it invites some of our deepest fears. What if our daughters, our wives, or our mothers resort to prostitution? What if schoolteachers also worked as prostitutes? Wouldn't that erode the very fabric of society?
In fact, a school teacher was arrested for prostitution in 2003. Shannon Williams, a Berkeley high school teacher, was a media sensation after news of her arrest spread, spawning many philosophical discussions about the implications of a prostitute being allowed access to children. Melissa Petro was fired from her schoolteaching job because she admitted to being a call girl years before becoming a schoolteacher. The consensus seems to be that even former prostitutes pose some sort of threat to the safety and well-being of children. But are women who get paid for sex more dangerous than women who have sex for free?
Despite the abundance of sexual images (and perhaps even because of them) sexual shame drives our economy and infects our lives. It distorts our relationships and cripples our ability to experience ourselves as whole. Women, especially, are penalized by what is often referred to as the Whore/Madonna Complex - a syndrome that creates desire for a sexual partner who has been degraded (the whore) while making desire for the respected partner (the Madonna), taboo. Although the Whore/Madonna Complex may seem outdated, clinical psychologist, Uwe Hartmann, stated in 2009 that it "is still highly prevalent in today's patients".
Can we comprehend the price we pay when sexual shame predominates? Any culture or society which enforces a sexual double standard and refuses to accord half the population their sexual birthright, is a culture that cheats all of us.
Many anthropological studies have established that societies with a more permissive attitude toward female sexual behavior are in fact more peaceful societies. This is true for the Mosuo in China, and the Zapotec of La Paz, Mexico. It is also true of our closest non-human relative, the bonobo. Yet the sexual double standard persists in the dominant world culture.
Over the years, many women with impressive professional careers have confessed to me their secret fantasies about working as a high priced escort. And in their eyes I have seen an all too familiar sadness that seems to communicate a desire so taboo and potentially dangerous it must never be spoken or acknowledged. Instead, it lives hidden deep in the hearts and psyches of women like a relic from our ancient past - a time long ago when women experienced their sexual power without apology.
The suppression of our sexual wholeness leads to all sorts of dysfunction including depression, anxiety and rage. It fuels the war between the sexes and the resulting animosity and mistrust feed into our violent responses to life's frustrations and challenges. Ultimately, a negative and controlling approach to sexuality in general and women's sexual autonomy in particular, contributes to the desecration of our planet and our ability to survive through the raping of the environment and the many wars which have plagued the human species for milennia.
If each of us examines our fears and assumptions, we may find what we truly fear is not sex workers, but our own sexual secrets and frustrations. It is so human to project onto others what we are afraid of in ourselves, and prostitutes make a convenient target for scapegoating. Fortunately, some individuals are coming forward to express perspectives which embrace a more accepting attitude toward prostitutes.
For instance, Stanley Siegel, psychotherapist and former Director of Education and Senior Faculty member of New York's renowned Ackerman Institute for Family Therapy recently wrote in an article for Psychology Tomorrow Magazine:"The sex workers I spoke with, as well as some I have been with, share many of the same positive values and ethics as therapists. Both psychotherapists and sex workers have guided me, at different times in my life, to a deeper understanding of my true desires, partly by challenging me to confront shame."
Even Fox News' controversial psychiatrist and social commentator, Keith Ablow, asserts". . . it is time to legalize prostitution, put in place safeguards to help protect those who participate in it, and, of course, tax it." While I don't entirely agree with his decree (I am after all in favor of decriminalization instead of legalization in the USA) I do appreciate his more practical approach to prostitution.
Despite the torrent of headlines surrounding Suzy Favor Hamilton, the fact that some professional women work on the side as prostitutes is not really news. What is getting our attention and upsetting the status quo, is how "normal" this new type of sex worker is. Blending into society with ease, many of today's prostitutes are adventurous entrepreneurs with their own unique view of human sexuality. For some women, prostitution may represent nothing more than supplemental income. For others it may feel like a sacred calling to provide sexual healing.
In the 2012 award winning movie, The Sessions, actress Helen Hunt gives us a window into the level of compassion and service expressed in sex surrogacy. Yet that commitment to service can be found in prostitution too. Another recent film, The Scarlet Road, is a moving documentary featuring sex worker and activist, Rachel Wotton. It reveals an entirely different attitude toward prostitution in countries such as Australia, which have legal or decriminalized prostitution. There, sex workers have organized Touching Base; a non-profit group that provides sex workers training, resources and information about disability while enabling people with disabilities to connect with trained sex workers.
I am not suggesting that all prostitutes are interested in being of service to their clients. There are all kinds of prostitutes, just as there are all kinds of people who become athletes, scientists, teachers, and police officers. But being of service certainly is a guiding principle for some people in some professions - even prostitutes. And given the wide variety of logical and even altruistic reasons for engaging in prostitution, it may be time to stop attributing all sorts of evil to the women who choose to work in prostitution.
Maybe prostitutes are, after all, people too.