Every now and then — actually more often than I care for — I hear one woman say to another ‘you’re such a prostitute.’ We’ve also seen it used in a million celebrity fights— most recent (to my recollection) the Sinead/Miley open letter wars where Sinead O’Connor sincerely urges Miley Cyrus to ‘not act like a prostitute.’
During these moments, I’m less shocked by whatever these women are actually doing to incite this manner of insult — Miley’s twerks are no Helen of Troy war starters now are they? — and more curious as to what’s so wrong with the profession of prostitution that merits such widespread social disdain.
I don’t know very many sex-workers, but that’s not to say I know none. Admittedly the women I know do not fall into the mean average of what one finds or expects to find when ‘sex worker’ comes to mind. Frankly, however, I don’t think anyone falls into such strictly labeled boxes anyway.
My friends are young women who’ve made an active choice to pursue this profession. Some are simply sexually ambivalent and use the money the same way I used my bar tending wages or my call center pay — carelessly and to buy shoes. Others got into it with full knowledge of the monetary benefits and use what they earn to fund side businesses or pay off their college loans and mortgages.
I’m proud to call these women my friends. They’re smart, tough, imbued with innate common sense; they’re sensitive and kind. It’s a joy to watch one of my friends talk to a stranger at a bar — she could make a death-row inmate feel valued and at ease five minutes before execution. I’ve seen her take genuine interest in the war stories of an old guy who every other girl there made rude faces at and wrote off as creepy. The veteran was better for the kindness she showed him, and she — one of the best writers I know— better for her accepting attitude because now she has a story or two in her arsenal. More importantly, for her, even the grubby old man drinking himself to death in a mid-western bar deserved respect.
But my objection against the stigmatization of prostitutes is greater than just the fact that they do not deserve to be stigmatized in the first place. It’s that the choice held against them is not the only choice they make — this is just their profession. They’re no more defined by what they do than my lawyer friends are defined by what they do in a courtroom all the livelong day. This constant slut-shaming rhetoric that seems to go hand-in-hand with discussions about the profession ignore a very basic fact — These women are more than how they chose to express or use their sexuality. They are more than just their jobs. They’re actors, musicians, writers, mothers, friends, and advisers. And a lot, lot more — just like everyone else in this world.
I’m aware that my friends are simply one end of the spectrum. For every one like them, there may be 8 women who are being forced into prostitution, drug addiction and exploited by their pimps. The stories of these women are gut wrenching. They face constant violence against their persons, and have no one to turn to for justice.
It’s at this point that I ask: Is it the prostitute who’s to blame for this? Is it the john?
Here, I put forth it is neither. The fault lies not with the customer or the profession. The fault lies with the law. If anything, this stigmatization— the criminalization of prostitution, society’s two-faced hatred for sex-workers, and this constant slut-shaming rhetoric plays an insidious role in propagating the exploitation of women. It creates a lose-lose situation for any woman or girl who is brought into the profession against her will. On one hand there’s her pimp, on the other the long arm of the law.
If anti-prostitution laws and this anti-prostitution attitude were to be removed from our legal and social discourse, I strongly believe women in the field would be able to exercise a larger degree of control over their bodies — and whatever they choose to do with this freedom, who is anyone to judge them?
Morality has proved time and again to be subjective. Who is to say that having an avenue where one can safely express one’s sexuality won’t benefit our society?