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Latest Prostitution Scandals Bring Up Age-Old Questions About Sex Work

The problems of some sex work continue to elude easy solutions.

Two stories about prostitution landed this week and, despite the giggles and the pouting, a solution feels remote. The first was the  dancing nuns who wriggled, inevitably, in front of Silvio Berlusconi for, if they were particularly hot nuns in that raddled old sex addict's eyes, piles of euros. The punchline is – guess what? They weren't nuns. The second was about Barack Obama's secret service agents who,  on a trip to Colombia, visited prostitutes and are now in disgrace. One agent apparently refused to pay and, of all the apologies the  House Homeland Security Committee has made, there has been none to the prostitute. Upstanding Officers Waylaid By Evil Foreign Sluts is already the emerging narrative, although Vote Democrat for a World Full of Hookers is obviously on its way.

Beyond repeating Berlusconi's joke – "When asked if they would like to have sex with me, 30% of women said 'Yes', while the other 70% replied, 'What, again?'" – what to say about prostitution in the age of third-wave feminism? What, in this case, constitutes freedom?

The problem, as  Dr Brooke Magnanti, formerly the escort Belle de Jour, points out in her book  The Sex Myth, is accurate data. Without it we are simply screaming at each other. Prostitution is notoriously difficult to sample because so much of the truth is underground; the rest is junk from those excitable sisters, prurience and fantasy, which the TV series of Magnanti's memoirs,  Secret Diary of a Call Girl, did so much to fuel.

Some studies claim that drug addiction, sexual and physical abuse and early death are the prostitute's inevitable pension. The 2003 report  Prostitution and Trafficking in Nine Countries: An Update on Violence and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, states that between 70% and 95% of the interviewees were physically assaulted while working as prostitutes; 60% to 75% were raped while working as prostitutes; and 65% to 95% were sexually abused as children before becoming prostitutes.

Other reports insist these studies are polluted by the over-sampling of street prostitutes, and that there are many happy experiences of prostitution. Magnanti conjures a world in which prostitutes are well-paid and independent, fearing mostly censure and criminalisation.

In her mind it is an alliance of feminists and religious conservatives who threaten the safety of prostitutes more than pimps, punters or psychopaths. The study Beyond Gender: An Examination of Exploitation in Sex Work turns, she says, "almost everything we think we know about sex work on its head", even if you have visited PunterNet, the online directory of prostitutes, and gagged at the story that tells. More than half of those interviewed for the study said "commercial sexual transactions are relationships of equality"; 77% "felt their clients treated them respectfully", and only 3% planned to stop within three years, contradicting the 2003 report which said 89% wanted to get out.

It seems the data on prostitution changes depending on who, how and where you ask, which again leaves second- and third-wave feminists beating each other with sticks. Who is the real abuser of prostitutes – the rescuer, who would have them disappear, or the enabler, who would have them multiply?

It would be easy to dismiss Magnanti as a sex addict seeking to validate her choices, but the passages where she says her status as a former prostitute devalues her testimony in some eyes are painful to read, even if sometimes her objectivity seems cracked. In the chapter on pornography, she says the absence of the missionary position in pornographic movies proves they are dedicated to female pleasure, when I suspect it is simply because there is little to see. She insists the focus on women in these films bespeaks respect when, because they are made largely for men, they would always be the focus. She also cites a few rich female pornographers as an indication the industry is not inherently exploitative.

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