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Uneasy Virtue: the Politics of Prostitution and the American Reform Tradition.

Uneasy Virtue: The Politics of Prostitution and the American Reform Tradition.

Barbara Meil Hobson. Basic Books, $20.95. Regardless of whether you think prostitution should be legalized, Hobson's history of America's oldest profession will convince you that the life of a prostitute is not only difficult but very often absurd.

First there's the inherent sexism of the territory. Throughout history, male prostitutes have been ignored by urban courts while female prostitutes have been singled out as criminals, evil seductresses, and carriers of disease. Maledominated law has been anything but consistent.

And it's not as though there's an easy way to move up from the streets into management. At one time, a prostitute could aspire to being a "madame," but today the streets are so violent that male pimps have become a necessity. The professional ways of Sydney Biddle Barrows are not as common as media coverage implies.

If you think that somehow prostitution can be cleaned up by some neat ordinance creating a legalized Red Light district, take a look at Nevada. The place is even sleazier than you might think. In the four desert counties where prostitution is legal, prostitutes are more prisoners than working women. In Lyon County, the Red Light district is a bunch of trailers in the desert five miles away from "any city, town, or mobile home park." One Nevada town makes it illegal for prostitutes to leave their brothels on Sunday, and it also limits where they can shop and when. Imagine not being able to leave your office to go to the local drug store.

And if you're a prostitute, don't look to feminists for help. They've spent a lot of time infighting. For instance, COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) has been at loggerheads with WHISPER (Women Hurt in Systems of Prostitution Engaged in Revolt). The former believes prostitution ought to be legal and that it grants economic independence to women; the latter says it leaves them subservient to men. For its part, NOW has come down in the middle. In 1973 it called for the decriminalization of prostitution, but has declined to make a "judgment that prostitution is morally good." Hobson never says whether working girls follow these debates.

Not only that, she doesn't talk to prostitutes themselves. Although she has written a thought-provoking book, Hobson is so busy plowing through ninteenth-century issues of the Boston Surgical and Medical Journal and researching at the Swedish Center for Working Life that she never finds out what prostitutes themselves think. What do they think is the legal and social solution today and how do they think society can accommodate both? How can we keep young children from working on the streets? What do the customers of prostitutes think of their illegal practices? It's hard to imagine any conclusions being drawn without taking the opinions of these experts into account.
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Author:Palese, C. Blair
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1988
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