Behind Closed Doors: The Reality of Prostitution

The apparent suicide of "DC Madam" Deborah Jeane Palfrey has drawn attention to the scope of prostitution in America. A roundtable of people familiar with the sex industry discuss the risks of the profession, and whether law enforcement is the best way to address the issue.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. In a few minutes, our commentator asks, Cinco de Mayo: so what? She'll explain, but first, Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the so-called "DC Madam" was found dead near her mother's home in Florida last week. She had apparently hanged herself just weeks after having been found guilty of running a prostitution ring in the Washington D.C. area. Palfrey's suicide was a tragic end to a case that, frankly, had been played mostly for laughs and for titillation. But the story also renewed a debate. Should we reevaluate our attitudes towards prostitution? Should it remain a criminal act? Should it be decriminalized? Even legalized?

In fact, one thing has already changed in the language. The men and women who engage in prostitution are now being called "sex workers." We tried to figure out how to have this conversation, so we decided to ask the people most connected to the trade. Recently I talked with Annie Lobert. She is a former sex worker and founder of Hookers for Jesus. I also talk with a man called William. He is currently a sex worker in New York and he has asked us not to fully identify him because he feared arrest. And we were also joined by Juhu Thukral. She is director of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center. Thukral started by explaining how and why her center tries to help sex workers.

Ms. JUHU THUKRAL (Director, Sex Workers Project, Urban Justice Center): We're a legal advocacy project, so we provide legal services and legal advocacy to sex workers, regardless of how they come into this work. So some of our clients are trafficked or forced into sex work. Others are choosing it because this is what they really want to be doing. And then, I'd say the majority of our clients are people who are saying, you know what, I'm looking around at the options I have available to me and based on my circumstances, this is what I'm going to do.

MARTIN: Does your organization have a stance on the question of criminalization or decriminalization?

Ms. THUKRAL: Our take on this is that it is not helpful to have people being arrested because when people are subject to arrest, they tend to go further underground. They are in positions were they are going to be more likely to be victims of violence. There's a really high rate of violence against sex workers. That's often perpetrated by the police. That's something that we find over and over with our clients, and when our clients are victims of violence, it's actually really hard to convince them that they are going to be safe if they come forward and file a complaint.

MARTIN: William, you are currently working as a sex worker, and you take the position that decriminalization is the way to go. Why is that? And I think some people would also be interested to know how you got into this business.

WILLIAM: Well, for a while, I didn't recognize what I was doing as prostitution and I started when I was younger. I was around 15 and I met clients more informally in bars and clubs and traded sex for food and shelter. But then I moved from the getting-by model to sex work as more of a professional, and then I hooked up with groups like SWANK, Sex Workers Action, New York, where I realized that sex work could also be a legitimate profession and there were certain legal rights that sex workers didn't have that they possibly could have. So, in my experience, I'd say sex workers don't need more laws, don't need more criminalization. They need affordable housing and heath care along with a legal framework that takes into account reproductive rights, labor rights, immigrant rights and considers sex workers human beings.

MARTIN: Annie, you were a sex worker and you have given up that business and now you are a founder of a group called Hookers for Jesus. First of all, tell me about that group.

Ms. ANNIE LOBERT: (Founder, Hookers for Jesus): Well, I started this organization simply for the fact that I had had 10 friends that have died in this industry, and I just didn't want to see that continue in my life, to see my friends suffer like that. I was actually harmed from the industry, as were most of my friends. So I just felt - just be a voice for them.

MARTIN: So you don't agree with decriminalizing prostitution because where you live, it's legal, right? Prostitution is legal where you live.

Ms. LOBERT: Yeah. Half of my friends who were harmed work in the brothels and it's legal in the brothels, and so the harm will come regardless. This is what I believe.

MARTIN: What is the harm, in your opinion?

Ms. LOBERT: You know, beyond my own personal experience of rape, molestation, sexual exploitation, abuse, you know, physical violence, the emotional trauma that happens from being a prostitute and being told that you're just worth what you look like, it wrecks a person's life.

MARTIN: William, what about this? You've worked in countries where prostitution is legal, as well as in the U.S., where it is not. Have you noticed a difference?

WILLIAM: There is a difference between legalization and decriminalization. The state of Germany creates "red light districts" in places like Hamburg where people are licensed to engage in prostitution and they are told when, where and how they can have sex with the clients. A decriminalization model would be more about individual sex workers organizing in groups or individually to consent with another partner based upon this exchange between two people.

MARTIN: And what are you in favor of?

WILLIAM: I'm for decriminalization along with the political organization I'm part of, which is SWANK. I'm also - I just think that decriminalization isn't the end, it's the first step because it wouldn't rule out police harassment or put up a bunch of rent-controlled apartments immediately, which are also issues related to sex work, but we would be less one category that oppresses sex workers on the job.

MARTIN: Annie takes the position that the work itself is oppressive. What's your take on that, William?

WILLIAM: Right. I think people experience all kinds of jobs in different ways. Some people are forced into prostitution. Most figures in the U.S., however, point to the fact that that's not true for the majority. There are people who choose...

MARTIN: Well, some people would argue you were quote unquote, forced into it, if you were having sex in order to get food and a place to stay. Some people might argue you are forced into it.

WILLIAM: Right. Certainly, but it was a limited choice, as you were saying. But a woman who is forced because of her economic circumstances to have an abortion, people wouldn't deny her the right to choose that choice among limited choices.

MARTIN: Juhu, tell me more about your organization's stance. I'm particularly interested in the fact that you work with people who are in these circumstances because of trafficking, as well as people for whom it is a lifestyle or a professional choice. Do they have a different opinion about whether prostitution should be legal or decriminalized, et cetera?

Ms. THUKRAL: You know, I think there is a variety of perspectives on this. I mean, what I find most compelling is that regardless of the experiences people have had, they all talk about it as work. A lot of our clients who have been trafficked, once they leave their trafficking situation, will find themselves going back to sex work because it's what they know, it's their social networks, it's - unfortunately, if you are undocumented, if you're an immigrant, there aren't that many other ways to make a lot of money, and people are sending money back home to support their families. There are instances of harm, but I would say the majority of our clients are not finding the work itself harmful, it's the conditions around it, it's the stigma.

MARTIN: Tell me more about why you think decriminalization would address the things that I think people are most concerned about, which is, it's number one, trafficking, and number two, the abuse of children. So how would decriminalization affect that problem?

Ms. THUKRAL: Well, I think in a number of ways. For example, there's still threats that, you know, I could harm your family, I can report you to immigration, you better not walk out the door, but you're not also worried that the police are going to come and arrest you now. Often when our clients come to us, you know, under the trafficking law, if they're over the age of 18, in order to apply for legal status, they have to be willing to cooperate with law enforcement. And we get a lot of clients who are trafficked and who would qualify, but it takes awhile to get them to the place where they feel comfortable sitting in a room with law enforcement.

MARTIN: How do you - I'd like to ask each of you. What is your take on these stories that are sort of now surfacing about this and this so-called high-end prostitution thing, and I'm not even sure how you relate to that - how each of you relates to that term, but I'm just curious why you think this issue is surfacing now. Any thoughts about that? Annie?

Ms. LOBERT: Oh. It's been going on, you know, from my end of the place, I've been here for 23 years and I was a high-end, high-class prostitute. I saw politicians, government officials, the whole nine yards, stars, and it's been going on. It's just that lately, I think that there's more sex workers and there's more greed involved and there's more temptation to bring it out into the light, to make a story and get paid for it.

And I understand the wanting to fight for it, as well, because there was a point when I was working that I was on that board to fight for prostitution to be legalized because I wanted to be protected, but more or less what I found out, even if I had people on my side saying they were protecting me, I actually got harmed more.

MARTIN: Why? Why do you say that?

Ms. LOBERT: I think that more often than not, people cannot back up what they say when it comes to actual real violence. When it comes down to a man putting a gun in your mouth and raping you, no one's going to stop him because if they jump on the guy, he's going to blow your head off.

MARTIN: William, can I get your take on this? I mean, it's kind of looped back to the point that Annie was making earlier that the work is inherently dangerous and that at some point, the good times will end and that it's better to have the law as a bulwark against that.

WILLIAM: Well, the fact remains that not all sex workers want to get out of the business, but all sex workers have compromised working conditions which have to be redressed.

MARTIN: I wonder if there's a gender difference on this. I wonder if perhaps you, I don't know, I'm just wondering if perhaps you feel differently about sex because you're a man or maybe because we as men and women are socialized differently. It's just a thought.

WILLIAM: I'm not sure there's so much of a difference. Most clients are men, so most people are serving men, so a gender dynamic is always there. And I work alongside of a lot of women prostitutes and activists that because of SWANK and other political organizations, we can get together and talk about our experiences and avoid situations that lead to violence and assault and rape. But under a culture in which sex work is criminalized, this sort of work is invisible and so is the police harassment, the legal abuse, the client violence that workers in the informal sector, in any section of the informal sector, are more likely to face.

MARTIN: Juhu, I wanted to ask you this question. Some would argue that prostitution should be illegal just because it's wrong.

Ms. THUKRAL: I agree that you could go talk to 15, 20 different people and probably get that many responses in terms of how people feel about the morality around sex work, but that is ultimately a very intimate decision. I mean, two-thirds of the people that we've interviewed in different reports have told us that they weren't able to make a living wage in other jobs that they had and those, the most common jobs are waitressing, being a secretary or a security guard.

MARTIN: Yeah. That's true. You're right. You're right.

Ms. THUKRAL: Yeah. And so I think, again, you look at this, people are making decisions looking around at what their realistic options are.

MARTIN: William, if I could get an answer from you on that question? I mean...

WILLIAM: I would agree with Juhu and say that it's not about morality. We're talking about policy priorities. If people really want to help sex workers they should be asking sex workers what they need. So, whether it's in a Senate hearing or in an academic conference room, sex workers should be there represented and their voices.

MARTIN: And finally, I wanted to ask each of you, I mentioned there are a couple of high-profile stories that have brought the issue to the fore, but do you see there being more discussion around this issue now, or is this just something that happens every couple of years? We kind of get interested in the issue, outside of the people who are most directly affected by it. Annie, what do you think?

Ms. LOBERT: I truly believe it's actually going to become a huge part of our discussion in our future of our country because we have an ultra-hyper sex society. America is just full of sex and it's getting pushed and we're getting younger girls in the limelight. I'm not going to say famous names, but that are half-naked, that are teaching our young girls to sell their bodies at very young ages. So, I think it's going to come to even more hype that we won't even realize until it happens.

MARTIN: William, what do you think?

WILLIAM: What I think is that people are actually starting to listen to sex workers who are finally representing themselves, and they have been since the '70s, right in the U.S., but people haven't been listening. And so when you have sex workers talking about their own experiences, then people can actually have a reliable sounding board for talking about these issues.

MARTIN: And Juhu, what about you?

Ms. THUKRAL: It's a mix. I think that a lot of the coverage around this issue tends to be sensationalistic and geared towards titillating the audience, as opposed to being about serious policy issues. But I do think that there are more activists who are able to use the Internet and other means of communication to really get their messages out directly. But then also, you know, the Bush administration focused on trafficking in persons as, you know, one of their key issues, and through that they confused trafficking and prostitution, which are different, but that made the issue of prostitution a little bit more visible in the public eye and in the public dialogue, and so I think it's important to really push that in a factual way and in a way that again, resonates with the voices of sex workers.

MARTIN: Juhu Thukral is director of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center. We were also joined by William, we're identifying him only that way at his request. He's a sex worker in New York and they both joined us from our New York bureau. We were also joined by Annie Lobert. She's a former sex worker and founder of a group called Hookers for Jesus and she joined us from KNPR in Las Vegas. I thank you all so much for speaking with us.

WILLIAM: Thank you.

Ms. LOBERT: You're welcome.

Ms. THUKRAL: Thanks for having us.

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