Originally published Jul 7, 2021
Prostitution. Few social practices have generated more controversy, confusion, scorn, pity, fascination, intrigue, myths, and theories — and for thousands of years. At the same time, it’s difficult to think of any other social behavior, except genocide, that has silenced so many throughout the ages.
Most of what the world “knows” about prostitution comes not from those of us who have lived it but from self-proclaimed “experts” who have rationalized, justified, politicized, glamorized, romanticized, and occasionally condemned the buying and selling of women (mostly) as interchangeable market items.(1)
Economists use the term “alienable” to describe this quality of exchangeability. When your car or computer, for example, becomes less functional, either can be replaced. However, when I hear the word “alienable,” I think about strangers—potential johns — on the other end of the phone asking for my bra size, height, age, weight, and hair color. Or I think about that frozen moment in time when I was on my first trick, very nervous and coaching myself to just pretend it was like any other date. Double date, that is. Two older businessmen, both married.
One was treating the other in exchange for work on tax forms. Two seconds after I met them, the buyer grinned and started rotating his index finger. “Come on,” he said, “let me get a good look.” Somewhere in the turning I felt my lower lip quivering. Stop, I told it, stop. But I couldn’t make the telltale quiver go away even though my brain ordered it to. There was no brain-body connection.
After a while I learned better control. I got so that I could smile when I was scared or angry or sad. I could smile when I was surrounded by several half-drunken men wanting to take turns. I could smile when someone I’d never seen before hovered above me, looking down into my face, and talked about what an emotional experience we were having. I could smile no matter what. That, in prostitution, is success.
Alienable. In our market-dominated world, where the profit motives and property rights of the privileged frequently obscure or obliterate the personhood of the less fortunate, a great deal of theorizing has focused on the distinction between what is alienable and what is not. How do we humans decide what things in life can be bought and sold as opposed to those which are “inalienable” and therefore cannot be reduced to a price tag?
This may seem a simple question, but it lies at the root of many social debates, including those surrounding cloning, reproductive surrogacy, “designer” babies, environmental regulations, and, yes, pornography and prostitution.
Consider these historical justifications for prostitution. In the fourth century St. Augustine, a prominent leader of the early church, argued that prostitution was a necessity; it provided an outlet for men’s “capricious lusts” while also preserving marriages.(2) Only the consumer is visible. Then, in the 13th century, theologian St. Thomas Aquinas compared prostitution to a “sewer system”— despicable but necessary.(3) Only the consumer is human — the women are seen as toilets.
Fast forward. Hundreds of years later, it’s still the same- old, same-old, except the focus shifts from the bathroom to the dinner table, from elimination to ingestion. In 1980 ethicist and philosopher Lars Ericsson compared prostitution to gourmet eating, noting that commercial sex provides men with more choices: “…coition resembles nourishment in that if it cannot be obtained in any other way it can always be bought. And bought meals are not always the worst.”(4)
And in 1992 Judge Richard Posner, formerly a law professor, asserted men have a biological need for pornography (a cornerstone of prostitution) similar to the human need for food.(5) Again, the class “woman” is blindly left out of the category “human.” So, absurd as it may seem, women must ask, what is the difference between me and a hamburger? Me and a toilet? To paraphrase Sojourner Truth, “Ain’t I a human?”
Throughout history, women in prostitution have never been seen as sentient beings with our own feelings, dreams, hopes, fears; we have been seen only in metaphorical terms, always the absent — in fact completely invisible — referent. Always alienable.
DEFINING THE BOUNDARIES
In our daily lives all of us are constantly making decisions about which things we’re willing to commodify and which are out of bounds. But have you ever thought about how we arrive at the assumptions underlying these decisions?
In her work on “contested commodities,” law professor Margaret Jane Radin noted that concerns about commodification almost always occur in tandem with concerns about other more visible social processes involving inequality and maldistribution of wealth — racism, sexism, and classism.(6) In other words, the social processes shaping our daily decisions about value commensurability and incommensurability seem to occur at an extremely deep, not easily accessible level of consciousness.
I have been researching commercial sex ever since I first started believing I might be able to leave prostitution and transform my life. Even as a white, college-educated woman, the journey has often seemed overwhelming. My first eager trip to the library compounded my sense of despair. Browsing the shelves, I saw such titles as Great Bordellos of the World; Prostitution: An Illustrated Social History; Ladies of the Night; Prostitution in the Progressive Era; The Happy Hooker; A House Is Not a Home; A Sexual Profile of Men in Power; Prostitutes— Our Life; The Oldest Profession; Prostitution and Drugs; House of Pleasure; Beautiful Merchandise.
I sat down on the cold linoleum floor right there among the stacks and began flipping through these books.The images I found remain etched into my mind these 20-some years later: nearly naked women lined up for the selection process in front of a fully clothed john at the Mustang Bridge Ranch in Nevada; a naked woman in 15th-century France wearing a dunce hat, several fully clothed men in official-looking regalia, robes and large white collars, forcing the nude woman to get on her hands and knees and crawl into a cage.
The cage was attached to a pulley hanging over the River Garonne, and the woman — cage and all — was lowered into the water three times. If she survived, she was committed to a municipal hospital — in those days, an asylum.(7) And then there was the book by Vern and Bonnie Bullough with the Japanese women “being exhibited in a cage.”(8)
The pictures were bad enough, but even worse, some of the authors still managed to produce conclusions justifying prostitution. At least one said the men were being exploited because their sexual needs made them vulnerable.
So there I was, having started out with new resolve to change my life, hopeful for the first time in months, and hundreds of years’ worth of horrible images stared back at me. I sat with the books spread open in front of me, my eyes closed, my head resting against the metal shelf behind me. In my mind I was trying to replace the cages and dunce hats with something else, but the eyes inside my head wouldn’t stop seeing. And they never have. I see an army of ghost women and girls trailing through the corridors of time.
In most debates about commercial sex that I’ve read, heard, or seen, the most basic questions are not asked, not acknowledged, perhaps not even recognized. These are questions about the assumptions underlying every individual’s decisions about what in his/her life is alienable and what is not. They are not questions about morals, sexuality, or freedoms and rights — although these things are all related to prostitution.
Many individuals, however, especially those who view legalization and/or total decriminalization of the sex industry as the solution, start with a set of assumptions and questions that are way off the mark. They begin with the mistaken premise that most people who oppose prostitution do so from (1) a paradigm of sexual moralism and prudishness (in contrast to humanitarian considerations); and/or from (2) a paradigm of sexual liberation vs. repression (a simplistic either/or equation); and/or — and this one is the most fascinating — from (3) a paradigm of human rights vs. personal oppression.
In the latter case, these individuals stipulate, first, that women should have the right to prostitute if they want or need to (something that survivors, in the current skewed socio-economic context of women’s lives, don’t argue with anyway).
The second and more interesting “human rights” twist comes from the claim that governments will be better able to address violence, health, economic, and other concerns — supposedly for the victims/survivors—if the industry is legitimized. We must all, however, remember that human rights arguments were also once made on behalf of maintaining the institution of African American slavery:
Human rights were also incorporated in the defenses of proslavery authors. Ameliorating the conditions under which slaves had to live and even conversion to Christianity were the most important issues. Proposals for better treatment and conversion were presented without attacking the slave system as such, and they mostly served as ways of securing the system. Apologists of the slave system reasoned that better treatment would lead to a more obedient slave force, a lower death rate, and a higher birthrate (as long as the child inherited slave status from its mother). Some of the defenders of slavery were aware that one day the slave system would come to an end, but any future change in the system — amelioration, manumission, even total abolition — was in the hands of God or even “History” [emphasis added].(9)
In all the hoopla of commercial sex debates—about sexuality, personal freedom, rights, morality, and health—we seem to have skipped the core issue: Are women human? And subsequently, if women are human, then do all human beings possess the trait of market interchangeability? Can we all be randomly bought and sold when circumstances prevent us from controlling our fates?
HUMAN WORTH IN A GLOBAL ECONOMY
At this historical moment, it is especially important to grapple with such questions because of the way economic and population trends intersect. The world is shrinking because of globalization, defined as the situation created when financial and technological trends (international trade policies and electronic communication potentials) minimize the significance of political and personal boundaries while maximizing the influence of capital.
Additionally, the gap between haves and have-nots has increased. According to Nobel laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz, “Despite repeated promises of poverty reduction made over the last decade of the 20th century, the actual number of people living in poverty has actually increased by almost 100 million. This occurred at the same time that total world income actually increased by an average of 2.5 percent annually.”(10)
In concert with these economic patterns, the human population has grown from 2 billion after WWII to 6 billion plus at last count.(11) In essence, multinational corporations from industrialized nations have become increasingly powerful around the world while the supply of potential slaves and cheap labor has also exponentially compounded — and so has the sex industry.
For many poorer nations, the buying and selling of female human beings has become a sort of “equalizer.” In1998 the UN’s International Labor Organization published a report on the growing economic importance of the sex industry in Southeast Asia, noting that commercial sex then constituted a significant percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
In Thailand, for example, close to US $300 million is transferred annually to rural families by women working in the sex sector in urban areas, a sum that in many cases exceeds the budgets of government-funded development programs. For the 1993-95 period, the estimate was that prostitution yielded an annual income of between US $22.5 and 27 billion.(12)
As one expert on globalization has noted, “…as Third World economies on the periphery of the global system struggle against debt and poverty, they increasingly build survival circuits on the backs of women — whether these be trafficked low-wage workers and prostitutes or migrant workers sending remittances back home.”(13)
So the stage is set for the 21st century. Because of population growth and poverty, women and children are more available and cheaper than ever before. Sex trafficking is burgeoning all over the globe. Furthermore, few individuals truly grasp the intimate connection between prostitution here at home and the terrified faces they see in documentaries on trafficking. But the connection is there, bigger than ever. Where prostitution is legal or highly tolerated, trafficking blossoms.
For example, in the Netherlands brothels and prostitution were officially legalized in 2000, and only a year later traffickers controlled an estimated 50 percent of the women;(14) in Germany, where prostitution is also legal, approximately 75 percent of the women come from other countries;(15) and in Italy where prostitution is not yet legal but highly tolerated, 80 percent.(16)
Yet people objected when the US government enacted regulations to help prevent Americans abroad from inadvertently contributing to human trafficking by limiting the Americans’ involvement in prostitution.
In 2004, Pentagon officials suggested an anti-prostitution clause be added to the Uniform Code of Military Justice which stipulated US military personnel could be penalized for paying for sex — a long overdue break from earlier patterns of established brothels around military bases (as in Korea or Vietnam).(17) Even among GIs not educated about trafficking, men understood something was amiss in the nightclubs they frequented. Said one soldier stationed in South Korea, “you know something is wrong when the girls are asking you to buy them bread…. They can’t leave the clubs. They barely feed them.”(18)
‘PRIVATE MATTER’ OR GLOBAL TRAVESTY?
Civilian responses to the Pentagon’s proposal, however, exemplified a striking (and commonplace) unawareness of the prostitution-trafficking connection. Trafficking expert Dr. Mohamad Mattar, co-director of The Protection Project at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, said he was driving home listening to the radio when he heard people calling in about the proposal.
The majority questioned why government should interfere in “private” matters.(19) While this sentiment represents commonplace views of prostitution as a “victimless crime,” the undeniably heinous nature of rampant sex trafficking mandates greater awareness of hitherto invisible commodification processes and re-evaluation of inhumane consumer-centered views.
For almost all of human history, prostitution victims/survivors’ voices have been absent from commercial sex debates for a number of reasons. As commodities, we survivors stood outside the circle of humanity and beyond the realm of ethical consideration. As women in prostitution, our existence revolved around the needs of more powerful others — johns, pimps, madams, and other traffickers.
In turn, these others could do whatever they wished to us — including beatings, rapes, and murders — with impunity because we didn’t count. In fact, as recently as 1991, a journalist reported that police in Oakland, Calif., had simply closed — with no follow-up investigations — more than 200 reports of sexual assault, including murder, in which the victims had a history of prostitution and/or drug addiction. They marked the files with the letters “NHI,” meaning “No Human Involved.”(20)
Dead people and commodities don’t talk, and traumatized persons often find it a challenge for the rest of our lives first to understand what’s happened to us and moreover to tell our stories without compounding damages. Add to this the seemingly impenetrable wall of social denial like the one I ran into that day I went to the library, and it’s no wonder the world has yet to hear much from prostitution survivors.
Survivors know how the mass normalization of commercial sex harms vulnerable girls/boys and women, how it robs hope from those trying to escape the sex industry and to master their traumatization, and how, in all too many instances, it kills. We also know that debates about prostitution will continue to go nowhere except round and round until survivors’ voices are widely heard throughout the world. And that’s not happening — for a number of reasons — even where it might be more possible. Among those who claim to speak for us, the egos and ambitious career building as well as the “us vs. them” arguments often get in the way.
I submit that governmental policies implemented now — in this era of globalization, massive availability of cheap and slave labor, and rampant growth of the sex market — will affect humanity further into the future than anyone can imagine, just as the “sewer” view and other utilitarian approaches to prostitution cemented themselves into our collective past.
Until women, globally, are less marginalized, no one can realistically view prostitution as a “choice”— even if it may sometimes be an immediate tool for survival. This, in fact, is the inherent paradox of prostitution: that a social practice involving known violence, including possible rape, beatings, and even death, can ever be seen as a rational solution.
This is the crux of the issue, that these two things, “possible death” and “rational solution” are not mutually exclusive. I submit that this crucial paradox is key to reconciling current either/or debates about prostitution. Prostitution involves a both/and — not an either/or — dilemma. Hence proposed policy changes must equally and simultaneously address both the overwhelming violence of prostitution and the overwhelming need that drives women into the grinding jaws of the sex industry in the first place.
In other words, dismantling the institution of prostitution involves much more than de-legitimizing the sex industry itself. Perhaps more challenging than implementing legal reform is the task of changing women’s socio-political realities — poverty, lack of equal education and work opportunities as well as equal political input, attitudinal changes about women’s roles. Further, we must dismantle the massive use of female sexuality as a major marketing tool.
Art instructors who teach drawing tell us that you can get a better representation of an object if you concentrate on the spaces around that object, not the object itself. Similarly, I suggest we can’t understand prostitution by looking only at the problem itself; we must also study the sociopolitical space around it. At present, nearly two-thirds of the world’s illiterates are women; during the first part of 2000, only nine women were heads of state, and women comprised only 8 percent of cabinet ministers. The majority of the 1.5 billion people living on $1 or less per day are women, moreover, and on average, women earn slightly more than 50 percent of what men earn worldwide.(21)
Poverty is not measured only in terms of monetary income. Poverty must be measured in lack of basic human rights, including safety from violence and exploitation, availability of food, housing, health, education, work, and access to the benefits of social progress — the things whose absence can indeed make prostitution seem like a tool for survival. A cruel illusion. Most people who turn tricks view it as a “temporary” thing, but “temporary” lasts forever — spiritually and psychologically — when you’re identified as a toilet or a hamburger. Ain’t we humans, too?
 Victims/survivors of prostitution and sex trafficking are historically mostly women, but also include children (typically girls, but boys, too), as well as transsexual, transgendered, and intersexed persons (typically who self-identify as women), and some men.
 Cited in John Decker, Prostitution: Regulation and Control (Littleton, CO: Fred B. Rothman & Co., 1979), 40.
 Summa Theologica, II – II, Q.X., Art.II, and II – II, Q. ix, 2 and 5, II – II, LXXXVII, 2 ad. 2, and II – II, CXVIII, 8, ad. 4 in the edition translated by the English Dominicans, 22 vols., Burns, Oates & Washburne, 1922); cited in Vern and Bonnie Bullough, Prostitution: An Illustrated History (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1979), 115.
 “Charges against Prostitution: An Attempt at a Philosophical Assessment,” Ethics 90 (April, 1980): 335-66, esp. 355.
 Sex and Reason, (Harvard University Press), 371, cited in D. Kelly Weisberg, “Introduction” to pornography section in Applications of Feminist Legal Theory to Women’s Lives, 10-11.
 Contested Commodities (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996); see also Radin, “Market-Inalienability” in Applications of Feminist Legal Theory to Women’s Lives, ed. D. Kelly Weisberg (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996), 1126-48. I would add to this list of “isms” and include speciesism and anthropocentrism because our historical plundering of nonhuman life, including animals and nature itself, stems from the same commodification process as racism, sexism and classism. But we only recognize this process as problematic when our own well-being is threatened, as in pollution and destruction of our earth.
 See Hilary Evans, The Oldest Profession (David & Charles, 1979), 56-57, 227.
 Prostitution: An Illustrated Social History (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1978).
 “Proslavery Argument, General” in The Historical Encyclopedia of World Slavery, Ed. Junius P. Rodrigues (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 1997) Vol II, 534.
 In 1990, 2.7 billion people were living on less than $2/day. Eight years later, in 1998, the number of poor living on less than $2/day was estimated at 2.8 billion. World Bank, Global Economic Prospects and the Developing Countries 2000 (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2000), 29; cited in Stiglitz, Globalization and Its Discontents (New York, London: W. W. Norton and Co., 2002), 5.
 Cited in Kevin Bales, New Slavery: A Reference Handbook (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2000).
 Lim, “Sex Industry Assuming Massive Proportions in Southeast Asia,” International Labour Organization, Press Release, 19 August 1998.
 Saskia Sassen, “Global Cities and Survival Circuits,” in Global Woman: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy, ed. Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Hochschild (New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt & Company, 2002), 255, 269.
 Ralf Bodelier, “Outlawed Women,” De Volkskrant, 20 Oct 2001, cited in Donna Hughes, The 2002 Trafficking in Persons Report: Lost Opportunity for Progress, “Foreign Government Complicity in Human Trafficking: A Review of the State Department’s 2002 Trafficking in Persons Report,” U.S. House Committee on International Relations, 19 June 2002.
 “Trafficking of Women to the European Union: Characteristics, Trends and Policy Issues,” International Organization for Migration, European Conference on Trafficking in Women, June 1996, cited in Hughes (see note 14).
 Sassen, 269.
 “Pentagon plans to punish prostitution ‘johns’,“ The Associated Press, 22 Sept 2004, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6071246/; see also Dr. Mohamad Mattar, “Rescue and Restore,” A Public Awareness Program, Recent Federal and State Anti-Trafficking Legislative Initiatives,
4 Oct 2004, http://www.protectionproject.org/commentary/portland/htm.
 Barbara Demick, “Offbase Behavior in Korea: By Allowing GIs to Patronize Certain Clubs, the US Military is Seen as Condoning the Trafficking of Foreign Women for Prostitution,” Los Angeles Times, 26 Sept 2002, also at http://www.humantrafficking.com/humantrafficking/client.
 Mattar, see note 17.
 See Linda A. Fairstein, Sexual Violence: Our War Against Rape (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1993), 171-72.
 See The World’s Women 2000: Trends and Statistics, United Nations Publication; “Poverty Overview,” United Nations Development Programme, available at www.undp.org/poverty; and “The Feminization of Poverty: Fact Sheet No. 1,” available at www.un.org/womenwatch.
B. Julie Johnson experienced, as an adult, prostitution on a full-time basis for a year and a half; she remained in the industry intermittently for another four years. Her story refutes claims that “sex work” for adults is harmless if women “get centered.” Johnson has a master’s in public health and a PhD in literature. She has taught and lectured at various colleges; worked for non-profits in animal advocacy; and consults as a prostitution expert with teachers, legislators, and nonprofit directors.
(Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in February 2014 on Christians for Social Action’s website. Due to the ongoing relevancy and necessity to continue this important discussion, we are republishing it here.)