It seems like 2008 was the year when America started to rethink its stand on prostitution.
Traditionally, the world's oldest profession has been a definite no-no in the U.S., constrained to shady streets, dark alleys, and the occasional legal brothel in Nevada. In 2008, however, it seemed to wander into the open and, in many ways, stopped being the dividing line between "good" girls and "bad" girls.
While Ashley Dupree's interview with Diane Sawyer was hardly surprising (after all, turning tricks for a politician has always been a short route to 15 minutes of fame), it's interesting that so many people rushed to blame Spitzer while letting Dupree off relatively Scott-free. Similarly, responses to Natalie Dylan's decision to auction off her virginity were almost equally divided between horror and admiration: some presented her as a victim of societal pressures, while others hailed her as a feminist hero.
Meanwhile, HBO presented Cathouse, an exploration of a legal brothel in Carson City Nevada. The program made a media hero out of Brooke Taylor, a young college graduate who chose prostitution over graduate school. A subsequent article in women's magazine Marie Claire presented Taylor as an intelligent, self-actualized young woman who made an informed decision to enter a highly lucrative profession. In its exploration of Taylor's choices, the article not only humanized her, but also lent an air of legitimacy to her career choice. It is particularly telling that Marie Claire's target audience is, basically, women who are very similar to the pre-prostitution Brooke Taylor.
Admittedly, there have been a few attacks on prostitution. For example, Craig'sList began cracking down on posts offering illicit sex. However, even that token attack has come into question, and women at all levels of society have seemed to erase boundaries when it comes to selling their bodies. From A-listers seeking sugar daddies to rednecks looking for a tank of gas to young women looking for cheap rents, the line between civilians and professionals is getting razor thin. In an interesting expose, Radar magazine showed just how easily it could be erased.
A few months ago, I suggested the possibility that, just as recession-plagued Weimar Berlin became a haven for the sex trade, our own recessed economy might spark a serious reconsideration of our sexual morality. For example, a recent New York Times article about Sephora referred to cosmetics as "war paint," and quoted one salesperson as stating that she carried trial sizes of certain products in her purse, "because you never know where you might wake up." While this hardly translates into an endorsement of the commodification of sex, it seems to suggest a grim acceptance of sexuality as a tool to be employed. Similarly, MSNBC's recent documentary on prostitution offered a humanizing, semi-legitimizing perspective on the profession.
Given America's eternal battle over "family values," it is interesting to see the extent to which many of those values can be mitigated by painful economic realities. While the recession won't completely overturn the prostitution stigma, the level of public curiosity about this mysterious profession seems to be reaching a major upswell. With the economy dangling between recovery and continued misery, it will be interesting to see if 2009 will be the year when prostitution becomes the crime that nobody talks about, but everyone commits.
Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. Despite repeated attempts, he's never been able to get people to pay him for sex.
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