Prostitution: The Oldest Oppression

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Gloria Steinem/Sponsored by Hedgebrook at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall, 11-8-15. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2015

Gloria Steinem reminds us that prostitution is not the oldest profession for women, but rather it is the oldest oppression of women. This is not just some catchy, smart play on words by a feminist icon. It contains powerful truths. It contains powerful truths that affect public health and policy. It contains powerful truths that affect all of us, even if we prefer to think that it doesn’t.

I’m writing this post the morning after TV actor Charlie Sheen publicly announced he is HIV positive, and linked his infection to his history of alcohol/drug use combined with his ‘use’ of prostitutes. (See NYT article “Charlie Sheen says he has HIV and has paid millions to keep it secret,” by Emily Steel, 11-17-15.) Considering the fact that ‘use’ of female prostitutes by heterosexual men is correlated with high scores for men on different masculine hostility measures, it strikes me as ironic that Sheen’s last–and now cancelled– TV series was titled Anger Management.

Hopefully, most people know that prostitution is not the twisted Cinderella Hollywood version Julia Roberts portrays in the movie Pretty Woman. But Pretty Woman was written and directed by two fairly macho men, and it was released in the dark ages of 1990. Surely the portrayal of prostitution is much improved today. But no. Even the women’s rights advocate, TV screenwriter and producer Shonda Rhimes, is woefully disappointing on this issue. I recently watched the first season of Scandal (which Rhimes wrote and produced) in which the main character–the professional ‘fixer’ played admirably by Kerry Washington–puts on her white hat/gladiator woman power suit and successfully defends a Washington, DC high-class escort/prostitution madame, allowing her to retire as a rich grandmother in Boca Raton, Florida.

In my thirty-plus years work as a nurse, I have worked with many young women involved in prostitution. I was always clear that it was sexual exploitation for underage girls, but within the progressive subculture of clinics/agencies I worked in, we called adult prostitution ‘sex work,’ and erred on the side of harm reduction: trying to help minimize the harms of prostitution to the patient and the public. In many ways–as I view it now–we were supporting their lifestyle, enabling it, and becoming part of the problem. I remain a strong advocate of harm reduction, especially as it pertains to drug/alcohol addiction, but not applied to prostitution.

I know prostitutes who call it a profession, who say they freely choose their work. I’d like to believe them because it would make my work easier. But so many prostitutes (female, male, transgender) have histories of previous sexual abuse as children. Their bodies are not their own; their bodies have been stolen from them. In such situations free choice is not possible. This, combined with the growing evidence that prostitution–even in countries where it is legal and regulated (including health screens/care)–is one of the most hazardous ‘jobs’ in the world, has led me to the conclusion that prostitution is the oldest form of oppression. Prostitution is part of violence against women.

So, what to do about it? In my hometown of Seattle, we have begun to adopt the ‘Nordic Model’ of intervention: decriminalizing (and diverting to supportive care, including housing, health care, counseling, job training) prostitution for the women/transgender people involved, and stepping up criminalization efforts directed towards the customers–or ‘Johns’–and the pimps/BackPages/brokers in whatever forms they take. And along with stepping up legal ramifications for the buyers and the brokers, Seattle has innovative programs, such as OPS: The Organization for Prostitution Survivors. OPS has a drop-in center for women, survivor support groups, art workshops for survivors, as well as community-based service provider trainings, and the new Stopping Sexual Exploitation: A Program for Men (SSE).

Last week I visited OPS and talked with OPS co-founder (with survivor/activist Noel Gomez) Peter Qualliotine. Peter has taken the lead in designing and facilitating the SSE workshops. He explained that the SSE program was designed and piloted for two years and then began full operation in January 2015. He receives self-referrals as well as court referrals, and he’s hoping to be able to move it more heavily towards referrals. As he put it “8,000 men a day in King County are customers on BackPage,” so waiting for men to be ‘caught’ by either their wives/partners or the police and referred in to a ‘John’s School’ such as SSE, will not be very effective.

The SSE consists of a telephone intake conversation that Peter has with the men. He uses a motivational interviewing technique and asks the men, “How has this been a challenging time for you?” He said that with the rare exception of a man with psychopathic tendencies (my term here), the vast majority of men soliciting sex feel at least some qualms about it and also suffer negative consequences (sexually transmitted infections, guilt, relationship/legal/money issues).

The SSE program is based on the social-ecological model of violence prevention, and includes information and role-play on gender socialization and manhood training. It’s a support group model of three hour sessions over eight weeks, and is purposefully limited to ten men at a time. So far this year they have had sixty men complete the program, with some of the men so positively affected/changed by it that they have volunteered to help with further advocacy. (Stay tuned, because local and national news coverage on SSE is coming soon.)

Meanwhile, I know many people who work within public health realms in Seattle/King County who continue to advocate for legalizing prostitution, as if it is similar to ‘legalizing’ marijuana. And the otherwise admirable social justice/human rights organization, Amnesty International, is also advocating this stance–although they cleverly call it “protecting the human rights of sex workers.”

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