Every day, thousands of women in the US engage in an activity that 89% of them want to escape. An estimated 60-75% of them have been raped, 70-95% have been physically assaulted, and 68% suffer from PTSD at levels similar to combat veterans or victims of state torture. They develop neurological issues, sexually transmitted infections, and cervical cancer at higher than normal rates. On average, they die at 34 due to drug addiction, lack of education, physical or psychological threats, abuse, or simply because they have no viable options, these women are forced to risk their lives each day just to survive. This group is prostituted women.
If another less stigmatized group was faced with such abhorrent conditions, it is likely that the response would be drastically different. When asked to cut down on prostitution, law enforcement officials typically respond by cracking down on the women offering up their bodies for money. The purchase of sex is typically seen as a misdemeanor vice crime, as evidenced by congressional findings which show that 11 women were arrested for every one male buyer in Boston during the mid 2000’s. In reality, the solution to ending this form of gender based violence is to focus on reducing the demand among sex buyers.
Prostitution is not a victimless crime and it creates lasting emotional and physical tolls that sex sellers must deal with for many years. Not only are prostituted women raped, physically assaulted and subjected to immense psychological burden from sex buyers, studies show that 80% of people in prostitution were coerced into selling their bodies by pimps or sex traffickers. They are frequently manipulated and abused when they don’t meet the demands of overbearing handlers. Prostituted women are not the autonomous, happy and healthy individuals in the idyllic, Hollywood “Pretty Woman” mold. They are typically desperate, suffering souls just hoping to survive. Even for high-end escorts who work under luxurious conditions, the toll is immense. Natalie McLennan, author of
The Price: My Rise and Fall as Natalia, New York’s #1 Escort, writes, “I had the best experience you could hope for when selling your body: I was never physically, emotionally or mentally abused. I was well paid and treated to a life of luxury. And even under those circumstances, I suffered from post-traumatic stress, had the money I earned stolen by the man I was working for, was arrested and spent a month in jail, saw my drug use become abuse and then addiction, and finally became suicidal.” Men who buy sex often find significant appeal in the belief that prostituting women choose to do so because they desire sex as much as their buyers. But when the women forced into this seemingly lucrative “life” face coercion at the hands of manipulative men, drug addiction, or poverty, is it really a choice?
Skeptics argue that nothing can be done to eradicate “The World’s Oldest Profession.” However, the Nordic model, which has been adopted in many European countries, provides great promise. The model is a law enforcement approach in which the purchase of sex, not the sale, is criminalized. Under the Nordic model, pimping and running a brothel are also illegal. Since 1999, both prostitution and sex trafficking have decreased dramatically in Sweden. During this time period, Sweden has seen just one prostituting woman murdered while in The Netherlands, a country where the Nordic Model has not been implemented, 127 women have died as a result of prostitution. Like basic economics, supply and demand in the purchase of sex are directly related. For suffering women, prostitution often offers the only escape from the metaphorical “burning building” of oppressive conditions. But when the buyers of sex are punished to a degree that dries up demand, there is no longer a market and women are freed from the coercion of prostitution. With exit services that provide housing, job training, and addiction treatment, turning around the lives of these prostituted women is proven possible.
We know about the costs of prostitution for women, but what about for sex buyers? According to recent data, 88% of men would be deterred from purchasing sex if their names were to appear in a sex offender registry. Also, 88% would modify their behavior if they knew that their decision to solicit prostitution would trigger a letter being sent to their friends and families. It seems that the cost of prostitution in the eyes of the buyers is not merely the number of dollars they pay for sex, but the potential for crippling blows to their reputation.
Just 150 years ago, it was hard to believe that African Americans would be freed from slavery. Even 50 years ago, it was impossible to imagine a world in which women were granted equal rights. Is it really fair to say that there is no hope of eliminating, or at least drastically reducing the incidence of this modern day violation of human rights? The persecution and stigmatization that prostituting women face obscures what truly matters: this is a suffering group that needs help. And for sex buyers, the purchase of a woman’s body funds and perpetuates the suffering and the darkest sides of human behavior.
When it comes to prostitution, the outcome is a Lose-Lose. It’s time we start treating it as such.