Thursday, October 9, 2008

How to peddle ass the right way

Laws against prostitution are generally portrayed by their advocates as necessary to save prostitutes from a sordid life of near-slavery, drug addiction and general abuse. Indeed, several current news stories capably illustrate the nasty side of the sex trade. Connecticut's Stamford Advocate describes three women charged with felonies after invading the home of their alleged pimp and stabbing him and other residents -- apparently because he failed to pay them for their work.

During an interview with detectives in July, Ramirez said she was working as a dancer in Mexico when she met Mora. He promised she could make $1,000 a week in the United States. In late February 2007, she began living on Charles Street with Mora.

He then allegedly told her she had to make money and persuaded her to become a prostitute. ...

"When he would pick me up, I would give him all the money. He told me that the passage had to be paid for. We got tired of working for him because he would not pay us," she said.

In Massachusetts, the Salem News tells the tale of Trevor Jones, who left behind the straight life to coerce women to provide sex for money.

Yesterday, he pleaded guilty to forcing at least two women, both of whom were desperate and drug-addicted, into prostitution. He demanded that each woman bring home at least $1,000 a night from street walking and from assignations at hotels up and down Route 1, a prosecutor said.

And the horrifying story of Shauna Newell's rape and descent into sex slavery during a sleepover at a new "friend's" house appears at MSNBC:

Newell said that her captor told her she had been sold on the Internet for $300,000 to a man in Texas. Fortunately, she was rescued before delivery could be made. During Newell’s ordeal in Florida, her captor took money from a number of men who raped her. When she screamed, he held a gun to her head and threatened to blow her brains out.

But wait ... Are these really morality tales about the evils of the sex-for-money trade? Or are they actually illustrations of what happens when you drive an industry into the shadows -- and the arms of violent criminals who thrive outside the law?

In Connecticut, Itzbel Ramirez, Nadia Gomez and Sheila Vargas face criminal charges after they engaged in violent self-help made necessary because they had no recourse to the law after their employer refused to pay them for their work. That's a desperate situation created by the illegal nature of the sex industry in that state. Operating underground, their pimp felt free to rip them off. Engaged in an illegal trade, the women were unable to go to the police or sure to get their money. In the end, blood flowed.

Trevor Jones of Massachusetts is another predator of the sort who prowls where the sun doesn't shine. He lured women with drugs and turned them into virtual slaves, knowing all the time that drug-using hookers were highly unlikely to risk their own freedom by complaining to the police.

Risk their own freedom? You bet. While Shauna Newell's story ends as well as such an ordeal can, it includes an important cautionary note.

Like Newell, many are treated by law enforcement authorities as runaways, said Marc Klaas, who founded the advocacy group KlaasKids after his own 12-year-old daughter was abducted, raped and killed. When they are forced into prostitution, the young people are the ones who are prosecuted, Klaas told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira Thursday in New York.

“It turns upside down,” Klaas explained. “First of all, many of these kids are missing children. But what happens is when they’re trafficked, they’re turned into hookers; they’re turned into prostitutes. So we find this situation where we find these young victims, these young girls that all of a sudden are being treated and looked upon as criminals.”

The law then becomes a means of perpetuating the evils it's supposedly intended to stamp out.

But what if prostitution operated legally, the way it does in much of Nevada? Well, let's examine the story of Laraine Russo Harper, who took over a run-down brothel where employees were expected to sleep with the boss, dramatically improved the conditions, and turned it into a glitzy money-making machine for owners and workers alike. In the Pahrump Valley Times:

Big bucks followed the major upgrade. The specialty villas fetched customers paying $40,000 up to $90,000 for one night. One customer landed in a helicopter, paying a lady $80,000. ...

Many working girls made good money, Harper said. One prostitute who came to work at the brothel at age 21, made $10,000 per week on average. Another prostitute in five years owned a $3 million home in one state, a $2 million condominium in another and a $1 million loft in another state, retiring at 27 years old.

Is that typical? I doubt it. And while Harper no longer works in the trade, she certainly has an interest in portraying her experience positively. But there's no question that a sex trade that operates legally means workers for whom the police and the courts are potential allies rather than enemies. Had Laraine Russo Harper stiffer her employees, she would have been sued rather than stabbed, and drugging them would have meant a prison sentence rather than the book deal she has.

Legalizing prostitution is no more a cure-all for every abuse than legalizing the construction trade prevents framers from being injured on the job. But keeping the industry aboveboard and treating women and men who, as is their right, choose to offer consensual sex for money as full citizens rather than criminals is the best way to minimize the problems that do occur.

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OpenID amanda_brooks said...

While you start off on the right track – criminalizing prostitution leads to criminal acts against the workers themselves; brothels are no panacea. I attended a book-reading by Mrs. Harper and according to her, the girls were not allowed to refuse a customer who chose them. All brothels in Nevada take 50% of the money the girl negotiates right off the top (amazingly, many men don’t realize this). And there is plenty of opportunity for abuse within the legal system.

Legalization, in which the worker is controlled and micro-managed to the nth degree is not a solution. Decriminalization is a much better answer. The worker (and client) have certain legal protections but are allowed to manage their private arrangements privately as consenting adults.


October 9, 2008 5:26 PM  
Blogger J.D. Tuccille said...


My understanding of the "no refusal" rule is that it was a response to a reputation some brothels were getting for being unfriendly to African-American clientele. That said, there are plenty of reasons for turning away a client that don't involve bigotry. Under a system of legal sex work, workers are free to work for an employer or go elsewhere if they don't like the conditions. I'm not sure why decriminalization would be better -- while the definition varies, that generally means the practice is still legally discouraged, but isn't punishable by criminal penalties. That's better than prison time, but doesn't fully bring the trade out in the open, with recourse to legal protection.

And I'm sure that you're right and there is no panacea. There rarely is.

October 9, 2008 8:04 PM  
OpenID amanda_brooks said...

Nope, Harper was very clear that if the worker and customer were in the process of negotiation, the worker could not turn him down, regardless of any changes of mind she had.

Girls were allowed to state when they were hired if they didn't want to see certain types of men and would not attend lineups for these men. But once chosen...

Under legal conditions as they currently exist in Nevada, there isn't a lot of difference between a lot of the brothels. If one brothel isn't working out, another may not be much better. That really isn't good for the worker.

Working as an independent – as one could freely do under decriminalization – gives the worker the freedom to structure their business in the way that benefits them most. That’s a simple right every person who works for themselves should have.

Decriminalization as NOT about making prostitution arrests a low-priority. It’s about creating a set of laws that protect the worker and client who want to make commercial sexual arrangement. This doesn’t mean prostitution is still criminal or even in a grey area. When sex workers talk about decriminalization, it has a very distinct meaning.

New Zealand has a very nice system of decriminalization that nearly everyone is happy with. Things like underage prostitution are still illegal, and workers have the choice to work for themselves or a brothel. They have legal protections without a lot of legal interference.

There is no answer that will make everyone happy. But criminalization does not work and the current system of legalization in the US (the brothels) is easily turned against the worker in an oppressive manner. Giving power to the worker is the only reasonable answer.


October 10, 2008 3:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It always amuses me that a women can give away sex for free (a few drinks or dinner or whatever) but she can't charge for it from another consenting adult?

October 10, 2008 5:37 PM  
Blogger J.D. Tuccille said...


Thanks for clarifying your meaning of "decriminalization." I'm more accustomed to the word's usage in discussions of drug policy, where its meaning varies, but it always stops short of full permitted-by-law status. It sounds like you're talking about a fuller legalization, where the shape of the industry wouldn't be mandated by the state and workers would be more free to make their own arrangements. That sounds like a wise idea to me.

October 11, 2008 12:25 PM  
OpenID amanda_brooks said...

In prostitution terms, legalization always means heavy regulation. Few sex workers want that.

Glad you enjoyed the discussion!


October 12, 2008 9:15 AM  
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^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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March 19, 2009 2:11 AM  

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