Prostitution has a tough, sad history

he tabloids in New York, as salacious as ever, are making the arrest of yet another madam into major front-page news. This latest case involves a woman who has been arrested, thus far, on one count of promoting prostitution. Obviously all this publicity assures that she, or someone of her choosing, will write a best seller and ultimately become a millionaire.

Sex workers are picked up every night on charges which amount to nothing more serious than parking tickets. Back when I worked with the New York Police Department, I drove around in a truck observing the police arresting prostitutes. It was just a business. Some of the women knew the first names of the people who drove the truck. Prostitution is not called the world’s oldest profession for nothing. It’s as American as apple pie.

Bessie Smith, the famous blues lady, once sang, “There are lots of ways to sell it, baby.” You could argue that men have been paying for sexual privileges, one way or another, since the first amphibians crawled out of the slime. This feeds directly into the way in which women are treated. When we say that they are “objectified” or “made into chattel,” it’s true.

In this society, women are expected to dress in an alluring and often provocative manner; they are expected to be pretty to land many jobs. In the politics of Massachusetts, women have hit a glass ceiling. We’ve never had a woman senator, and as long as we treat women as objects there will always be a glass ceiling.

There all kinds of theories about how this came about. Could it be that men are hunters and women are gatherers? Could it be that women have the lion’s share of the child rearing responsibilities and pregnancy was something to be reckoned with? Could it have to do with the politics or economics of contemporary marriage?

All we know is that some men will pay for sex in dollars. Others will pay with a ring or an apartment. Some will pay with jewelry or a car. We have chosen to make the exchange of sexual favors for money illegal. Interestingly, I know one very rich man who thought that sex with a prostitute was actually protective of his marriage. Had he done what other rich men have done and taken a mistress or fooled around with occasional flirtations, he probably would have been fine. Instead, he went down the path that ends in disgrace and punishment.

There are many arguments for legalizing prostitution. Some places have already done so. Regular enforced health care can minimize the spread of diseases like AIDS and HPV. Maybe prostitution should be legalized so that no one will be punished for doing what men and women have been doing on one level or another since the beginning of time.

Obviously, there are institutions that oppose this idea — some religious organizations, for example, or groups like the libertarians, who suggest that there is no good reason for the government to involve itself in human consensual behavior. Obviously, laws have to be passed to protect minors and non-consenting adults. Once that is done, a sex worker will have the recourse of seeking protection from the law in the case of abuse by a pimp or similar predator.

Often, when we examine the groups who are vocally opposed, we find that they have a pretty seamy underside themselves. Yet there they are, time and again, saying no to sex and gambling. If the government passes such prohibitive laws, all too often the police become the judges and the juries. You think that hasn’t happened here? We see examples of that all the time as we turn the pages of our newspapers. This situation won’t really change, but it does give you something to think about.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 2/24/12

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