Would Legalizing Prostitution Protect Women's Rights

6:11 AM

Sex workers rights don't necessarily equal women's rights today. 
We explore the question should prostitution be legal 
in terms of safety for women.

kjersti bohrer for vproud

Sex workers rights have often been questioned as an issue of morality over an issue of safety or one of human rights. When put into this binary, judging the issue feels uncomfortable. We explore this. There's a fascinating conversation on VProud about the concept of decriminalizing sex work in order to protect worker's rights, women's rights, human being's rights. Again, an uncomfortable paradigm shift for those who may have in the past disagreed with sex work for moral or feminist reasons. In a deeply personal and informative essay, Kjersti Bohrer speaks to this issue from the perspective of a former stripper. Read Kjersti's words to shed light on your own perceptions of sex workers, their rights, and a-layer-beneath-the-surface look at what legalizing sex work would actually mean.

—The VProud Team

should prostitution be legal

Nobody Puts Baby In A Corner, 

Unless She’s A Prostitute

By Kjersti Bohrer for VProud

When I worked in a strip club 20 years ago, it was legal. I was 18, so I could legally choose to be there. I danced naked in the club’s legally designated areas. I flirted, hustled, giggled, seduced, became the fantasy for money, all legal.

There were rules, of course. Customers weren’t allowed to touch me. I couldn’t rub against a customer’s genitals because that would be considered prostitution. I wasn’t allowed to exchange phone numbers with my customers or set up dates outside the club. I thought those rules were there to protect me. After all, at my job at the donut shop where I’d formerly been employed, and at the high school I’d just graduated from, I knew there were similar laws protecting me, laws against sexual harassment. Just because I was working in a strip club didn’t mean people could treat me however they wanted. Rules are rules. 

So, the first time a guy stuck his tongue in my ear, I freaked out. I jumped up from the couch dance and shouted to the bouncer to kick the guy out because that was against the rules. The bouncer casually walked over. I pointed and shouted with disgust about what had happened. He chuckled. Management told me to be more careful next time. The customer shrugged his shoulders. I insisted he pay me, then I walked away pissed off and stunned that no one cared about the rules. 

Every time after that, when a customer grabbed my breasts or invaded my underwear, I was more careful. Careful to get paid before the dance began. Careful to jump up quickly and walk away. Careful to keep it to myself so I wouldn’t get shamed for letting it happen again. I realized the rules weren’t there to protect me. They were there to protect the money coming into the club.

Should we legalize prostitution?

While I never exchanged sex for money outside the club, I did live and breathe legal sex work for a year and a half of my life. Did the fact that it’s legal to work in a strip club protect me from continued abuse? Did it stop customers from breaking rules, actually breaking the law since it’s illegal for someone to penetrate me in exchange for money (and especially if I told them not to and they did it anyway)? Did it change the idea that I put myself there so it’s my fault and I should expect that type of thing? Nope.

So, I have to ask, what protection are we promising those in prostitution by making it legal? Or are we simply taking roll call, forcing invasive tests, and protecting the buyer?

I’ve found, in general, there are two views people take on the issue. The first is that sex is liberating and it’s time we let people do what they want with their bodies. The second is that sex work is a disgrace and should be done away with.

The first is a very liberal view. A person can choose what they want to do with their body just like a professional body builder or athlete. Some people can even use sex to heal others, to teach intimacy. Human touch can create feelings of love and joy. This perspective assumes that the client is respecting the boundaries of the performer. But, what happens when the man or woman performing the sex is asked or forced to do something they don’t want to do? 

The reality is, research shows that 73% of women in prostitution have been raped more than five times. Would legalizing prostitution protect someone when they say no? Ideally, it would. But, when I worked in the strip club, a legal form of sex work, customers constantly crossed my physical boundaries, assuming that since I was there I’d be up for anything. 

It didn’t matter the approach I took to make my demands clear, the customer was in an environment where they were already crossing into a world that permitted activities the “outside world” wouldn’t tolerate. They acted as if that gave them permission to push any boundaries they wanted, to say, do, or look at me in ways they’d never let their friends, families or co-workers see. The management didn’t stop them. I had to continue to harden myself in preparation for the next assault. Fortunately, I had the freedom to leave. It took a massive awakening for me to walk away because, after a while the abuse became normal.

This perspective also assumes that many people in prostitution are there on their own free will. Our awareness of sex trafficking is growing and we know so many people in prostitution are being trafficked or have a pimp coercing or forcing them to remain. This is true even in countries where prostitution is legal.

Those who view sex work as liberating have maybe researched it in college from the safety of their dorms. Some have chosen to dabble in titillating sexcapades as seen on HBO’s late night Real Sex. Others have actually participated in the selling or buying of sexual entertainment. But rarely, if ever, have they actually had to rely on it for their main source of income. They’ve had the freedom to choose the level at which they participate and could walk away at the mention of a safe word. They were given time to process their experience before trying it again. For those living in the sex industry, they don’t get to choose what they’ll be faced with next. Yes, she may be able to walk or run away, but, what’s done is done. To continue on, she has to prepare for the next unpredictable trauma.

“It’s difficult to view yourself as a victim, no matter what happens to you, when your pimp, the men who buy you, and even those who are supposed to protect you, see you as incapable of being victimized.” —Rachel Lloyd ‘Girls Like Us’
The second view is that people in sex work are a disgrace. They break up families, pollute our morals, and ruin our daughters. My guess is, that's not most of this audience. And some of you may even think these views don’t even really exist anymore. But, I’m here to tell you, they do. 

Try telling people you are a sex worker. See how they react. Bring it up at the chiropractor or while passing the potatoes at Thanksgiving dinner. See how far the conversation goes after that. The same people who say they’ll give their brother the shirt off their back will narrow their eyes before the potatoes leave your fingertips. People’s true colors come out. I haven’t seen such looks of blatant disgust since I left the industry.

But before you say you’re not one of those people, what do you think about Rome? They want to segregate sex workers into one part of town, put them aside so it can be safely and visibly controlled. Put yourself in your own downtown area, holding hands with your children as you gawk at the high rises and historic sculptures. Do you point out the new three-story strip club on the corner or the massage parlor that has a special area where sex is sold? My guess is that you don’t. You try, as I have, as Rome wants to do, to distract your kids, get them to look the other way, while you contemplate those tough talks you’ll have with them some day. Will legalizing prostitution in this way simply make it easier to look the other way?

The answer is not corralling a group of people into a certain part of town. My insecurity about explaining the complexities of sex with my children shouldn’t contribute to the social trauma and isolation already forced upon those in sex work.

Statistics say that 89% of women working in the sex industry said they wanted to escape but didn’t know how. Part of the reason she’s unable to leave is obvious —the money. That is, if she isn’t controlled by a pimp or trafficker taking all her earnings.

Another reason she stays in sex work is because she may not have business skills, resume, or enough education to change jobs. Or maybe it’s because women in the sex industry experience PTSD at rates equivalent to war veterans and she just doesn’t have the emotional strength to leave.

But one of the reasons we don’t often think of is her fear of entering into a world that will judge, shame, and hide her away in a corner of town. This is the same world that tells her she is a pioneer for sexual freedom and assumes she enjoys “that” life, that sexual assault isn’t possible for someone so unbound.

Are we ready to change that? To stop the contradictions and simply accept her as she is, letting her define her path without criticism or expectation? Isn’t that true freedom?

If that’s what it’s all about, to legalize prostitution so we can truly protect and empower those employed by it, we have to go beyond flipping the switch from legal to illegal. We need to take a real, honest look at the way we view those in sex work. It starts with seeing those in the sex industry through loving eyes; not eyes of pity or fear, indifference or lust. It means talking about the contradictions and admitting when we don’t see a person, we see an occupation. 

It means teaching our sons to see women as deep and rich souls no matter what they’re wearing. It means we ask ourselves if we are choosing to overlook suffering, pretending sex work is healthy, so we can keep using it for our pleasure. Otherwise, we may end up causing more harm telling those in prostitution that, yes, their job is legal, they are free, but they will always be stuck in that lonely corner.

All statistics were found on IAmATreasure.com

kjersti bohrer vproud
About the author: Kjersti Bohrer is the founder of Beautiful and Loved ministry, a faith based, survivor lead outreach and care group for women working in strip clubs. She loves tattoos, American Ninja Warrior, and, more than anything, laughing and cuddling with her family. For more information about the ministry visit Beautiful and Loved. You can follow Kjersti's honest conversations on VProud.

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