Monday, February 10, 2014

Why context matters when it comes to prostitution

As I read the sad coverage of the death of a high school teacher, who was killed by a young woman with a "history of prostitution," I brace myself for the public discussions the story will stimulate. The realities proven by local and global research- specifically that most who are bought and sold for sex are first sexually exploited as children, are victims of astronomical levels of rape and battery by pimps and traffickers, and don't want to be doing what they are doing but don't see any way out- fail to take the spotlight and are overshadowed by the popular, misinformed trope that prostitution is just another kind of work- the harms of which would be ameliorated by legalization and a rejection of prudish morality.

What my organization, the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, and countless others know- both from those who have been sold for sex, but also from research with men who purchase sex- is this: prostitution is dangerous and often deadly for those who are bought and sold; men who purchase sex (respectable or not) know more than most about the separate circumstances that lead girls and women to be for sale; 'customers' frequently take knowing advantage of the vulnerability and desperation of those who are bought. In Illinois, where nearly 95% of prostitution-related arrests are of those who are purchased (despite the fact that the population of 'customers' is vastly bigger) men face virtually no risk of legal consequence for purchasing sex, as they face little risk of other harm.

As the current case makes clear, men who buy sex are not always and only predators: as humans, they too, are vulnerable and can be harmed. But as we discuss and consider the problem of prostitution in the context of this current tragedy, I hope that the exploitation of those who are purchased is not ignored. I hope that people will also remember what is made manifest by the lives of most men and women: sex is not like other acts that people willingly engage in for money- it's not like flipping burgers or doing someone else's taxes or cleaning someone's house or being hired to do any other activity that is legitimately called "work." It is the kind of activity that girls and women mostly only do for money if they have been abused and are desperate.

As the community grapples with this tragic event, I hope there will not be too much thoughtless vilification of the young woman who took a life. And I hope there won't be an over-simplification of the problems posed (and faced) by men whose disposable income creates the demand that fuels all sex trafficking and prostitution.

For those who consider the purchase of sex to be trivial- or worse, to be a marker of 'manhood'- it is worth pointing out that no research has ever suggested that most men purchase sex. And if most men- or even if many men- can spend their lives refraining from funding an industry that depends on its existence for a ready supply of girls and women who have been trained for it by child sexual abuse, poverty, and abusive pimps, then all men can refrain from being customers.

Kaethe Morris Hoffer is the Executive Director of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE). She represents individual survivors of sexual assault, including through prostitution, advocating for them through civil litigation and within the context of the criminal system. Kaethe has spent the last twenty years doing legal and political advocacy opposing sex inequality and sexual violence.