Emily Bazelon and Josh Levin take readers' questions about prostitution.
Read more of Slate's coverage of the Eliot Spitzer prostitution scandal.
Josh Levin: It's possible that Spitzer paid for sex because he thought it would buy discretion—that he wouldn't have to worry about some friend with benefits blabbing to the tabloids. More likely is the theory that Ellen Tarlin put forward on Slate's XX Factor blog: "He didn't hire whores because he can't get laid for free. He hired whores because he gets off on hiring whores." (Please read the rest of Ellen's brilliant post for enlightening commentary on how all this relates to gerbils and twinkies.)
Detroit: Has prostitution as an occupation ever been generally accepted, or has it always been stigmatized?
Emily Bazelon: I think some particular forms of high-end prostitution, like the Japanese comfort women, have been accepted, to a degree. Have you ever seen the TV show Firefly? There's a character on it who is a "registered companion," and she pretty much personifies the beautiful, well-adjusted prostitute. The question is whether she's a fantasy, or such a tiny fraction of the whole as to be virtually irrelevant, for policy-making purposes.
Washington: Josh, could you share your experiences of when you were a male prostitute? Thanks!
Josh Levin: Come on, that's offensive. I was never a male prostitute. I only go by Josh in online chats. My real name is Katie.
I think that Rhode Island has legalized some acts of prostitution that take place indoors. (If I'm wrong bout that, someone write in to correct me.): You are wrong—I researched this a few months ago. They were using a sort of "no idling" vehicular law to stop prostitution, and the courts ruled they couldn't charge prostitutes and johns with that violation. Prostitution is still illegal, with no plans to change it. It is sorta like using tax laws to catch mobsters, it's just that one vehicular law that can't be used to cite prostitution.
Emily Bazelon: very helpful, thank you!
Detroit: Actually, Sweden is legally on the right track. In a study made in nine countries, interviewing more than 800 prostituted women and children, 89 percent directly reported (even when pimps were standing next to them) that most of all, they wanted to leave the industry, but couldn't. This answer was given regardless of whether their country (or jurisdiction) had legalized prostitution or not.
Prostitution and pornography increasingly are being recognized as violence and as sexually discriminatory practices, e.g. in international law. The majority of all prostituted persons—most of whom are women—whether on the street or in media, have been sexually abused or battered as children. Research in the U.S. shows that an average age of entry into the industry is around 14, when children hardly "freely" decide to carry out sexual services for—on average—2,000 adult men a year. Often the children are desperate and destitute without anywhere to go.
Studies in Canada show prostituted women have a life expectancy far below others. No wonder—among 55 prostituted persons in Portland, 84 percent had been exposed to aggravated assault, on average 103 times a year; 53 percent were sexually tortured on average more than once a week. Often pornography was made of the assaults.
Against the background of some Swedish procuring cases, these facts do not appear exaggerated. The Swedish law against purchase of sexual services moves in the right direction, but it does not recognize or compensate the victims for the harms of prostitution. A civil remedy for prostituted persons to claim damages from sex buyers or procurers would empower those who need empowerment.
Emily Bazelon: Yes, I've read these facts elsewhere. And a Swedish grad student told me on Monday about the civil remedy idea. It's intriguing; on the other hand, the incentives it sets up seem weird. You let a man solicit you for sex, and then you say hey, I'm suing you? That seems like an incentive for women luring men and then turning on them, no?
Josh Levin: Tenuously related to Emily's answer about Japanese comfort women, a couple of smart readers pointed out to me that the language on the Emperors' Club website is similar to that of Memoirs of a Geisha—the focus on the education of the women, the concept of paying a "buyout" to the manager if you enter into a personal relationship with a prostitute, etc.
Boston: For me at least, the discussion of the sex trade that this case has generated has been extremely helpful. Any discussion I previously have seen seemed to go one of two ways—either the hookers-on-the-street "all women are victomized and it definitely should be illegal" viewpoint, or the post-feminist empowered sex worker saying "I'm here because I choose to be, there's nothing inherently dirty or bad about women's sexuality—and I'm making a good living, too."
Now we're having to look at the middle ground, and take a look at how other countries in the world actually make prostitution laws work (and while the first argument is too extreme for me, the second one didn't seem to be grounded in reality). Thanks, Emily, as well for your (and the rest of the ladies') commentaries on Slate's XX Factor; it's become my favorite source of news commentary!
Emily Bazelon: I agree, and hey that's great that you're enjoying XX Factor! We have a lot of fun doing it. Especially in weeks like these.
Slate senior editor Emily Bazelon edits the "Medical Examiner" and "Jurisprudence" columns and writes about law and family. Before joining Slate, she worked as an editor and writer at Legal Affairs magazine and as a law clerk on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. Associate editor Josh Levin edits the sports and technology sections of Slate. Before that, he wrote for the Washington City Paper.