The dignity of man is in free choice. – Max Frisch
One of the most important negative effects of the popular concept that sex is somehow magically different from all other behaviors is the modern fixation on pimps. The nightmares of neofeminists and the masturbatory fantasies of trafficking fetishists teem with brutal (and usually dark-skinned) men who force women into prostitution, despite the fact that (as I’ve pointed out on numerous occasions) the abusive, controlling pimp of legend is so rare we can consider him an anomaly. In fact, the fraction of prostitutes who have such an abusive pimp – roughly 1.5% – is so similar to the percentage of women who report that their husbands/boyfriends are either “extremely violent” (1.2%) or “extremely controlling” (2.3%) that it’s pointless to consider them a different phenomenon, especially when one considers that any non-client male found in the company of a whore will inevitably be labeled a “pimp” by cops or prohibitionists. The notion that hookers only have relationships with a certain kind of man, who is labeled a “pimp” by outsiders, derives from the Victorian fallacy (alas, still alive today) that we are somehow innately “different” from other women, and therefore our men are different as well. This is pure nonsense; the only consistent difference between the husbands of harlots and those of amateurs is that ours tend to be less hung up about sex.
Yet the myth, anchored as it is in prohibitionist mythology, male insecurity and Hollywood stereotypes, is a persistent and pernicious one, affecting even those who recognize that most prostitutes are in the trade voluntarily. A great deal of the milder trafficking rhetoric revolves around locating and identifying “sex slaves” and penetrating their supposed “brainwashing” in order to “rescue” them, and judges and prosecutors stumble all over themselves when endeavoring to come up with inane and tautological justifications for persecuting so-called “pimps” whom they concede were fair businessmen who worked to protect their girls. Even among many independent internet-based escorts there’s a low-level hysteria about pimps (as though a man somehow has the power to reach through their cell phones and abduct them into a third-world brothel), and more than one reader has asked how he can avoid “pimped” girls. One such question went, “Is there even a grain of truth in this trafficking stuff, some ‘dark side’ I haven’t really seen despite my extensive experience? If this stuff DOES happen – how do guys who pay for sex make sure they’re not contributing to hurting a woman this way?” Rather than feeding into the false dichotomy of “free” vs. “coerced”, I answered that query with the following thought experiment.
For the most part, so-called “trafficking” is just people crossing borders to work, sometimes without proper documentation but not always. This doesn’t mean that every woman in every brothel is there because she wants to be and for no other reason, but does anyone believe that most women who work as hotel maids or Wal-Mart clerks are there out of free choice? Of course not, but neither were they abducted from their homes, carried off into bondage, threatened and all that jazz. Yes, there are a few examples of extreme coercion which are repeated endlessly by the fanatics, often exaggerated or with details omitted, and sometimes even rephrased so as to look like new ones. But in the overwhelming majority of cases, women do sex work for the same reason they do any other kind of work: because they need money. The number of women who are “coerced” into sex work is no higher than the number “coerced” into any other kind of work. If you’re at Wal-Mart, how do you know your cashier doesn’t have a lazy boyfriend at home who forces her to work and takes her money? You don’t. And are you somehow wrong or immoral for checking your purchases out in her line if she does?
Let’s imagine a barbershop which caters to a male clientele; they just do regular haircuts, nothing fancy, but all the barbers are female. Guys come in, get their hair cut, talk to the barbers, perhaps know their names. Maybe a guy even has a favorite girl who always cuts his hair; she does a good job, is friendly and she’s nice to look at, too. But what does he really know about her? Only what she cares to tell him, and nothing more. He doesn’t know what financial pressures she’s under, how much high-interest debt she has, how psychologically stable she is, if she was sexually abused as a child, whether she’s in the country legally, whether her boss treats her fairly and what her boyfriend is like. And you know what? None of that is any of his business unless she volunteers it; it’s outside the bounds of polite business conversation. If his barber is under financial or emotional duress, is he somehow responsible? After all, men don’t need to cut their hair; their demand for haircuts has created a market in which poor women are exploited to do work they may hate and possibly don’t want to do.
What if his barber actually has a degree in philosophy from an expensive school which she incurred massive student-loan debt to obtain, and is under threat of arrest from the government if she defaults, but she can’t get a job in this economy so she’s struggling with a debt which at her current rate of repayment will literally never be discharged? Is she in “debt bondage”, and is the federal government a “pimp” or “human trafficker” for telling her she needs to pay off her debt or else? If her parents cosigned those loans, the federal “traffickers” even keep her in line with threats to harm her family. And if a man gets a haircut from her, is he “enabling” that situation…or is he contributing toward her survival until she can find something which pays better?
Adult women are ADULTS. It isn’t the job of strangers, nor that of “rescue” organizations or the government, to police their private lives. The essence of freedom, of individuality, of adulthood, is self-determination, and to deny a person that is to infantilize her. It’s unfortunate that some people get into bad situations, often through no fault of their own. But unless the victim of such misfortune wants and asks for help, it is demeaning and abusive to force it upon her under the premise that her “rescuer” is better or smarter or wiser or more mature or saner than she is, and therefore more qualified to make decisions for her than she is for herself. Furthermore, it’s both rude and arrogant for a stranger to presume he has the right to question her on her financial situation, reasons for working and conditions of her relationships with men. Nobody would behave in such a way toward a barber…so why do people think it’s OK or even necessary to do it to a prostitute?
Ask yourself: Is sex degrading or dehumanizing? Is work? Is being paid? No? Then how can sex work be? Why doesn’t the U.S. government prosecute Nike for its sweatshops in Southeast Asia or Apple for its sweatshops in China, and why aren’t these countries placed on “watchlists” by the State Department for allowing them to exist? Why don’t we see campaigns to “end demand” for sneakers or iPhones? Because they don’t involve sex, and that is the only difference.
(This essay previously appeared in The Honest Courtesan on December 16th, 2011; it has been slightly modified for time references and to fit the Cliterati format.)