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Sociological Perspectives


Beyond explaining why individual women and men are more likely than others to pay for sex or to receive pay for sex, the three sociological perspectives outlined in —functionalist theory, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism—offer more general insights on prostitution. provides a summary of these insights.

Table 9.5 Theory Snapshot



Theoretical perspective

Contributions to understanding prostitution

Functionalism

Prostitution is functional for several parties in society. It provides prostitutes a source of income, and it provides a sexual alternative for men who lack a sexual partner or are dissatisfied with their current sexual partner. According to Kingsley Davis, prostitution also helps keep the divorce rate lower than it would be if prostitution did not exist.

Conflict theory

Prostitution arises from women’s poverty in a patriarchal society. It also reflects the continuing cultural treatment of women as sex objects who exist for men’s pleasure.

Symbolic interactionism

Prostitutes and their customers have various understandings of their behavior that help them justify why they engage in this behavior. Many prostitutes believe they are performing an important service for their customers, and this belief is perhaps more common among indoor prostitutes than among street prostitutes.

According to functionalist theory, prostitution exists because it serves several important functions for society generally and for certain people in society. As we have already mentioned, it provides a source of income for many women who otherwise might be jobless, and it provides a sexual alternative for men with the motivations listed earlier. Almost eight decades ago, sociologist Kingsley Davis (1937) [16] wrote that prostitution even lowers the divorce rate. He reasoned that many married men are unhappy with their sex life with their wives. If they do not think this situation can improve, some men start an affair with another woman and may fall in love with that woman, threatening these men’s marriages. Other men turn to a prostitute. Because prostitution is generally impersonal, these men do not fall in love with their prostitutes, and their marriages are not threatened. Without prostitution, then, more men would have affairs, and more divorces would result. Although Davis’s hypothesis is provocative, there are no adequate studies to test it.

According to conflict theory, prostitution reflects the economic inequality in society. Many poor women feel compelled to become prostitutes because of their lack of money; because wealthier women have many other sources of income, the idea of becoming a prostitute is something they never have to consider. Sad but interesting historical support for this view comes from an increase in prostitution in the second half of the nineteenth century. Many women lost husbands and boyfriends in the war and were left penniless. Lacking formal education and living in a society that at the time offered few job opportunities to women, many of these bereaved women were forced to turn to prostitution to feed their families and themselves. As American cities grew rapidly during the last decades of the nineteenth century, thousands of immigrant women and other poor women also turned to prostitution as a needed source of income (Rosen, 1983). [17] This late nineteenth-century increase in prostitution, then, occurred because of women’s poverty.

According to the feminist version of conflict theory, prostitution results not only from women’s poverty but also from society’s patriarchal culture that still views men as the dominant figure in heterosexual relationships and that still treats women as “sex objects” who exist for men’s pleasure (Barry, 1996). [18] In such a culture, it is no surprise and even inevitable that men will want to pay for sex with a woman and that women will be willing to be paid for sex. In this feminist view, the oppression and exploitation that prostitution inherently involves reflects the more general oppression and exploitation of women in the larger society.

Symbolic interactionism moves away from these larger issues to examine the everyday understandings that prostitutes and their customers have about their behavior. These understandings help both prostitutes and customers justify their behavior. Many prostitutes, for example, believe they are performing an important service for the men who pay them. Indoor prostitutes are perhaps especially likely to feel they are helping their customers by providing them not only sex but also companionship (Weitzer, 2009). [19] A woman who owned a massage parlor named “The Classic Touch” echoed this view. Her business employed fourteen women who masturbated their customers and offered a senior citizen discount. The owner reasoned that her employees were performing an important service: “We have many senior citizens and handicapped people. We have some men who are impotent and others who are divorced or in bad marriages. This is a safe, AIDS-free environment…that helps marriages. Husbands come in here and get a stress release and then they are able to go home and take on more. These are men who aren’t in bars picking up strange women” (Ordway, 1995, p. 1). [20]

Dealing with Prostitution


With prostitution, past is once again prologue. It has existed since ancient times, and it has continued throughout the United States long since prostitution was banned by the United States in 1920. The legal brothels that now exist in rural counties in Nevada are the exception in this nation, not the rule. Yet prostitution is common outside of Nevada, and thousands of arrests occur nationwide for it.

As with illegal drugs (see ), as we think about how to deal with prostitution, we should consider both a philosophical question and a social science question (Meier & Geis, 2007). [21] The philosophical question is whether two people should be allowed to engage in a behavior, in this case prostitution, in which both want to participate. Many people may dislike this behavior for various reasons, but is that sufficient justification for the behavior to be banned if both people (let’s assume they are legal adults) want to engage in it? In this regard, and without at all meaning to equate prostitution with same-sex sexual behavior, an analogy with homosexuality is worth considering. Homosexual sex used to be illegal because many people thought it was immoral. When the US Supreme Court finally invalidated all laws against homosexual sex in its 2003 case, Lawrence v. Texas, the majority opinion declared that “the fact that a State’s governing majority has traditionally viewed a particular practice as immoral is not a sufficient reason for upholding a law prohibiting the practice.” It further asserted, “The petitioners are entitled to respect for their private lives. The State cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime. Their right to liberty under the Due Process Clause gives them the full right to engage in their conduct without intervention of the government.” Although the majority opinion specifically said its decision did not apply to prostitution, a reasonable argument may be made that respect for privacy of consensual sexual conduct also means that prostitution, too, should be legal.

Here it may be argued that prostitution still victimizes and objectifies women even if they want to engage in it. This is a reasonable argument, but there are many occupations that victimize employees, either because the occupations are dangerous (such as coal mining and construction work) or because the job requirements objectify women as sex objects (such as fashion modeling and cheerleading). Because hardly anyone would say these occupations should be illegal, is it logical to say that prostitution should be illegal? Former US Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders thinks it makes no sense to ban prostitution simply because it objectifies women: “Why are we so upset about sex workers selling sexual acts to consenting adults?” she asks. “We say that they are selling their bodies, but how different is that from what athletes do? They’re selling their bodies. Models? They’re selling their bodies. Actors? They’re selling their bodies” (McCaslin, 1999, p. A8). [22]

The social science question concerning laws against prostitution is whether these laws do more good than harm, or more harm than good. If they do more good than harm, they should be maintained and even strengthened; if they do more harm than good, they should be repealed. A growing number of scholars believe that the laws against prostitution do more harm than good, and they say that the best way to deal with prostitution might be to legalize and regulate it (Weitzer, 2011). [23]

Proponents of legalization argue as follows. Although many people cite the horrible lives of many streetwalkers as a major reason for their support of laws against prostitution, these laws ironically cause the problems that streetwalkers experience (Weitzer, 2011). When US prostitution was legal a century ago in brothels across the nation, brothel prostitutes were safer than streetwalkers are now. Prostitutes working today in Nevada’s legal brothels are safer than streetwalkers. Whatever we might think of their behavior, legal brothel workers are relatively safe from being robbed, beaten, or raped, and their required regular medical exams leave them relatively free of sexually transmitted disease. The health problems and criminal victimization that many streetwalkers experience happen because their behavior is illegal, and legalizing and regulating prostitution would reduce these problems (Weitzer, 2011). [24]

In this regard, legalization of prostitution is yet another harm reductionapproach to a social problem. As Weitzer (2012, p. 227) [25] observes, “Research suggests that, under the right conditions, legal prostitution can be organized in a way that increases workers’ health, safety, and job satisfaction. Mandatory condom use and other safe-sex practices are typical in legal brothels, and the workers face much lower risk of abuse from customers.”

Legalization of prostitution would also yield a considerable amount of tax revenue, as is now true in Nevada. Let’s assume that 50 million acts of prostitution occur annually in the United States, to cite our earlier estimate that is probably too low, and that each of these acts costs an average $30. Putting these numbers together, prostitutes receive $1.5 billion annually in income. If they paid about one-third of this amount (admittedly a rough estimate) in payroll taxes, the revenue of state and federal governments would increase by $500 million. Because the tens of thousands of arrests for prostitution and commercialized vice annually would reduce significantly if prostitution were legalized, the considerable financial savings from this reduction could be used for other pursuits.

Legalizing prostitution would add the United States to the lengthy list of other Western democracies that have already legalized it. Although their models of legalization vary, the available evidence indicates that legalizing prostitution does, in fact, reduce the many problems now associated with illegal prostitution (see ).



Workers in legal brothels are relatively safe from victimization by customers and from the risk of incurring and transmitting sexual diseases.http://images.flatworldknowledge.com/barkansoc/barkansoc-fig09_x011.jpg

Source: “Brothel in Elko, NV,” Wikipedia, last modified January 11, 2012, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Inez%27s.JPG.



Lessons from Other Societies


Legal Brothels in Other Western Democracies

In many other Western democracies, prostitution is legal to varying degrees that depend on the specific nation. In some nations, streetwalking is permitted, but in other nations, only brothels are permitted.

The legal brothel model is what the United States had a century ago and has today only in rural Nevada. As in Nevada, other nations that permit legal brothels usually require regular health exams and the use of condoms to prevent the transmission of sexual diseases. They also license the brothels so that the brothels must fulfill various standards, including the safe-sex practices just mentioned, to receive a license. In addition, brothels must pay taxes on their revenues, and brothel workers must pay taxes on their incomes.

As in rural Nevada, brothel workers in these other nations are unlikely to be abused by their customers. A major reason for their relative safety is that they work indoors and that any abuse by customers might be heard or witnessed by someone else inside the brothel. In addition, brothels in many nations have implemented certain measures to ensure workers’ safety, including the provision of panic buttons, the use of listening devices, and screening of customers when they enter the brothel.

A report by the Ministry of Justice in the Netherlands, where legal brothels operate, has concluded that most brothel workers say that they feel safe. A government report in New Zealand, which legalized prostitution in 2003, concluded that legalization made it more likely that prostitutes report any problems to the police and also increased their self-esteem because their behavior was now legal. A government commission in Australia that evaluated legal brothels in the northeastern state of Queensland concluded, “There is no doubt that licensed brothels provide the safest working environment for sex workers in Queensland…Legal brothels now powering in Queensland provide a sustainable model for a healthy, crime-free, and safe legal licensed brothel industry.”

Assessing all these nations’ experiences, sociologist Ronald Weitzer concluded that “legal prostitution, while no panacea, is not inherently dangerous and can be structured to minimize risks and empower workers.” The United States, then, has much to learn from the other Western democracies that have legalized prostitution.



Sources: Weitzer, 2009, 2012 [26]

KEY TAKEAWAYS


  • Prostitution has existed since ancient times and continues to be common today around the world. The United States had legal brothels before 1920, and legal brothels are found today in rural counties in Nevada.

  • Many people oppose prostitution because they feel it is immoral or because they feel it degrades and victimizes women. Because prostitution usually involves consensual behavior, some scholars say it should not be illegal in a society that values a right to privacy.

  • Some scholars also say that laws against prostitution do more harm than good and in particular account for the various problems that streetwalkers experience.



FOR YOUR REVIEW


  1. Do you think prostitution should become legal and regulated? Why or why not?

  2. The major difference between prostitution and sex resulting from a casual pickup involves whether money is exchanged. Write an essay in which you first take the “pro” side on the following debate question, and then take the “con” side: that prostitution is worse than sex from a casual pickup.

[1] Ringdal, N. J. (2004). Love for sale: A world history of prostitution (R. Daly, Trans.). New York, NY: Grove Press.

[2] Bullough, V. L., & Bullough, B. (1977). Sin, sickness, and sanity: A history of sexual attitudes. New York, NY: New American Library.

[3] Bullough, V. L., & Bullough, B. (1987). Women and prostitution: A social history. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus.

[4] Stanford, S. (1966). The lady of the house. New York, NY: G. P. Putnam.

[5] Brewer, D. D., Potterat, J. J., Garrett, S. B., Muth, S. Q., John M. Roberts, J., Kasprzyk, D., et al. (2000). Prostitution and the sex discrepancy in reported number of sexual partners.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 97, 12385–12388.

[6] Clinard, M. B., & Meier, R. F. (2011). Sociology of deviant behavior (14th ed.). Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace.

[7] Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2011). Crime in the United States, 2010. Washington, DC: Author.

[8] Weitzer, R. (2012). Prostitution: Facts and fictions. In D. Hartmann & C. Uggen (Eds.),The Contexts reader (pp. 223–230). New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

[9] Weitzer, R. (2009). Sociology of sex work. Annual Review of Sociology, 35(0360-0572, 0360-0572), 213–234.

[10] Weitzer, R. (2009). Sociology of sex work. Annual Review of Sociology, 35(0360-0572, 0360-0572), 213–234.

[11] Weitzer, R. (2012). Prostitution: Facts and fictions. In D. Hartmann & C. Uggen (Eds.),The contexts reader (pp. 223–230). New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

[12] Weitzer, R. (2012). Prostitution: Facts and fictions. In D. Hartmann & C. Uggen (Eds.),The contexts reader (pp. 223–230). New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

[13] Weitzer, R. (2009). Sociology of sex work. Annual Review of Sociology, 35(0360-0572, 0360-0572), 213–234.

[14] Weitzer, R. (2009). Sociology of sex work. Annual Review of Sociology, 35(0360-0572, 0360-0572), 213–234.

[15] Weitzer, R. (2009). Sociology of sex work. Annual Review of Sociology, 35(0360-0572, 0360-0572), 213–234.

[16] Davis, K. (1937). The sociology of prostitution. American Sociological Review, 2, 744–755.

[17] Rosen, R. (1983). The lost sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900–1918. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Univesity Press.

[18] Barry, K. (1996). The prostitution of sexuality. New York, NY: New York University Press.

[19] Weitzer, R. (2009). Sociology of sex work. Annual Review of Sociology, 35(0360-0572, 0360-0572), 213–234.

[20] Ordway, R. (1995, May 26). Relaxation spas perplex officials. The Bangor Daily News, p. 1.

[21] Meier, R. F., & Geis, G. (2007). Criminal justice and moral issues. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[22] McCaslin, J. (1999, October 13). Vaginal politics. Washington Times, p. A8.

[23] Weitzer, R. (2011). Legalizing prostitution: From illicit vice to lawful business. New York, NY: New York University Press.

[24] Weitzer, R. (2011). Legalizing prostitution: From illicit vice to lawful business. New York, NY: New York University Press.

[25] Weitzer, R. (2012). Prostitution: Facts and fictions. In D. Hartmann & C. Uggen (Eds.),The contexts reader (pp. 223–230). New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

[26] Weitzer, R. (2009). Sociology of sex work. Annual Review of Sociology, 35(0360-0572, 0360-0572), 213–234 ;Weitzer, R. (2012). Prostitution: Facts and fictions. In D. Hartmann & C. Uggen (Eds.), The contexts reader (pp. 223–230). New York, NY: W. W. Norton.


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