Prostitution stigma is often misguided

Kati Gardella, Crier staff

Last year I wrote an article about a police department that made the controversial decision to post a status on their Facebook page sharing the name of a woman arrested for prostitution. I wanted to re-examine the topic of prostitution, now focusing on the misdirected stigma.

The most criticism is directed towards the women, as they are “selling themselves,” and are considered to be the most blameworthy. The negative attention should be instead directed toward those who are exploiting the women, and those who have pressured them into participating in that line of work.

A lot of the stigma towards prostitutes is based on the recurring pattern of women who are considered to be promiscuous being shunned throughout history. Blameworthiness is also associated with the number of choices that people have, and which choices they choose.

Society assumes that women who take money in exchange for sexual acts have chosen that path and source of income. It is very rare that anyone would just wake up and make the decision to enter into prostitution. Not just because doing so would ensure that they would be shunned in society, but because it is extremely risky.

The different factors for entry into prostitution must be examined. The U.S. Justice Department has shared the statistic that the average age of entry into prostitution is 13 years old.

This is terrifying, as someone that age has only recently reached adolescence. Their low age also breaks all of the laws about consent.

Young girls from low-income areas and with poor familial support are targeted to become prostitutes. A history of victimization is a common factor in the girls, as 60-90% of girls who have entered prostitution have experienced childhood sexual assault, and 62-90% were physically abused as children.

Pimps, the true danger, are very good at spotting these vulnerabilities, and take full advantage of them.

Pimps operate in many ways, and technology has probably made their immoral work easier. The traditional approach, though, is that they prowl around city streets for young girls who are alone. They approach them and compliment the girls right off the bat. Flattery is very salient to an impressionable young girl.

One of the pimp’s tactics is to initiate what appears to be a romantic relationship with the girl, which is suspicious enough since the pimp is definitely much older than her.

When the girl is thoroughly smitten and dedicated to him, he will pressure her into prostitution by saying that they need the financial resources she could provide or saying something along the lines of “if you love me, you’d do this for me.”

Pimps promise love, safety, and income. They trap the girls with emotional and physical blackmail and basically hold them hostage.

They usually control the girls’ identification and other necessary documents. They also take in the majority of the girls’ income, so they are left with barely anything. Also, if the girl refuses to go out and see clients, they risk being physically beaten and emotionally abused.

Anyone would be immediately criminalized for engaging in sexual acts with a minor, so of course, anyone who has had relations with an underage prostitute should undeniably be prosecuted for sexual abuse.

In the U.S. Criminal Justice system, however, it’s the girls, who have been prostituted and abused who are arrested.

Luckily, the focus has shifted, as now more clients and pimps are being arrested.

It does not make sense to punish one who has been victimized. Exchanging sex for money is an illegal act, but another thing to consider is that many of the girls arrested for prostitution haven’t even reached the age of consent. This is a red flag that they have little choice in the matter, and that there are deeper factors for why they’re working on the streets.

Sadly, for some of the girls who have been caught up in prostitution, a jail cell is safer than their previous environment. However, confinement is costly, and there is limited space. The standard jail also isn’t equipped for the treatment that a woman who has left prostitution needs.

Many will suffer from an extremely severe post-traumatic stress disorder. It is likely that they have been in life-threating situations and have experienced terrible violence. 70-87% of women have been physically assaulted by their customers or pimps while working as prostitutes.

The majority will also have a poor self-image and think toxic thoughts such as “this is all I’m good for.” Their loyalty to their pimps is also dangerous, especially if the pimp has promised them unconventional love. A woman may feel as if she is still in love with her pimp, despite the horrible things he has done to her.

With their past of prostitution, they are constantly afraid of being shunned and judged if someone that they care about were to find out about their history. This can make women feel alienated and less likely to seek out connections other than their social group related to prostitution. Therefore, it’s extremely hard to leave the lifestyle.

Some are trying to incorporate sex work into the feminist movement and depict it as empowering. The majority of sex work is based on the exploitation of women, and that isn’t a thing of the past. Sex trafficking is still a major issue, even in locations like Maine and New Hampshire.

This past week, a 23-year-old man from New York City named Ishi Woney was charged with sex trafficking and exploiting young women. Unfortunately, one of his victims is still missing.

Instead of viewing prostitution as a positive thing that should be legalized and regulated, awareness needs to be raised about those who have been victimized by prostitution.

Those who have left prostitution need security, educational resources, therapy, and employment opportunities. The criminal justice system has improved by aiding victims in finding the help that they need, as well as seeking out the pimps who are at the root of the problem.

Prosecuting and educating the Johns/clients is also essential. Many have the mindset of “I bought this woman, so I can do whatever I want to her,” which triggers abusive behavior and the dehumanization of women.

Clients charged with soliciting a prostitute have been sentenced to educational classes conducted by police and other law enforcement officials about why paying women for sex is wrong, and about the unfortunate life situations that have led women into prostitution.

It is a prominent epidemic, but society has begun to view women who have worked as prostitutes in a more dimensional and less-judgmental way, which is necessary if we want changes to happen.