Politics & Law

Elizabeth's picture

An academic response to criminalizing prostitution in Rhode Island

Several weeks ago, first in the Providence Journal and then here, Ron Weitzer, a professor of criminology at George Washington University, debunked myths about prostitution that were being circulated during testimony and press coverage of Rhode Island's attempts to recriminalize the private exchange of sex for money. Donna Hughes, a Women's Studies professor at University of Rhode Island, wrote a commentary piece for the Providence Journal in which she continued to promote those myths and the moral panic they fuel, and in the process also ridiculed sex educator a Megan Andelloux and $pread, a magazine by sex workers for sex workers.

It has been easier for a small but vocal group of academics to ridicule the sex industry and condemn it with deeply flawed research and tired stereotypes than it has been for a larger more reasoned group to publish honest examinations and advocate for evidence-based policy. In light of the steps that Rhode Island's legislature is taking to criminalize legal sex work, Ron Weitzer and I, with organizing help and feedback from a Michael Goodyear (Dalhousie University) and Melissa Ditmore (Editor of the Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work, and research consultant at the Sex Workers Project of the Urban Justice Center) decided to coordinate an academic response to the irresponsible attempts to promote moral panic and bad policy under the guise of protecting women and communities.

That effort resulted in a letter to be delivered to the Rhode Island State Legislature and to Rhode Island media outlets. It is a letter that involves compromises, as all collective efforts do. The letter does three important things:

Letter to Members of the Rhode Island State Legislature

July 2009

LETTER TO MEMBERS OF THE RHODE ISLAND STATE LEGISLATURE

RE: PROSTITUTION LAW REFORM PROPOSAL, 2009

BY: Ronald Weitzer & Elizabeth Anne Wood, and signatories listed below

Rhode Island is currently the only state in the U.S. without a statute expressly prohibiting prostitution. State law bans loitering in public places, which is used to arrest street prostitutes, but does not ban solicitation itself, which leaves the indoor trade untouched because no loitering is involved. This may change soon. The state legislature recently passed a bill criminalizing prostitution, although the House and Senate versions differ and will require changes before the bill can be forwarded to the governor. 

In the past few weeks, advocates of criminalizing prostitution have lobbied Rhode Island’s legislators and made frequent appearances in the media. Many of their assertions about prostitution are myths. Research shows that there is a world of difference between those who work the streets and those who sell sex indoors (in massage parlors, brothels, for escort agencies, or are independent workers).

Regarding street prostitution, the problems often associated with it are best understood as outcomes of poverty, addiction, homelessness, and runaway youth – suggesting that the best way to deal with street prostitution is to tackle these precursors rather than simply arresting the sellers.

Compared to street workers, women and men who work indoors generally are much safer and less at risk of being assaulted, raped, or robbed. They also have lower rates of sexually transmitted infections, enter prostitution at an older age, have more education, and are less likely to be drug-dependent or have a history of childhood abuse. Indoor workers also tend to enjoy better working conditions, although this is naturally not the case everywhere.

Despite what some activists claim, most of those working indoors in the U.S. have not been trafficked against their will. We oppose coercive trafficking whether for sexual labor, agricultural labor, or any other type of work. But when trafficking is conflated with prostitution, as is so often done now, it confounds law enforcement’s ability to target their efforts to fighting human rights abuses in the trafficking sphere.

Many indoor workers made conscious decisions to enter the trade, and several studies also find that indoor workers have moderate-to-high job satisfaction and believe they provide a valuable service. One Australian study found that half of the call girls and brothel workers interviewed felt that their work was a “major source of satisfaction” in their lives, and more than two-thirds said they would “definitely choose this work” if they had it to do over again. (This study was conducted in the state of Queensland, where indoor prostitution has been decriminalized.) In other studies, a significant percentage of escorts report an increase in self-esteem after they began selling sex. These findings may surprise some people, because they are not the kinds of stories reported in the media, which usually focus instead on instances of abuse and exploitation.

This is not to romanticize indoor prostitution. Some indoor workers work under oppressive conditions or dislike their work for other reasons. We believe that worker safety should be a high priority in all industries. At the same time, there is plenty of evidence to challenge the myths that most prostitutes are coerced into the sex trade, experience frequent abuse, and want to be rescued. This syndrome is more characteristic of street workers, and is associated with the vulnerabilities of poverty, addiction and abuse. While these are issues that need to be addressed, it is important to point out that the vast majority of American sex providers work indoors.

Since street and indoor sex workers differ markedly in their working conditions, experiences and impact on the surrounding community, public policies should be cognizant of these differences rather than a monolithic, broad brush approach. Policy makers would also do well to listen to those doing the work; all too often, the views of the sex workers themselves are marginalized in public debates. Because street-based prostitution has negative impacts on neighbors, policies should address those impacts separately from indoor prostitution. Moreover, the opportunity to work indoors, in itself, helps to reduce the problems associated with street-based prostitution. Rhode Island’s current system of treating indoor and street prostitution differently is a step in the right direction. Criminalizing indoor sexual services is not the answer.

Signed by the following members of the academic community:

Ronald Weitzer, George Washington University

Elizabeth Wood, Nassau Community College, a unit of the State University of New York

Michael Goodyear, Dalhousie University, Canada

Barbara Brents, University of Nevada

Lisa Wade, Occidental College

Janet Lever, California State University, Los Angeles

Elaine Mossman, Victoria University, New Zealand

Susan Dewey, DePauw University

Christine Milrod, Institute for the Advanced Study of Sexuality

Mindy Bradley-Engen, University of Arkansas

Molly Dragiewicz, University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Canada

Ann Lucas, San Jose State University

Frances Shaver, Concordia University, Canada

Ariel Eisenberg, University of Wisconsin - Madison

Juline Koken, National Development and Research Institutes, Public Health Solutions

Larry Ashley, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Barry Dank, California State University, Long Beach

Richard Lotspeich, Indiana State University

Tamara O’Doherty, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver Canada

Lauren Joseph, Stony Brook University

Crystal Jackson, University of Nevada

Gayle MacDonald, St. Thomas University, Canada

Daniel Sander, New York University

Gert Hekma, University of Amsterdam, Netherlands

John Betts, New York University

Wendy Chapkis, University of Southern Maine

Suzanne Jenkins, Keele University, UK

Benjamin Reed, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Anna Kontula, University of Tampere, Finland

Janell Tryon, New York University

Mindy Chateauvert, University of Maryland

Jessie Daniels, City University of New York - Hunter College

Rachel Hsiung, New York University

Gillian Abel, University of Otago, New Zealand

Deborah Brock, York University, Toronto, Canada

Elizabeth Nanas, Wayne State University

Charles Watson, Curtin University, Australia

Ilona Margiotta, New York University

Jennifer Manion, Connecticut College

Lyle Hallowell, Nassau Community College

Emily van der Meulen, York University, Toronto, Canada

Rebecca Chalker, Pace University

Gilbert Geis, University of California, Irvine

Rachael Stern, New York University

Lynn Comella, University of Nevada

Alessandro De Giorgi, San Jose State University

Martin Schwartz, Ohio University

William Chambliss, George Washington University

Kelley Moult, American University

 

Michael's picture

Coordinating research and informing policy in sex work

We have previously written about the need for the sex work research community to influence the overall research agenda to ensure that resources are directed to research that is responsible, responsive to need and that informs public and social policy.

Michael's picture

Fundamental freedoms or moral soapbox?

There are essentially two ways to change unjust laws, by appealing to the legislature, or by referring the statutes to an independent judiciary for a  determination of whether they transgress fundamental freedoms protected by the constitution. Both approaches have been tried in Canada with respect to sex work legislation. 

The last judicial review ocurred in 1990, and was lost in an interesting split of the Supreme Court along gender lines. It nearly succceeded however. It passed the first test, in that of two sections of the Criminal Code that were being challenged, the majority of the court held that;

Section 195.1(1)(c) of the Code is inconsistent with s. 2(b of the Charter but is justifiable under s. 1 of the Charter

Section 195.11(1)(c), as it was then, dates from 1972 and prohibits solicitation in public. Specifically it states that;

Elizabeth's picture

Swimming naked: A declaration of independence

 elizabeth swimming

It's almost Independence Day weekend in the United States and so I am making my own very specific declaration of independence. In  honor of "the personal is political" and in honor of Independence Day (and because I happen to have a very recent photo of me swimming naked near an American Flag) I want to make a simple declaration: I need to be free to swim naked. I dislike the confinement of swimsuits. They cling and bind and besides, other than wet t-shirt contests, why would anyone put on clothes specifically to get them wet? We take off wet clothes! Why put something on to go in the water?

RonWeitzer's picture

Some Lurid Prostitution Myths Debunked

 

Reprinted from the Providence Journal (Rhode Island), June 19, 2009
by Ronald Weitzer

In the past few weeks, advocates of criminalizing prostitution in Rhode Island have made many assertions about the “horrors” of prostitution to push legislation forward. Most of these claims are myths.

Caroline's picture

Prostitution decriminalised in Taiwan

via Mistress Aliya - Taiwan OKs legalized prostitution zone.

Taiwan began a process of legalizing prostitution Wednesday making the island the latest place in the world to decriminalize the world's oldest profession.

In six months, authorities will stop punishing Taiwan sex workers after prostitutes successfully campaigned to be given the same protection as their clients, a government spokesman said. [Reuters]

This after much campaigning by The Collective of Sex Workers and Supporters. Why?

Elizabeth's picture

Two small but important steps forward for same sex couples

I hesitate to make too much of small things. On the one hand i don't want to blow them out of proportion. On the other i don't want to jinx a process that might be just in its early stages. But despite those two concerns I am excited by two recent policy changes that the Obama administration has made which seem to indicate at very least a less restrictive interpretation of the Defense of Marriage Act and perhaps more than that: perhaps a slow chipping away at the act itself. 

First of all, today the New York Times printed an AP story reporting that the Census Bureau would in fact count same sex married couples as married. That reverses a Bush administration policy that I wrote about here explicitly stating that these couples could not be counted because DOMA prohibited the federal government from recognizing same sex marriages in any way. Apparently the Obama administration disagrees. Then again, the Obama administration also understands the need for accurate research and solid data when making policy decisions, and data provided by a census that did not count such marriages would be inherently flawed.

Lou FCD's picture

North Carolina Caves To Superstitious Nonsense

Zero Tolerance for Clowns by Mike Licht @ Flickr At the beginning of the semester, my son brought home a permission slip to attend his Sex Ed class. My first thought was, "Oh, good. I hope they catch anything I forgot to tell him, clear up anything I might have..." And that's about where that thought died. I suddenly remembered I was standing in North Carolina, where they don't actually teach Sex Ed, but rather propagandize a useless religious doctrine.

There are few things in the world that get under my skin like superstition used as an excuse to hurt kids. Abstinence Only Mis-education is such a case.

It's not the teachers' fault, in North Carolina they are prohibited from educating our youth by state law. The law is clearly unconstitutional, though the religious fervor that blinds America has not yet subsided enough to hope for a successful court challenge to it here.

But regardless of blame, I had a decision to make about my son.

Elizabeth's picture

"Decent Exposure": Judith Levine on the black hole of sex crimes law

Judith Levine writes brilliantly about sex, teens, and the law. From her book Harmful to Minors to her recent writings on the new craze of charging teens who send sexy photos of themselves to one another with possession and distribution of child pornography, she is one of the most articulate when it comes to explaining the irrationality of the law. 

Today she writes :

U.S. sex law is like a black hole: Once reason falls in, it can never re-emerge.

Can all this get any stupider? Just as I was asking myself this question, a post arrived from sex therapist Marty Klein’s blog, Sexual Intelligence, confirming that it could:

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