The Grey Area of Prostitution

Recently, I guest-authored on the web site Powerful Women, writing about the grey area between human trafficking and prostitution. Read my article here.

“You better change out of that right now. You look like a prostitute.” I’ve heard this more than once and every time it drills a deeper hole into my heart. Not because I am hurt by being thought of as a prostitute, but because I hate the way prostitutes are singled out as an evil one would not want to be associated with. Every time we slut shame or scoff at a prostitute we are perpetuating a system of blame-the-victim that has so been engrained into us. We have built a culture in which we see the victim as the wrong-doer, the one in need of punishment, without trying to understand why that person is a victim.

No matter what your opinion may be on the debate over the legality of prostitution, the grey area of ‘consent’ must be acknowledged. Those who advocate for prostitution as a legitimate profession often will state that it is something that a women has decided to do out of her own free will. Yet such an assertion fails to acknowledge how she started as a prostitute in the first place.

The average age of entry into prostitution is 12-14. At that age, no sense of consent, whether ethical or legal, is legitimate. This is not just my opinion. It is law. According to Trafficking Victims Protection Act any child under age 18 used for prostitution is considered a commercially sexually exploited child (CSEC). They don’t have to prove that they have been tricked or coerced or abused (1). A twelve year old girl being sold on the streets night after night is not doing it because she wants to be there. In most cases, somebody is working behind the scenes of her nighttime career, pulling the invisible strings of manipulation. These girls are automatically considered victims of human trafficking. (Read about how girls get sexually trafficked Technically, human trafficking is the exploitation of a human body for labor or sex (for the profit of another person). However, once their are protected as victims until they are 18, suddenly when they pass the magic number, these girls are considered criminals.

A ghastly number of victims of human trafficking are arrested and charged as prostitutes. Pimps sell girls out, whether online, in brothels, in strip clubs, etc and then collect the money. Yet it is those very same girls who are being locked up as punishment for their “misdemeanors” and in some cases “felonies”. Because it is so difficult to prove that a person is not selling her body of her own accord, those who are being manipulated are the ones getting punished. A pimp can so easily turn the situation around, arguing that she made the choice to be there. When it comes to this point, it is all he-said-she-said, and the pimp usually wins.

Some women may start off being trafficked and even once freed, turn to prostitution later in life. It has been engrained into some girls’ minds that sex is all they are good for, thus making it seemingly impossible to forge another career path. Other girls may have been cut off from all other resources–human, financial, skill-building– during the time when they were trafficked, and left jobless, turn to the only thing they know.

Yet so easily we write off prostitutes without trying to understand what has brought them to where they are. We celebrate a culture in which “boys will be boys,” yet if a woman does something overly sexual, there is cause for judgement. This is taken to the extreme when it comes to prostitution. Sure, some prostitutes come to the profession with fully independent intention of being a sex worker. But many girls are manipulated and trafficked into being there. Human trafficking is very real and very prevalent. It needs to be acknowledged as such.

  1. Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act of 2000, H.R. 3244, 106th Cong., 2nd Sess. (2000).

Learn more about CSEC:

Read up on the laws concerning prostitution in the US:

Izzy Ullmann

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