Emily Bazelon’s article, Should Prostitution Be a Crime? published in the New York Times Magazine on May 8, 2016 inaccurately and unfairly portrays the demeaning and discriminatory nature of commercial sexual exploitation as empowering “sex work” that, if legalized and regulated, would support a feminist goal of gender equality. At its heart, the article’s clearest message is that purchasing sex is merely a fact of life that society needs to get on board with and accept. By seeking to normalize this “boys will be boys” mentality – the premise that men are entitled to sex, and therefore, women (living in a man’s world) should capitalize on this and use it to their advantage – is reinforced. The commodification of women’s bodies is perpetuated through media glamorization and the mentality that “sex sells.”
Many prostituted women – including one quoted in the article – say that “if you don’t want to do this work, you shouldn’t have to.” The sale of sex is not inevitable. To suggest that prostitution is a form of empowerment inaccurately portrays survivor experiences in relation to choice. While many victims of sexual exploitation do not recognize themselves as victims, many survivors who look back on their experiences recognize the lack of choices they had when entering the life of prostitution. Many were sexually abused as children. Many were homeless, involved in foster care, or running from abusive homes. Many were exploited by pimps. Many were repeatedly beaten and raped—inevitably turning to drugs to ease the pain of the trauma they encountered.
Many have no other job options due to lack of education or criminal convictions. They continue to engage in commercial sex, not out of choice, but because, they have no other choice. If you listen carefully to the voices in the article, many discuss how they engage in commercial sex as a means of survival, and if given another choice, would not do this. This is clearly not the view of someone who is empowered by a system that reinforces the concept that their bodies are commodities in a man’s world.
Bazelon accuses abolitionists of viewing all women in prostitution as victims – but this accusation is false. Many abolitionists do not deny that some adults may freely choose to sell themselves for sex. Yet, crucially, abolitionists recognize that the majority of women in the sex industry do not choose prostitution, so much as it chooses them – typically for reasons grounded in social inequality and gender-based abuse. Further, abolitionists recognize that laws and policies should protect those who are most vulnerable to abuse – those whom prostitution chose .
Prostitution increases women’s risk of rape, disease, addiction, injury from violence, and even early death. Common sense would make someone think about that and wonder why legalization is being advocated so heavily when prostituted persons are suffering and dying at such astounding rates. Bazelon claims that legalization makes women safer – but there is no sound empirical basis to support this claim. What can be done to increase safety is a rebellion: the rejection, not the legitimization, of an industry that is entirely dependent on demand by men. We must stop arresting prostituted persons and continue to insist that it is not “normal” for men to buy sex—it is a criminal act and a wrong that harms the very women Bazelon claims to support.
Bazelon writes, “the sex-worker’s rights movement is a rebellion against punishment and shame.” Yet she misses the far more radical and empowering rebellion advanced by the abolitionist movement. Abolitionists rebel against a billion-dollar, patriarchal industry that exists entirely for male pleasure, and treats women as mere objects in service of that pleasure. We rebel against an industry driven by the sexual demands of the male client and, in the worst cases, the economic interests of brutal, controlling, abusive pimps who serve that demand.
Bazelon further claims that the “sex worker rights” movement demonstrates “respect for a group that has rarely received it” and “insists that you can only really help people if you respect them.” While prostituted-people undoubtedly deserve respect and a movement can only really help people if it respects them – Bazelon seriously misunderstands what genuine respect for human beings entails. It is the abolitionist movement – not the “sex worker rights” movement – that respects and values every person who has been caught up in this industry, whether freely chosen or not. While it is wrong to shame prostituted persons, the commodification of women’s bodies must not continue to be legitimized through the mentality that “sex sells” and will always sell. We must stop this legitimization by pursuing the demand.
The question Bazelon poses in her article presents a false choice. The issue is not simply whether “prostitution” should be a crime. Instead, there are three distinct questions at issue: (1) Shouldpimping be a crime? (2) Should buying sex be a crime? And (3) Should being sold for sex be a crime? The abolitionist answers are that pimping and buying should continue to be criminalized, while prostituted persons should not be. By lumping the victims of commercial sexual exploitation into the same question along with their exploiters, Bazelon’s question obscures the harm suffered by prostituted-people.
Thus, while claiming to “respect” prostituted-people, her argument treats them as mere instruments to further the normalization and legitimization of their own abuse. We believe that human beings deserve better – they deserve true respect. And so, to answer Bazelon’s question: prostitution – being sold for sex – should NOT be a crime, but pimping and buying sex MUST be.