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Scheherazade in Blue Jeans
freelance alchemist
Question answered! 
28th-Jul-2009 12:46 pm
Hearth
One of the two questions I couldn't answer my my own during Blogathon was whether rape/sexual assault is less common in areas where prostitution is legal. My volunteer coordinator just send me an excellent reply; everything below the line is by her!

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It would be good to clarify whether we’re discussing prevalence or incidence of SA. Prevalence is the cumulative number of people who have experienced rape/SA and incidence is the number of rapes/SAs that occur in an area in a given year. So independent of the legality of prostitution, you could have a very high prevalence of SA (on the thought that people who are involved in prostitution and sex work have a higher than average rate of victimization histories) and incidence that is about average for anywhere else.

Second, it is impossible to know the “true” prevalence or incidence of rape/SA in an area—are you measuring the prevalence in the population that lives there, regardless of when or where the assault occurred, or are you measuring the incidence in that area? The two most common ways of measuring both are either through aggregating reports to official agencies (police, hospitals, rape crisis centers, DCF, etc.), which is subject to serious underreporting; or, through self-report data in surveys, which are subject to response bias and are hard to compare across surveys because of differences in methodology (some surveys only ask people about completed rapes/SA where others ask about completed or attempted; some only ask about experiences after age 12, or within the past year; some ask people if they have ever experienced “rape” or “sexual assault” whereas others describe actions that would meet the definition of rape/SA and ask if people have experienced that).

OK. So. Setting aside those issues, does legalizing prostitution in an area decrease the incidence of sexual assault? This is a complicated question, for a couple of reasons.

First, I think there is inherent in that question the assumption that sexual violence occurs because perpetrators have a dearth of access to consensual sex, which presumably would be alleviated if they could just pay for it over the counter. We know this not to be the case, because research by a number of academics on both incarcerated and undetected perpetrators finds that they self-report having access to consensual sex at the time they were committing assaults.

Second, it is possible to make the argument that prostitution and sex work actually result in more sexual violence, because whether legal or illegal, prostitutes and sex workers are not seen as credible victims or witnesses by the criminal justice system or general public. There was a 2002 study of street-level sex workers (which is considered to be the most dangerous form of sex work, as opposed to escort services) that found that 72% of the female prostitutes surveyed related instances of severe abuse (rape, being beaten with objects or threatened with weapons, or threatened with or abandoned in remote areas) at the hands of their partners, clients, and/or pimps. Respondents also reported that they rarely reported such abuse to law enforcement (Dalla, RL 2002). An older study of 130 people working as prostitutes in San Francisco that was studying the extent of violence and PTSD in that population found that 57% reported they had been sexually assaulted as children and 49% had been physically assaulted as children. As adults in prostitution, 82% had been physically assaulted, 83% had been threatened with a weapon, 84% reported current or past homelessness, and 68% had been raped while working as prostitutes (Farley and Barkan 1998).

There is a larger feminist debate around prostitution and sex work that is similar to the one that occurs around pornography: is this an example of an industry in which (primarily) women’s valid use of their bodies for work is criminalized and undercompensated, and that with proper regulation and oversight could be a viable profession? Maybe. The flip side to that is that it commodifies sex workers and that you are never an autonomous freelancer, but always already a victim of a culture that sees women only for their sexuality and as vehicles for men’s sexuality, so legalizing prostitution just puts the imprimatur of the state on that situation.

My personal position is that—legal or not—there is much that can and should be done to improve the safety of prostitutes and sex workers, and what we do around issues of homelessness, substance use, and mental illness has a lot to do with who ends up as a prostitute (i.e. because of “survival sex” traded for necessities), and thus at greater risk for sexual violence victimization. From a prevention lens, I don’t know that the illegality of prostitution does much more than scratch the surface of rape culture.
Comments 
28th-Jul-2009 05:00 pm (UTC)
Um... that doesn't actually answer the question.

I mean, I don't disagree with anything said there, but it seems the answer is still "we don't know, it's too hard to measure".
28th-Jul-2009 05:01 pm (UTC)
Yeah. Sometimes the answer is "there is no answer". But there's some useful rationale in there.
28th-Jul-2009 05:03 pm (UTC)
Oh, I agree. It's very good information, but after the setup, I thought there was an actual answer.
28th-Jul-2009 05:36 pm (UTC)
Regardless of the answer, it's a very odd question to ask if one kind of crime alleviates another. Better to work towards eliminating both?
28th-Jul-2009 05:37 pm (UTC)
But in areas where prostitution's legal, it isn't a crime.
28th-Jul-2009 07:11 pm (UTC)
That's a semantic dodge. Let me rephrase, as apparently I put it poorly; decriminalizing something that's bad to prevent something that's worse does not sound like an optimal solution.

edit/add: In part of her closing statement, "My personal position is
that?legal or not?there is much that can and should be done to improve
the safety of prostitutes and sex workers,", I can't skip as blythely
over the legal-or-not pat, because it modifies how it's read. Are we
talking about people (specifically women), or people (specifically
criminals)? If the former are perceived as outsiders, it's a
problem. If the latter are, it's appropriate.


Edited at 2009-07-28 09:06 pm (UTC)
28th-Jul-2009 09:16 pm (UTC)
It isn't a semantic dodge - what your response seems to me to be saying is "sex workers are criminals". While in most of the US, prostitution itself is illegal, the term "sex worker" also encompasses phone sex workers and exotic dancers. Not illegal. And in some places in the US and many places abroad, prostitution is legal.

Therefore, these people are not criminals. Well, a prostitute in Somerville is. But a prostitute in Rhode Island or Nevada (outside of Clark County) isn't. And someone who does phone sex? Definitely not.
29th-Jul-2009 04:28 am (UTC)
As good as, then. It's still considerably stigmatized, even if that's hard to see at times when surrounded by a sex-positive crowd. Most places, all of what you listed if discovered in someone's past (or worse, present) could ruin marriages, relationships, jobs, and community ties. Back to the point of this thread, simply put, it puts one outside of societal acceptance. Now, it makes my blood boil as I'm sure it does yours when people blindly equate 'outsider' with 'criminal', but fact is, it happens. Quite often. And criminals, having forsworn law, modern jurisprudence notwithstanding, have a history of thus being thought of as no longer protected by it. Your volunteer coordinator in her closing paragraphs addressed some of the chilling aspects of this.
28th-Jul-2009 05:37 pm (UTC)
I would think it would no affect the numbers only because most (if not all rapes/SAs) are NOT about sex, but about control and power.

And as was noted above:
"research by a number of academics on both incarcerated and undetected perpetrators finds that they self-report having access to consensual sex at the time they were committing assaults."

So, while I am not an expert, I have done research as well and that's my understanding.

Actually, thinking on it a bit I would expect such attacks to be even higher.
Trying not to sound sexist here, but I imagine any person who's of the rapist mindset would feel no compunction over violating someone who's already making her/himself available for purchase.

I know this wasn't a debate question, but it did get me thinking.
28th-Jul-2009 05:39 pm (UTC)
Debate is always good!
28th-Jul-2009 08:57 pm (UTC)
I would think it would no affect the numbers only because most (if not all rapes/SAs) are NOT about sex, but about control and power... I imagine any person who's of the rapist mindset would feel no compunction over violating someone who's already making her/himself available for purchase.

A friend & I were talking about this the other day. We described it as the "degrees of rapist" which is a horrid term, but, I've got no better one.

The guy who takes advantage of a drunk woman at a party is not necessarily the guy who would violently rape his girlfriend during an argument or stalk a woman into the ladies' room, etc.

Drunken woman? Passed out woman? Powerless

Prostitute? Looked down on in society & unlikely to be believed -- also mostly powerless.

Bullies pick on the powerless. That's part of the reason violence against minority women is higher -- they're far, far less likely to go to the police.
(Deleted comment)
28th-Jul-2009 08:47 pm (UTC)
"I have a hard time believing that there aren't many cases where frustration plays a role in pushing someone over the edge. "

I think these sorts of situations are more the "date rape" scenarios. And I hate stereotyping but do believe that even there the frustration you speak of becomes an "I will show you" and it becomes again .. more about the power and control and far less about sex as sex.

As to :
"Punish the people who hurt people, not the people who have been hurt."
I could NOT agree more!
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