“Experts” and Other Johns

It isn’t just second-rate poets. The publication of academic work on prostitution is an industry in itself, an obscenely wealthy competitor of the “sex sector.” In the 1800s, people read about the “diseased body” of the prostitute in works by William Acton and Havelock Ellis. These days, the New York Times and other periodicals lap up the advice of “prostitution experts” such as Ronald Weitzer. 

The following is taken from an enlightening article “Do ‘High-Class’ Prostitutes Escape the Law?” from Cleveland.com:

Prostitution expert Ronald Weitzer of George Washington University says the way existing laws [against street prostitution] are enforced works just fine.

He advocates a tough stance on the streets because “street prostitution victimizes host communities and leaves the prostitutes themselves open to victimization.”

So . . . the street worker is a parasite and should be treated as such. Is that right, Ronald? While, the expert continues, the “de facto decriminalization” of indoor work would lessen the strain on law enforcement and allow boys, after all, to be boys. This, of course, is his solution.

Maybe I’m being too hard on Ronald, though. The focus on “de facto decriminalization” is central to sex worker rights-talk, too. The same articles showcasing “experts” pull quotes from managers, call-girls, and escorts who, at least as quoted, share the same racist and classist biases in favor of decriminalization, which would do little to decriminalize “loitering” and public nuisance laws specific to street work.

This kind of talk excludes low-wage workers and street workers, who are disproportionately, but not entirely, women of color, men who have sex with men, and transwomen. The fact that Ronald Weitzer and sex workers activists might agree on paper is a wake-up call to us involved in sex worker rights. The fight against police violence, the struggle for affordable housing, and the work toward economic justice should be at the top of our list of shared priorities, not separate and unequal concerns, and some of the first of our soundbytes. That and outing “experts” like Weitzer.



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3 responses to ““Experts” and Other Johns

  1. staceyswimme

    Thank you for this post William! It seems necessary for us to understand the broader system at play when particular behaviors are criminalized in order to target specific groups in society who are considered ‘undesirable.’

    In Phoenix during the Super Bowl the media made a big deal about how federal and state agencies were in town to crack down on prostitution associated with the events. But in reality, over one hundred street-based workers were arrested in a part of town nowhere near the event. The whole point was simply to scare people off so that they wouldn’t be ‘visible’ to out-of-towners, then those who wouldn’t be scared away were swept up.

    On top of that, AZ has implemented mandatory minimum jail time for any prostitution conviction. Prohibition of sex, just like prohibition of drugs has nothing to do with ending the behavior, it’s about using suspicion of the behavior to oppress some people.

  2. Well, I think street prostitution is a complex issue, to say the least. I think the same arguments apply to it that apply to open-air drug markets, regardless of how you feel about drug legalization overall. Its an activity that’s associated with a lot of negative outcomes for both the sex workers and the larger community, compared to indoor sex work. And, yes, the larger community does have a right to regulate commerce – its why we have zoning laws, after all. You can’t put an auto body shop just anywhere, for example.

    On the other hand, I wouldn’t say enforcement strategies are working “just fine” either. Once again, like open-air drug markets, its resulting in the disproportionate criminalization and institutionalization of the most marginalized parts of the community where these laws are enforced.

  3. williamrockwell

    Isn’t it a matter of how you “regulate commerce”? When it’s dependent upon police harassment and rape, the incarceration of street workers over johns, and a lack of economic alternatives in affordable housing, job training, etc., then it’s not rightful “regulation” but more akin to state violence.

    There aren’t many state-sponsored initiatives in the United States that don’t depend on this kind of “sweep the streets” violence. The same goes for other populations that are often street-based, such as IDUs.

    The question, I think, is: what’s an approach sex workers, all sex workers, can embrace when it comes to street work? One in which street workers are a part: service providers taking on an approach of harm reduction. In the case of IDUs, too, non-judgmental service in needle exchanges and other proven, risk-lessening approaches are needed. Not more jail time or “regulation” for the sake of the neighborhood’s overrated morals. What “zoning law,” after all, applies to johns? Picket fences?

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