14 June 2012


Chris Vaughan in The New Yorker has written a careful review of Ronald Weitzer's new book Legalizing Prostitution:  From Illicit Vice to Lawful Business.  The sex trade is a hot-button topic, with most views highly polarized and passionate, but with little solid research as evidence.  Weitzer aims to change the nature of the debate by introducing evidence so that readers can have a firmer foundation on which to found their opinions.

The author "divides the warring camps into two ~ the followers of the empowerment paradigm and the followers of the oppression paradigm.  The empowerment paradigm hghlights the ways in which sexual services qualify as work, involve human agency and may be potentially validating or empowering for workers.  This paradigm holds there is nothing inherent in sex work that would prevent it from being organized for mutual gain by all parties ~ just as in other economic transactions.

" .... The oppression paradigm is a formulation of radical feminism.  According to this paradigm sex work is the quintessential expression of patriarchal gender relations and male domination.  Not only does the sex industry objectify and commodify women's bodies, it also give men the idea that they have a 'right' to buy erotic entertainment from women, thus reinforcing women's subordination to men.  Supporters of this paradigm argue that exploitation, subjugation and violence are intrinsic to and ineradicable from sex work."

The author argues that both paradigms suffer from being one-dimensional, with neither derived from carefully conducted research.  He proposes instead "a more nuanced paradigm, one he calls polymorphous, based on the current state of research which identifies a constellation of occupational arrangements, power relations and participants' experiences.  A growing body of research, he says, documents tremendous international diversity in how sex work is organized and experienced by workers, clients, and third parties, undermining some deep-rooted myths.  Victimization, exploitation, agency, job satisfaction, self-esteem and other dimensions should be treated as variables (not as constants) that differ with types of sex work, geographic locations and other structural conditions .... Most countries which have brought a degree of regulation to the sex industry have registered a degree of success in achieving one or more positive goals."

It should be clearly stated that Weitzer's vision of the sex trade is confined to behavior between consenting adults, with assurances of health and the absence of STDs or other communicable conditions.  Regulation, decriminalization, and maintaining a non-offensive low profile are key.  So is constraining the influence of profit-making third parties who may otherwise wield a corrupting influence on the process.

I can understand the feelings of those who endorse both traditional paradigms.  On balance, however, I think Weitzer's paradigm takes the broadest view, examining the sex trade as practiced in other countries to provide a standard of reference.  Having never sought out the services of a prostitute myself, and having no intention of doing so, for me the discussion is intellectual ~ until the social ills of the non-regulated sex trade enter the picture ~ the risk of disease infection, drug use, child prostitution, human trafficking, violence.  Those variables are not inevitable, and should not be tolerated.  Those things aside, if a woman or a man freely and without duress chooses to trade sex for money, and do so with discretion, what business is it of mine?

NOTE ~ the map above (click to enlarge) portrays the legality of prostitution and brothels around the world.  Green areas are places where prostitution is legal and regulated.  Blue areas are regions where prostitution is legal but unregulated, and organized activities such as brothels are illegal.  Red countries are places where prostitution is illegal.  Gray areas signify lack of data.  Map courtesy of Wikipedia here.

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