#FeministThursday: We’re finally making progress with prostitution

The Huntington Police Department announced Thursday a new program to combat prostitution in the city and for once, the plan is to target the johns.

Beginning Thursday, an electronic billboard at 20th Street and Third Avenue began posting signs to warn prospective customers of prostitutes their pictures will be displayed on the billboard if they are arrested.

As soon as I read the press release in my email, I was elated that a program punished the customers as well as the prostitutes because, let’s face it, prostitution can’t happen without customers.

There are a couple of facts that should be recognized about the issue of prostitution that are generally overlooked.

For starters, we like to think of prostitution as a problem affecting only the lower class when in actuality most of the customers are middle and upper class men. It’s easy to say prostitution is bringing down our community, but who are the people employing prostitutes? They are creating the demand.

The billboard isn’t a perfect solution. It’s probably costing taxpayers significantly and an undesirable side-effect of humiliating the johns will be humiliating their families as well, but it’s a step in the right direction for those who advocate for women.

I will say right up front there are women who work willingly in the sex industry. However, many in the profession (and I would argue most of the prostitutes working in the Huntington area) are victims of coercion or false choice situations.

To define false choice, I will use the example presented to me in a history of prostitution course by my professor and personal hero Laura Michele Diener.

Think back to the January 2014 West Virginia water crisis that left roughly 300,000 residents without access to clean water. It’s no secret West Virginia (and particularly southern West Virginia, which was the area primarily affected) is impoverished. In the counties primarily affected (not including the Culloden area of Cabell county), Feeding America estimates there are 54,140 food insecure individuals total in those counties. Food insecure as defined by the USDA means “consistent access to food is limited by a lack of money and other resources at times during the year.”

So, about 54,140 individuals were faced with a false choice situation when it came to choosing between buying food and buying water. FEMA and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security provided water to the affected areas, but chances are if your budget doesn’t allow consistent access to food, it probably doesn’t allow you access to reliable transportation to go pick up an allotment of clean water.

People took risks consuming the water because they had to. Did those people make a good decision? It doesn’t seem like it, but did they really have a desirable option to choose from? Feed your family or pay for bottled water? It’s not a hard choice. It’s a false choice.

So, all of that is meant to illustrate the concept of false choice and how that relates closely to impoverished women.

Prostitutes are generally in a similar situation, except it’s every day and it only gets worse. If you are a single mother and can’t find a job, prostitution seems like a good choice. There’s a high demand for it, it pays and you can work while your kids are in school or in bed. Sounds good, huh? Not really, but if you don’t have any other job perspectives and your kids are hungry, it might. This becomes a cycle, something you can’t get out of because who is going to hire someone who used to be a prostitute?

It could happen accidently. You meet a guy, start a relationship and he asks you to sleep with a few people because you need the cash and you’d be helping him out a lot. So, you do it and then you’re expected to do it all the time. If you don’t, he becomes violent.

Or maybe you were 13 years old and living on the street. A pimp picked you up and gave you a place to stay, treated you well and fed you. That’s the closest thing to a family you ever had, but you were 13 and didn’t know any different and now you’re in it too deep to get out easily.

When we criminalize prostitutes, we don’t see them as women who need help. We are criminalizing victims. For the first time, we are acknowledging that without customers willing to exploit women and pimps willing to exploit women for profit, prostitution wouldn’t survive.

The next step I would like to see the HPD take in the fight against prostitution is a program geared toward providing impoverished women with more options before they turn to prostitution in the first place.

Jocelyn Gibson can be contacted at [email protected].