This text was adapted by The Saylor Foundation under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 0 License without attribution as requested by the work’s original creator or licensee. Preface



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9.4 Prostitution

LEARNING OBJECTIVES


  1. Summarize the history of prostitution in the United States.

  2. List the reasons that lead many people to dislike prostitution.

  3. Explain the problems that streetwalkers experience and why these problems occur.

Prostitution, the selling of sexual services, is yet another controversial sexual behavior. Many people, and especially those with conservative, religious views, believe prostitution is immoral because it involves sex for money, and they consider prostitution a sign of society’s moral decay. Many feminists believe that prostitution is degrading to women and provides a context in which prostitutes are robbed, beaten, and/or raped. These two groups of people might agree on little else, but they both hold strong negative views about prostitution. Regardless of their other beliefs, many people also worry that prostitution spreads STDs. All these groups think prostitution should remain illegal, and they generally prefer stricter enforcement of laws against prostitution.

Other people also do not like prostitution, but they believe that the laws against prostitution do more harm than good. They think that legalizing prostitution would reduce the various harms prostitution causes, and they believe that views about the immorality of prostitution should not prevent our society from dealing more wisely with it than it does now.

This section presents a short history of prostitution before turning to the various types of prostitution, reasons for prostitution, and policy issues about how best to deal with this particular sexual behavior. Because most prostitution involves female prostitutes and male customers, our discussion will largely focus on this form.

History of Prostitution


Often called the world’s oldest profession, prostitution has been common since ancient times (Ringdal, 2004). [1] In ancient Mesopotamia, priests had sex with prostitutes. Ancient Greece featured legal brothels (houses of prostitution) that serviced political leaders and common men alike. Prostitution was also common in ancient Rome, and in the Old Testament it was “accepted as a more or less necessary fact of life and it was more or less expected that many men would turn to prostitutes” (Bullough & Bullough, 1977, pp. 137–138). [2] During the Middle Ages and through the nineteenth century, prostitution was tolerated as a necessary evil, as legal brothels operated in much of Europe and were an important source of tax revenue. As the dangers of venereal disease became known, some cities shut down their brothels, but other cities required regular medical exams of their brothels’ prostitutes.

Prostitution was also common in the United States through the nineteenth century (Bullough & Bullough, 1987). [3] Poor women became prostitutes because it provided a source of income at a time when they had few other options for jobs. Some prostitutes worked for themselves on streets and in hotels and other establishments, and other prostitutes worked in legal brothels in many US cities. During the Civil War, prostitutes found many customers among the soldiers of the Union and the Confederacy; the term hooker for prostitute comes from their relations with soldiers commanded by Union general Joseph Hooker. After the Civil War, camps of prostitutes would set up at railroad construction sites. When the railroad workers would visit the camps at night, they hung their red signal lamps outside the prostitutes’ tents so they could be found if there was a railroad emergency. The term “red-light district” for a prostitution area originated in the red glow that resulted from this practice.

Many US cities had legal brothels into the early 1900s. Beginning in about 1910, however, religious groups and other parties increasingly spoke out about the immorality of prostitution, and in addition claimed that middle-class girls were increasingly becoming prostitutes. Their efforts succeeded in shutting down legal brothels nationwide. Some illegal brothels continued, and among their number was a San Francisco brothel run during the 1940s by a madam (brothel manager and/or owner) named Sally Stanford. Her clientele included many leading politicians and businessmen of San Francisco and nearby areas. Like other earlier brothels, Stanford’s brothel required regular medical exams of her employees to help prevent the spread of venereal diseases (Stanford, 1966). [4]Despite or perhaps because of her fame from being a madam, Stanford was later elected mayor of Sausalito, a town across the bay from San Francisco.

Prostitution in the United States Today


No one really knows how many prostitutes we now have. Prostitutes are not eager to be studied, and because their work is illegal, the federal government does not compile statistics on their numbers as it does for physicians, plumbers, teachers, and hundreds of other legal occupations. One well-analyzed estimate put the number of female prostitutes at 70,000 and further concluded that they engage in an average of 700 acts of prostitution with male customers annually, or almost 50 million acts of prostitution overall each year (Brewer et al., 2000). [5] However, other estimates put the number of prostitutes as high as 500,000, with many of these prostitutes working part-time, whether or not they also work in a legal occupation (Clinard & Meier, 2011). [6]

Regardless of the actual number, prostitution is very common. The GSS asks, “Thinking about the time since your 18th birthday, have you ever had sex with a person you paid or who paid you for sex?” In 2010, 11.9 percent of men and 1.7 percent of women answered “yes” to this question. These figures translate to about 13.5 million men 18 and older who have engaged in prostitution, usually as the customer, and 2.1 million women.

In 2010, police and other law enforcement agents made almost 63,000 arrests for prostitution and commercialized vice (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2011). [7] Most of these arrests were of prostitutes, but some were of customers. Women accounted for almost 69 percent of the arrests in this entire category.


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