Thursday, September 2, 2010

Can legalization really be a form of legitimacy?

I am currently reading a beautiful book titled Let the Great World Spin, which compiles a variety of stories and perspectives centered on Philipe Petit's tightrope walk across the World Trade Center buildings in 1974. While the image of the tightrope walker does convey an evocative image in itself, one particular story within the novel is also as striking. This is the story of Tillie, a prostitute, mother, and lover who is imprisoned in jail on the charge of prostitution and petty crimes. There is much to be said about Tillie, but as she tells the reader, "Hooking was born in me...[f]rom my bedroom window I could see the girls work...When I was thirteen I already had my hands on the hip of a man in a raspberry suit."

Prostitution can be categorized as the world's oldest profession. Whether this is true or not is irrelevant. What is relevant, however, is that this cycle of prostitution remains today. Recently, one of the discussions regarding prostitution has stemmed from whether there is a way to legitimize prostitution through legalizing the profession. Perhaps this focus on legitimacy would allow these women to take control of their bodies, out of the hands of their pimps, and reclaim their voice in a profession that ultimately marginalizes women within society.

Some reasons legalization would further such rights include a more regulated health care system to ensure regular testing for STDs and further protection against unwanted pregnancies - which already overburdened NGOs and Planned Parenthood facilities cannot handle. Another more family policy oriented reason could be a way to ensure that these women have a continuous source of income to support their families, rather than being thrown into jail at the whim of police officers. Sudhir Venkatesh, an economist who has studied the system of prostitution, also argues that legalization could have a detrimental effect, which would include limiting aid from non-profit organizations and could in fact include these women losing their livelihood due to a "flood in the market."

While there are certainly pros and cons to the argument, the crux of the issue still remains. Prostitution's perception is contingent on society's perception of women. Legalization might be one way to legitimize prostitution, but ultimately, these women will never be able to find a place in society without a general understanding that sex is not the only function of women as a whole. Rather, once women are seen on an equal basis, and are able to be viewed as more than a vehicle for sex, perhaps legalization would truly have an impact, or in an ideal world, would get rid of the institution itself. If, however, women continue to be put down - both in reference to their sex and in reference to prostitution - in a detrimental fashion, as this article shows, no form of legalization will legitimize the role of marginalized women.

1 comment:

Dusty said...

I think sex work will not gain legitimacy even if legalized. Absolutely, decriminalization can help keep sex workers safer and more empowered but I wonder if the social status of sex workers will much be changed in this country or elsewhere. I know many sex workers here in the US, many of whom are employed in what would be considered incredibly empowered sex working environments, some unionized, some worker owned, etc. Despite the benefits of decriminalization, and safer/saner working conditions, sex workers still don't seem to gain any legitimate social status for their profession. This makes leaving the profession hard, being honest about your profession often impossible, and so many other barriers to being a "legitimate" job holder.