The story of Barbara Terry (pictured), the 52 year-old Bronx prostitute who worked the same track for three decades, is not what one would exactly call heart-warming; it is either extremely sad or oddly inspiring, depending on the lens through which you view her profession.
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Yes, she’s “somebody’s mama,” but that does not alter the very real fact that Ms. Terry did what she had to do. Not only did she support her children after their father abandoned them, but she had enough foresight to realize that she wanted better for them. She turned tricks so that her children could turn the tides of poverty that plagued her own life, sending two of her children to college.
The imagery that is associated with prostitution is admittedly distasteful for some and exciting for others — depending on what you’re into. Some people think of seedy motels and STIs, police raids and pimps, used condoms and dirty mattresses, while others find themselves curiously attracted to the idea of having sex with a complete stranger.
Though there are many emotional reactions — rooted in religion and subjective morality — to women selling their bodies, what lies at the core of this issue is that prostitution is illegal, making horrific conditions and violent behavior par for the course. If you’re one of the women (or men) who are forced to work their trade on street corners or in back-alleys, there are no health-care benefits, no paid vacation time nor retirement packages. Consequently, many find themselves trapped in a perpetual cycle of poverty and exploitation.
But what if prostitution were legal?
What if there were sanitation procedures, taxation and employee protection laws? What if these women were actually treated with dignity instead of plagues on society while the men who supply the demand are left to drift back into the shadows unscathed, reputations and family intact?
In an exclusive interview with NewsOne, Jocelyn Morris, national board member of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the chairperson of the NOW Combating Racism Committee, weighs in on the nuances hidden beneath the surface of the sex trade and explains why patriarchy and male sexual privilege both lie at the heart of the “world’s oldest profession”:
Prostitution should be legal for many reasons, says Morris. [Chief among them is that it] leaves organized crime with one less money-making enterprise. Historically, women have been considered men’s property.
It wasn’t until 1947 that the U.S. court system recognized a woman’s right to sue in court for lost of consortium if her husband was injured by another person, corporation, etc. Prostitution laws seem to be written to control what women do with their bodies [and punish them for it], but not the buyers of their services.
As is the case with many illegal careers, services, and products, society often judges an individual based on their lack of adherence to judicial rulings, instead of examining the influencing circumstances surrounding their behavior. Not willing to merely take a superficial glance at the industry, Morris delves deeper to hypothesize that prostitution is a last resort for women running out of viable options.
I would guess if there were other options for a woman to help her family financially she would not elect to be a prostitute, Morris says. Many countries undervalue women/girls and their culture/religion makes their father/husband their keepers.
Many women/girls are sold by their fathers into sexual slavery to earn money for their family. Women are not trusted to make their own decisions or to even own property or land. In African culture and other countries, this is practiced to this day.
In essence, the idea of trusting that a woman has the right to do what she will with her own body is foreign to many nations, including this one. One can see this at work with the villianization of the African-American womb, the demonization of Planned Parenthood, as well as the criminalization of prostitution.
While the arguments in favor of legalization are strong, there are equally persuasive arguments against it. In her book, Against Our Will, author Susan Brown-Miller provides extremely salient points that add new depths to this very complex conversation.
My horror at the idea of legalized prostitution is not that it doesn’t work as a rape deterrent,” Brown-Miller writes on page 392, “but that it institutionalizes the concept that it is man’s monetary right, if not his divine right, to gain access to the female body, and that sex is a female service that should not be denied the civilized male.
Perpetuation of the concept that the ‘powerful male impulse’ must be satisfied with immediacy by a cooperative class of women, set aside and expressly licensed for this purpose, is part and parcel of the mass psychology of rape.
Indeed, until the day is reached when prostitution is totally eliminated (a millennium that will not arrive until men, who create the demand, and not women who supply it, are fully prosecuted under the law), the false perception of sexual access as an adjunct of male power and privilege will continue to fuel the rapist mentality.
Brown-Miller is so startling accurate in targeting the foundational purpose of prostitution, that there is no denying her words nor minimizing their veracity; however, prostitution will thrive as long as men demand instant gratification for their sexual desire and it will continue to dwell in open secrecy regulated by pimps and hustlers who care nothing about their “employees” and live by the creed, “F*ck you, pay me.”
Why not regulate the industry, protect these women from predators, create more tax revenue, while simultaneously allowing judgmental individuals to shed the weight of worrying about everyone’s business but their own.
It’s a win-win for everyone.