Split at the Root: Prostitution and Feminist Discourses of Law Reform

What are the effects of creating a separation between ‘prostitutes’ and all ‘other women’? What happens when women involved in prostitution are examined by different standards? Baldwin examines the ways in which the prostitute/’other woman’ dichotomy gives meaning to sexual abuse of women and girls, how it affects the legal responses to abuse, and its impact on feminist reform strategies.

In the context of physical and sexual abuse, prostituted women do not enjoy the same legal status that women are typically granted. While most battered women are labeled ‘victims’, in prostitution, battering may be viewed instead as a tool of punishment.

Data from a study of 200 prostitutes in San Francisco showcased rates of victimization: 78% were victimized by forced perversion, 70% were victimized by customer rape, 65% were physically abused and beaten by customers. Despite these numbers, only 1% filed police reports.

One anecdote looks at murder cases involving prostituted women as an extreme example of how perceptions of prostituted women affect their treatment in the legal system. It is clear that greater urgency is placed on cases in which victims are ‘innocent’ women–women with whom society can better generally relate–while the murder of a prostituted woman is not given the same sympathy or attention. As Baldwin notes, “to be a ‘prostitute’ is to be rapable, beatable, killable.’

Motivations for entering into and remaining involved with prostitution vary, but many women’s childhood histories involve tales of physical harm, emotional brutalization, and sexual abuse, especially incest. While prostitution entails a difficult and dangerous life for women involved, for many it is the only realistic means of survival.

And for women involved in prostitution who want to escape a violent environment? While shelters are generally considered a first line of escape, many shelters remain effectively inaccessible because of policy constraints banning those engaged in illegal activity.

Ultimately, separating ‘prostitutes’ and ‘other women’ is problematic. This dichotomy has proven a major point in rape law reform and in analyzing sexual abuse. Representation is necessary to help illuminate the issues faced by women in prostitution. In learning the real stories from women involved in prostitution, it is possible to generate better understanding and achieve more effective reform.

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