Sex Work and the Law

Legalizing Prostitution:

From Illicit Vice to Lawful Business

By Ronald Weitzer

New York: New York University Press, 2012, 283 pp., $24.00, paperback

Reviewed by Anne Gray Fischer

When a woman is arrested for prostitution, before she is even convicted, her picture is posted on her local news website, along with her full name, age, hometown, and the officer’s details of her arrest. Subscribe to a Google news alert for the search term “prostitution” and you will receive a stream of these pictures of women every day. Prostitution arrests are swiftly converted into convictions and, in addition to the public disgrace, a convicted prostitute must contend with the court fines, lost earnings, and restricted job opportunities that accompany a criminal record—and whenever a job application asks if she has been convicted of a crime, she must check the box, hoping that her prospective employer won’t supplement the application process with a quick search online. 

Debates over prostitution have raged in the last few decades—whether it is a job or a crime, coerced or chosen—but amid the tumult, the arrest and public shaming of prostitutes continues unabated. Could any change in our legal regime stanch this systemic marginalization of prostitutes? In his latest contribution to the study of sexual commerce, sociologist and criminologist Ronald Weitzer investigates the challenges, successes, and unintended consequences of one possible remedy: legalization.

For more than a century, reformers have argued that the criminalization of prostitution doesn’t just perpetuate injurious stereotypes—it prevents prostitutes from accessing basic public goods like housing or healthcare, and bars them from legal recourse if they are attacked or robbed. Various plans to lessen prostitutes’ degradation and abuse have been proposed, from outright decriminalization to legalization with state monitors and regulation. In Europe, Asia, Latin America, and some pockets of the United States—in parts of rural Nevada, for instance, where brothels are legal; and, until recently, Rhode Island, where a legislative loophole made indoor prostitution “not illegal”—strategies have been implemented that use some combination of decriminalization and state oversight, each tailored to the region’s specific regulatory landscape and political climate. Weitzer takes the reader on a brisk yet thorough world tour of these policies before delving into three case studies of legalization, in Amsterdam, the Netherlands; Frankfurt, Germany; and Antwerp, Belgium. While this northern corner of the EU might initially seem homogeneous, Weitzer finds a stunning diversity of both sexual markets and regulatory strategies in the region.

Despite the book’s focus on legalized zones of sexual commerce, the enduring stigma of prostitution makes even the legal variety an elusive object of study. The data tracking prostitution is murky, and Weitzer is quick to point out how much we don’t know about the demand, profitability, and market structures of commercial sex. Because of this data vacuum, harmful myths about prostitution have proliferated—easy with an issue so prone to sensationalism and moral panic—which sculpt public opinion and policy. In his sober reading of the available research, paired with his own extensive ethnographic observations, Weitzer attempts to debunk the reigning myths about prostitution and make a case for legalization in the United States, inviting readers to “imagine an alternative to the conventional wisdom.”

Today’s prostitution debate is dominated by two competing views, which Weitzer calls “empowerment” and “oppression.” Like Weitzer himself, those who favor the “empowerment” approach make a distinction between sex work and sex trafficking. They argue that when erotic labor is decriminalized and fortified with basic labor protections, it can be safe, lucrative, even fulfilling—while smoothing an exit for those who want out. Empowerment-minded researchers are among the few in the field who study non-normative sex workers (notable exceptions to their colleagues, who, like Weitzer, overwhelmingly focus on women selling sex to men) and they have revealed subcultures of male, transgender, and lesbian prostitutes who challenge and subvert the prevailing heterosexist culture. Though Weitzer notes that empowerment scholars are generally careful to avoid dogma, some, he argues, “make bold claims that romanticize sex work.” A running theme throughout Legalizing Prostitution is Weitzer’s search for strategies that normalize—rather than celebrate or condemn—erotic labor.  

Adherents of the oppression approach are horrified at the prospect of normalizing, much less celebrating, commercial sex. These scholars and activists, who typically limit their inquiries to women and girls, reject the notion of prostitution as labor, arguing instead that sex work is sex slavery by another name. They consider the sex trade inherently exploitative, and support intensified criminalization to abolish it. Weitzer is mindful of the threat of exploitation, but he charges that those who see prostitution as exclusively oppressive “pay little heed to the canons of scientific objectivity”; their “central tenets are not derived from carefully conducted research which would contradict or radically qualify those very tenets.” Despite the lack of research that supports it, Weitzer charts the successful institutionalization of programs based on the oppression framework, which have received considerable government funding since the George W. Bush administration.

The two camps fundamentally disagree on the representative experience of prostitution—is it a routine and potentially affirming job or degrading bondage? Neither of these “one-dimensional and essentialist” images, Weitzer argues, can capture the “richly nuanced” realities of prostitution. Instead, he offers his own, “polymorphous paradigm,” which, he says, is “sensitive to complexities and to the structural conditions shaping sex work along a continuum of agency and subordination.” Using his framework, Weitzer argues, activists and politicians can craft policies that recognize the plurality of experience in sexual commerce, fostering safe, healthy work environments, and reducing harm and exploitation. “Victimization, exploitation, agency, job satisfaction, self-esteem,” Weitzer writes, “should be treated as variables, not constants.” Prostitution policy should aim to boost the positive variables while curbing the negatives.

For veterans of the feminist “sex wars” of the 1980s and 1990s, the oppression vs. empowerment debate is familiar, and Weitzer is not the first to try and break through the ideological gridlock. But as Weitzer highlights “best practices” for legal prostitution, he neglects the persistent “constants” of global wealth inequality, the feminization of poverty, and racism. 

A hierarchy exists in sexual commerce that mirrors larger social inequities: white, educated, affluent prostitutes with straight male clients typically work indoors, maintain the greatest control over their lives and wages, and face fewer legal repercussions; poor, LGBTQ, and nonwhite prostitutes, however, earn less and are more vulnerable to police brutality, pimp exploitation, and violent johns. Class and color determine a prostitute’s experience on the often-dangerous, degrading streets, where the poorest and most at-risk prostitutes work. Although there are a variety of legalization strategies around the world, most respond to this hierarchy by deploying a “two-track system,” in which indoor prostitution is legalized, while the sellers, and sometimes the buyers, of street sex are criminalized. This system creates “white collar” prostitutes, who are absorbed into the labor market and placed on the road to normalization, with its attendant legal protections, while those on the street remain subject to the vagaries of selectively enforced laws. In Weitzer’s ideal system, which currently has a sliver of American precedent in cities like Boston and San Francisco, streetworkers are still arrested (“which seems necessary to compel compliance [with the law],” Weitzer writes), then funneled into social support programs. Improved state services for prostitutes are certainly needed, but in a nation where the poorest and most marginalized do not receive a substantial measure of mercy or resources, perhaps we should be skeptical of a legal remedy that normalizes the privileged while continuing to criminalize and stigmatize the poor and nonconforming.

Weitzer, and other architects of two-track systems, uphold the “girlfriend experience”— where prostitutes simulate cuddly, romantic relationships with their clients—as the gold standard of sexual commerce, one that “humanizes” both parties and transforms “sheer monetary exchange” into a therapeutic service. Like the women who perform “girlfriend” services, the clients are typically affluent, educated, and white. Together, these client-girlfriend pairs mimic socially acceptable relations—private, emotional, bonded—domesticating hetero-sex work. As Weitzer documents, with little apparent alarm, legalized “girlfriends” reinforce the “deviance” of lower strata of same-sex and public prostitution: in Frankfurt, for example, women are banned from entering brothels (unless, of course, they are working in them); and in Antwerp, despite some outdoor legalization, male prostitutes working in parks are entrapped and arrested by police. Significantly, too, Weitzer’s research indicates that there is little social mobility from one class of prostitution to another, so poor, nonwhite, or queer prostitutes would be less likely to “jump tracks” to the safer, socially sanctioned, “girlfriend” work.

Legalizing Prostitution delivers a technocratic analysis of prostitution: Weitzer has deftly navigated the best available research, but his devotion to the data may blind him to the larger implications of his work. “Social stigma colors all sex work,” Weitzer acknowledges, but rather than combat the shame reserved for female and transgender prostitutes, he proposes instead to normalize it for the most socially palatable. By endorsing a widening wealth gap between “girlfriends” and street prostitutes, Weitzer offers a regime of “trickle down legalization,” that promotes the comfort and integrity of the relatively privileged, sacrificing to the criminal justice system those whose lives remain most precarious.

Anne Gray Fischer is a doctoral student in US History at Brown University, where she studies the politics of sex work in the late twentieth century. Her writing has appeared in the Boston Globe, Bitch magazine, and elsewhere.

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