II. What Is Prostitution?
Prostitution is a highly debated term. Its common definition is the exchange of sexual services for compensation, usually in the form of money or other valuables (Ditmore, 2006; Edlund & Korn, 2002; Esselstyn, 1968). Yet, there are many activities that can fall into this category, and it can be argued that getting married for the purpose of having a home and livelihood qualifies as prostitution (Edlund & Korn, 2002). Some add that to differentiate prostitution from other forms of nonmarital sexual activities, it must be devoid of emotional attachment between partners (McGinn, 1998). Others, such as Edlund and Korn, argue that an element of promiscuity must also be involved. However, the notions “devoid of emotional attachment” and “promiscuity” are also vague. A young woman maintaining a long-term sexual relationship with a “sugar daddy” may not fall in this category, while others may argue that this is indeed a form of prostitution. There is also difficulty in determining the number of partners one should have to be considered promiscuous. For example, the following was noted:
A woman who had sex with more than 23,000 men should be classified as a prostitute, although 40 to 60 would also do. However, promiscuity itself does not turn a woman into a prostitute. Although a vast majority of prostitutes are promiscuous, most people would agree that sleeping around does not amount to prostitution. (Edlund & Korn, 2002, p. 183)
John Ince, a lawyer and leader of the Sex Party, a Canadian political party, wrote an interesting letter to ProCon.org (an Internet-based organization that provides pro and con discussions on social issues). He argued that the key elements of prostitution are sexual contact and exchange for money. Yet, sexual contact can be defined in myriad ways. For example, if it is defined as genital contact, then he contends that a massage therapist is not a prostitute and neither is a professional dominatrix who spanks and humiliates, but does not touch the genitals. If it is defined as genital contact for pleasure, then a urologist is not a prostitute but an erotic masseur qualifies as one. However, if it is defined as genital contact for pleasure that includes penetration, then erotic masseurs are not prostitutes. Finally, if it is defined as genital contact for pleasure that includes penetration in circumstances where the provider feels shame, fear, pain, or exposes him- or herself or others to disease, then escorts who are highly selective about their clients and enjoy their work are not prostitutes (http://www.procon.org/).
These differing definitions are an offshoot of the ideological variations in how individuals and organizations view prostitution. One commonly held view is that prostitution is a form of social and moral deviance that individuals fall into. Individuals involved in prostitution are largely seen as lacking self-worth (Ditmore, 2006). This has been the dominant view that, as will be described later, became the basis of the criminalization of the act. Many believe that this view resulted in the stigmatization of people involved in prostitution and made them vulnerable to different kinds of risks.
Beginning in the 1960s, this dominant view came to be challenged by feminists and other social activists across two ideological variants (Davidson, 2002). On the one hand, liberal feminists maintain that prostitution can be best understood as a form of legitimate work or profession. This view holds that individuals who are involved in prostitution do so freely and it is within their civil rights to do so (Jenness, 1990). Those who concur with this view prefer to call individuals involved in prostitution “sex workers” (Kurtz, Surratt, Inciardi, & Kiley, 2004) in order to convey a sense of professionalism and to remove the stigmatizing taint of the words whore and prostitute (Ditmore, 2006). Taken to its extreme, this view suggests that sex work is within the parameters of self-expression for individuals and an acceptable way of conveying sexual liberation. This viewpoint holds that prostitution needs to be differentiated according to whether it is forced or voluntary. Advocates of this view, as will later be seen, propose that sex work (conceived as voluntary prostitution) should be legalized and decriminalized. Organizations like COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) are in the forefront of this campaign to sever prostitution from its historical association with sin, crime, and illicit sex (Jenness, 1990).
On the other hand, a group of radical feminists put forth that prostitution is an act of violence, particularly against women, and is a form of human rights violation (Farley, Baral, Kiremire, & Sezgin, 1998; Farley & Kelly, 2000; Raymond, 1998). This view holds that prostitution, whether forced or voluntary, is an act that is intrinsically traumatizing to the person being prostituted, and decries attempts to distinguish between forced and voluntary prostitution (Farley & Kelly, 2000; Raymond, 1998). This view also suggests that by artificially delineating between forced and voluntary prostitution, prostitution becomes normalized and provides a mechanism for those who exploit children and women to hide under the cloak of having a business that is “voluntary.” An extreme version of this view maintains that prostitution, especially child prostitution, should be viewed as an economic crime (Bakirci, 2007).
These differing positions on prostitution are a recurring theme and are further examined in the subsequent discussions. The ideological views about prostitution inevitably dictate how its causes and effects are analyzed, as well as the policies recommended to address the issue.