I know what you're thinking, I'm reading way too many books, and perhaps blogging a little too much about them. Bear with me though, because you may have noticed that the books I have been reading lately have either raised interesting ethical questions for discussion or brought up some extremely interesting, relevant history, making them more than book reviews. This book, by Sophie Hayes, is one of them.
This is the true story of what happened to her when she decided to trust a man that she thought was her friend. This is not just a tragic story of what happened to a young woman that I feel necessary to bear witness to, as hard as it might be. It is that too, of course, but it is much more.
Sophie Hayes is a young, educated, middle class white English girl. While her relationship with her father can be described as mutual apathy at best, there are no indications that she should not live a normal, middle class British life. She had a good job, her own apartment, a future waiting for her. Then, she decided to take a trip to Italy to visit a person she considered her best friend for four years.
Sophie Hayes was forced into prostitution by a criminal psycopath on the streets of an undisclosed (though Northern, from clues in the book) city in Italy. Her story made me go through an emotional rollercoaster that I did not expect. I wanted to jump into the pages before her first terrifying night and beat the living daylights out of the disgusting animal that trafficked her. I wanted to smack the policemen that treated her like shit upside the head for being so painfully ignorant. I wanted to stop alongside the roads that are known to be full of prostitutes, stop at each one and ask "are you OK? Do you want to be here? Do you need someone to help you get home?" though knowing full well that, regardless of whether or not those girls are there voluntarily or not, the answer would be a resounding No. Admiration for her courage in writing her story, not just for mentioning the terrible parts, but for being able to capture the times in which she loved him and felt safe with him, which I think are emotions that are even harder and take more courage to revisit. I had a nightmare that I was driving along the road and I saw a friend of mine in her same position, and trying to convince her to get in the fucking car so that I could save her. During the whole thing I found myself coming back to one central thought that might be paradoxical at first: this is why I think prostitution needs to be legalized.
While I can partially agree with this strategy, in that I don't see the egregious criminal offence in deciding to be paid for a handjob (especially since it magically does not become an egregious criminal offence if there is a camera present and the video is destined for the internet), there are some evident problems in this decriminalization. What seems to be the situation is that, far from bringing focused attention down on the traffickers, prostitution becomes largely ignored. Policemen will occasionally make a few prostitutes clear out if people start to complain, they may ask to see their papers to see if they are in the country legally, but they have no recourse to arrest them and thus question them. Sure, once in a while you'll hear about a few pimps going to jail, but usually because they were involved in a much larger crime ring that also (and primarily) involved bringing people into the country illegally, that the people they brought were sex slaves and not textile slaves is often coincidental. If your society is OK with not criminalizing prostitution, why the hell wouldn't you take the leap and make it outright legal?
Making it legal and regulating it severely undercuts traffickers. You have houses where there is security if needed, it is a taxed business (also making it a much needed source of revenue), you can mandate regular medical checks just like in the porn industry, which not only helps assure the prostitute is free of STDs but secondarily is an excellent way of spotting systematic abuse that is commonplace amongst traffickers. You have a license, which means that no illegal immigrants would be allowed to work there, them being the women that are most likely the ones brought over against their will. After that, criminalize prostitution that is conducted outside the regulated standards.
It is time to stop not only demonizing women who choose the sex trade, but also the johns that seek their services. As it is also alluded to in the book, most of them are nice enough guys, most men have no interest in sleeping with a prostitute who is being forced against her will. Sophie Hayes had to invent an elaborate back story because many people were genuinely curious to know why she was doing what she did, no judgement, no sadism. If you are a john, wouldn't you rather go to a clean house, where you know the prostitute does not have STDs, where you know everything is legal and above board, rather than troll the streets for a frightened girl that most likely is forced against her will, could be sick and/or have a dangerous pimp lurking around? There will always be a handful of sadists that would prefer that scenario, and I have no problem with their asses being hauled off to prison for participating in an illegal sex trade.
The last point to consider is that criminals are opportunists. If you legalize prostitution and make it reasonable and accessible to customers you are providing a serious source of competition for the traffickers. They have less clients buzzing around, would have to dramatically lower prices in order to provide some kind of incentive, have police scrutiny intensify, in many cases they could easily decide that sex trafficking is no longer profitable enough and switch to another form of criminal activity. I think we need to start considering these things right alongside increasing awareness that this is a significant problem, as well as expand the resources available for victims that have managed to or are trying to escape.
It is a story I suggest everyone reads, because it is so important to acknowledge the often ignored problem, and really begin discussing what we can do about it.