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'Oldest profession' is really exploitation, lawyer says

Catharine MacKinnon speaking in 2006

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - Despite a view by some that prostitution is simply “sex work” that should be legalized and controlled, attorney Catharine MacKinnon dismisses that approach as misguided and harmful to women who in most cases have no choice.

Addressing an audience at Washington University law school Thursday, MacKinnon characterized prostitution as “an industry of viciousness and naked exploitation,” one in which the women are subjected to what she called “you-do-what-I-tell-you-to-do sex.”

One of the most telling points about the true feelings of women involved in prostitution, she said, is this:

“They are under no illusions that this is a job. No prostituted women I have ever met want their children to have their life.”

MacKinnon is a longtime champion for sexual equality. Among her achievements is representing Bosnian survivors of sexual atrocities, winning legal recognition of rape as an act of genocide and gaining for the women a $745 million settlement.

At times, she has also been a controversial figure. Her strong anti-pornography stance alienated her from some free-speech advocates and some feminists.

Her most recent focus is the title of her Washington U. talk: trafficking, prostitution and inequality.

Telling a standing-room-only crowd to “fasten your seat belts. This is going to be a very fast track through a very complicated question,” MacKinnon noted that while no one defends trafficking, there are some who look more favorably on prostitution, either actively supporting it or finding politically correct ways to tolerate it.

She dismissed that point of view, branding prostitution the “ultimate denial of any expression of sexual freedom.”

MacKinnon said those who are more tolerant of the practice try to make certain distinctions – adult prostitution vs. prostituting children, legal prostitution in some countries and parts of Nevada vs. illegal prostitution, even indoor prostitution in brothels vs. outdoor prostitution by women cruising red-light districts.

But, she said, in what has become a highly polarized debate, “these supposed distinctions emerge as largely illusory.”

It has come down to what MacKinnon delineated as two approaches to prostitution: one that looks at it as sex work and the other that considers it sexual exploitation.

In the sex work point of view, she said, prostitutes are viewed as laboring in the oldest profession, one that can be seen as sexually liberating and is only stigmatized because it generally is illegal. These sex workers are considered to be in control of their lives and compensated for the work they choose to do.

The other point of view sees the work as degrading, equating people to what is being done to them. Based on research she has done with women who have left prostitution – exited women, MacKinnon said they are called – she views their lives the same way she views the word prostituting when it is used as a verb, which is degrading and dehumanizing.

Noting that in most cases, the fees paid to prostitutes actually go primarily to the people who control them, MacKinnon said:

“The money in these transactions coerces the sex. It does not guarantee consent to it…. This makes prostitution a process of serial rape. There can be nothing equal about it.”

Those who take the sex work approach, she said, feel the profession can be improved if prostitution is decriminalized and subjected to some form of governmental regulation, perhaps even unionization. That way, she said, the women involved have a livelihood as legitimate as any other.

But those who view it as exploitation prefer what MacKinnon said has been underway in Sweden for about 10 years: criminalizing those who patronize the prostitutes while eliminating any punishment for the women and providing them with social services and job training.

That tack, she said, takes into account the overwhelming evidence that rarely are women involved in prostitution by choice. Rather, she said, they need the money it brings to live.

“Everywhere,” MacKinnon said, “prostituted people, with few exceptions, are overwhelmingly poor…. Having gotten there because of poverty, almost nobody gets out of poverty because of prostitution. They are lucky to get out with their lives.”

Because most prostitutes enter the profession when they are young, often starting after sexual abuse as children, for many women forced sex defines what their lives are for.

Prostitutes, MacKinnon said, fit into an informal hierarchy, with street walkers on the bottom rung and women who work in brothels or as call girls higher up. But, she said, that creates a misleading impression that is sometimes used by the sex-work advocates to reinforce the notion that often women are in it by choice.

To that, she said: “The moralists should try it some time.”

She pointed out that prostituted women often have the same levels of post-traumatic stress disorder as combat veterans or the victims of rape or torture.

“You leave mentally,” she said, “because you cannot leave physically.” She called their lives a “trauma that is constantly being reinflicted.”

When they are asked what they need most, MacKinnon said prostitutes most often answer that they would like to leave their lives behind but don’t know how.

“Is that what freedom looks like to you?” she asked.

She also noted that in almost all cases, prostitutes are women who have less power than men in their society and are subjugated because of their gender.

“No one fights to become a prostitute against all the odds,” she said. “She becomes a prostitute when the odds defeat her.”

To help resolve the issue and rescue women from lives of forced sex, stress and poverty, MacKinnon said societies should follow the Swedish example and decriminalize the women involved, criminalize the men who buy their services and go after those who profit by forcing women into prostitution in the first place.

That approach is far better than legalization, which she called a failed experiment that has not reduced crime or trafficking, not made prostitution more transparent and not made it any healthier or any safer.

Instead, she favors ways to elevate the status of women who want to leave prostitution behind.

“Most women in prostitution don’t want to think this is all their lives are ever going to be,” MacKinnon said.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.