Saturday, March 15, 2008

E.J. Graff on prostitution

The Eliott Spitzer prostitution scandal is bringing the moralizers out of the woodwork. At TPM Cafe, E.J. Graff writes:
I'm tired of hearing about Eliot Spitzer's "classical tragedy." I'm not interested in whether he was targeted by Republicans, especially since the TPMmuckrakers seem to have shown fairly clearly that his shady-looking wire transfers drew ordinary oversight attention. I'm a little sickened to read that paying thousands of dollars for sex is all about buying a "positional good"--if I understand Harold Meyerson correctly (and Harold is magnificent on other subjects, but very strange here), the point of paying $5500 for sex isn't that it gives you better-than-ordinary sex, but rather, that the cost itself makes it *higher status* than buying your way into a lower-cost vagina.
To know that your father is paying to use the body of someone just a couple of years older than your own--well, I picture eating disorders ahead for those girls. I picture that in part because Eliot Spitzer cannot be going to a prostitute for the sex. He's a powerful, good-looking, wealthy man, and could seduce a woman if nonmarital sex were all he wanted. No: he wanted to order some woman around, wanted to treat her not like a person but like a collection of body parts put together for his pleasure. To use women this way -- just for the thrill of power -- is appalling. If that's how your dad treats women, that cannot make you feel good as a future woman yourself.
We're not talking about a victimless crime. We're talking about a way of degrading and traumatizing women who have already been degraded and traumatized (and sometimes trafficked). Some of my friends who are recovering drug addicts (and, yes, violently abused as children) were once prostitutes, and what they've told me is fully in keeping with the studies: it's alienating, traumatizing, violent, and not what anyone dreams of doing when they grow up.
So here's an idea: let's decriminalize *being* a prostitute ... but criminalize *patronizing* a prostitute.
Leaving aside Graff's attribution of intentions and views to Spitzer on the basis of no evidence of any kind and her last comment advocating the Swedish model that's also advocated by Melissa Farley, contrast her moralizing with H.L. Mencken's views on prostitution in his "The Lady of Joy":
EVEN PROSTITUTION, in the long run, may become more or less respectable profession, as it was in the great days of the Greeks. That quality will surely attach to it if ever it grows quite unnecessary; whatever is unnecessary is always respectable, for example, religion, fashionable clothing, and a knowledge of Latin grammar. The prostitute is disesteemed today, not because her trade involves anything intrinsically degrading or even disagreeable, but because she is currently assumed to have been driven into it by dire necessity, against her dignity and inclination. That this assumption is usually unsound is no objection to it; nearly all the thinking of the world, particularly in the field of morals, is based upon unsound assumption, e.g., that God observes the fall of a sparrow and is shocked by the fall of a Sunday-school superintendent. The truth is that prostitution is one of the most attractive of the occupations practically open to the sort of women who engage in it, and that the prostitute commonly likes her work, and would not exchange places with a shop-girl or a waitress for anything in the world. The notion to the contrary is propagated by unsuccessful prostitutes who fall into the hands of professional reformers, and who assent to the imbecile theories of the latter in order to cultivate their good will, just as convicts in prison, questioned by teetotalers, always ascribe their rascality to alcohol. No prostitute of anything resembling normal intelligence is under the slightest duress; she is perfectly free to abandon her trade and go into a shop or factory or into domestic service whenever the impulse strikes her; all the prevailing gabble about white slave jails and kidnappers comes from pious rogues who make a living by feeding such nonsense to the credulous. So long as the average prostitute is able to make a good living, she is quite content with her lot, and disposed to contrast it egotistically with the slavery of her virtuous sisters. If she complains of it, then you may be sure that her success is below her expectations. A starving lawyer always sees injustice in the courts. A bad physician is a bitter critic of Ehrlich and Pasteur. And when a suburban clergyman is forced out of his cure by a vestry-room revolution he almost invariably concludes that the sinfulness of man is incurable, and sometimes he even begins to doubt some of the typographical errors in Holy Writ.
Even the most lowly prostitute is better off, in all worldly ways, than the virtuous woman of her own station in life. She has less work to do, it is less monotonous and dispiriting, she meets a far greater variety of men, and they are of classes distinctly beyond her own. Nor is her occupation hazardous and her ultimate fate tragic. A dozen or more years ago I observed a somewhat amusing proof of this last. At that time certain sentimental busybodies of the American city in which I lived undertook an elaborate inquiry into prostitution therein, and some of them came to me in advance, as a practical journalist, for advice as to how to proceed. I found that all of them shared the common superstition that the professional life of the average prostitute is only five years long, and that she invariably ends in the gutter. They were enormously amazed when they unearthed the truth. This truth was to the effect that the average prostitute of that town ended her career, not in the morgue but at the altar of God, and that those who remained unmarried often continued in practice for ten, fifteen and even twenty years, and then retired on competences. It was established, indeed, that fully eighty per cent married, and that they almost always got husbands who would have been far beyond their reach had they remained virtuous. For one who married a cabman or petty pugilist there were a dozen who married respectable mechanics, policemen, small shopkeepers and minor officials, and at least two or three who married well-to-do tradesmen and professional men. Among the thousands whose careers were studied there was actually one who ended as the wife of the town's richest banker--that is, one who bagged the best catch in the whole community. This woman had begun as a domestic servant, and abandoned that harsh and dreary life to enter a brothel. Her experiences there polished and civilized her, and in her old age she was a grande dame of great dignity. Much of the sympathy wasted upon women of the ancient profession is grounded upon an error as to their own attitude toward it. An educated woman, hearing that a frail sister in a public stew is expected to be amiable to all sorts of bounders, thinks of how she would shrink from such contacts, and so concludes that the actual prostitute suffers acutely. What she overlooks is that these men, however gross and repulsive they may appear to her, are measurably superior to men of the prostitute's own class--say her father and brothers--and that communion with them, far from being disgusting, is often rather romantic.
Certainly there are prostitutes that meet Graff's description, but I suspect that those working for the Emperor's Club, including Ashley Alexandra Dupre, are more accurately described by Mencken.

Better than listening to either Graff or Mencken is to read what sex workers write about their own experiences (and not just those who have found new careers condemning their previous one), as in Frederique Delacoste and Priscilla Alexander's Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry.

BTW, the comments on Graff are far, far better than her article, and are well worth reading. Commenter Common Dreamer in particular points to some actual empirical research on prostitution (including a newspaper article summarizing prostitution researchers' responses to some bad research by a particular individual with an axe to grind). (Compare the comments on that newspaper article to the comments on Graff's article--at least Graff has attracted a much higher quality commenter than the Las Vegas Sun gets.) Common Dreamer points to some references on the ProstitutionProCon website, which looks like a good source for arguments and evidence regarding the question of whether prostitution should be legal.

1 comment:

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