Ronald Weitzer: Some lurid prostitution myths debunked

01:00 AM EDT on Friday, June 19, 2009

In the past few weeks, advocates of criminalizing prostitution in Rhode Island have made many assertions about the “horrors” of prostitution to push legislation forward. Most of these claims are myths.

Research shows that there is a world of difference between those who work the streets and those who sell sex indoors (in massage parlors, brothels, for escort agencies or as independent call girls). Indoor workers generally have lower rates of childhood abuse, enter prostitution at an older age, have more education, are less drug-dependent, are less likely to have sexually transmitted diseases and are less likely to be assaulted or raped than street workers. Indoor workers also tend to enjoy better working conditions and earn more money.

Despite what some activists claim, most of those working indoors in the U.S. have not been trafficked against their will.

Many indoor workers made conscious decisions to enter the trade, and a significant number actually like their work. A recent New York City study found that indoor workers expressed “a surprisingly high degree of enjoyment” of their work, and several other studies also find that indoor workers have fairly high job satisfaction and believe they provide a valuable service. This is not an exceptional finding; it is confirmed by a growing body of research. The media often ignore it, and prefer to do feature stories on the abused and exploited.

This is not to romanticize indoor prostitution. Some indoor workers work under oppressive conditions or dislike their work for other reasons. At the same time, there is plenty of evidence to challenge the myths that most prostitutes are coerced into the sex trade, experience frequent abuse and want to be rescued. This syndrome is more characteristic of street workers, but it’s important to point out that the vast majority of American sex providers work indoors.

Since sex workers differ markedly in their working conditions, experiences and impact on the surrounding community, public policies should treat the indoor and street sectors differently. Rhode Island’s two-track policy regarding street and indoor workers — where those indoors are not subject to arrest — is a model for other states, and many police departments already follow this policy informally.

RONALD WEITZER

Washington, D.C.

The writer is a professor of sociology at George Washington University and author of Sex for Sale: Prostitution, Pornography, and the Sex Industry.

Link to original at the Providence Journal

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