Emily Bazelon and Josh Levin take readers' questions about prostitution.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
March 13 2008 4:57 PM

Sex Sells

Emily Bazelon and Josh Levin take readers' questions about prostitution.

Read more of Slate's coverage of the Eliot Spitzer prostitution scandal.

(Continued from Page 4)

Denver: In this case these seem to be women, but from what I understand, the average age one enters prostitution nationwide is 14; this, combined with relatively low life-expectancy and the chances of getting caught and put in prison, leads me to believe that most prostitutes are actually teenage girls, and even many who are women may have been trapped in this life when they were girls.

That aspect of it bothers me greatly. I wonder if making it legal at least could ensure that it is women, not girls, doing this. On the other hand, I also wonder why in the current legal state, more men are not harshly prosecuted in their role in this as johns, when not only are they soliciting, they also often are committing statutory rape.

Emily Bazelon: There will always be a black market for teenage girls, but you may be right that legalization and regulation could reduce their numbers. On the other hand, legalization could create other problems. I agree that arresting johns seems like a smart way to dry up demand, as the Swedish example demonstrates.

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Rockville, Md.: For $1,000 or more an hour, couldn't "the Emperor's Club VIP" come up with a better name and some classier copy? The bad grammar and inept flattery (I mean, what kind of cheeseball wants to join "The Emperor's Club"?) would put me right off. Granted, I'm female, but still, won't someone think of the poor consumer who has to read this eyeball-burning schlock?

Josh Levin: I think this is one business where the name probably isn't that important when it comes to making a sale. Anyway, perhaps we're not giving the proprietors enough credit for the subtle reference to the Emperor's New Clothes.

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College Park, Md.: Has anyone ever done a study of women long after their prostitute careers are over? I wonder how they feel about the work in retrospect—the better paid prostitutes, in particular, not the street prostitutes who one would assume were doing whatever they could to get by. Part of me figures, fine, prostitution should be legalized—surely women can decide for themselves if they're cut out for the job. But my friends and I tend to be of the opinion that the work sounds just too icky, and none of us could do it, ever.

Emily Bazelon: That is such a great question and I wish I knew the answer. There have been studies of prostitutes' mortality rates, the rate of sexual abuse, and a couple of recent ones by economists looking at average pay and instances of physical abuse. But I think you're asking a broader question—how do these women feel about the work they did after it's over, and they look back. If the studies suggesting that the vast majority of women wish they could leave the trade are any indication, a lot of women probably look back with regret and sadness. But as always in life, not all of them, and it would be really interesting to read well-conducted studies that try to take that measure.

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Atlanta: Just an obsevation, really: I must hang around some shady characters, because the questions here strike me as puritanical, naive and humorous. How does a woman "choose" this line of work? She tries other jobs and realizes she could make as much money if not more doing "this" in less than the typical 40-hour work week. The women I've known who've done this have no qualms about why they made that choice. It's not for everyone—and no, I'm not talking about victims of abuse. It takes a certain mindset and personality.

Emily Bazelon: Yes, prostitutes don't work a 40 hour work week, and yes, for some women the sex trade could be a rational line of work. It's risky—there's a high rate of violence, you depend on your clients for cash-based payments if you collect your own money. But other work could look worse, in some circumstances.

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Washington: I don't know what your research and discussions have developed, but I believe that it's not entirely uncommon for younger women to work as call girls. I went to college and lived in an undergraduate dormitory in New York until I moved back to Washington three years ago, and it was almost an open fact that several of my dormmates worked (a few with some frequency) for a service which seemed not dissimilar to the agency implicated in the Spitzer scandal.

My dormmates (I discussed this extensively with one of them) seemed truly unconcerned by the potential medical, violence and ultimately blackmail risks to which they might be exposed. Honestly, I was stunned by this more than anything else. I since have learned that there may have been at least a half-dozen people in my 200-plus student dorm who may have worked for the same two agencies. Have you found that this somehow is gaining social acceptance? What really astounds me more than anything else is voluntarily undertaking the blackmail exposure. I really would value your comments.

Josh Levin: Not sure it speaks to the rising social acceptance of prostitution, but that's a pretty alarming percentage of prostitution in your college dorm. In his Slate piece I referenced earlier, Sudhir Vinkatesh makes some interesting points about the diffence between the growing class of "indoor" sex workers and the stereotypical streetwalker. "In the past, sex workers tended to view their role as part-time 'survivors'—selling sex to keep up a drug habit, to pay rent, or to eke out a living until something better came along," he writes. "Pushed indoors, some became 'careerist.' They were professionals offering a legitimate service, like nursing or counseling; they looked at their work as partly therapeutic."

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Washington: How has legalization worked out in Nevada? I have to wonder if that situation may better represent the potential reality of legalization in the U.S. than does Sweden...

Emily Bazelon: Except that Nevada is one island of legalization in a sea of bans. So of course demand is high there—it's where people go to buy sex without fear of arrest.

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Re: "He hired whores because...": That is an excellent point, and one reason I'll never think it's okay, even if a woman tells me she's okay with being a whore—that whole aspect of the subservience/servant role as opposed to a willing partner, even if only for an hour, or 15 minutes. Someone who enjoys treating their sexual partners like livestock bothers me.

Josh Levin: Well said.

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