Much of the talk about enforcing laws against prostitution employs pleas for “human dignity.” How can we respond to this argument against prostitution?
First, I want to point out that “dignity” is a code term. It evokes extreme emotions in most people and is rarely questioned for content. But just exactly what does it mean? While the dictionary defines dignity as “the quality or state of being worthy of esteem or respect” the term is most often employed to arouse feelings of shame. Individuals who violate societal norms are admonished that they must not respect themselves and that they are degrading others and human “dignity” with their actions. So the term dignity becomes a word intended to CONTROL the actions of others.
If in fact human “dignity” is the true value being expressed, then the actions resulting from this kind of speech should reflect the respect it refers to. In other words, if those who enforce laws and punitive actions against prostitution really were concerned with human dignity, they would NOT use the word as an excuse to punish, humiliate and degrade people involved in prostitution. As we know, most of the moralists who invoke terms such as “dignity” and “self-respect” take every opportunity to unleash verbal assaults on those who violate their sense of moral propriety.
And the enforcement of moral code is really what is at work. Most “moral” values are relics from religion so inculcated in society that their proponents no longer remember where the moral codes originated from. But since those most easily influenced by moral pleas are given to emotional reactions instead of calm logic, there is no need to make sense or even conform to the available statistics.
The fact is that arresting prostitutes and/or their clients does NOTHING to preserve human dignity. It DOES however, preserve archaic and dysfunctional views of sex and gender roles while ignoring the economic and racial disparities which tend to drive ALL forms of employment and commerce.
Consequently, most major USA cities spend upwards of $10 Million dollars annually to put mostly women of color through the arrest-jail-fine-release machine repeatedly. This mindless machine grinds up its victims so that they have an arrest record and could not find employment elsewhere if they wanted to. It also puts the women back out on the streets to earn money to pay the fines for prostitution offenses by committing more prostitution. Of course, while this system does not fulfill its stated purpose – to empower and “rescue” women from prostitution – it DOES fulfill its TRUE purpose which is to make money for the government while keeping voters happy that “something is being done about prostitution.”
Critiques of the current legal sanctions against prostitution in this country aside, let us examine the merits of asserting that prostitution is inherently “dehumanizing” or “degrading” or less than “dignified.”
The first tenet of human dignity is freedom of choice. At least that is the value most often embraced in USA culture. Taking choice away from a given population reduces their claim to dignity. Second wave feminism committed a grave error when it decided to embrace the patriarchal value of patronizing women. Although men and transgenders also work in prostitution, you will notice that public discussions about prostitution NEVER refer to this fact when attempting to arouse the voters’ outrage. Quite the contrary, we are bombarded with emotional pleas to “rescue” and “save” full grown women who are cast as “victims” who don’t know any better and need “good people” to “re-educate” them to their own value and worth.
How can you create dignity for another person when you refuse to listen to them? When prostitutes are asked what they want and need, most will tell you they want access to equal protection under the law. They want to be able to prosecute their rapists and they want their murders to matter. Some prostitutes want out of the profession and some wish to continue their work IN SAFETY. As with all things prohibited, the laws create the danger.
Decriminalization removes many if not most of the problems associated with prohibition and it allows people in crisis – regardless of their chosen profession to pursue legal recourse and other forms of assistance which are available to other citizens. While Sweden is held up as a model country, you will NOT find the prostitutes of Sweden extolling the virtues of Sweden’s legislation. However, New Zealand decriminalized prostitution several years ago and the sex workers of that country ARE much better off because of it. That to me is what dignity is about. A society which creates as much respect for diversity and freedom of choice as possible is a dignified and respectful society.