Prostitution and pornography: Scholars and anti-porn advocates say they're the 'same thing'

Published: Tuesday, July 9 2013 11:30 a.m. MDT

Those who view pornography don’t consider themselves "johns," or men who buy sex, because so often they're not paying for anything and as one addict put it, "I'm walking through a museum, looking at stuff that's already there."

But even walking through that "museum" is supporting an industry that thrives on the objectification and degradation of women, says Jen Cecil, director of After Hours Ministry, a nonprofit outreach program aimed at men and women involved in prostitution in Los Angeles.

"There's not a huge difference in what (porn stars and prostitutes) experience," she said. "They're still getting paid for sex. They're still being demoralized. The abuse runs across both."

Yet in one sense, pornography may actually be worse than prostitution, says Cecil.

"The (viewer) has no interaction with her. He really sees her as just an object," she says. "There's zero concern for the fact that she's a real person, or the (factors) that have brought her there."

Cecil also believes that individuals can become addicted to pornography, and once that happens, they need more to excite them and begin acting out by visiting strip clubs or hiring prostitutes — thus making pornography the catalyst for greater promiscuous behavior.

It's impossible to say definitively that watching pornography causes prostitution use, but it's definitely "part of a cluster of variables that are connected with men's assumption that they are entitled to use women sexually whenever they want," says Melissa Farley, a research and clinical psychologist at Prostitution Research & Education, a nonprofit California-based organization dedicated to research and education surrounding trafficking and prostitution.

Farley and several co-authors studied 110 men who bought sex in Scotland and found that they were more likely than non-sex-buying men to have viewed pornography and to have committed sexual aggression against non-prostituting women.

"Pornography teaches men how to be johns," Farley says. "Pornography is cultural propaganda, which drives home the notion that women are prostitutes. Pornography is pictures of prostitution."

So if prostitution is so problematic, why do women choose it?

"If your kids are hungry and you're trying to feed them, that's not a choice," Farley says. "If a woman doesn't have a place to live because she's escaping a violent boyfriend and it's 10 degrees outside and the only people who offer her a place for the night are pimps and johns who expect sex in exchange for shelter and food. We have women who are prostituting for a tank of gas or cheeseburgers. It's not a choice in the way you and I think of choices. If you look at the data, the people with the least choices in the world are the ones in prostitution."

One man Farley interviewed was a non-sex buyer and described prostitution this way:

"On the face of it, the prostitute is agreeing to it. But deeper down, you can see that life circumstances have kind of forced her into that. It's like someone jumping from a burning building — you could say they made their choice to jump, but you could also say they had no choice."

Which is why arresting a woman for prostitution does nothing to fix the prostitution problem, says Cecil, it only creates more emotional baggage and entangles her in the legal system.

Cecil applauds a recent change to California laws, Proposition 35, that increases the penalties on convicted sex traffickers, requires that convicted sex traffickers register as sex offenders, and mandates law enforcement training on human trafficking.

Several Scandinavian countries have adopted the "Nordic Model," which criminalizes johns rather than prostitutes, conducts large public awareness campaigns about the laws and provides exit services to the men and women who need help getting out.

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