Originally born 40 years ago in El Salvador, Amber, whose name has been changed at her request, has lived in the United States for the majority of her life. Petite and strawberry blonde, I first met her two years ago while working a night shift at an adult bookstore. Amber was a former prostitute.
Intrigued by the fact that she used to have sex with men for money (no female customers had approached her), we became friends, bonding over our mutual crush on William Levy, a gorgeous and untalented telenovela actor. For the year I worked there, she would disappear for months and return with a new hair color or make-up scheme. She was a woman who loved color in all facets of her life, even if others (like I) did not think it was age appropriate at times.
“When I first started,” Amber said, “I didn’t do anal (sex) and the guys would pay me extra to do it. Then the pinche (damn) Internet happened.”
Amber discussed how somewhere in the mid to late 1990s, during the Internet boom, being a prostitute suddenly became competitive and self-respect turned into a luxury.
“Podia cobrar (I could charge) $100 for a normal session and an extra $150 if they wanted to go a little deeper,” Amber said.
She met women and men who would charge $50 or a warm place to sleep for the night in order to provide such a service. Suddenly Amber wasn’t so much sought after and was seen as overcharging clients and being conservative compared to pornography on the Internet.
The Oxford Dictionary defines prostitution as an individual engaging in sexual activity for payment, a profession whose history can be traced to the 18th century B.C. on the Babylonian tablet, the Code of Hammurabi. It’s a profession that survived long before Jesus Christ, Craigslist or Gloria Allred could praise or condemn it.
I originally intended to write in defense of legalizing prostitution, but hindsight has made me realize that I can not defend a profession that dehumanizes its workers. Prostitution is a job few want and often a last resort for those systemically disenfranchised by society: women and minorities, and this is a norm in the profession I am totally against.
Granted, there are benefits in legalizing prostitution such as tax revenue for states and an increase in job safety for the women and men willing to provide sexual favors in exchange for money or other services.
Legalizing prostitution would create undeniable economical benefits, a sorely needed change in an economy that offers less legal job options to the general populace. Have safe sex, get paid for doing it well and a possible health plan? Many would say “yes, please.”
Such a turn in national policy might even erase the tired “dead hooker” plot device in CSI or Law & Order, forcing male TV writers to be creative for once.
But no amount of hallucinogenic drug consumption will make what I previously mentioned a reality.
Several scholarly articles have covered the topic, such as “Women in Street Prostitution” by Jacquelyn Monroe (2005) and “Prostitution in Five Countries: Violence and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” by Melissa Farley (1998), discussing how those at the bottom of the social totem pole often resort to the profession.
A combination of male favoritism in hiring practices (proven in multiple job and scientific fields), economic nose dives on the national scale, uneven wages and the social pressure on women to take on the role of child caretaker as default have pinned women in a spot where unprofessional behavior, like flirting, is now being encouraged in order for them to advance in business transactions and the workplace, according to a recent UC Berkeley study called “Feminine Charm: An Experimental Analysis of its Costs and Benefits in Negotiations.”
Socio-economically disadvantaged men also resort to prostitution. While standing outside a Home Depot, waiting for work, can be equivalent to prostitution for men and women, reports show unprotected migrant workers are beginning to resort to sexual prostitution in these areas. No longer is Mr. Doe pulling up to hire Pedro or Mario to paint his house or trim his lawn, but is instead paying them a days work for skin action.
When poverty strikes and you do not have resources or opportunities, what can people turn to for income? The unemployment office takes weeks to respond and sometimes one must jump through a thousand hoops in order to receive a check.
“For about a shitty six months,” said 23-year-old Carina, a nursing student at Los Angeles Pierce College, whose name has also been changed, “I was let go from my job at a child daycare center and my mom’s breast cancer returned.”
Working as a web-cam girl in order to pay the bills, Carina doesn’t remember her months fondly but she does remember the few clients who were pleasant while she entertained them.
“A few wanted to talk because they were lonely,” she said, “some guys really liked me because I was curvy.”
The worst, for Carina, were the ones who would pick on her for her weight despite them paying minutes to see her alone. Others would perform sexual acts in front of the web camera that would make it difficult for Carina to remain pleasant.
“I would go to this studio in Van Nuys [Calif.],” she said,” and I would sit on these funky stained sheets in front of the camera… and sometimes I was surprised, during a performance, that this was legal.”
Carina remembers the moistness of the sheets and mattress she performed on and how the employers ignored her requests for cleaner conditions.
Legalization isn’t going to automatically ensure a prostitute’s safety or better her world. It might stop them from consuming drugs on the job, much how Nevada’s prostitution laws work, but it won’t protect them from the next coked-up client from freaking out during a session.
“Crackheads are the worst,” Amber said, “You have to soothe them into believing that you aren’t going to rob them. They’re paranoid as fuck. And when they can’t get ‘it’ up, because of the crack, they start a bitch fit even if they trust you.”
Legalization will not remove the stigma of being a sex worker or the unnecessary risks the job brings. It will not get rid of the barriers many minorities and women face when trying to succeed in the workplace. The government will merely provide the illusion of safety and tax individuals who they’ve mostly neglected.