May
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Paradigm shifts and paying for sex

published at The Portland Alliance, May 2008


There’s a fascinating book by Thomas Kuhn called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn’s the guy who came up with the much-abused term “paradigm shift”, but there are good reasons why the book is famous and “paradigm shift” ascended the throne of trite progressive catchphrases.

Before we get back to the salacious topic of prostitution promised in the title, let’s get a grip on what a paradigm shift actually is according to the man who invented the phrase.

Science is assumed to be based on hard data and solid theories. However, if that were true we would not see a succession of new scientific theories replacing old ones, for example, a sun-centered universe replacing an earth-centered one. The audacious feat Kuhn accomplished was to define the specific conditions that spark ideological revolutions. According to Kuhn, revolutions in thought happen when the current frame of thinking – a paradigm – fails to effectively solve key puzzles in the problem at hand. It’s not about new data being introduced, it’s about thinking of old data in new ways.

True to Margaret Mead’s most famous axiom, paradigm shifts are begun by a small group of committed persons. Believers in the old paradigm struggle against emergent possibilities offered by revolutionaries, but the new paradigm’s ability to solve more problems than the previous one ultimately determines if a new truth replaces an old truth. As any readers who call themselves radicals can attest, these processes are heartbreakingly slow and the resistance to new ideas often results in paradigm-shifters like Charles Darwin and Susan B. Anthony getting proper due for their Promethean prognostication only posthumously.

It is 2008, and the iron is hot for striking a new paradigm on how to mitigate prostitution’s numerous harm-inflicting problems.

The old prostitution paradigm sees prostitution as a women’s problem and thusly suggests fixing women as the solution. Identifiers of the old paradigm that circles around prostituted women are: permits for prostituted women, STD & AIDS checks for women, condoms for women, panic-buttons for women, bad date lines for women, unions for women, government registries for women, “whore college” for women, etc. In my less gracious moments I call proponents of this Victorian, women-as-moral-gatekeepers attitude towards prostitution the Build a Better Whore Brigade, and in generous moods I call them sex worker rights lobbyists.

The new prostitution paradigm, conceived by the Swedish Parliament in 1999, draws prostitution’s circle around the men who economically coerce sexual consent; the johns. Identifiers of this new paradigm are: criminalizing prostitute-using men, fining johns, jailing johns, instituting educational “john schools”, and publicizing the names of men caught sexually preying on vulnerable citizens. The average age of entry into Portland prostitution is 13-years-old not because there’s a lack of adult prostitutes here, but because Portland johns frequently, willingly choose to rape 13-year-olds.

The new john-centric paradigm is needed because prostitution legalization has failed to protect children and women from men’s violence. Legalization should have resulted in decreased male violence against women, decreased sexual slavery, decreased child prostitution, decreased drug dependency, and decreased STD & AIDS. Legalization has not borne out these theorized promises in places like Germany and The Netherlands, where politicians who originally supported legalization have since changed their minds because organized criminals continue to control prostitution despite legalization.

Recent news from the Netherlands adds fuel to the growing bonfire of the legalization paradigm’s death as a third of the red light district’s brothels were shut down for failing to stop illegal trafficking into legal brothels. When a 16-year-old Ukrainian girl who had her front teeth pulled out by a pimp was discovered working legally in a German brothel, it was a horrific wake-up call on the failed promises of legalized prostitution.

The switch from the “build better prostitutes” paradigm to the “build more sexually responsible men” paradigm is the Swedish solution and that’s the basket I’m putting my eggs in, but other solutions are possible from this new perspective.

Instead of the Swedish model, tricking men could be licensed and be made to openly register with governments in countries where they use prostitutes. We could implement a 5-hour course in responsible prostitute-use similar to responsible driver or gun permit courses. We could make STD checks mandatory for every would-be john and maintain a website where men who use prostitutes can be listed so wives can know if the family food money, and her trust, is being misspent. As Eliot Spitzer just dramatically demonstrated, the Gordian Knot of prostitution is cut when johns lose their anonymity.

We need to unstick from the idea that men’s desire for sex is an immovable force of nature so uncontrollable that all we can do is “fix” prostituted women to withstand the frequent violence johns inflict. Battered wives know there’s no such thing as cooking dinner well enough to avoid getting punched or keeping the house clean enough to appease a violent man. Men’s violence is not about prostituted girls, good meals, or clean houses, it’s about communities confronting the male privilege that lets them get away with abusing prostitutes or any women. We still live in a world where the dominant paradigm blames battered women for not leaving instead of blaming men for the violence they commit.

Global feminism is in the middle of a molasses-thick revolution right now, and I’m trying to be a more patient revolutionary while waiting for the new prostitution paradigm to be realized because I trust its time has come. I’m not against legalization because I think it might someday work and prove me wrong, I do it to decrease the number of prostituted bodies piled up by the time everyone else figures out legalization doesn’t work and shifts to better solutions.

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