Some Lurid Prostitution Myths Debunked

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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.

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 as independent call girls). Indoor workers generally have lower rates of childhood abuse, enter prostitution at an older age, have more education, are less drug-dependent, are less likely to have sexually transmitted diseases and are less likely to be assaulted or raped than street workers. Indoor workers also tend to enjoy better working conditions and earn more money.

Despite what some activists claim, most of those working indoors in the U.S. have not been trafficked against their will.

Many indoor workers made conscious decisions to enter the trade, and a significant number actually like their work. A recent New York City study found that indoor workers expressed “a surprisingly high degree of enjoyment” of their work, and several other studies also find that indoor workers have fairly high job satisfaction and believe they provide a valuable service. This is not an exceptional finding; it is confirmed by a growing body of research. The media often ignore it, and prefer to do feature stories on the abused and exploited.

This is not to romanticize indoor prostitution. Some indoor workers work under oppressive conditions or dislike their work for other reasons. 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, but it’s important to point out that the vast majority of American sex providers work indoors.

Since sex workers differ markedly in their working conditions, experiences and impact on the surrounding community, public policies should treat the indoor and street sectors differently. Rhode Island’s two-track policy regarding street and indoor workers — where those indoors are not subject to arrest — is a model for other states, and many police departments already follow this policy informally.

Reprinted from Providence Journal, June 25, 2009, Response to Donna Hughes

In a Letter to the Editor of the Providence Journal on June 24, Donna Hughes called the opposition to the Rhode Island bill a “carnival” and made allegations that many would consider unprofessional and embarrassing for a university professor. 

This is not the first time that Donna Hughes has engaged in character assassination in an attempt to challenge positions that contradict her own. Now, in this Letter, she attacks state legislators, Spread Magazine, and women who work in the sex industry. Like others who share Hughes' prohibitionist views, Hughes is only willing to give credence to sex workers when they seem to agree with her, and when they don't she has consistently either downplayed their views or claimed that they are the tools of pimps and traffickers.  
Hughes also attacks me for an essay I wrote in last week's Providence Journal. In that article, I argued that the prostitution bill in Rhode Island was misguided and based on a set of myths, and I advocated retaining the current law instead. Interestingly, Hughes does not tell us why my position is wrong. Instead, she simply denigrates me. And this is not the first time she has done so. As it turns out, Hughes accepts all of the many myths about prostitution that I described in my article. In fact, she is one of the major populizers of those myths, myths that are contradicted by a large amount of social science research. The Rhode Island Senators were right to question Hughes on her claims, most of which are based on anecdotes and thus unscientific.  
Finally, Hughes engages in scare tactics by predicting a "human rights disaster" if the bill does not pass. Well, the status quo legal situation has been in effect for about three decades, so one wonders why the "disaster" has not happened by now!


Professor of Sociology

George Washington University

Washington DC