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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 8, 2005

Who is the victim"

Two Guilderland arrests for prostitution this fall have made us realize it’s not just someone else’s problem — it’s ours, too.

While prostitution is frequently called the world’s oldest profession, different societies have had different ways of dealing with it. Currently, in most western nations, prostitution in some form has been legalized or allowed with regulation. It is illegal in the United States except in some Nevada counties.

Those who advocate legalizing prostitution in this country — including a movement of prostitutes themselves, begun in the 1960’s — argue that, if it were legal, the justice system would be freed to concentrate on more serious violent crime, with victims. They see prostitution as a victimless crime and use the term "sex workers" for their trade, defining labor issues rather than moral ones.

They also argue that legalizing prostitution would be safer for johns, because prostitutes would be checked for sexually-transmitted diseases, and it would be safer for the prostitutes themselves, who are frequently subjected to violence from both pimps and clients.

They assert, too, that there is no effective way to close down a market between willing buyers and sellers, so it might as well be regulated. Prostitute groups have argued that individuals own their own bodies and have the right to decide how they’re used and, further, that attempts to legislate morality are unconstitutional.

Those who advocate legalizing prostitution are fond of quoting from a speech made in 1997 by Jocelyn Elders, the former United States surgeon general, as the keynote speaker at the International Prostitution Conference. She called for prostitution to be decriminalized. She has said, "We say that [prostitutes] are selling their bodies, but how is that different from athletes" They’re selling their bodies. Models" They’re selling their bodies. Actors" They’re selling their bodies."

On the other side, supporting current laws that make prostitution illegal, is a broad spectrum, ranging from Christians who believe prostitution is immoral and the prostitutes themselves the most immoral to radical feminists who believe prostitution subordinates women. Abolitionists define prostitution as inherently exploitive and want to end the institution.

A look at the world view can be instructive. An article published this Oct. 2 in the Taipei Times details what has happened to formerly licensed sex workers four years after Taiwan’s capital city ended legalized prostitution. The unskilled women without a social support network have been largely unable to find jobs, writes reporter Ho Yi.

She quotes a prostitute who felt forced to continue her now-illegal trade to support her two daughters: "The job is very dangerous," said Xiao Jing. She said if a customer is drunk and creates trouble or refuses to pay or wear a condom, she has no support. "They simply say, ‘I’ll call the police,’" she said. Under the current law, prostitutes are arrested while clients walk free.

A BBC report by Clare Murphy on Belgium’s plans to legalize and heavily tax prostitution compares the plan to similar systems in the Netherlands and Germany. An advocate for sex workers, Marion Detlefs, who works at a prostitute advice center in Germany, asserts that prostitutes have simply exchanged one form of economic exploitation for another.

The BBC quotes Detlefs: "When it was set up, there was much talk of securing proper contracts, proper health insurance but a lot of this hasn’t materialized....It looks like all the government cares about is getting their hands on sex workers’ money — women who are already hard up are giving their earnings away and getting very little return."

A story from Berlin last January detailed the plight of a young German woman, a qualified technologist, who faced suspension of her government relief benefits if she refused to take a job as a sex worker in a government-run brothel, according to Britain’s Daily Telegraph.

"There is now nothing in the law to stop women from being sent into the sex industry," said Merchthild Garweg, a lawyer from Hamburg who specializes in such cases. "The new regulations say that working in the sex industry is not immoral anymore and so jobs cannot be turned down without a risk to benefits."

We disagree with Jocelyn Elders’ assertion that prostitution is no different than sports or modeling. A large number of prostitutes, in this country as well as elsewhere, are abused both mentally and physically. The industry creates a drive for abducting and trafficking women and, even in this country, particularly victimizes very young women — really girls.

Along with prostitution comes crime — both organized crime and ancillary crime.

We find the best model world-wide is Sweden’s unique solution to prostitution. After three decades of legalized prostitution in Sweden, where brothels flourished, the Swedish Parliament in 1999 passed ground-breaking legislation that criminalizes the buying of sex and decriminalizes the selling of sex.

In Sweden, prostitution is regarded as an aspect of male violence against women and children, states government literature on the law. "It is officially acknowledged as a form of exploitation of women and children and constitutes a significant social problem, which is harmful not only to the individual prostituted person but also to society at large." The government strives for gender equality; its literature states, "However, gender equality will remain unattainable so long as men buy, sell, and exploit women and children by prostituting them...

"Prostituted persons are considered as the weaker party, exploited by both the procurers and the buyers. It is important to motivate persons in prostitution to attempt to exit without risk of punishment...."

Sweden’s law provides adequate social-service funds for prostitutes who want to leave the profession, and it provides funds to educate the public.

While prostitutes elsewhere are often stigmatized, in Sweden the law is set up so that the women and children in prostitution are viewed as victims of a crime, which not only changes their legal status but also changes how they are seen and treated by others

Since the law was passed, the number of women in street prostitution in Stockholm, the capital city, has dropped by two-thirds and the number of johns has dropped by 80 percent. Prostitution has all but disappeared in other major Swedish cites. And, the Swedish government estimates that the number of women and girls sex-trafficked into Sweden is 200 to 400 annually, compared to, for example, 15,000 to 17,000 in neighboring Finland.

The key to success in Sweden is that prostitution is being treated as a form of violence against women in which the men who exploit prostitutes by buying sex are criminalized. The mostly female prostitutes are treated as the victims who need help. And, most importantly, the public is educated to counteract the male bias on prostitution that has historically been dominant.

Government has to look at prostitution from a female rather than a male point of view if substantive changes are to be made. It is not coincidental that the Swedish Parliament that passed the ground-breaking legislation was almost half women.

In 2003, the Scottish government had London Metropolitan University analyze the outcomes of varying prostitution policies in other countries, including Sweden, Australia, Ireland, and the Netherlands. The study reported that legalization or regulation of prostitution caused increases in all facets of the sex industry, in the involvement of organized crime, in child prostitution, in the number of foreign women and girls trafficked into a country, and in violence against women.

The report lauded the Swedish model, stating it "offers an opportunity to tackle prostitution and its associated problems at the root."

In a country like the United States, where prostitution is illegal, prostitutes are arrested again and again and the crimes go on. Criminalizing these women is both discriminatory and ineffective.

What has this world view got to do with just two arrests in our town this fall"

On a philosophical level, we believe we are citizens of the world and information is enlightening. There was a time just two short centuries ago when it was believed slavery was an institution that would always exist in our world. Now, it has largely been eradicated. Prostitution doesn’t have to be accepted as inevitable.

On a practical level, we can urge our local police to arrest, under current law, johns as well as prostitutes. In September, a worker at the Wild Orchids escort service was in a car pulled over by Guilderland Police; Nicole Knight appeared to be impaired by drugs, the police said. She told police there were drugs in a hotel room at Best Western. Police found there a bag of white powder, believed to be cocaine, and then arrested Michael Iwanos for criminal possession of a controlled substance. Knight was arrested for prostitution; Iwanos was not charged in that crime.

On Nov. 24, Guilderland Police charged Nieves Fernandez for prostitution after an officer investigated a couple in a parked car. Police say she offered oral sex to the man for $20. The man is not being charged by police and, further, police are withholding his name.

Why isn’t he being arrested" Why are the police protecting his identity"

The arrest report states there is one offender in this crime and one victim. We think the police have it backwards. If we take the global view, the prostitute is more the victim than the john.

We realize, though, that the Guilderland Police must act under current law and are certainly within their purview to make an arrest for prostitution. But construing the john as a victim" That’s wrong.

Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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