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Prostitution humanism and a woman's choice. (Perspectives on Prostitution).

Driving home in the early morning hours after a night out in Washington, D.C., I turn from 14th to L Street near downtown. I'm only on the street for a block before I hit the clogged artery of Massachusetts Avenue, and this particular area seems devoid of important business or commerce. Except for the prostitutes.

Almost every weekend night I can spot women walking up and down the street--sometimes between the cars and quite near to my own. They're stereo-typically wearing the tiniest slivers of fabric masquerading as dresses, swishing their hips as they teeter on high heels. I don't recall ever seeing any possible pimps nearby and wonder if these women operate independently. I wonder about a lot of things, actually. Are they happy? Are they safe? Are they making good money? Are they feminists?

That last question may seem incongruous, but to me it's relevant. As a third wave feminist, I find sex and sex work to be important issues--ones which are being addressed in ways unheard of by our foremothers. We third wavers are, in many cases, the lip-gloss wearing, BUST magazine reading, pro-sex women of the new millennium. We have taken the liberties of the second wave and run with them, demanding even more freedom as we struggle to find our new identities in the ever-dominating patriarchy. We don't hold consciousness-raising sessions; we hold safe sex fairs. We still march on Washington, but we have punk rock bands helping us to raise the funds to get there. We're more multicultural and diverse, yet we continue to fight the white face--the opinion that feminism is a white women's movement--put upon us by the media.

We've also had to fight the awful stereotype that feminists are frigid, man-hating, anti-sex zealots. The second wave made incredible changes in how the United States deals with rape and domestic violence, and while we still have a long way to go, these issues are at least taken much more seriously. However, in the process, feminists have been labeled and demonized, thus creating a huge chasm between sexuality and feminism. Women are still the same sexual beings they always were, but to outsiders they have been considered strictly buzz-kills (no fun) or--gasp--lesbians. In 1983 Andrea Dworkin and Catharine A. MacKinnon wrote major antipornography bills that negatively labeled feminists as anti-sex instead of pro-human rights.

In the third wave, pornography, sex, and prostitution aren't presented as black and white issues. For instance, pornography isn't simply seen as degrading sexual imagery made by men, for men. There are female filmmakers and feminist porn stars who want to reclaim their right to enjoy sexual images without violence and negativity. Sex is more widely discussed than ever and taboos are being broken every day. The third wave hopes to expand definitions of sexuality. For women to be liberated sexually, they must be able to live as they choose, to break out of narrow ideas of sexuality, to be sexual and still be respected, and essentially to be whole. Feminism and sex work aren't therefore mutually exclusive. Choice is key here--women need to have the right and freedom to choose how to live their lives as sexual beings. This includes prostitution.

Prostitution. The word normally calls to mind women down on their luck, pitied cases who walk the streets at night with little protection or rights--essentially women who have no other choice. And unfortunately this often isn't far from the truth. In the United States and worldwide many women turn to or are forced into sexual prostitution because they have limited options. But there are other situations, even in the United States, where women turn to this profession and other sex work because they want to. They are fortunate to have real choices and select this path because it suits them, while practicing prostitution safely and respectfully.

In the United States it is possible to find a number of organizations of sex workers who defend each other, work alongside international groups to decriminalize prostitution and protect prostitutes, and share the common experiences of choosing and enjoying this form of labor. There are advocacy and rights organizations, international conferences, and famous porn stars who all regard prostitution and other sex work as just that: a job and a way to earn a living. They argue that it should be treated as such--protected under the law with safety guidelines, unions, networks, and all the rest. Furthermore, taking a third wave feminist view, they maintain that women need to have the right and freedom to choose how to live their lives as sexual beings, including taking up "the world's oldest profession."

No matter what wave of feminism is applied, all feminists agree that forced, coerced, poverty-based, trafficked, and unprotected prostitution should be opposed. In countries where prostitution is illegal, such as in forty-nine of fifty states in the United States, women have no protection, socially or legally. The situation is messy at best and, at worst, violent, dangerous; and all but devoid of human rights. For example, most American prostitutes have to work for pimps or out of brothels, never seeing much of the money they have earned. If they are streetwalkers they live in fear of criminal assault or arrest--and in some cases, sexual abuse by police. They may be forced to deal with customers they are afraid of or who harm them. If they are raped, police will generally disregard their suffering, not even considering what in any other profession would be recognized as criminal assault and the forced rendering of service without pay. Beyond that, the victimized woman may even be arrested for practicing prostitution. The situation is even worse in poor countries where it is all too common for young girls to be forced into prostitution and where men from wealthier nations travel specifically to have sex with them.

Second wave feminist author MacKinnon has essentially deemed prostitution sexual slavery, arguing that the relevant laws immensely harm women, classifying them as criminals and denying them their basic civil rights. MacKinnon admits in an essay "Prostitution and Civil Rights" published in the Michigan Journal of Gender and Law (1993, 13:1) that she isn't sure about what to do legally concerning prostitution but that international initiatives and policy responses can help to put the power back in women's hands where it belongs. Does this mean all prostitution would disappear if women had their say? Not if the numerous prostitute rights groups and their sympathizers are any indication.

For many who have thought about this question, dismissing the entire sex industry as abusive and immoral only exacerbates existing problems and tosses the concerns of sex workers aside. Therefore many feminists, civil rights workers, and human rights activists argue for the decriminalization--not necessarily the legalization--of prostitution. Internationally, conferences are held that address decriminalization. The World Charter for Prostitutes Rights is one outcome. Created in 1985 this document is a template used by human rights groups all over the world--it makes certain basic demands abundantly clear:

1.) Decriminalize all aspects of adult prostitution resulting from individual decision. This includes regulation of third parties (business managers) according to standard business codes.

2.) Strongly enforce all laws against fraud, coercion, violence, child sexual abuse, child labor, rape, and racism everywhere and across national boundaries, whether or not in the context of prostitution.

3.) Guarantee prostitutes all human rights and civil liberties, including the freedom of speech, travel, immigration, work, marriage, and motherhood and the right to unemployment insurance, health insurance, and housing.

4.) Ensure that prostitutes' rights are protected.

5.) Allow prostitutes to unionize.

Decriminalization essentially means the removal of laws against this and other forms of sex work. The Prostitutes Education Network clarifies that decriminalization is usually used to refer to total decriminalization--that is, the repeal of all laws against consensual adult sexual activity in both commercial and noncommercial contexts. This allows the individual prostitute to choose whether or not she is managed and protects her from fraud, abuse, and coercion.

By contrast the term legalization usually refers to a system of governmental regulation of prostitutes wherein prostitutes are licensed and required to work in specific ways. When Jesse Ventura was running for the Minnesota governorship in 1998 he proposed that Minnesotans should consider legalizing prostitution in order to have governmental control and keep it out of residential areas. This is the practice in Nevada, the only state in the United States where brothels are legal. Although legalization can also imply a decriminalized, autonomous system of prostitution, the reality is that in most "legalized" systems the police control prostitution with criminal codes. Laws regulate prostitutes' businesses and lives, prescribing health checks and registration of health status. According to the International Union of Sex Workers, legalized systems often include special taxes, the restriction of prostitutes to working in brothels or in certain zones, licenses, registration of prostitutes and the consequent keeping of records of each individual in the profession, and health checks which often result in punitive quarantine. This is why the World Charter for Prostitutes Rights doesn't support mandatory health checks. This may be controversial but it fits with the general idea that prostitutes' lives should be protected but not regulated. Easier and more affordable access to health clinics where prostitutes don't feel stigmatized is of greater concern to these human rights groups because compulsory checks can frighten some prostitutes and actually prevent those who are most at risk from getting necessary medical checkups. Many groups that support sex workers have sexual health and disease control as their top priorities and provide education, contraception, and health care referrals.

A well-known example of legalized prostitution is that which has been practiced in the Netherlands since the 1800s, however brothels were illegal until 2000. When the ban was lifted, forced prostitution came under harsher punishment. Brothels are now required to be licensed and it is legal to organize the prostitution of another party, provided the prostitution isn't forced. According to the A. De Graaf Foundation, laws in the Netherlands now will control and regulate the exploitation of prostitution, improve the prosecution of involuntary exploitation, protect minors, protect the position of prostitutes, combat the criminal affairs related to prostitution, and combat the presence of illegal aliens in prostitution.

Designated streetwalking zones have also been established. While these aren't without their problems, they have essentially functioned as a safe community for women to work. The zones also offer the benefit of a shelter which affords prostitutes a place to meet with their colleagues, talk to health care professionals, and generally relax. This was a good solution for an occupation that had led both police and prostitutes to feel that frequent raids were only making matters worse. Women felt scared and were always on the run, and police thought they weren't succeeding at making the streets any safer. This system of legalization seems to have worked well because in the Netherlands social attitudes about sex and sex work are more liberal than in other parts of the world. There is a genuine effort to protect and respect the rights of Dutch sex workers.

But this sort of arrangement isn't found all over the world. Nor can one say that the Netherlands example should become a model for every other country. Some societies may benefit more from decriminalization while others are decades away from any regulation whatsoever. The latter seems to be the case in the United States, where puritanical attitudes about sex in general would make it nearly impossible to treat prostitution as just another business.

What then is the best choice for women? Put simply, the best choice for women is the choice that the individual woman makes for herself. Furthermore, a humanist perspective would naturally back up the right of women to choose how to live their lives as sexual beings. Humanist Manifesto II says:
 In the area of sexuality, we believe that intolerant attitudes, often
 cultivated by orthodox religions and puritanical cultures, unduly repress
 sexual conduct. The right to birth control, abortion, and divorce should be
 recognized. While we do not approve of exploitive, denigrating forms of
 sexual expression, neither do we wish to prohibit, by law or social
 sanction, sexual behavior between consenting adults. The many varieties of
 sexual exploration should not in themselves be considered "evil." Without
 countenancing mindless permissiveness or unbridled promiscuity, a civilized
 society should be a tolerant one. Short of harming others or compelling
 them to do likewise, individuals should be permitted to express their
 sexual proclivities and pursue their lifestyles as they desire. We wish to
 cultivate the development of a responsible attitude toward sexuality, in
 which humans are not exploited as sexual objects, and in which intimacy,
 sensitivity, respect, and honesty in interpersonal relations are
 encouraged. Moral education for children and adults is an important way of
 developing awareness and sexual maturity.

As stated above, any variety of sexual exploration--as long as it isn't exploitative or harmful--can't be considered evil, yet that is exactly how prostitution is regarded. If a woman or man chooses to exchange sex for money and does it in a way that causes no harm to either party, then they should be free to do so.

In this new social environment, many of the prostitutes' rights groups build from the pro-sex ideals of the third wave. Groups such as COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), the Blackstockings, and PONY (Prostitutes of New York) advocate for women who have chosen to be sex workers. Their websites are full of resources--from legal and medical referrals to common sense safety tips--and they advocate tirelessly for the decriminalization of prostitution.

It would seem that decriminalization should be a key point in any humanistic feminist perspective on prostitution. Every woman's choices should be legally and socially respected whether a given woman chooses to be a wife, a CEO, or a prostitute.

And what is good for women in these instances becomes good for other sex workers, such as male prostitutes, exotic dancers of both sexes, and so on--this applies to both the gay and straight communities. Furthermore, what liberates those who make sex a profession also liberates everyone else who enjoys sex recreationally. General sexiness, for example, can take on more varied and open forms--so much so that no woman would need to fear that frank sexuality in manner or dress would any longer stigmatize her as a "slut" (or if it did, the word would have lost its sting).

Feminism has always advocated for women to enjoy freedom of choice. Women have made great strides in the courtrooms, the boardrooms, and the bedrooms. But there remains a long way to go. Negative attitudes toward sexuality, in particular, have made it hard for women to be fully liberated. But thanks to feminists, prostitute activists, and their supporters, things are slowly changing. Only when women have their sexual and personal choices protected and respected can they truly be free.

Kimberly Klinger received her B.A. degree from Pennsylvania State University at State College, majoring in Letters, Arts, and Sciences with a focus on race, gender, and class.
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Author:Klinger, Kimberly
Publication:The Humanist
Geographic Code:1U5DC
Date:Jan 1, 2003
Previous Article:Human rights sex trafficking and prostitution. (perspectives on prostitution).
Next Article:Mormons and women's rights at the UN. (Divine Discrimination).

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