Selling One’s Body To Survive
You don’t have to put on the red light.
Those days are over,
You don’t have to sell your body to the night.
You don’t have to wear that dress tonight;
Walk the streets for money,
You don’t care if it’s wrong or if it’s right”
— Roxanne (The Police)
A correspondent recently told me that she’d just had a short period of time in which she resorted to prostitution in order to make ends meet. It wasn’t something that she planned on doing, but when the pressure of meeting the bills that she had to pay and the loss of a job she needed to pay them met that critical crossroads, she had to find some way to come up with a way to “keep the wolf at bay.” She reasoned that she enjoyed sex, and that in the long run, it really wasn’t much different than going on a date with a man, where he might buy dinner and drinks, and if things went well, she might end up in bed with him. This was simply cutting out the dating and getting right to the sex, and the words from Pink’s song “U + Ur Hand” went through her head. “Keep your drink, just give me the money.”
So, she decided to give it a try. She rented an inexpensive room in her town, conveniently located near several bars, got dressed in an attractive outfit and walked out the door. This was something she felt she had to do, and not something she necessarily wanted to do. But it was her body and she could use it to survive. She did this once in a while over the next year and a half until she was able to land a job with decent pay in a town several miles away. She’s kept it quiet all of the years since, because, as she told me, “Even my parents wouldn’t understand. They never offered to help, but would disown me if they knew.” She hoped that I would not look down on her as well.
My response was that “sometimes you do what you gotta do to survive.” Now, during my long life, there were times when I did things that I didn’t want to do for money. I damn sure didn’t want to prep the dead for embalming for my father, or clean delivery rooms, and I didn’t want to load trucks or clean the processing vats in a spaghetti plant… but they paid a little above minimum wage and were a lot more enticing than working at the local slaughter house. And there were times on the street where I did what I did to get a few dollars from someone who probably needed them as much I I did, but were weaker. But I did what I needed to do until my opportunity presented itself, and then I was wise enough to grab it.
So, before we look down our noses at women who do what they need to survive, we have to consider what we would be willing to do to keep food on the table and a roof over our heads; to provide for our wives or husbands and children, so that they can have at least the basics of life to hold the family together until their break comes. I have respect for people who will do what they need to do to survive, always looking for something to better their lot in life, never giving up, even though sometimes in might seem that life itself has given up on them.
I have more respect for them than for the people who refuse labor that they think is beneath them because they think that life owes them a living just for being there. I’ve heard women say, “I’m going to find a man with money to marry, and then I will never work again.” To be honest with you, I have actually heard one man make that same statement, although I have a strong feeling that a lot of others hold those sentiments in their hearts. I believe that any honest labor is worthwhile if you accept pay for doing it and execute your responsibilities honorably. There are those, though, who honestly believe that they are above labor in the service of anything but themselves.
Now, I know there are those who are thinking, “Is he saying prostitution is ‘honest labor’?” I’m not saying that it’s LEGAL labor, but if one’s survival and ability to provide for one’s children’s basic needs is in jeopardy, who the hell am I to judge? Indeed, we are seeing a beginning trend in some areas to decriminalize prostitution because it is a crime that can be linked to poverty and survival, when personally engaged in, and not as a part of a human-trafficking or child prostitution enterprise. These aspects of the overall act of prostitution are compelling someone to prostitute their bodies to enrich another, and not, therefore, survival-based crime.
Lest one misconstrue personal prostitution as a third-world phenomenon, it is legal in a number of progressive countries among which are Denmark, Finland, Costa Rica, Argentina, Canada, Belgium, Belize, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Switzerland, Netherlands and Mexico. In the United States, it’s legal in certain areas of the state of Nevada.
According to The Huffington Post, “In case you had any doubt, there is big money in sex. Atlanta’s sex trade was worth a whopping $290 million in 2007 alone. Miami’s sex economy was worth $235 million, and Washington D.C.’s $103 million. The numbers above, produced by the Urban Institute, leaves out Kansas City, the eighth city studied in the report, because of a lack of data.”
And while it’s been said that prostitution is a victimless crime, and this would be essentially true in a personally based transaction (sex for pay), women who engage in prostitution for a temporary career or as a way to inject un-reportable cash into their personal economies know that it’s definitely a supply and demand business… and there is definitely a demand. Huffington Post’s investigation found that there’s is a racially diverse clientele: “Asian (2.8%), Black (16.7%), Latino (19.4%), White (38.9%), and Unspecified “all races” (19.4%).”
The realization that poverty and the need to survive is being recognized in some areas within the United States is telling. For example, “cities like Seattle and San Francisco have not just “decriminalized homelessness” or “decriminalized poverty” — they have increasingly decriminalized crime. Over the past five years, the classification of survival crime has expanded well beyond stealing the proverbial loaf of bread. In California, for instance, Proposition 47 downgraded theft of property valued at less than $950 to a misdemeanor, meaning that the police are unlikely to pursue even habitual shoplifters and thieves. The predictable result: a statewide rise in petty theft. Seattle and King County recently released new guidelines calling on police officers to stop arresting individuals for all “homelessness-related crimes,” with the goal of “eliminating racial disproportionality” and ensuring that policies “do not penalize homelessness and poverty.” Meantime, city and county prosecutors have dropped thousands of misdemeanor cases against “vulnerable populations.” All this has caused widespread frustration among residents and law enforcement officers. As one veteran Seattle cop told me: “We have basically stopped enforcing the law against the homeless population. Political leaders don’t want it and prosecutors won’t pursue charges. It’s a waste of time.” In New York City, the NYPD has backed off from arresting people for subway fare evasion, on the grounds that enforcement has a disparate impact on the poor; fare-beating has risen sharply since the new policy was enacted.” — Christopher F. Rufo (Director, Documentary Foundation)
That is not to say that one’s poverty is carte blanche authority to break the law, however it is clear that in some quarters, poverty can sometimes be seen as a mitigating factor in the bending of some economic barriers to assist them when possible. Petty crime is most often hardest on those who can least afford to live, and unfortunately, as we have often seen, the punishments doled out to those who commit petty crimes are often skewed more heavily toward the poor than to those of some means. Rufo opined that sometimes, in more progressive municipalities, “Justice might be lifting the blindfold a bit,” when it comes to the poor.
Surely, there will be some who read this essay, and say, “Jake Block is telling women to resort to prostitution, if they are poor.” Nothing could be further from the truth. What I am saying is that prostitution was, in this woman’s case, a way to temporarily alleviate some of the burdens of poverty and job loss. It is not a panacea for the grip of poverty that many women and men feel on a daily basis. It is most probably not the solution that I would choose, were I in a similar situation, but I definitely would take jobs far below my demonstrated earning potential to make ends meet. There is no shame in being poor. The only shame is in giving into it and making it your master.