Barbara Terry (pictured), 52, is a mother of four children – two of which she has lovingly sent off to college, after raising them as a single mother. After 30 years of back-breaking work, she is on the verge of purchasing a home in Upstate New York, embarking on the much-deserved retirement leg of her life’s journey.
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While her story is similar to many Black women, there is one small detail that makes people do a double-take: She’s a prostitute.
Terry is not just any prostitute, though. The New York Times reports that Terry appeared as “Cleo” in the 1990’s urban classic documentary, “Hookers at the Point,” and she has plowed her trade in the same Bronx neighborhood for more than 30 years, losing teeth and turning tricks while her mother and grandmother “pray for her every Sunday at church.”
Terry is a preferred customer at Riker’s Island, having been arrested more than 100 times. Obviously, her children want her to stop living in the streets, but that matter is closed to discussion:
When they were old enough to understand, I would tell them the truth,” said Ms. Terry of her grown children. I’d say, This is how I’m supporting you. For me, it’s a business, a regular job.
Terry’s profitable, albeit, unorthodox occupation opens the door to a very provocative question that has been recycled again and again over time without any discernible shift in policy:
Should prostitution be legal?
First, making its official appearance in the Holy Bible, prostitution is considered “the world’s oldest profession.” Controversial Nigerian musician and the Father of Afro-Beat Fela Anikulapo-Kuti also speaks of it in his revealing autobiography, “This Bitch of a Life,” by Carlos Moore, explaining that in Yoruban culture it is called “asewo” and is considered the equivalent of European men providing dowries to take possession of their wives.
At this pivotal point in history, unemployment stands at an improved 8.5 percent, yet still 15.8 percent in the Black community are jobless. It’s become such a desperate situation that stay-at-home Moms are resorting to becoming phone sex operators in order to survive.
Still, even in these crushing times, Nevada remains the only state in the nation where prostitution is legal, operating in eight rural counties. According to state officials, Nevada employs about 1,000 women who take pride in their profession. Senator Harry Reid is less than thrilled with his state’s reputation as a depraved vice-riddled free-for-all and called for an end to the sex trade last February:
When the nation thinks about Nevada, it should think about the world’s newest ideas and newest careers, not about its oldest profession. If we want to attract business to Nevada that puts people back to work, the time has come to outlaw prostitution.
Though the federal government has consistently backpedaled away from the explosive discussion surrounding prostitution, when one pulls back the sheets, it’s obvious that the decision to criminalize prostitution is a moral one, not one grounded in unbiased, sound policy decision-making.
George Flint, lobbyist for the Nevada Brothel Owners Association, reported that no licensed female prostitutes in Nevada have contracted HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, in more than 25 years. Adversely, the fatal disease continues to decimate the African-American community: Of all new cases, 1 to 4 are women and 2 to 3 of that number are African-American women, making it the leading cause of death for Black women aged 25 to 34.
With most of those new cases attributed to unprotected hetero-sex, the horrific numbers stand in stark contrast to the clean bill of health given to prostitutes in Las Vegas.
Legalizing prostitution would be in keeping with recent developments that show governments are willing to try creative approaches to curbing what they consider “lawlessness.” From organizations selling crack pipes to addicts in Vancouver, Canada — to document drug abuse numbers and provide sanitary tools that will possibly slow down the transmittance of diseases between drug users — to the intense push by some law enforcement officials to legalize marijuana, the signature libertarian value of civil liberties that allow individuals to have control over their own fate is being hesitantly pushed front and center as this nation tackles complex socio-cultural issues.
Closer to the point, the crime shouldn’t be prostitution. The real crime is criminalizing what women choose to do with their bodies.
People are going to have sex, lots of it, and men (and a few women) are going to continue to pay for it if need be. The U.S. pornography industry makes an estimated $10 billion annually, netting larger revenues than “Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo, Apple and Netflix combined,” according to industry insiders.
What is pornography if not legalized prostitution?
Hypocritically, there is no police hotline to call when a woman spreads her legs for a pair of red bottoms and a Happy Meal; yet, we criminalize women, such as Terry, who struggle to support their families with the only resource they feel they have available.
In 2007, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) made their stance on prostitution crystal clear:
Prostitution laws are also a violation of the right of individual privacy because they impose penal sanctions for the private sexual conduct of consenting adults. Whether a person chooses to engage in sexual activity for purposes of recreation, or in exchange for something of value, is a matter of individual choice, not for governmental interference. Police use of entrapment techniques to enforce laws against this essentially private activity is reprehensible.
The question of the “oldest profession in the world” is a subjective morality issue, not a policy issue – or at least it should be. While this may be a novel idea for this country, if we keep politics far away from a woman’s vagina, the results may surprise many of us.
It is time for us to evolve in our collective thinking and incorporate methods that actually solve problems in this country, not create them. For that to occur, however, people must stop making the dangerous mistake of equating “legal” and “illegal” with the illusive ideals of “right” and wrong.”