Recently, I spent a weekend reviewing music videos that would help bring Sociology to life for my students. Reflecting upon what my life had been like as a college student, I remembered the music that was popular my freshman year. Disco was in vogue when I was a freshman, and the “Queen of Disco” was Donna Summer. Even “hard-core wall-flowers” would start to dance when Summer’s “Bad Girls” was played. “Bad Girls” was released in 1979 and immediately became a mega-hit, remaining at the top of pop charts for six weeks. Hard core-and erotic, “Bad Girls” seemed to signal the sexual liberation of all women—including those “bad girl” prostitutes Donna sang about. It would take my girlfriends and me several years to understand fully the social class, gender, and race dimensions of prostitution. But eventually we would come to believe that Dona’s “bad girls” were not empowered but oppressed.
Sexual liberation implies release from oppressive people, conditions, and beliefs that control a person’s sexuality. It implies a level of freedom, autonomy, and human agency, which most literature on prostitution indicates prostitutes do not have. Rather, research shows that prostitution dominates, degrades, and exploits people fundamentally because they are women in precarious social-class positions, and even more so if they are African-American.
- Research indicates that prostitution is largely defined, organized, and regulated on the basis of gender. Most prostitutes are women. And most of the people who manage or buy sex from prostitutes (“pimps” and Johns”, respectively) are men. About a half- million women in the United States work as prostitutes each year, and 40 million women work as prostitutes annually worldwide. Within this context, female gender seems to increase vulnerability to prostitution. Being female also seems to increase the likelihood of prostitution arrest: About 2/3 of the people arrested for prostitution in the United States in 2005, for instance, were women (Federal Bureau of Investigation 2005) Research finds that female prostitutes are regulated more than their male customers, and prostitution laws are more strictly enforced against the women who sell sex than the men who buy it .
- Revealing a connection between social class and prostitution, most women say they prostitute for financial reasons. While a few highly-paid call girls say that the work allows them a lavish lifestyle and others do it to pay for crack cocaine and other drugs, the vast majority of prostitutes simply seek economic survival. Studies reveal that environmental and social-class- constraints—poverty, unemployment, limited educational opportunities, limited transportation, and the presence of strip-joints, “crack-houses”, sleazy bars, and cheap motels in low-income neighborhoods— “push” poor women into prostitution. Can we reasonably argue that these environments provide women with real alternatives to prostitution for survival? Social class also influences who gets arrested for prostitution: about 90 % of women arrested for prostitution are streetwalkers of lower social-class origins, and not the high-end call girls who “serve” the rich and famous.
- Race also plays into this story. Economic precariousness and stereotypes that define them as sexually promiscuous and immoral by nature, make Black females especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation and prostitution . Arrest rates for prostitution also correlate with race: the advocacy group COYOTE reports that although most prostitutes are white, most of those arrested are African American.
- Regardless of prostitution venue (e.g., brothels, massage parlors, escort service, or the street) all women in prostitution are subject to harm. (See Melissa Farley’s “Prostitution and the Invisibility of Harm”). All women “in the life” may experience violence from customers, pimps, hotel managers, and/or the police. All must confront the threat of sexually transmitted disease. And, in effect, all are objectified and treated like commodities.
Stricter enforcement of laws against the men who solicit prostitution, and their public exposure, is a short term solution and is therefore insufficient. The legalization of prostitution is also insufficient, because like stricter enforcement of laws against the solicitation of prostitution, this does not eliminate the institutionalized inequities that push some women and girls into prostitution.How long shall we attribute prostitution to people’s poor planning, immorality, laziness, and craziness? How long will we fail to address the lack of jobs, low-wages, poor schools, classism, sexism, racism, ablest ideas, and other systemic problems that force some women into prostitution? In the words of another disco song that was popular during my youth, shall we simply “throw our hands in the air like we just don’t care”? As the song says, “Now somebody scream.”
Denise A. Narcisse