Opinion

Opinion | Margery Eagan

No, legalized prostitution is not OK

the red light districht Amsterdam the Netherlands
Adobe
The red light district in Amsterdam.

Legalize prostitution.

I’ve heard that refrain repeatedly in the weeks since Robert Kraft was charged with soliciting it at the Orchids of Asia Day Spa.

Really?

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Is legalizing the best we can in do, in 2019, after #MeToo and Time’s Up and sex abusers finally fired from powerful jobs?

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“Ask yourself: Do you think little girls grow up wanting a career selling their bodies?” Attorney General Maura Healey asked in an interview this week.

“There’s a misconception that people chose this lifestyle and that (prostitution) is a victimless crime,” said Healey, who’s been relentless in prosecuting traffickers — not the traffickers’ victims, the prostituted women. “But we know that victims get trapped into this cycle and stay for complicated reasons. Poverty, trauma, violence, addiction, overwhelming fear, and shame.”

Talk about legalization to Darlene Pawlik or Nikki Bell, survivors of prostitution. They are horrified. Both advocate for other survivors, and Bell founded the group LIFT (Living in Freedom Together) in Central Massachusetts. Equally horrified are Donna Hughes, a leading expert on human trafficking and a professor at the University of Rhode Island, and Stephanie Clark, who runs Amirah, Inc., one of the few safe homes around here for struggling survivors.

Pawlik and Bell tell you about women being “groomed,” “exploited,” and “brainwashed,” sometimes by older family friends, when they’re 13 or 14, as Pawlik was, often living in abusive homes or foster care. They speak of girls held hostage, by fear and force, ever more dependent on drugs to dull their grim reality. “Think about the partner you love,” said Bell, “and imagine having sex with him eight to 10 times a day.” Now imagine doing that with total strangers who demand certain acts, sometimes extreme, and demand, too, a compliant response.

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Clark says many survivors end up in prison with multiple felonies. Their records make it hard to find jobs or rent apartments. Hughes describes a life with “tremendous amounts of harm,” not some gauzy fantasy where sleek college girls in yoga pants sell themselves online, briefly, for fast cash between sophomore and junior year.

Yet men who buy sex apparently are oblivious to all this. Or perhaps they just don’t want to think about it. Demand Abolition, a group committed to ending the commercial sex trade, released a study last year of 8,201 men that found that high-frequency sex buyers typically earn more than $100,000 a year, see prostitution as a “victimless” crime, and prostituted persons as women who “enjoy the act of prostitution.” They see themselves as just “guys being guys,” with “needs.”

Maybe what we really need in 2019 is not legalized prostitution but education and a massive change in attitude.

It wasn’t until the 1970s, after all, that beating your wife changed, in the law, from a “normal” part of marriage to a crime. It wasn’t until #MeToo that sexually harassing women at the water cooler might actually mean the end of harassers’ careers.

It wasn’t until Robert Kraft’s alleged stumble that we thought much about what Maura Healey also told me: that thousands of men in Greater Boston buy sex online, often via computer at work, and go off on their “dates” at lunch or on their rides home.

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How do you feel about such men now? Maybe they should be hauled off by police, have their names in the paper, exposed to their wives, neighbors, bosses, and co-workers?

As it is, unless these men are extremely unlucky, they’ll keep getting what they want from women hanging on by their fingernails. Then they’ll drive home to the leafy suburbs, lovely wives, and great kids.

Nikki Bell points out that when Robert Kraft offered his apology, he proclaimed his “extraordinary respect for women.” Then he apologized to “my family, my close friends, my co-workers, our fans, and many others who rightfully hold me to a higher standard.” Everyone, that is, save the Orchids of Asia Day Spa women. No different from teenagers trapped by a pimp, they were powerless to refuse him or any other man.

Kraft apparently forgot about these women. Or maybe he thought them unworthy of apology. Either way, that just about says it all.

Margery Eagan is cohost of WGBH’s “Boston Public Radio.” Her column appears regularly in the Globe.