In Defense of Prostitution

BY KELLY JEAN COGSWELL | Spitzer got caught with his pants down and right away the Times' editorial page was lambasting our now-former governor for saying that buying sex is a “private matter.” Worse, when a prostitute tried to defend her work to a journalist, the writer dismissed her as too damaged to speak for herself, no doubt abused as a child. Prostitution is anything but a victimless crime, the article said.

What arrogance. The only real crime in prostitution is our indifference to its problems, which are pretty much the same as on any other job. Are we supposed to be horrified because it's purely physical? Until recently, most labor was about selling the sweat of our brow. What's farming after all? Or assembling cars on the line? Modeling? Or acting? All of which have been denounced at one time or another as degrading, “low-class” activities.

Maybe it's the danger. Prostitutes are obviously at high risk for sexually transmitted diseases. And alone in a room, in a car, in a back alley with a strange man, anything can happen. But every time a big storm blows up suddenly on the Atlantic, a couple of fishermen are drowned. My grandmother worked in a factory for a while and used to show me her mangled finger where the needle from a machine had gone straight through. She considered herself lucky. People lose entire limbs, not to mention their lives, all to pay the rent.

Neither is the humiliation of women unique to prostitution. Depending on the venue, it's not much better to work as a maid, an aide in a hospital wiping dirty asses, or, for that matter, a secretary. There are hundreds of ways to be profoundly humiliated. Ask any mother. If things have changed, it's because society has, thanks in part to unions and anti-discrimination laws – none of which protect prostitutes.

Oddly, the Spitzer coverage repeatedly invoked the international traffic in women as if it always applies to ordinary prostitutes, managing somehow to imply that the horror of slavery – based on race, or sex – is somehow related to the labor itself, even if after the Civil War, plenty of former slaves had to go back into the fields.

I persist in thinking that the real nightmare of slavery is that people are uprooted, transplanted, humiliated, abused, raped, tortured, and stolen from themselves. They are controlled mentally and physically. Choice is not a word in their vocabulary. They are not free, even to leave one horrible, dangerous job for another. Which means most prostitutes are as free as any of us.

Likewise, the horror of children in the sex trade is only marginally worse than the kids locked in factories for days on end, chained literally to their machines, so their little fingers can do the delicate work of stitching American shirts. Slavery is slavery.

So what makes prostitution different? The sex acts themselves? Even though most of us perform them on a regular basis?

Last week, I saw an exhibit of a couple of centuries of dirty books that used to be housed in the French national library's basement, known as “L'Enfer.” I expected the books to be, well, more pornographic. Maybe because most dated from a different era, many of the engravings were absolutely delightful, portraying the artists' pleasure in the female body. Naked thighs had the most luscious flesh. Asses were so round they begged to be touched.

The men weren't as much to look at. At least in the early images, they always had their clothes on with their dicks sticking out like hooks you could hang a hat on, though there were some amazing dick-based designs. One artist assembled them into a wreath with a bloom in the center that was not a flower at all.

The beauty of men didn't really emerge until Jean Cocteau did his drawings for Jean Genet and homoerotic eyes saw the splendor of the male flesh whose necks and hips and hands had as much to recommend them as their dicks. That's art, I think. Even I wanted to touch them.

Like pornography, prostitution need not mean images of women being put through meat grinders, shrieking as their breasts are mangled, images that confuse hate and destruction with lust. Those aside, why not joyfully portray the objects of our desires? Why not fulfill them?

The problem with Spitzer wasn't that he bought sex, but that he broke a string of laws he was supposed to uphold, ones that in fact he was vigilant in enforcing. No matter that they're bad ones.

We should integrate our lives and our laws, allowing the full gamut of our sexual behavior to speak its name and, more importantly, show its face. Prostitution is a job like any other. The question we confront is whether we're willing to accord its workers the same rights the rest of us expect.