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“DC Madam”

Posted by pocochina on May 2, 2007

Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the “DC Madam,” is currently under indictment for prostitution.  Allegedly, she runs a “high-class prostitution ring” (thanks, LA Times!).  She claims all activities are strictly legal, massages and escorting.  She also has a bridge she’d like to sell us.

One Bush Administration official, Randall L Tobias, has resigned after Palfrey exposed him for using her services.  I know it’s terrible karma to enjoy this so much, but a Republican shill for abstinence-only HIV/AIDS prevention?  I can hardly handle the delicious irony.  It’s another chink in the wall, a tiny bit more exposure of the blatant exceptionalism that thrives in the modern GOP.  Imagine if a Clinton Administration official had been on that list eight years ago.  My vicious side wants that level of bloodthirsty glee from the Democrats – of course some of our own are on that list, but dammit, nobody remembers Gingrich?  And I do wonder why she chose that particular official, I’m sure he’s not her only abstinence-only hypocrite.

I also feel a bit guilty being so fascinated by the political fallout from this woman’s indictment, because I am a firm believer that sex work should be decriminalized.

No, not because all sex workers earn the $300 an hour rate that Palfrey’s subcontractors enjoyed.  Certainly not.  Although some do, and we should recognize that, especially in a world where a woman still makes 77 cents to a man’s dollar.

Am I going to argue that prostitution is an empowering reclamation of sexuality in a world that still demonizes women’s desires?  No, it usually isn’t.  Although for someone women it is, and we should recognize that, too.

I’m not going to blithely call myself a “sex-positive” feminist and skip merrily off.  I’ve never met, read a publication by, or heard of a sex-negative feminist.  I won’t use a term that, even in vague backlash-era implication, slurs the profound work of feminists such as Andrea Dworkin or Catherine MacKinnon.  Because, no.

I’m not going to say, hey, it works in Amsterdam, and it’s all sunshine, flowers, and pot smoke!  I’ve been to Amsterdam and walked through the Red Light District on a Saturday night.  It made me profoundly uncomfortable.  It hurt me to see people where you’d expect to see mannequins.  Although sex workers there do make a legal and viable wage, and we should clearly recognize that.

I don’t base my argument on the civil libertarian argument that sexuality is never the government’s business, period.  Although I do respect and tend to agree with that general principle.  Legislation on sexuality should hinge on meaningful consent, not what we think of a person, her partner, or their reasons for sexual activity.

I am not arguing that prostitution should be legalized because women are not harmed by prostitution, that sex trafficking is not endemic, or that HIV/AIDS is not epidemic.

In fact, those are precisely my reasons for why prostitution should be legalized.

Prostitution does victimize women.  And prohibition victimizes these women further.

The anti-sex work feminist argument goes something like this:  prostitution harms women, contributes to the spread of deadly diseases, is permeated by trafficking, forces all women into the role of the sex class, permeates even the most egalitarian of heterosexual relationships by its very existence, deprives an entire class of women from the protection of the law, is generally a Very Very Bad Thing.  We live in a patriarchy, dontcha know?  So prostitution should be illegal.  Makes sense, right?

I’m in total sympathy with this argument.  Right up until the “illegal” part.

Well, class, what does “patriarchy” mean?  That men, by and large, make and enforce the laws, and women involved in this process are a) in the minority and b) also heavily influenced by living in a patriarchal society.  Men who are invested in a power hierarchy which places women, and specifically sex workers, below them by all means necessary. Yes, of course, that’s a recipe for Just, Fair Law Enforcement!  Illegal prostitution will make it all stop, right?  I mean, look how well this system has gotten rid of guns and drugs!  Sex should be no problem!

Prohibition doesn’t work.  It doesn’t.  What it does do is stigmatize women in sex work, and deprive them of the protection of law enforcement.

And what does that lead to?  Point by painful effing point.

Sex workers are abused terribly by clients every day.  Therefore, prostitution should be illegal?  Translation:  women are crime victims, thus, they should be punished?  Mmmmm, I love misogyny in the morning.  And yeah, that’s misogynist, and I don’t care who says it.

But trafficking!  Aren’t people, especially women, not only horribly abused, but actually sold into slavery as sex workers?  Yes, yes, a thousand sickening times yes.  But that does not mean that what they do should be punished by the law.  The legal issue there (and here I dip back into the muddy waters of civil libertarianism) is that it is done without their consent.  The persons punished for trafficking should be the traffickers, not their victims.  And I’m going to sing that song until I can’t sing no more.  Porous borders make this particular abuse of human rights far too easy.  (Hell, if it happens once, it’s far too easy.)  So let’s make sure we can nail the bastards, by not punishing victims who come forward.  Sex work doesn’t have to be a crime in order for forced prostitution to be a crime – forced prostitution is rape and still illegal, trafficking in persons is still illegal.  We as a society are just going to have to learn that female crime victims are in fact not filthy liars.  (Not that I hold any illusions about this particular phenomenon happening any time soon.  But still.)

But aren’t there provisions in the law?  Doesn’t VAWA even provide visas for international victims?  Well, I’m glad you asked.  T visas, I believe (or possibly U), provide at least temporary amnesty – but first, victims have to feel safe to come forward.  No, this isn’t possible in the foreseeable future.  But these people do not deserve the legal scrutiny that always, always comes with amnesty issues, and they absolutely do not deserve what will happen should law enforcement, oh, say it ain’t so, fail them!

Pretending the system we have is good enough is either willful blindness, or willful misogyny, and I don’t care who it comes from.

And AIDS.  I don’t pretend to have any idea on public health issues, but I do think maybe, just maybe, legalization could come with just a mote of regulation.  And for a person to knowingly spread HIV/AIDS is a crime.  This could, maybe, then, apply to sex workers and their clients?  And then maybe they’d be entitled to equal protection of the law?

And there’s tons of harm I’m sure missing, problems that consist of huge blows, and ones that are a thousand paper cuts.

ETA:  And, of course, prohibition effectively traps women into a life of sex work when they’re caught.  Having a rap sheet – especially for sex work, especially in a sex-phobic patriarchy – means that an individual won’t be able to get decent work on the right side of the law.  So once a sex worker’s been caught, or can be identified within a community, she doesn’t have a lot of options except for sex work and drug dealing.  Prohibition doesn’t keep people out of a dangerous lifestyle, it traps them into one.

Sex work is not morally bad in and of itself.  What is wrong and bad is when someone is the victim of a violent crime, when someone’s ability to consent is taken from her, when she is kidnapped, when she is harmed in any way.

The negative consequences of prostitution are, by and large, symptomatic of the fact that sex work happens in a patriarchy.  They are made even worse by the illegal status of sex work.

And shit.  Randall L Tobias would still be happily lying to the global community about condoms!  Mike Jones, the brave guy who outed Ted Haggard, wouldn’t be in quite such desperate straits.  See, boys can play too!  Feminism is Fun For Everyone!

And of course, I know this is all a pipe dream.  Who wants to be the elected official to stand up and say “hey, whoring rocks?”

Although Palfrey’s list is pretty long.

I don’t mind people who are against prostitution, who recoil at the victims the sex industry leaves in its wake.

But I get absolutely livid when someone can look at those victims and say hey, let’s lock them up.

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