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It is not Pretty Woman: Rethinking Sex Work Stereotypes

A facilitator from Paul & Lisa Program at a prostitution awareness presentation in a mid-dle school asks a group of parents; “How many of your kids have told you they wanted to become a doctor when they grow up?” Many parents proudly raise their hands. “So how many of you have kids who dream of be-coming a lawyer or a teacher?” Again several parents raise their hands. “So now tell me, how many of your kids want to become a prostitute?” The room remains silent, the fa-cilitator looks into the somewhat shocked faces of the parent and says; “No? So how can you say that anyone chooses to become a prostitute?”  

Of course a child would not choose prostitu-tion as their future profession. Many reasons can be given why the conclusion derived from the question raised might not be a legitimate one. Prostitution is often cited to be the oldest profession on earth, but until today sex work remains a highly stigmatized and taboo topic in modern day America. Many people perceive sex workers as morally destitute, sex loving and consensual criminals. Others only focus on sex workers as oppressed victims of inter-nal and external factors in which they did not have any agency. The judicial system however, views any sex worker as a criminal and disre-gards any circumstantial factors. Current legis-lations on prostitution/sex work are based on set moral values and criminalize rather than facilitate alternatives. Instead of simply crimi-nalizing or victimizing the people involved in the sex industry, a deeper look should be taken to understand their situation and treat them as individuals and human beings.

Legislation in New York  The New York statute offers the following definition of prostitution “when a person en-gages or agrees or offers to engage in sexual conduct with another person in return for a fee.” The definition of sexual conduct is not stated in the statute, granting the courts the freedom to make a decision on their discre-tion. New York, like almost all of the Ameri-can states prohibits prostitution and treats people who are engaged in it as criminals. It is important however to note that other aspects of the sex industry, which includes stripping, pornography, and adult-oriented businesses on Internet are considered lawful sex work. When Rudolf Giuliani became Mayor of New York City in the early 1990’s, he initiated a zoning plan for “adult oriented businesses” as a part of his effort to “clean up” the city. Brothels and strip clubs were now only al-lowed in a few designated areas in the city. The zero tolerance policy further included heavy prosecution of street workers. The goal was to eliminate all street workers from the New York area. Under the Mayor Bloomberg, this initiative was continued. The current standard sentencing for a prostitution offense in New York City is 90 days in jail. However the majority of the defendants pleads guilty and get off with a smaller sentence. According to a 2003 study by the Sex 

Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center, the first program in New York City to focus on the provision of legal services, legal train-ing, documentation, and policy advocacy for sex workers, the majority of the prosecuted and imprisoned sex workers will slide back into their same old routine once they get out of jail. Also referred to as the ‘Revolving door,’ there is a continued cycle of imprison-ment and arrest. According to statistics from the Sex Workers Project approximately sev-enty percent of the participants in the study admitted to have interactions with the law en-forcement on a daily basis. A majority also said to have been arrested several times since they have started doing sex work. The Revolv-ing door phenomenon indicates the failure of criminalizing sex workers in the city.  Availability of Alternatives  Alternatives to incarceration are not widely available in New York City and throughout the country. Some community courts have started to work with different programs to deal with the complexity of prostitution and its causes. The Paul & Lisa Program in coop-eration with a local community court has been very successful in creating one of the few ex-isting alternative programs to incarceration in Hartford and Waterbury Connecticut.   The organization runs a program that offers an intense two-week program for women prosecuted for sex work. “The program offers the women a holistic health education pro-gram, dealing with their mental health as well as the physical abuse dependency,” a represen-tative of Paul and Lisa explains. “We also try to connect these women to other social serv-ices in the area.” The majority of the women who start the program lack basic interpersonal skills, “Many of them do not even know how to open a bank account.” Besides its core pro-gram, The Paul and Lisa Program also initi-ated several youth prevention programs. The alternative to incarceration program has proven to be very effective. 98 percent of the 286 women, who have so far completed the program, have not been re-arrested for unlaw-ful sex work.

Stigmatization and the Effects on Indi-viduals  The lack of available alternatives to incarcera-tion is not the only negative consequence of the heavy criminalization efforts in the New York City area. The criminal stigma that fol-lows the sex workers becomes a burden when trying to step out of the industry. “Former sex workers who apply for jobs outside of the in-dustry face difficulties because they are not able to use their experience in the industry as a reference even though in some cases these are very valuable skills.” asserts Rebecca Lynn, editor in chief of $pread Magazine, a platform for the voices of sex workers.  It is not only very hard for sex workers to find new employment when they leave the busi-ness, there is also almost no public support for men and women who want to give their life another perspective beside the sex industry. Lack of Funding for Alternatives  The public sector has clearly failed to treat sex workers as human beings. Similarly, in the pri-vate sector there is limited to no support for organizations that provide services to sex workers. In a country where social services are largely based on private sponsorship and phi-lanthropy, this is a problem. $pread Magazine, which tries to “illuminate” the sex industry, has a hard time getting advertisers interested. Editor in chief, Rebecca Lynn admits that the magazine can barely survive. The Paul and Lisa program is another example of an NGO providing support for sex workers struggling to receive private funds.   Despite some of the positive results of pro-jects like these, private sponsors remain hesi-tant to donate to organizations aiding sex workers. Many support programs dealing with sex workers face the same issue. Companies simply fear that supporting sex workers nega-tively affects their image. The language is cru-cial when it comes to dealing with the private donors. Some organizations raise private do-nations by victimizing the sex workers. “When we refer to our programs in the context of sexual exploitation of children, it is much eas-ier to get private donors involved.” a represen-tative of Paul and Lisa explains.  Tensions Between Stereotypes: Criminali-zation vs. Victimization  The victimization of sex workers to appeal to the larger donor community is indicative of one of the largest tensions in the public debate on sex work. On the one hand, sex work is seen as a crime that needs to be punished through the judicial system. On the other hand, sex workers, especially females, appear as victims lacking basic agency in most of the public debates. Yet how can a victim become a criminal?  A lot of organizations that deal with sex work-ers are portraying the individuals in the sex in-dustry as victims. These organizations see sex workers as victims of circumstance, fallen prey to a drug addiction, trafficking and oppression of mostly male pimps. Paul and Lisa programs found that all of the sex workers that come through their program are addicted to sub-stances. “Drug is the prostitutes’ pimp” the representative states. The substance use is of-ten supposed to numb the pain that is caused by the work. She also explains that many sex workers were sexually abused when they were young. “These women do not want to be in this industry, but they are trapped, Prostitu-tion has become an addiction in itself.”  Rebecca Lynn of $pread Magazine, however, presents a different perspective. In her opin-ion, the testimonies women give in front of a court after they have been arrested cannot be seen as the only valid stories about people’s involvement in sex work. Since prostitution is a crime and the fear of punishment in front of the judges is certainly huge, a justification for their work that is accepted by societal meas-ures and will help to reduce the punishment seems reasonable.   Individual Sex Workers and Free Choice  $pread Magazine and other publications from within the sex industry show that not all of the people in the sex industry are victims. The vic-timization discourse refers to sex work as be-ing harmful to mental and physical health. Yet there are people who choose sex work as their profession. Some of them may not have en-tered sex work to fulfill a dream, but this is also the reality for a lot of other people who work in jobs they do not really like. Some-times sex work is simply the best way for peo-ple to make a living.  Wendy Chapkins interviewed more than fifty current and former sex workers for her book “Live sex acts”. She found statements like the following; “I won’t say it isn’t true that some women in prostitution are emotional wrecks. But does that come from prostitution or from internalized self-hatred about being a whore? Does it come from the stigma because people found out and never wanted to talk to you again?”  Even though portraying sex workers as vic-tims is dehumanizing to those who are in the business by free will, the large number of peo-ple who are not victims cannot be overlooked. One of the main reasons why prostitution is criminalized is because of dangers like traffick-ing and sexual exploitation. Sex worker advo-cates such as Rebecca Lynn do not deny this: “We do not see trafficking or sexual exploita-tion as sex work but as rape! We take these is-sues very seriously and are aware of them.” By victimizing all sex workers, the ones that chose their profession freely are undermined.  Combating Trafficking and Protection of Victims The question remains if criminalizing prostitu-tion is the only and effective method to com-bat forced prostitution and sexual exploitation of men, women and children. In an effort to create a policy which addresses forced sex work, the federal government passed a bill ac-knowledging that some are victims not crimi-nals in this industry.   The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 aims to “combat trafficking in persons, a contemporary manifestation of slavery whose victims are predominantly women and children, to ensure just and effec-tive punishment of traffickers, and to protect their victims.” The TVPA is an example of a legislation that combats rape, abuse and ex-ploitation in the sex industry without prohibit-ing the existence of sex work itself.  A research report provided by the Sex Work-ers Project at the Urban Justice Center claims that “it is still very difficult for many people who have been trafficked into the sex industry to benefit from the new law, especially in cases involving people who do not fit the stereotype of an innocent girl forced into prostitution.” The report continued to say that current methods to combat forced prostitution con-sume police, court and other resources but fail to create any appropriate long-term resolution.  According to Paul and Lisa Programs how-ever, the TVPA of 2000 was effective in the fight against trafficking. The Act recognizes that victims of trafficking may commit crimes such as use of fake documents or working without working permission because of the fact they were trafficked into the country. Therefore it tries to protect the victims in-volved, who often received harsher punish-ments than the traffickers themselves. 

It is time to stop looking at sex workers as ei-ther victims or criminals. “The reason why we use the word sex workers is because prostitu-tion is degrading and demoralizing to the women involved, we are talking about human beings” a representative of Paul and Lisa Pro-gram Inc emphasizes. It all boils down to giv-ing people the possibility to change their lives if they desire to do so. However, when there are no opportunities available for sex workers to make alternative choices, it is almost im-possible not to see them as victims. By simply criminalizing sex work, different opportunities are not given to those who want give their lives a new direction. More efforts must be made from the state and the society as a whole to build these opportunities. This begins with properly funded programs to give alternatives to sex work. It is also important to recognize that there are people who choose sex work as their profession. 

 Whether by choice, coercion or by a lack of other opportunities, the fact is that there is al-ways going to be a group of sex workers who will stay in the industry. 




Representative of Paul and Lisa Programs Inc. (08/01/2007) 

Rebecca Llynn, editor-in-chief of $pread magazine (08/03/2007) 


Alexander, Priscilla & Delacoste, Frédéri-que:Sex work – Writings by Women in the Sex In-dustry, San Francisco, Cleis Press (1998)

Chapkis, Wendy: Live sex acts – women performing erotic labor, New York, Routledge (1997)

Sprinkle, Annie: Annie Sprinkle – My 25 years as a Multimedia Whore, San Francisco, Cleis Press (1998)

Weitzer, Roland: Sex for sale – Prostittution, Por-nography, and the Sex Industry, New York, Rout-ledge (2000)  Journals

Weldon, Jo: ‘It’s the money. stupid – the ob-vious question that no one ever asks.’, in: $pread magazine – Illuminating the Sex Industry, Vol 3 Issue 1, 2007, p.36-38


http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/10492.pdf, Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000

http://www.sexworkersproject.org/downloads/BehindClosedDoors.pdf, “Behind closed doors”, a report by the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center of New York City

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