In Montana, former cathouses and bordellos are now tourist attractions, where, according to the Economist, Big Sky Country enthusiasts can dream of the notorious Madam Ida, who "distributed gilt neckties to favoured customers." (No doubt against a backdrop of crushed red velvet and giant, filigree mirrors.) Americans harbor "enduring fondness for the turbulent world of unfettered freedom and vice," the Economist reasons, and prostitutes are a pivotal part of that fantasy world. Pop culture is also littered "happy hookers" stereotype, in films like Pretty Woman, Mighty Aphrodite, and in documentaries like HBO's Cathouse, which focused on Nevada's Bunny Ranch brothel. Brags the cable channel: "...the Bunny Ranch is a tightly-run ship where johns are 'clients' and prostitutes are 'working girls' with their own private rooms and weekly doctor visits. [The] Bunny Ranch is a welcome retreat for men — and women — who enter the door with a good attitude and money to party."
But according to Professor Roger Matthews, the life of a prostitute is anything but glamorous. "It's abuse and a life of hell," Matthews, a professor of criminology at London's South Bank University tells the Guardian. Matthews has been studying street prostitution for almost two decades and has just published a book called Prostitution, Politics and Policy, outlining his arguments against so-called "liberal" approaches to the sex trade. The "liberal" approach, explalins the the Guardian, "is to think of the trade as simply another form of work, to be 'non-judgmental' in dealing with it, and to set up areas, such as 'tolerance zones', where women can work without fear of arrest."
Matthews disagrees with this viewpoint because he believes that it continues to encourage johns to buy sex and that prostitution, no matter what, is a lose/lose scenario for almost all the women involved. "The women involved in prostitution - particularly street prostitution - are not only among the most victimised group in society, but many of them are multiple victims. If the term 'victimisation' is to have any meaning, then those involved in prostitution must be prime candidates," he argues. He's even against brothels like the Bunny Ranch, because, "When governments are seen to be endorsing prostitution, it leads to a massive expansion of the trade, both legal and illegal." Adds Guardian writer Julie Bindel: "Women working in legal brothels in Nevada, for example, have spoken about how prostitution under such a regime feels like 'legalised rape', and that no laws can remove the stigma of selling sex."
So what does Matthews suggest governments do in order to help prostitutes? He wants to decriminalize prostitution for the women, make consequences worse for the johns, and fund programs to help women find jobs so they can leave hooking behind altogether. He also wants to start studying the men who pay for sex, about whom very little is known. ("The available research indicates that the motivation of many men is relatively low, and that in the vast majority of cases it would not take much to deter them from paying for sex," he says.) Regardless of the available research, I have a hard time believing that prostitution will disappear, no matter what kinds of legislation is passed. While decidedly unglamorous in its gritty reality, prostitution still retains that odd patina of glamor, and sometimes people [men and women alike] want no-strings-attached nookie. It ain't the oldest profession for nothing.