Overview of This Week’s Report: "Prostitution Debate"

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Rebecca Dickinson, a 38-year-old divorced mother of three, testified in a federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., April 10 about the interview process she went through to get a second — civilian — job.

In need of money a few years ago, Dickinson answered an Internet ad for an escort service and scheduled a tryout appointment with a customer in a Maryland suburb. "We had small talk for a little bit, and then we began to have sexual relations," she said. "He tried to remove the condom. I was fighting to keep it on."

Later, when Dickinson told her prospective boss — so-called D.C. Madam Deborah Jeane Palfrey — that she was upset that the man tried to force unprotected sex, Palfrey warned her: "Don’t talk about such things on this phone."

Dickinson told her story after the prosecution called her to testify under a grant of immunity at Palfrey’s trial on prostitution-related racketeering and financial charges. On April 15, a jury convicted Palfrey, who faced a likely four-to-six-year prison term. Palfrey hung herself a few days later, leaving behind a note that said she could not face prison again.

Dickinson hasn’t been charged but has already suffered her punishment. Forced to publicly admit providing sexual services for pay, she has been stripped of her Navy job and may be forced to leave her 19-year military career without retirement benefits.

Dickinson’s story typifies many of the tough truths about the "high-end" prostitution that makes front-page news when powerful clients are involved, say sex-industry analysts. Overwhelmed by economic or other personal pressures, many like Dickinson turn to escort work and end up losing their reputations and, often, their jobs and homes when their sex-work pasts are discovered. Meanwhile, high-profile johns — such as Sen. David Vitter, R-La. — a Palfrey client who has campaigned on the need to protect the sanctity of marriage — often escape the toughest censure and keep their careers.

The sex industry operates in the shadows, making it virtually impossible to gather reliable data about prostitution. Estimates of the proportion of women who’ve worked as prostitutes vary wildly, ranging from less than a quarter of 1 percent to about 1 percent in the United States and up to 7 percent in some other countries.

What is known is that around 90,000 prostitution arrests occur in the United States annually, with sex workers, not their customers, making up the overwhelming majority of those arrested. Most return to prostitution after their arrests, including many who would like to leave the work, in part because virtually no comprehensive social services exist for prostitutes. That’s especially troubling, given that many prostitutes enter the industry as homeless teenagers, who’ve run away or been evicted from dysfunctional families. As prostitutes, they are at high risk for violence, including rape and murder.

Even though some countries are seeking new ways to limit the harm caused by prostitution, it continues to be illegal in the United States except in 11 Nevada counties, and debate on alternatives — such as decriminalization — is less robust than in other countries. That’s partly because denial and ambivalence characterize most American attitudes on the sex trade.

Other recent high-profile revelations demonstrate that ambivalence, says Martha Shockey-Eckles, an assistant professor of sociology at Saint Louis University. Earlier this year, for instance, Democratic New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, a fierce foe of prostitution and sex trafficking in his previous post as state attorney general, was named as a client of an escort service that charged customers up to $5,000 a night. Spitzer resigned his job but blamed his longtime use of prostitutes on "a sex addiction," she says. Most johns "think themselves to be morally upright individuals," she says. (Spitzer has not yet been indicted but could eventually face money-laundering or other charges.)

If johns’ attitudes seem inconsistent, so do U.S. laws relating to prostitution. For example, in New York state, because the age of consent for sex is 18, a 17-year-old girl who has consensual sex is considered a victim of statutory rape, and her partner is considered a criminal. But if she’s a prostituted girl under 18, she is arrested as a criminal and her john usually escapes punishment, says Taina Bien-Aimé, executive director of the international women’s advocacy organization Equality Now.

Prostitutes — many of whom got into the business as abused or homeless teenagers who left or were cast out of dysfunctional families — also face a high risk of rape and murder, including as victims of serial killers. "We’re so often in this society pointing the finger of blame that we forget that a lot of women are in danger," says Shockey-Eckles. "And they have little means of protecting themselves, because law enforcement is not their friend."

Bringing the ordinary lives of prostitutes into the open could help remove some stigma, she suggests. "If I try to discuss it, I hear about a woman having no values, that the woman is slimy," she says. "But they do have values, and very often they are the same values as ["Leave It to Beaver" mom] June Cleaver. I’ve asked many prostitutes, ‘What’s the most important thing in your life?’ And over and over the answer is, ‘My son.’ "

"You always hear, ‘I’d do anything before I’d be a prostitute,’ " says Shockey-Eckles. "But what if you couldn’t feed your child?"

While little policy debate is occurring in the United States, numerous other countries are trying to deal with the issue in new ways. New Zealand has decriminalized prostitution and categorizes sex work as a form of labor in an effort to end the stigmatization. Several Australian states — including, most recently, Western Australia, in April — have legalized prostitution and some brothel-keeping in an attempt to improve prostitutes’ lives through regulation. In Greece, where both selling sex and brothel-keeping are legal and regulated, prostitutes are required to have biweekly health checks. Sweden has taken a different approach, decriminalizing the selling of sex while toughening penalties for johns.

Ronald Weitzer, a sociology professor at George Washington University, agrees there is room for a public discussion of such measures in the United States, but he acknowledges that most U.S. politicians "are very wary to touch it." Nevertheless, he points out, polls show that — depending on wording — 25 to 47 percent of Americans favor some kind of legalization, especially if it would help curb the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

Although prostitution is largely ignored by legislators and the public, activists hotly debate issues relating to prostitution, such as whether it could be legalized and regulated or whether law enforcement should crack down on johns.

"When are we as a society going to grow up and face the fact that, although sex can be spiritual and emotional, it can also be a commodity?" asked sexologist Susan Block, author of Advertising for Love. "What about all the single johns? They aren’t even cheating" on anyone. Besides, she continues, "many perfectly legal sex acts are business transactions, from . . . guys who sleep with women to stay rent-free in their apartments to gold-diggers who simply marry for money."

But Bien-Aimé insists that "prostitution isn’t sex, it’s sexual exploitation . . . and we have to make the distinction between those two."

Clinical psychologist Melissa Farley, director of the San Francisco-based anti-prostitution group Prostitution Research & Education, agrees. "I don’t think it’s OK that, because some of us don’t have to prostitute to pay the rent, we set aside a given class of women and say, ‘OK, have at them!’ " she says.

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