Ignore the Violence

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Last weekend, I saw a movie called "The Whistleblower," a 2010 film starring Rachel Weisz as an American police officer who signed up to work for a Blackwater-like security contractor in Bosnia in the 1990's. Weisz plays the real-life Kathryn Bolkovac, who was assigned to work on the peace-keeping mission with the UN forces in Bosnia after the Dayton accords. Bolkovac discovered a sex trafficking operation, and she further discovered that the ring was protected by ineffective local and international laws, corruption, and negligence (at best) by officials with the authority to do something about it.

The film is an indictment of, among other things, military subcontracting; but mostly, it is a heartbreaking account of the horrors of what we so euphemistically call "the sex trade." The filmmaker, Larysa Kondracki, makes all the right choices in depicting the horrendous violence and terror faced by the young girls who are forced into sexual slavery, making the audience understand the inhumanity without going over the line into excessive depictions of violence. Most importantly, the sex is never sexy. The girls (and they are girls, not women) are held in subhuman conditions, addicted to drugs, and living under constant threat of death.

After seeing that film, I felt the need to see something with a few laughs. Fortunately, the multiplex was also showing "The Guard," a quirky Irish comedy starring Brendan Gleeson as a small-town cop who has to deal with an American FBI agent (Don Cheadle) in a drug sting operation. It is very funny. At one point in the film, however, there is a scene in which Gleeson's character hires two young prostitutes. The idea is that this middle-aged cop has a few eccentricities, and one of them is to buy a bit of kinky sex every now and then. The prostitutes are sort of Irish versions of the prostitutes in "Fargo" -- not especially bright, but happy-go-lucky and enjoying life.

The juxtaposition of those two depictions of prostitution was, to say the least, jarring. It caused me to think about the mythology of prostitution in popular culture, and how that mythology perpetuates a system in which violence and despair are an inherent part of the reality. Notably, that violence is sometimes even allowed to show through. A later scene in "The Guard" has one of the prostitutes talking to Gleeson's character in a diner. She has a bruised and cut lip, and it is made clear that this injury was no accident. Gleeson is sympathetic, but the scene is still played for laughs rather than concern for the woman.

One view of prostitution says that it is just like any other transaction, and that it should be treated no differently from any other transaction among consenting adults. The idea is that the potential seller of "sexual services" is no different from any other merchant, with the same set of choices, alternatives, and constraints. In this view, if a woman (or man, but as a matter of sheer numbers, we know that we are talking about women in the vast majority of cases) decides to engage in prostitution, then she can also choose to stop at any time, depending on her ongoing calculation of costs and benefits.

We see this picture of prostitution in popular culture all the time. The movie "Trading Places" gave us Jamie Lee Curtis's character, a smart, shrewd prostitute who has a simple plan to make money, invest it, and retire early. She has no pimp, and the only customer that we see is a middle-aged shlub who is easily shown the door. Prostitution is nothing more than a simple set of consequence-free transactions. (The film was made before AIDS, but obviously not before STD's.) The "hooker with a heart of gold" theme is a staple of movies and TV, with all of the dangers gleefully ignored.

The crossover between happy mythology and ugly reality was seen most recently in the Charlie Sheen implosion. The writers of "Two and a Half Men," who are now viewed as the good guys in the story, spent years making money from the premise that Sheen's character was just a roguish, likeable "booze-addled whore monger," in the words of one of the show's other characters. Episode after episode had Sheen in bed with a parade of prostitutes. All of the prostitutes were presented as healthy, happy, and just a bit bemused by the horny man-child who had hired them.

We always knew that the show was based on Sheen's actual life. What we learned only within the last year or so was just how much his real-life treatment of women (not just prostitutes, but his ex-wife and girlfriends as well) involved the ugly violence and terror that we like to assume exist only somewhere else. Knives held to throats, violent outbursts, and threats were reportedly part of that sickening story.

I suppose that it is possible that there are women making a living today as prostitutes who are perfectly happy with their lives, who do not suffer violent attacks (or the constant threat of such attacks) from their pimps or their clients, and who live the life that Jamie Lee Curtis's character claimed to enjoy in "Trading Places." Color me skeptical. In the current environment in the U.S. and far too many places, the reality might not be as horrible as we saw in "The Whistleblower" -- although it might be -- but there is no reason to assume that being a prostitute is equivalent to being an accountant or a landscaper.

This post is already too long to discuss solutions. Still, it is worth reminding ourselves that if there were no customers willing to pay for sex, then there would be no prostitutes. At the other end of the spectrum, the many aspects of legalization have been debated endlessly elsewhere. (For what it is worth, although I am generally sympathetic to civil-libertarian arguments, I am highly skeptical that it is possible to remove the coercion and violence from the equation -- or to remove the under-age problem.) Studies of the regulated prostitution systems in Nevada and some European countries offer mixed messages.

Rather than proposing a policy change, I am simply using this space to suggest that our culture too easily accepts the myth that prostitution is no big deal. What happened in Bosnia was no isolated incident, as "The Whistleblower" reports that there are an estimated 2.5 million sex slaves in the world. Even if we could imagine a world in which the transaction between a prostitute and a client resembled a supply-and-demand equilibrium in a textbook, that is not the world in which we live. It is shocking how easily we are lulled into accepting the comforting myth that real-life prostitution is nothing to worry about.