By PETER JI
For The News-Letter
Alison Bass, author and assistant professor of journalism at West Virginia University, presented her newly published book, Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law, at Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse on Tuesday.
She made a case for decriminalizing prostitution based on research for her book and scientific studies that connect decriminalization to reduced crime and lowered rates of sexually transmitted diseases.
In the book she details individual accounts of sex workers that she met throughout the country.
While conducting her research, she said that meeting with sex workers changed her views of people who participate in prostitutions. She spoke about a particular interview she had with a middle-class escort who said she enjoyed her work.
“She came from an Orthodox Jewish background and she did a lot of social work with the homeless,” Bass said. “I was immediately struck by how articulate and well-read she was.”
This meeting launched Bass into her study. She later went to a conference in Las Vegas by the Desiree Alliance to meet with social activists and sex workers from all over the world who advocate for the rights of sex workers.
“From talking with a lot of sex workers throughout the country, I realized that the popular narrative of prostitutes as being drug addicted or exploited was wrong. Most of them are doing it by choice, mainly for economic reasons,” she said. “While a number of them are trafficking victims, the vast majority are doing it by choice.”
In her view, anti-prostitution laws are often ineffective in reducing prostitution. These laws also deny a person the ability to participate in economic activity. She rejects the view shared by some feminists that prostitution is an exploitative activity.
“For many women, sex work is empowering. Even more so for men, sex work enables many people who don’t have the income or education to pay loans, provide for their family and make extra money,” Bass said.
Today’s negative view on prostitution is due largely to deeply-rooted prejudices spread by the Christian faith, according to Bass.
“Because we started as a largely Protestant society, Evangelicals are much harder on prostitution in general. In countries where they’re Catholic like France and Spain, sex workers are more tolerated… Sex workers are treated with more respect and clients are treated with much more respect,” she said.
Bass also said that this stigmatic view of sex workers in American society causes their legal rights and human dignity to be overlooked.
“Statistics have been inflated and falsehoods have been spread. The problem is that more money goes into law enforcement instead of social services,” Bass said. “Many sex workers have been abused or neglected, many don’t feel comfortable in large cities, and many are selling sex for survival on the streets. What many young people need is counseling, education and social help. What they don’t need is being arrested.”
Rather than referring to people in the sex industry as “prostitutes,” she used the term “sex workers” so that the audience would view prostitution as a legitimate form of business. However, she noted that the term “sex worker” is still problematic, since people relate it to the term “sex trafficking,” or forced, commercial prostitution, which may or may not involve the forced relocation of the person.
The audience asked about discrimination within the sex industry. Sex workers get less protection from police than other citizens due to their strained relationship with street officers. Bass thinks that decriminalization will help police protect sex workers better from violent clients.
“In researching this book, I found that basically police target minority sex workers: not only people working on the street, but also vendors. Especially, they target transgender people,” Bass said. “They told me horror stories about how some sex workers were raped, and the police said, ‘You can’t rape a sex worker.’”
Baltimorean Andrea Clara-Vega thought that the talk was interesting, although she came hoping to hear sex workers speak for themselves.
“I feel like the perspective of the book and research is limited. It’s not talking about sex workers in developing countries. It talks about sex workers in homogenous, developed countries that cater to white people,” Clara-Vega said.