Column: Prostitution — it isn’t ‘Pretty Woman’

It stands to reason that if someone under 18 can’t legally consent to sex, then that same someone also can’t be arrested for prostitution, right? Oh so wrong. The paradox of such prosecutions has engendered the “No such thing as a child prostitute” national campaign, which has taken hold in Los Angeles. L.A. County is now considering how to punish “johns” caught paying children for sex. But San Francisco psychologist and researcher Melissa Farley has for more than two decades been more concerned about the prostitutes themselves: Rescuing them, rehabilitating them and getting politicians and prosecutors to agree that even when it comes to adults, they aren’t criminals but victims.

[Prostitution] is not a choice; it’s a last-ditch survival alternative for kids and adults.

What brought you to this cause?

Twenty-something years ago, when the San Francisco task force on prostitution was looking at laws, I was a psychologist at Kaiser and was asked to write a letter because people knew I cared about violence against women, against prostitutes who tragically were still considered unrapeable or worth less than the rest of us women. [I interviewed] 130 women and transgenders and men and kids in prostitution, finding out the stunning violence they experienced. That expanded to a study of prostitution in nine countries. I have spent the last 20 years talking to a huge number of survivors of this crime. My focus was to give voices to people who are virtually never heard.

Some law enforcement leaders, like Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, have ordered that underage prostitutes be treated like victims, not like criminals.


In California and in Texas, it’s been amazing to see law enforcement officials [stopping] the prejudice about women in prostitution. I visited a team in Dallas working with the police to offer women alternatives to arrest, like drug and alcohol treatment, interventions, housing; it was truly remarkable. It’s more like drug diversion courts where, rather than arrest, arrest, arrest, you offer alternatives.

In California, some wonderful police are working to educate first responders; what’s changing is that instead of being treated like a criminal, the person is being treated like a victim of a transaction that is abusive, exploitive and frequently very violent. [Prostitution] is not a choice; it’s a last-ditch survival alternative for kids and adults. Kids being sexually assaulted for money and then treated as criminals is sickening to me.

What you describe are enforcement choices. Have the laws themselves changed?

When it comes to trafficking and prostitution, laws in the United States are sometimes all over the place. Laws often come way behind educated public opinion. The Swedes changed their law after 20 years of public education. Sweden passed a law that says women in prostitution are decriminalized — no arrests. Men who buy sex are arrested.

We sympathize with Dickens’ Oliver Twist, an abused orphan taken off the streets and turned into a young criminal. Girls in the same situation now are lured into prostitution.

Poverty is a driving factor in prostitution. Homelessness of children is an extremely high risk factor. We don’t provide shelter for runaway youth — and what are they usually running away from? Some kind of abusive home environment, where they’re getting beaten up, where there’s some kind of addiction, where [parents] are not watching out for kids, or [kids] are sexually abused. So they’re already traumatized, and who reaches out a helping hand? Pimps.

How are entertainment and social media affecting sexual attitudes and perceptions of prostitution?

There’s a lot of pornography available, especially to children. I’m talking about sixth- and seventh-grade boys [watching] cellphone images of women enjoying being abused, hurt and humiliated.

It’s not Playboy of the 1970s, I can tell you that.

Underage girls send nude photos of themselves to boys too.

In some ways girls are being taught that sex is like prostitution. They look at online escort ads or read something like [the 2005 article in] Marie Claire magazine saying, “Prostitution gives me power.” I cannot tell you how many kids I’ve heard say, “I saw ‘Pretty Woman’; it looks pretty good to me.”

There’s also the movie “Taken,” with actor Liam Neeson saving his daughter from a sex trafficking ring.

That’s high drama. What I’m seeing is more banal. You have a kid who doesn’t have other supports in her life, [who has] a sexual abuse history, some neglect going on, and who pays attention? Some guy in the mall wants to be your “boyfriend” — a little older, cooler, treats you like a princess. There’s manipulation to the point of brainwashing: Straight people — non-sex-trade people — are suckers; giving it away for free is being a sucker; make somebody pay for it and get rich. There’s a conditioning process. It’s not violent; it doesn’t involve drugging or kidnapping. It’s a gradual distancing from family and friends.

What do you think the laws should be?

Decriminalize the women in prostitution, criminalize the buyers and the pimps. Put serious money into helping women get out and stay out. Provide support: housing, drug, alcohol treatment, mental health resources, appropriate vocational training. You don’t want to send her out to a McDonald’s where she’s not going to be able to make enough to support two kids.

So in “Pretty Woman,” Richard Gere would get a mug shot and …

Julia Roberts does not! And someone says to Julia, “Would you like to go back to school? Get a PhD in psychology or journalism? You’re smart. Would you like to run your own business rather than selling sex?”

A Canadian judge, in a case about prostitution law there, questioned your expert-witness status in part because of your advocacy.

After 20 years of research in this field, yes, I have become an advocate. Not to be an advocate would be profoundly unethical, as if I was a tobacco researcher and found that 80% of the time tobacco use was associated with cardiac disease and lung cancer but said it’s just fine if everyone smokes. We can’t just stay in some ivory tower pretending we have nothing to do with the real world. In downtown San Francisco, I’m seeing massage parlors controlled by organized crime; I don’t feel I can ignore that. I know women who have been in those places; they’re lockup brothels. So how can I ignore that, knowing the violence, the rape, the assaults, the emotional harm, the self-loathing that results after years of prostitution? So yes, I am definitely an advocate for abolishing an institution I think is very harmful.

I notice you don’t use the word “prostitute.”

I do not want to turn a human being into what was done to harm her. Just as we don’t refer to battered or raped women or kids as “batterees” or “rapees,” I suggest we retain her humanity by using adjectives, adverbs or verbs to modify the noun, as in “prostituted woman” or “child in prostitution.”

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Twitter: @pattmlatimes

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