ABC's 20/20 News Magazine
A Showcase for Prostitutes' Rights

Comes Naturally
by David Steinberg
A Showcase for Prostitutes' Rights

A realistic and journalistic step forward in changing public attitudes toward prostitution is evidenced in the "Sex for Sale" segment of ABC's news magazine, 20/20 on June 27th. Produced for 20/20 by Mark Golden, who seems to have known exactly what he wanted to say and how to say it, and featuring 20/20 correspondent John Stossel, the show featured a long list of articulate prostitute rights activists and all but endorsed decriminalization of prostitution as an effective alternative to the classic approach of judicial punishment.

Touted as "a provocative report that could change your mind about 'sex for sale,'" 20/20 offered an unusually straightforward opportunity for advocates of decriminalization to present their case, including Norma Jean Almodovar (organizer of the recent International Congress on Prostitution and leading figure in COYOTE's Los Angeles chapter), former San Jose Chief of Police Joe McNamara, San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan, brothel owners Jillian Bradley and Dennis Hoff, outspoken client advocates Hugh Loebner and Joe Lavezzo, and San Francisco COYOTE member Veronica Monet. The role of token spokesperson for the classic punishment/morality/degradation/decline of civilized society case was, appropriately enough, handed to Utah's conservative Republican Senator Orrin Hatch.

Photo: Prostitution activist and author of Cop to Call Girl  Norma Jean Almodovar

Prostitution "denigrates marriage," Hatch predictably asserted. "It denigrates courtship. It denigrates families. It denigrates young women. There are things in this life that are right to do and there are things that are wrong to do. A good society is one that stands for moral principles."

Ah, yes. But as correspondent John Stossel immediately pointed out, "increasingly another viewpoint is being heard. Prostitutes are saying what they do with their bodies is none of our business." It's a line straight out of "My Body," the theme song from The Life.

Veronica Monet presents the basic case of a woman's right to do with her body as she chooses, as long as she isn't hurting anyone. "If I can have the right to have an abortion... I can have the right [to make sexual decisions] about my body," including what Stossel describes as "the right to exploit [her] body for monetary gain." As Stossel pointedly notes, "Football players do it. Boxers do it. Why can't a prostitute?"

Answering the argument from feminists (and from Orrin Hatch) that prostitution is degrading to women, Norma Jean Almodovar notes that not very many women "would choose to scrub toilets for a living. Nevertheless, because a lot of people might think that's degrading, we don't put them in jail."

The San Francisco Task Force on Prostitution's recommendation for decriminalization is noted as an example of prostitutes getting "some support in surprising places." District Attorney Hallinan and former Police Chief McNamara add the legitimacy of the criminal justice establishment to the case, arguing that the criminalization of prostitution creates more problems than it solves. "What we're doing now," says McNamara, "is worse than prostitution. It drives up the profits. It drives up the potential for corruption. It invites violence.... We can never stop this. It's a consensual transaction between two people. It's not a crime like robbery or stealing or assault or rape. We're diverting a lot of resources going through the motions of trying to almost fool the public into thinking that we're doing something about these problems when, in fact, we're not."

Turning to the issues of violence and drugs so often associated with prostitution, Stossel assigns responsibility for these problems not to prostitution itself but to its criminalization, "because the law drives prostitution underground, into the criminal world, where everyone's hiding from the police.... Such problems occur much less often where sex for money is legal." Legalized prostitution in Nevada and Holland are presented as positive alternatives that "eliminates the exploitation of the ladies" and promotes safe sex as well. "Here we see a doctor," says one prostitute at Dennis Hoff's Bunny Ranch. "Out there, who knows who has what and if they're really using safe sex."

Of course there are the familiarly seedy shots of street prostitutes in skimpy clothing soliciting guys in cars. But 20/20 points out that, even by police estimates, street prostitution constitutes only a small percentage of the larger "sex for sale" picture and pays attention to indoor prostitution as well. Camera crew and audience are taken on a tour of a distinctly pleasant, upscale "five-story multilelvel townhouse" in a well-to-do neighborhood owned by cheerful and unapologetic Jillian Bradley. The receptionist at the door is Bradley's daughter. What could be more wholesome?

When Stossel, playing devil's advocate, accuses Bradley of "contributing to the decline of America" by selling sex, Bradley pauses a moment before smiling and answering quietly, "that's ridiculous. Sex has been around forever and prostitution has been around forever." And when Hatch himself asserts that "if something is made legal it means society has basically approved of it," Stossel pulls him up short, noting curtly that "we allow smoking cigarettes. We don't approve of that."

Photo: Prostitution activist Veronica Monet

"Let's give women their sexuality any way they want it," says Veronica Monet. "If people want to exchange money, housing, marriage licenses, wedding rings... fine. As long as two consenting adults have decided, 'This works great for me.'"

The segment concludes with Stossel and 20/20 host Hugh Downs summarizing the issue in heart-to-heart conversation. "You want strong laws against crimes that hurt people," Stossel says, "murder, assault robbery. But these are people who willingly do this."

"Are consensual crimes really crimes [at all]?" Downs wonders.

"And are laws against them causing more harm than good," Stossel adds. "Just because we don't like something doesn't mean we can make it go away with a law."

"No," Downs concludes, "I think that's been proved many times."

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