Over the past few weeks, many news outlets and websites shared a Reuters piece with the catchy title “Streetwalkers to Sweet Talkers” outlining the dilemma Chile’s prostitutes face under COVID-19 now that they cannot engage in the “intimate” aspect of their trade. From reading that and other related articles, you would think that sex workers are liberated entrepreneurs. And that is the narrative being pushed hard by organizations such as SWOP and Decriminalize Sex Work who paint a picture of a system that only needs to be legitimized to resolve the stigma and challenges of sex “workers.” Take it from someone who spent eight years as a prostitute. Don’t fall for it.
As a survivor of the sexual and physical trauma of prostitution, it makes me angry to see the legitimacy being given to an industry that benefits everyone except the woman whose body is being marketed and sold. By portraying prostitutes as liberated and independent business owners whose only worry is how to connect with clients, it ignores the ugly reality of their lives. Even talking about the “very intimacy” of trading sex for money glamorizes an act that by its nature exploits and dehumanizes women.
If you had asked me as an eighteen-year-old if I saw prostitution as a career choice, I would have laughed. I had dreams of being a writer and was attending community college. All that changed with someone who could see I was vulnerable and patiently cultivated me to “work” for him by selling myself to strangers. He painted the life of a prostitute as a glamorous one filled with luxury goods and more money than I could make anywhere else. And the money was good, giving me a false sense of empowerment and security although it was never “mine” for long. I wanted to leave the life right away but was caught in a spiral of trauma, self-loathing, and self-medicating to numb myself to what was happening to me, all under the thumb (and the fist) of my pimp. It took me eight years to find the strength and support to break free. In all my time of offering my body to strangers, I never met that idealized version of a liberated self-employed sex entrepreneur. We all wanted out.
By making prostitution sound like just another form of self-employment, the objective is to make the reader feel that by legitimizing it, we’re supporting these hardworking women. And, in the U.S., there’s a big push nationwide to legalize or decriminalize “sex work” including here in New Hampshire. The pimps have even hired a lobbying firm to represent their interests. (If you think it was the “empowered” prostitutes, all I can say is “Follow the money.”)
The fact is prostitution can never be a viable business for the woman whose body is the commodity being bought and sold. The pimps and traffickers who sell those bodies and the buyers who use them would like nothing better than for you to see the practice as perfectly OK and a way for women to support their families. They don’t want you to look at what’s happened in countries or states that have legalized or decriminalized prostitution. They don’t want you to see how it increases sex trafficking and leads to even more activity in the illegal market. They don’t want you to know how the industry meets high demand by luring vulnerable women (and children) like me or taking them outright. Don’t just take my word for it. Look at what happened in Rhode Island when they decriminalized “indoor” prostitution for nearly 30 years. Pimps, traffickers, and sex buyers made it a “sex buyer’s paradise” where traffickers and organized crime operated freely and without fear under the protection of the state.
It’s about demand and supply. Decriminalizing or legalizing prostitution only increases demand and brings new buyers in. The more their demand, the greater the push for more bodies and the bigger the risk for vulnerable and young women to be trapped and enslaved. I know. I lived it. But they would prefer you not know the truth of stories like mine.
The Reuters article and the organizations attempting to legitimize the marketing of women won’t tell us the whole story about the lives of prostitutes. Very few are self-employed. They work for a pimp who controls how and when they work as well as what they are paid. There is nothing independent about it. I think a better word might be enslavement.
One thing I do agree with. These women do need help, but it’s not to find a way to stay, it’s to get the help they need to leave.
Jasmine Grace Marino of Nashua is a sex trafficking survivor, speaker, author and advocate for trafficked persons. She is the founding director of Jasmine Grace Outreach. The views expressed are those of the writer.