[woman]You\’re driving at night through an impoverished inner city. You come up to a red light and nervously glance around. To your left is a stick-thin blond in a leopard-print fur coat. Whether or not she has anything else on, you can’t tell — all you see are the thigh-high gloss-white boots leading out from below the thick black fur trim encompassing the leopard print. The light turns green. You speed off — much quicker this time. While it might be a stereotypical representation of inner cities, it paints a picture that can be found in any city, in any state: prostitution.
Does this thigh-high boot, leopard-print-coat-wearing woman have a right to stand on that corner, and is she deserving of the judgment just credited to her? Prostitution carries enough negative connotations to send it deep into the depths of unspeakable lingo, which is exactly what seems to have happened. Anthropology and interdisciplinary science senior Leslie Retzlaff said she stereotypes prostitutes by classifying them on their appearance and location and assuming they are uneducated. Prostitution’s very existence is more easily denied than dealt with, and any association with it that strikes close to home is quickly shoved under a rug lest anyone in the social circuit find out, much less those in the legal system who could tarnish one’s record for a lifetime.
Upon first glance, there are two ways to categorize prostitution under the law: legal or illegal. However, it isn’t an issue of black and white. Legalizing prostitution — the exchange of sexual acts for financial gain, which ranges from money to lavish gifts and lifestyles — brings legal concerns of zoning and health-related regulations. In Israel, for example, where clientele can hypothetically be punished and escort services are freely advertised, the gray area between legal and illegal is illustrated. But while the customs of legalized prostitution differentiate with geography and government, the culture has universal components.
Sex work culture
The equation of the prostitution ring is comprised of three players: the pimp, the prostitute, and the average Joe. While in pop culture, being called a \”pimp\” might be a compliment, the real term refers to one who solicits out individuals for sexual acts and offers theoretical protection for the prostitute, all while raking in profits for the middleman role. California prostitute and prostitutes’ rights activist Carol Leigh pointed out a discrepancy between this and the legally observed description. “Pimping [is] living off the avail of a prostitute,” she said. This means the “maid of a prostitute’s house can be arrested, as they make their money off a prostitute’s job.”
Both men and women can fill the role of prostitute, but more often than not, it is women in the profession. They can solicit their services, which come in any form of sex, on their own, but often they work under a pimp. The average Joe—the client—can also be male or female, and is on the receiving end, exchanging money or goods for the sexual service. The establishments or ways in which these transactions take place vary, but are mainly found in three categories: brothels, escort services and street walking, all of which are seen in red-light districts (an area flourishing with the sex industry). Brothels, also known as whorehouses and cathouses, are dwellings that house prostitutes: the client comes to the brothel to receive the service. Alternatively, escort services are associated with call girls and are an outcall service, where the prostitute visits the home or hotel of the client to perform the service. Most simple is the solicitation of street workers, who are streetwalkers servicing their clients in a car, an alleyway, or in near-by motels (which, as is appropriate with their clientele, may offer rooms by the half or full hour).
It’s important to discern between those who choose their profession for empowerment or financial reasons, and those who were sold, tricked or trafficked into their occupation, and are being held against their will by someone in the pimp role. In discussing the argument to legalize prostitution, it generally is not implying that the human trafficking of sex workers is justifiable. It is referring to those who desire to offer sexual services and be compensated for them as a livelihood, and be recognized as maintaining a credible career in the eyes of the government. Leigh was quick to point out that while she advocates for the decriminalization of prostitution, she recognizes the need for laws against sex trafficking and violence. Within that reasoning, too, is a fork in the road: some believe prostitution should only be legally recognized by the government but left to itself in other respects, while others feel that it ought to be a service-oriented career regulated by the government in terms such as health check-ups and zoning ordinances.
At one end of the spectrum is the idea that the government should not only legalize prostitution, but protect it and regulate it like other service industries. “Our government has a way to illegalize things that they don’t realize we’d have so much more control of if we legalized it,” anthropology senior Heidi Kershner said. “[It’d be] 10 times better if we regulated it.” This opinion is reminiscent of the prohibition era, when the U.S. government gave way to a flourishing bootleg industry by illegalizing alcohol and criminalizing its users.
“I don’t think prostitutes who do what they do should be criminals,” said Lisa Fine, interim director of the Program in Women, Gender and Social Justice and a professor of women\’s history courses. She said if it were legalized, there should be “recourse to health services. Practitioners could be given information so they could keep bodies safe, healthy, protected.”
Others argue that the government should legalize but not involve itself with prostitution, expressing the fundamental belief that one’s body is one’s own, and what one does with it is business of their own. The opinions of legalization advocates usually lie somewhere between these two extremes, such as the perspective represented in the International Committee for Prostitutes’ Rights: World Charter for Prostitutes’ Rights (ICPR). Based in the Netherlands, ICPR was founded by COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), a central organization in redefining prostitution as a social problem.
[gifts]This document aims to de-stigmatize and decriminalize prostitution. Targeting the stigma associated with the industry, the ICPR proposes education for the public to change general attitudes. It recognizes the malicious tendency for children to get sucked into this industry and advocates only for people to be prostitutes who want to be prostitutes.
The doctrine also requests that services be made available to those wanting to emerge from the industry. It proposes that prostitutes pay taxes and receive benefits just like any other profession, but that they are also afforded the right to work and live anywhere they please, just as in any other profession. In regards to health check ups, the ICPR insists that sex workers are more informed on sexual health than the average adult, implying their sexual knowledge surpasses that of the public. With this in mind, it ascertains that prostitutes only have mandatory check ups if they are also mandatory for all sexually active people — a request that would surely meet contention if suggested of the sexually active public.
Leigh, a member of the Bay Area Sex Worker Advocacy Network (BAYSWAN), said prostitution should be decriminalized. \”Take it out of the case of criminal law—except in the case of rape and violence,” Leigh said. “Business codes…occupational health codes…they vary in different businesses. Regulate [prostitution] as other businesses are run.”
Legalized prostitution could have indirect benefits as well. “Legalizing prostitution would take a lot of unneeded crime off the streets… making it a safer industry,” said English and criminal justice junior Vicki Schall, who conducted a field study of child prostitution in Lansing. Schall said the added community profit of taxes and safer streets are positive effects. “Legalizing prostitution normalizes it,” said Schall of the negative repercussions. “We’re already in a society that is really sex driven. [Sex] should be taken seriously.”
On the other side is Janice G. Raymond’s publication: “Ten Reasons for Not Legalizing Prostitution And a Legal Response to the Demand for Prostitution.” Here, Raymond discusses why legalizing prostitution would only make the harm to women invisible, would expand the sex industry, and would not empower the workers. The prevalent themes in this argument are that legalizing the act would promote and expand sex trafficking and child prostitution; increase the demand for it; not be in the best interest of the prostitutes themselves; and normalize the concept altogether.
By legalizing the industry, Raymond argues that it would by default also expand, causing even more demand than there already is, which would translate into demand for more sex workers, and give more motive for trafficking and sex slavery. This would cause a rise in child prostitution, and benefit the traffickers and pimps. By normalizing and de-stigmatizing sex for money, pimps and traffickers could find ways to legitimatize their role, which is often considered an undeserving and unjustified aspect of the industry. People would also find it more acceptable by society and possibly act accordingly, engaging in it more frequently. Raymond suggests that legalizing prostitution does not protect women, enhance their choice or promote their health.
Some contest the notion that prostitutes choose their profession out of dire need. “I don’t think anyone is so hard-pressed that they must [resort to prostitution]…,\” English senior Jaqueline Jones said. \”It’s been going on so long, society is already screwed. If you want to fix [the prostitution issue], put resources elsewhere to stop the moral degradation of society.” Perhaps individuals’ desire to engage in prostitution would be challenged if their social circuit frowned upon it.
But prostitution is one of the oldest professions, and people have always had the option of engaging in it, albeit often illegally. “It’s one of those things that are always going to be around,” Kershner said. “There is always going to be a demand.”
Where it is legal
There are many countries that do permit prostitution in varying degrees and methods, including many in Europe. Each of these countries has their own way of regulating the practice, which include measures from keeping it only in zoned areas, only allowing it in the form of brothels, and heavily mandating the health aspects associated. In the U.S., prostitution is legal in two states — one only by default — and is a near-future possibility for a third.
Nevada has legalized prostitution, but only in counties with a population fewer than 400,000. Even then, one must apply to the licensing board prior to practicing — which has the option of denying the request. Once established, the industry is heavily regulated: taxes are collected, health testing requirements exist, and the owner of a prostitution house is liable for a client who contracts HIV from a worker who was found HIV positive in their most recent testing. Hawaii may soon pass similar legislation, legalizing some prostitution, through House Bill 982.
Fewer people are aware of the loophole allowing prostitution to be legally practiced in Rhode Island. The state prohibits “loitering for the purposes of soliciting sex.” By definition, loitering is done outdoors — which, by default, allows indoor solicitation in Rhode Island. In Providence, brothels are disguised as massage parlors and spas. As of February 2007, district representative Joanne M. Giannini plans to close this loophole with the ultimate goal of protection. Making human trafficking a felony is one proposed method.
Both of these instances are close to home and indicate the key role that zoning and legalese would play in the legalization of prostitution, should it happen in Michigan. Urban and regional planning senior Emily Petz described the role of a city planner as finding “what is ethical in the community and where you draw the line.” City planners would also have a say in where prostitution could be practiced within a legalized county. “[City planners are] in charge of zoning if legalized…maybe even preventing them from coming into the community at all,” Petz said. “Urban planners can prevent smaller, illegal situations from taking place through positive development.”
So, is Michigan headed toward legalizing prostitution?
“No, not at all. Gay marriage was overwhelmingly turned down… religious morality dictates law,” Schall said. “People don’t even want to deal with it. People don’t even recognize there could be good with it.” Schall said taking steps toward legalizing it would be “extremely, extremely difficult.”
Should the stigma stick?
Leigh knows what it\’s like to be frowned upon by mainstream society. “When I walk into a room, I just assume the prejudice,” said Leigh. “Someone has to say, in a proactive voice, that they do support me.”
Suppose prostitution was legalized. What would come of the associated stigma and stereotypes? “It’s interesting to look at what would happen to the stigma if it were legalized,” Kershner said. “If it would break down, or carry on, or what…and what the government would do about that.”
Leigh said that de-stigmatizing prostitution is a good idea. “I do think there should be more education in the schools…for some, [prostitution] is the best choice they can make.” Leigh compared prostitution education in schools to education on discrimination. For many women in poverty, especially single mothers, prostitution is a means of survival.
“I don’t think there should be de-stigmatizing education,\” Jones said. \”Just because it’s legalized doesn’t mean it’s acceptable.” Jones also said one must accept stigma with job choice.
“It’s ignorant to think criminalizing someone’s profession will make things better… If the profession is de-stigmatized [there will be] added respect to women,” said sociology junior and Women’s Council director Lydia Weiss. “That’s the key issue.”
If the stigma does fade away, perhaps women will be empowered. Perhaps if it were legalized, the streets would become safer. Perhaps if it were de-stigmatized, people won’t be so fearful when they encounter a leopard-print-coat-wearing streetwalker. Maybe they’ll even offer her a ride, a chance to warm up in their car, or visit her in an alleyway.

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