Smart Girls Who Do Stupid Things

Sometimes…

Sex is fun, so what’s wrong with sex work?

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If you prefer the high-glamour, high-raunch depictions of sex work* (Cathouse being an excellent example… though the “glamour” label won’t readily stick to Air Force Amy’s EEs), it’s easy enough to view sex work in a rosy live-and-let-live light. Sex workers wittily blog about charming and/or hilarious encounters with quirky characters, TV shows remind their audiences of the novel fact that sex workers are (shocker!) people too, and porn performers who really, truly love what they do outshine dead-eyed, bleached-out teenagers any day of the week. Roll that bundle of media consumption up into a nice little package, and this is what you get:

Sex is fun —> people like to make money doing fun things –> what’s wrong with sex work?

Some people thoroughly and completely enjoy sex work. If you talk to the right ones, you’ll find people enamored with the perks of their profession, thrilled to explore and expand definitions of sexuality, power, pleasure and play. To these lucky folks who have so easily found their passions, I say bravo,  carry on!

Which brings me to the rest of sex workers, the ones for whom sex work is a job, not a calling. Like any job, sex work has advantages (the ability to earn more than minimum wage, flexible hours, no educational pre-requisites) and disadvantages (higher risk for STDs, unsafe work environment, societal stigma). Legalizing prostitution doesn’t remove the negatives, but it does mitigate the risks. Consider this fact: Since 1986, 42,000 HIV tests have been administered to legal prostitutes in Nevada with zero positive results (Weitzer, Sex for Sale). Condoms are legally mandated in Nevada brothels, and employees have the right to refuse a customer should he refuse to wear one.

Here’s another fact: In the last 21 years there has been one reported assault in a Nevada brothel, and the woman was able to reach the panic button in her room in time to protect herself.  Street prostitutes in major American cities report incidences of assault and rape as high as 80% (Albert, Brothel). Legal prostitutes are safer and healthier in Nevada than prostitutes anywhere else in the United States.

Take Kate’s Baltimore woman, climbing out of the back of the truck adjusting her skirt. Imagine that she climbed into that van and something went wrong. There was no camera catching the guy’s face on his way in, no bouncer to turn to, no panic button to press. Maryland doesn’t have legal prostitution laws. If she steps out of that van with a black eye or a broken nose, she can’t tap the cop on the corner and ask for help. She’s stuck.

Legalizing prostitution is not a solution to any of the economic, social, racial, cultural, etc conditions that compel people who are not of the sex-work-is-my-passion pursuasion into “the oldest profession.” Legalizing prostitution is a stopgap measure that can help make the sex industry just a little safer. After all, sex is supposed to be fun, right?

*For the purposes of this post, consider “sex work” to refer only to the consensual exchange of sexual services for money from one adult to another. “Sex work” should be considered a broad category of employment, including but not limited to prostitutes, escorts, phone sex operators, and professionals in the BDSM community.

Read Alexa Albert’s Brothel, Ronald Weitzer’s Sex for Sale: Prostitution, Pornography and the Sex Industry for more. Try Melissa Farley’s Prostitution and Trafficking in Nevada for a completely different take on the issue of legalization in Nevada.  And watch Cathouse.

A(nother) Case Study On The American Obsession with Prostitution

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A new addition to the voices surrounding America’s obsession and repulsion with prostitution has recently been sounded. Photographer Mark McAndrews is publishing a book called Nevada Rose, featuring photos and essays about all 29 legal brothels in Nevada, creating what he considers to be the first complete portrait of these institutions. He’s using Kickstarter to raise the funds to print digital copies of the photos for distribution, but the itself book is being published in 2011. McAndrews’ past work seems focused on working-class American life, featuring motels, mechanics, and waitresses, to name a few of his landscape and portrait projects.

In the video, McAndrews’ says that he’s “…always been drawn to the uneasy mix between reality and fantasy that exist [in brothel life]”, which I think accurately describes the appeal of work like this to many Americans. How else can we explain the popularity of the HBO show Cathouse, about the Bunny Ranch (which is featured in the book, with interviews with owner Dennis Hof and Brooke Taylor)? Or with other forms of prostitution, from glamourous shows like Secret Diary of a Call Girl, to the research Steven Levitt did about prostitutes on the South Side of Chicago?

McAndrews describes his interest in this fantasy, explaining that “…the interactions have the choreographed feel of a mini-play, all the time set against a backdrop that’s meant to evoke a sense of extravagance, or of a false familiarity of a home-away-from-home.” But he also believes that, “The work itself is very much a cultural survey of a slowly fading chapter in American history,” which I have a very hard time believing.

While I think any work that exposes truth behind a commonly misunderstood industry like the brothel system is admirable, I wonder how much books like this accomplish. McAndrews takes beautiful photos, but perhaps if his work wasn’t considered so taboo or rare, our society would be better off. Of course that’s not his goal; he is an artist first and foremost, which removes a lot of political agenda from it. But despite the complications behind the work that these women do, I can’t help but think that their lives must be safer and happier than those of the women Steven Levitt researched.

I will always remember being in Baltimore late at night, walking back to my friend’s dorm. We passed a van, where a woman was crawling out of the back, pulling down her skirt and adjusting her fishnets. The van quickly sped away, and she kindly said “Hello, have a good night,” with a real Southern drawl, and then walked off. It was a split-second of a moment, but both my friend and I knew what she had been doing. I know nothing else about her life, and her choices. But I do know that the demand for her type of work isn’t going away. But I’m certain her support network could be better. At the very least, she could get out of that van.

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