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Prostitution Summary

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The feminist movement is divided on the issue of prostitution and sex work. We chose to explore some of the differing opinions surrounding sex work and prostitution including local impacts, international perspectives, history, and feminist debates. Our interest was sparked by the perspective of Live Nude Girls Unite!, and Chapkis' article The Emotional Labor of Sex, and our own differing opinions as prostitution as a feminist issue. Here are some of the various feminist perspectives we compiled from our tracking of the issue.

• It would benefit everyone to regulate sex work and legalize prostitution. Sex work can be viewed as a legitimate skill set. (Chapkis)

• Women should be able to do whatever they choose with their bodies. We should respect individual choices when it comes to using their bodies.

• Sex work is a choice.

• For those who don't necessarily choose sex work, they shouldn't be treated as criminals, but as victims.

• Sex work is a part of a patriarchal system that objectifies women.

• Sex work can have traumatic effects on the workers through post-traumatic stress disorder or health effects, as such it is not healthy.

Sex work and prostitution are fairly widespread, even in our local community there is a lot that goes on under the radar because it's illegal. While some feminists believe sex work can be a choice and a lifestyle, others see it as more complicated. Is the idea of choice coming from a privileged position? It cannot be denied that many people are coerced into sex work and abused or taken advantage of. Even for people who consider it a choice, they may be influenced on patriarchal opinions of sexuality. Could this be reinforcing the idea of how sexuality should be treated or commodified?

Sex Wars: Sex Workers' Advocacy Groups

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(Tracking the issue: Prostitution)

In tracking the issue for sex work (more specifically, prostitution), I have come upon many web communities that focus on advocacy for sex workers and the rights of sex workers. Like Wendy Chapkis' discusses in her chapter "The Emotional Labor of Sex," these advocates call for recognition of the "labor" aspects of sex work, and demand that sex work be de-stigmatized and recognized as legitimate labor in order to support those who engage in sex work. The following is a PSA put together by Sex Work Awareness, and it is a product of a day-long media training conference they put together for sex work advocacy:

The clip itself and many of the comments shared by users on the site emphasize the well-roundedness and realness of the women who engage in sex work- they aim to de-shame sex work and to break the silence of sex workers.

The Sex Workers Project organization is somewhat less politically charged: their aim to improve rights and protection for any and all sex workers. Their mission statement claims that the Sex Workers Project "provides legal services and legal training, and engages in documentation and policy advocacy, for sex workers. Using a harm reduction and human rights model, we protect the rights and safety of sex workers who by choice, circumstance, or coercion remain in the industry."
Their focus is on improving the rights and safety of every sex worker, but their recognition that people who engage in sex work by choice exist alongside people who are likewise there "by coercion" is a bit disturbing.

Like much of the movement surrounding sex workers' rights, the focus of these organizations is very based upon the individual sex worker. Language about individual rights and freedoms prevail. Because so much of the debate is focused on individual rights, the implications that sex work can have for the broader community are left out. Issues about worker exploitation and the negative impacts sex work could have on clients and workers alike are skirted around entirely. I'd like to see an organization that advocates for sex work address these issues intelligently--not enough evidence is presented about the negative aspects of sex work for their arguments to be convincing.

Further Reading:

Prostitution Academic Sources

In The Economics of Sin: Rational Choice or No Choice At All?, Samuel Cameron writes in section 10 about prostitution. The part I found most interesting was the table he put together speaking about the legality of prostitution around the world (his book was written in 2001 so it may not be completely up to date). He found that in many instances, while prostitution is legal in some countries, they still struggle with illegal aspects. "They may stand to gain from tax evasion and offering higher-risk premium services (i.e. no use of condoms) which are prohibited in the legal market. Further, the prostitute who has failed a health check is now under pressure to work illegally to sustain their income"(186). So it is not fully legal in any country, just simply tolerated more. It's interesting to find out more about how prostitution is understood and dealt with around the world. Cameron also makes mention of the "World Sex Guide" which is a great internet source for a quick rundown of sex work around the world. He used this guide to help him form the table.

Cameron, Samuel. The Economics of Sin: Rational Choice or No Choice At All. NorthHampton Massachusetts: Edward Elgar Publishing, Inc. 2002. Pg 183-200.

Another article I came across was an interesting prostitution research paper examining the experiences of 475 prostitutes in 5 different countries. The authors make it known they believe prostitution supports violence against women, so they interviewed and documented the ideas and feelings of male, female, and transgendered prostitutes from South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, USA, and Zambia. One difficulty they noted in their research was the obstruction of the interviews due to outsiders such as brothel owners, pimps or boyfriends. This illustrates the little control the prostitutes themselves have. Overall their findings show definite widespread abuse and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Their findings showed that these issues are not particular or dominant to specific countries. "The traumatic experience of prostitution is a more potent variable than race, gender, or state where one was born. These findings suggest that the harm of prostitution is not a culture-bound phenomenon." This is an interesting idea to consider and makes me curious for further investigation surrounding the comparisons of sex work and the emotional labor culturally.

Farley, Melissa, Isin Baral, Merab Kiremire, and Ufuk Sezgin. "Prostitution in Five Countries: Violence and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder" Feminism & Psychology, 1998, Volume 8(4). Pg. 405-426. Google Scholar. 29 April 2010.

Prostitution-Local Impact

When I think of popular cities for prostitution, the first that come to mind are LA, New York City, and Las Vegas, not Minneapolis and St. Paul. I was surprised to learn that Minnesota is home to a large prostitute population. Here are some quick facts about prostitution in Minnesota:
-Minnesota is known to some as "the factory" for the number of prostitutes it produces (1).
-The FBI has reported that 10% of the teen prostitutes in Las Vegas are from MN (1).
-more Minnesota teens have been arrested for prostitution than Massachusetts, Maryland and Michigan combined (1).
-There are 6,000-8,000 women in prostitution work in Minnesota (2).

While these statistics are shocking, it is also important to know that our community has started programs to help women change their situations.
One such program, PRIDE (PRostitution to Independence, Dignity, and Equality), is a "nationally recognized and highly successful program to help women get out, and stay out, of prostitution." PRIDE is a part of the larger organization, Family and Children's Service, which strives to create healthy and strong families and communities. PRIDE provides court advocacy, outreach, and support groups for survivors of prostitution (3).

Another group, Source, is a faith-based non-profit that provides mentors, life skill training, and transitional housing to at-risk and alienated youth:
"Our holistic approach of being a FRIEND (serving physical, emotional and spiritual needs) and a VOICE (communicating God's love and forgiveness) allows us to reach those who are coming out of devastating and troubling histories, skeptical of the mainstream, and would not come into a church for help or answers. Our goal is to be a Missional Community embracing the lambs and looking for the *prodigals who want to return home - existing at the crossroads of culture providing hospitality and impacting this hurting, skeptical, and diverse culture through prayer, urban outreach, the Fallout Arts Initiative (Fallout Urban Art Center & Art Co-op), transitional homes and Urban Ministry Trainings" (1).

Kwanzaa Community Church in North Minneapolis is planning to open Northside Women's space this month as refuge to women in prostitution where "women could wash up or use a phone, take light refreshments and connect with community resources. They could sign up for health classes, counseling, job search support, chemical dependency referrals, HIV/AIDS services and spiritual direction, if desired" (4).

It's reassuring to see so many groups reaching out to prostitutes in the area, seeing them as victims and not criminals.

2- "Race and Prostitution in the United States" - Donna M. Hughes
4- "North Minneapolis church hopes to offer refuge for victims of prostitution" by Cynthia Boyd. 2-22-10.

A Brief History of Prostitution

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Prostitution is supposedly the oldest profession in the world. The ways in which society has viewed prostitution has changed over history. The 18th century BCE Code of Hammurabi included laws protecting the inheritance of prostitutes because they typically had no male figure, such as a father or older brother, looking out for them. In ancient Greece and Rome prostitution was legal and at times even state-sanctioned. There were three types of prostitutes. The first two, sex slaves called pornai in Greek and freeborn prostitutes who worked the streets, could be either male or female. The third class included only females. These educated prostitute-entertainers, called hetaera in Greek, were some of the wealthiest women in ancient Greece. State-sanction brothels included mainly inexpensive pornai, so that all men, despite income level, could afford to have sex.


As Christianity came about prostitution began to be seen as impure. In the 590s CE, Spain had laws punishing women who sold sexual favors by whipping them 300 times and forced them into exile. The men who exploited these women for their 'goods' were never punished. During medieval times, prostitution was so common in large cities that it was hard for kings and queens to outlaw it completely, instead it was heavily regulated. In England, single women could only be prostitutes brothels were inspected weekly. In the 1300-1400s in Italy, prostitution was seen as an integral part of life and many state-sponsored brothels were in operation. In the early 1800s in France, a government agency called the Bureau of Morals was created to inspect brothels to be sure that other criminal activities were taking place. During World War II, the Japanese government abducted between almost 300,000 women and girls from its territories and made them serve as sex slaves in brothels to serve Japanese soldiers. In India, laws have restricted legal prostitution to specific areas in large cities. Today, India's Kamathipura district in Mumbai is home Asia's largest brothels.


In 1971, Nevada passed a law allowing its counties to decide to criminalize prostitution. Of the 17 counties, 11 have legalized prostitution. In 1999, Sweden, calling prostitution a crime against women outlawed the buying of sex while still allowing the selling of sex.

Head, Tom. "History of Prostitution - Illustrated History of Prostitution." Civil Liberties at - Your Guide to Civil Liberties News and Issues. Web. 26 Apr. 2010. .

Hickenbottom, Iris L., and Melanie Ulrich. "Women's History Then & Now - Prostitution." Digital Writing and Research Lab. 18 May 2002. Web. 26 Apr. 2010. .

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