
  • "What is the effect of the child welfare system?" A lot of the youngsters have been in foster care (about 70%). They have never formed meaningful relationships, often have been made to "feel like dirt." They age out of the system at 18 and are turned out into the street with no resources.
  • "Do you try to get in touch with their parents?" The teen-agers very much want family and often want to return to family, but mostly their families are part of the problem. It's very disappointing to go home to substance-abusing family members, for instance. At GEMS they are helped to enter a new community.
  • "What nurtures you?" Her faith and the work give a sense of purpose to Rachel's life. She belongs to a non-denominational church community in the Bronx. Also, she has fun with the teen-agers, who "have learned to find humor and beauty in dark places," as she put it. She enjoys their successes: three GEMS girls are in college this semester.

In the final go-round of participants, several mentioned that the reality of the sex industry was new to them and that the young ages at which girls were recruited was news to them. One said a new insight was how the victims could feel like "a piece of cattle."

There was some discussion about our culture in general. The glamorization of violence in the media, for one example, the hyper-sexualization of youth for another. It's even hard to buy clothing for children that's not sexually provocative, and some parents think this is "cute."

A few participants mentioned concern for men. One thought there needed to be some sort of program for men who felt the need to fill their sexual needs by buying sex. Another speculated that men might disrespect the bodies of women because they are expected to disregard the integrity and value of their own bodies - heroes are the guys on the football field or in the boxing ring being knocked around physically while millions watch and the men who risk their bodies and lives in warfare.

Finally, there was huge appreciation for Rachel herself and the work that she does and thanks for sharing her knowledge and experience with the group.


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