4/28/08 10:49 AM chicagotribune.com
Prostitution looks chic, but truth is ugly
Real face of sex trade is pain, not profit
By Anne K. Ream and R. Clifton Spargo
April 27, 2008
The problem with much of the coverage of the Eliot Spitzer scandal was not just the pulp fiction-worthy headlines (“Bad Gal!” “The Love Gov!”) or the endless loop of commentary about why married men cheat. It was that the media delivered a basic untruth. This was not a love (or even a lust) story: The now-former New York governor wasn’t stepping out on his wife with a consenting “other woman.” His was an illegal and dehumanizing business transaction, one in which a man of great privilege purchased the sexual services of a woman of far more limited means.
But instead of treating Ashley Alexandra Dupre—who has said she was abused and once homeless—as a victim, the media have turned her into a vixen. Why address the oppression that is prostitution when we can serve it up as a form of sexual self-expression (or as a savvy career move) instead?
It’s tempting to blame it all on “Pretty Woman,” the wildly successful 1990 film that launched Julia Roberts’
career, and the myth of prostitution as a way to get the guy (and the designer wardrobe).
But that film’s wrongheaded celebration of the redeeming possibilities of sexual servitude seems almost quaint in comparison with the “Prostitution Chic” of today. “Pimp and Ho” nights have become a staple at downtown clubs and uptown benefit parties. “Turning Tricks” pole-dancing classes are offered at Crunch Gyms.
Hit shows such as HBO’s “Entourage” and “Cathouse”—where a Nevada pimp and his “girls” are portrayed as one big, happy, sexually uninhibited family—are an ode to the joys of being sexually serviced by women. The Top 40 success of the Pussycat Dolls—part predictable pop music, all bump and grind—hasbrought the burlesque back to the mainstream.
And here in the Windy City, the Discovery Center’s Sex Tour brochure promises to take tourists to the “freaky and little-known locations of Chicago’s sex industry.”
The new vogue of voyeurism substitutes prostitution for the carnival freak shows of old. The trend is not unprecedented; respectable Victorians also took prostitution tours. But it reinforces the modern-day, market-
driven perception that those working in prostitution are merely indulging their own bent for
entrepreneurialism and sexual self-expression. Make no mistake: Our cultural fascination with and glamorization of pimping and prostitution do not make for a kinder and gentler sex trade.
“Every reliable study of women working in prostitution finds that more than 90 percent have been victims of childhood sexual assault,” said DePaul University College of Law researcher Jody Raphael. “Most entered the sex trade in their teens, after fleeing abuse and having no other way to support themselves. Many are alcohol and drug dependent.
“People talk about this as sex between two consenting adults, but it is hard to talk about this as a ‘choice’ when we are talking about women who entered into prostitution when they were so young,” Raphael said.
The painful conditions that drive girls and women into the sex trade often pale in comparison with the dangers they face once they become part of what people far too blithely refer to as the “world’s oldest profession.”
A comprehensive 2004 mortality study, funded by the National Institutes of Health and conducted by the American Journal of Epidemiology, shows that workplace homicide rates for women working in prostitution are 51 times that of the next most dangerous occupation for women (which is working in a liquor store). The average age of death of the women studied was 34.
Some have argued that those working for “high end” escort services, as Dupre was, cannot be compared to the “average” woman working in prostitution. But the $1,000-an-hour escort of today will often become the woman on the street of tomorrow, as age, alcohol and sexually transmitted diseases take their toll.
Much has been made about the “benefits” Dupre may enjoy as a result of her newfound celebrity. But her short-term economic gains merely distract us from the reality of the institution of prostitution, making us less critical of the grave damage it does to millions of women and girls. Yet the glamorization of prostitution continues, unabated by the facts. Nowhere was this more clear than on a recent edition of “Larry King Live.” During an interview with Natalie McLennan, the woman who allegedly trained Dupre at the escort agency New York Confidential, King asked, “Do any hookers ever marry their johns?” “They do!” she exclaimed, telling King the tale of a fellow “girl” who “went on a date with a client and then we never saw her again. It turns out that they met and they fell in love and she never returned. It’s a real sort of Cinderella, ‘Pretty Woman’ story, you know. Which is I think . . . just a fantastic story—every girl’s dream.”
For the vast majority of women working in prostitution, however, the reality is less fairy tale, more grim fable. But who wants to let that get in the way of a good story?