This week, New York Magazine added its name to the long list of mainstream publications that pose the question, “Is prostitution just another job?” As usual, the article begins with the story of a white, well educated “escort” seeking an edgy experience while attending a $50,000-a-year private college. The featured woman (and it almost always is an adult woman) negotiates the sex trade on her own terms and can exit anytime she wishes. While these situations do exist, they are far from the reality of the vast majority of people bought and sold in prostitution.
Intentionally or not, the New York Magazine article underscores exactly why prostitution can never be a job like any other. Most of the stories they feature initially paint the picture of the well-informed woman choosing prostitution: The educated hipster inspired by a podcast glamorizing the sex industry. A woman with the privilege of “more degrees than most” looking to supplement her income.
But what quickly emerges is the reality of the people and circumstances on which the sex trade deliberately preys. Take Jill Brenneman, for example. In her 40s, she entered the sex trade “voluntarily” after she lost her job. But at 14, she was kidnapped, trafficked, and raped. Another woman described in the article is Skylar, orphaned at a young age, had children while still a child, and entered prostitution because “she couldn’t find another way to get money for food.” By 15, “she had a boss, whom most people would consider a pimp and she had no control over clients or services if she wanted to get paid.”
These narratives graphically illustrate how vulnerability, trauma and economic insecurity drive marginalized people into the sex trade and make it nearly impossible for them to exit. And the article doesn’t stop at revealing the prerequisites for prostitution. It also exposes the violence inherent to the sex trade—the drastic inequality and abuse that ensues when men with social and economic power purchase penniless, traumatized women and girls and the attempt to normalize their exploitation.
We know from our clients and other survivors of the sex trade that the reality looks drastically different from New York Magazine’s profile of “Chelsea Lane.” Many prostituted people are women and girls of color. Many are transgender. Higher education is rare. Economic opportunity is atypical. Few have the ability to extricate themselves when an encounter becomes untenable or dangerous. And most are unable to articulate their desire to leave “the life” because shame, stigma, and trauma bonds can be paralyzing.
Today, survivors who are no longer in “the life” are emerging as some of the most powerful voices—communicating a perspective radically different from the one portrayed in New York Magazine. Their experiences are consistent with studies that demonstrate that in places where prostitution is legal, approximately 60% of women have been physically assaulted, 40% have suffered sexual violence, and 40% were coerced into the commercial sex trade. Women involved in street prostitution are 60 to 100 times more likely to be murdered than are non-prostituted females. No amount of regulation can keep an industry safe that is predicated on power, violence, and gender inequality.
At Sanctuary for Families, I spent the last eight weeks exploring such narratives with seven sex trade survivors, some of the most insightful experts in the field. These women ranged in age and spanned the spectrum on race, ethnicity, and religion. English was a second language for some.
Although the differences among the women were stark on the surface, I was struck by their remarkable commonalities. Each woman, in her own words, explained that her time in prostitution was painful, exploitative, and left permanent wounds that reopen easily. For most of these women, a history of sexual abuse, domestic violence, and childhood trauma served as a launching pad. Poverty, homelessness, and involvement with the child welfare system were the norm, not the exception. And for many, entry into prostitution happened early, before consent could be given legally or their brains had a chance to fully develop.
In our group, the women powerfully articulated how systems of oppression created the platform for other people’s profit. All agreed that police were problematic, but that legalization would only normalize and lead to an increase in exploitation. And yet most admitted that while in prostitution each would have defended legalization. This fact intrigued me.
When I probed, one woman explained, “While in it, it felt awful and I was repeatedly abused. But I needed to legitimize it so I could keep living.” Another woman laughed, stating, “I would have told you I was doing it voluntarily.” One more added, “I would have said I was raped only once, but it wasn’t that bad.”
Prostitution is inevitable. Prostitution is about choice. Prostitution is empowering. These are the myths that those with a vested interest in the sex trade want you to believe.
To New York Magazine and any other publication that uses “Is Prostitution Just Another Job?” to sell magazines and make money… The answer is a resounding, “No.” It’s time we stopped asking this Orwellian question. It’s time we stopped justifying the exploitation and abuse of those with the fewest options under the guise of choice.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.
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