Sociology / Anything but a Victimless Crime

Two recent books fault society for abandoning women whose life circumstances led them into prostitution.

Nashim Mufkarot

(Prostitution: Cultural and Legal Aspects), by Shulamit Almog Ministry of Defense / The Broadcast University (Hebrew), NIS 48

Mufkarot: Nashim Beznut

(Women Abandoned), by Anat Gur; Hakibbutz Hameuchad (Hebrew), Red Line, 262 pages, NIS 86

Written works about prostitution as a phenomenon and a social institution - and about the women who engage in it - entail many contradictions, especially when approached from a feminist perspective. That's because debate over the issue swings between two extremes.

At one end, a woman who engages in prostitution is perceived as the ultimate victim; at the other end, she is seen as an autonomous woman who is more in control of her body and her decisions than other women. She is depicted both as a woman in disgrace and as one who does a job like any other. On one side of the spectrum, the discussion of prostitution is largely a metaphorical one, which sees the phenomenon as a symbolic representation of femininity and sexuality; on the other side, the discussion is a practical one that focuses on the reality of prostitutes' lives and the way they are treated by everyone around them and by society at large.

In many cases, these contradictions are rooted in the question, whether explicit or implicit, of what the policy toward prostitution ought to be - whether women should be allowed to provide sexual services in return for payment and men be allowed to receive them, and whether the business should be legalized, monitored and controlled. And if legalization is the way to go, who should it serve: the women, their clients or the pimps?

"Prostitution: Cultural and Legal Aspects," by law professor Shulamit Almog, and "Women Abandoned," by social worker and psychologist Anat Gur, both take an unambiguous stance on all these issues. Both authors view prostitutes as victims of male domination and of a society that enables and perpetuates this domination. And both are strenuously opposed to legalization, though each propounds her own argument against it.

The last few decades have seen extensive growth in the international literature on prostitution, covering issues from policy and legislation to the symbolic meaning attributed to prostitution and its place in the culture, including novels and film. There are works discussing how to treat the phenomenon from a feminist theory perspective, which focus on the past and present trafficking in women and present the testimony of women sharing their experiences in prostitution.

In Israel, however, very little has been written thus far on the subject. These two books represent the first stirrings of such writing and, especially when taken together, they offer a most important contribution to understanding the dire and violent significance of prostitution. Almog and Gur both depict the phenomenon as the product of a society that makes possible men's violent control of women and ignores almost entirely the high price paid by women engaged in prostitution. Not only are those women damaged, the authors argue, but so are all women and society as a whole, because of the very existence of an institution built on the exploitation and oppression of women who are in positions of weakness and often lack other alternatives.

It is not by chance that the books have such similar titles. They share the perception that society is to blame for abandoning women whose life circumstances led them into prostitution, that it is society that enables abuse, violence and addiction to exist almost undisturbed, and that it is society that is unconcerned with the ineradicable stigma that attaches to these women.

Both books are chock-full of information, argument and insight. I will discuss here only some of the main points of each, and the principal conclusions they share.

This is not me

Anat Gur encountered the world of prostitution while helping to rehabilitate female prisoners, and later while trying to help women extricate themselves from the trap of prostitution, which she describes as "one of the worst crimes that is committed routinely in contemporary society." It is a self-perpetuating manifestation of men's control of women, she says, and a means by which women's inferiority is maintained.

Gur makes two main arguments. One links girls' sexual abuse by family members to prostitution at a later age, and extensively describes the terrible suffering that is caused to girls and women along the way. The other argument analyzes the psychological phenomena that enable these girls and women to withstand such suffering and the high price they pay.

Shulamit Almog, for her part, deals with the legal, legislative and cultural aspects of prostitution. In her short but rich and pithy book, she weaves a broad web of theoretical discussion, literary representations, and legal rationale, rulings and rhetoric. Almog compels us to acknowledge the gap between the welcome recognition of (mainstream) women's right to a life of respect without their sexuality being preyed upon (that is, "sexual harassment") and the abandonment of "non-normative" women, whose sexuality is a commodity for consumption that involves humiliation and disgrace. The key concept, which she discusses extensively, is the "agreement" and "choice" attributed to women who engage in prostitution - which facilitates the perpetuation of this gap and is self-evident to all those who sit in judgment. According to this view, the woman who has "chosen" to engage in prostitution implicitly deserves to be humiliated and, in effect, abandoned.

In her attempt to understand the line that separates prostitutes from other women, she describes what she calls the "shame tax," the heavy payment levied on every woman who engages in prostitution - a payment that continues to be exacted from her and her family even if she gets out of prostitution, unless she has succeeded in eradicating it from her past entirely.

Hence, Almog endorses a Swedish law that considers the client, rather than the woman providing sexual services, to be the one committing a crime. Its success in reducing prostitution in Sweden suggests it is a possible way to contain the phenomenon, she argues.

Like Almog, Gur also argues forcefully against legalizing prostitution and questions whether prostitutes can really be said to have chosen their line of work. While Almog addresses the legal rationale of such a "choice," Gur focuses on the comments of the women themselves, who say coercion, drug addiction, violence and fear are what got them walking the streets. Both authors also make it clear that legalizing prostitution won't reduce the damage caused to women engaged in it or to women in general. The pro-legalization arguments don't benefit women, they argue, but rather facilitate the clients' "natural" disregard for the women and the pimps' "contractual" disregard for them.

The control and oppression at the deepest levels of society are what enable prostitution to continue to exist as something that is taken for granted - with all the severe injustice, violence and shame it entails, along with the damage to individual women and to women as a whole.

These two books are a most important contribution to the study of a phenomenon with which we live quietly and with equanimity. It is important for therapists and lawyers - but not just therapists and lawyers - to read them. It is important for all of us, so that we understand the deep social and cultural structures that make possible oppression, abuse and control - which keep all of us from living a life of equality, respect and mutual esteem.