A few months ago, I wandered into Chinatown with a friend on a chilly Wednesday night. The streets, which during the day bustle with pedestrians and street vendors, were bare and dreary. Since we were merely exploring the area, I suggested that we get massages if it wasn’t too late. My friend looked at his phone and told me it was almost eleven thirty. The place I frequent, a chain business that displays the following sign in every room:
No Hanky Panky
Please keep your under pant on
closes at midnight, so I said that we wouldn’t have time for a full massage. He suggested that we get arepas instead, but when we turned onto the adjacent street there was a massage parlor that- from the red lighting behind the façade- seemed not only open, but suspicious. Intrigued, I approached the building and noticed an open sign vertically placed on the lower portion of the window near the door, insinuating a purposeful mistake. As I glanced inside and scanned the interior, two eyes appeared at my level, the gaze distrustful behind the hazy glass barrier. Frazzled, I turned to leave, but a woman in a tight colorful dress and platform sandals opened the door, silently staring at me with a dejected expression. I’m unsure of what I said to her, but in my curiosity I must have asked how late the massage parlor was open, because her curt reply was that they closed at 9.30am. Saddened by her response, I let her know that we might come back and led my friend away from the red-lit building.
“I don’t want to support such a place,” I said.
He nodded in silent agreement.
There is this sentiment among North Americans that sex trafficking and the sex shops that house trafficked individuals are phenomenon that mainly occur in foreign countries. But the industry has a weighted presence in many communities here in the United States. New York City, in fact, is a hotspot for the illegal sex trade[i], and it’s not just a predominant presence in the notorious streets of Flushing, Queens[ii]. In the Manhattan Chinatown, a busy area that touches the ritzy neighborhoods of East Village, SoHo, and the Lower East Side, that hangs just above the Financial District and Wall Street, and that is located less than a ten-minute walk away from the New York State Supreme Court, massage shops selling cheap services are a ubiquitous entity to the extent that three or more parlors can exist on a single street.
Yet many of us who are not affected by or don’t take part in these services remain unaware of their overt and dense presence. I was- and still am, to an extent- one of them. I used to visit and at times sing in an area in Barcelona that was known for street prostitution, and even after I was explicitly informed of this, I failed to notice the sex work around me. This could be because- as a straight female- such a service isn’t marketed towards me. However, that night two months ago when I was wandering around Lower Manhattan, I was interested one aspect of the service being sold, and- for the first time in my recollection- became aware of the presence of a sex worker.
About two years ago, when I realized how oblivious I was to such a prevalent aspect of society, I decided to investigate into the illegal sex trade. I still remain largely unaware of the sex industry in my daily life, but what I found online and in particular conversations with individuals has lead me to conclude that sex trafficking is not only a widespread issue, but also more conspicuous than those of us who don’t take part in the industry may realize. This means that there are aspects at play that make such an illegal service overtly present, even in areas where laws are generally upheld for the average individual, such as corruption in the form of bribery or the fact that police workers and world leaders, who are mostly men with aggressive, dominating tendencies (personalities that commodified sex is marketed towards), use and benefit from the services that sex workers provide. Furthermore, individuals with the power to change the industry have remained largely unaffected by the negative consequences of the sex trade, which makes them less likely to dismantle such operations and- most importantly- the cultural means that perpetuate them.
Since men dominate the consumption of sexual services along with lead positions that make and enforce the rules of our society, less work will be taken to stop the ubiquity of sex trafficking as the industry caters to their benefit rather than their harm. Many men (although- of course- this is not only regulated to men) in power may even condone the presence of illicit sexual services, which is understandable when you realize the extent in which the industry heavily markets to individuals with their profile. But even if male sexuality is taken advantage of via marketing tactics, females still suffer to an inordinate extent, as laws, regulations, and societal biases made primarily by men and for men cause the predominately female-based workforce to face the pejorative consequences of the industry. For example, many sex workers are repeatedly arrested and degraded for their work, whereas the pimps and johns who are just as complicit in the illicit nature of the industry often experience limited retribution for their involvement. According to HG.org, one of the first online law and government websites launched in 1995, amongst the 70,000-80,000 individuals that are arrested for prostitution every year, about 70% are female prostitutes and madams, 20% are male prostitutes and pimps, and only 10% are the johns that pay for the service.[iii]
Essentially, this is the reality of the sex trade today: the supply of the service (primarily female workers) is punished but the demand (primarily male buyers) is not. Those who propose this retributive format believe that decreasing and- ideally- obliterating the supply of sold sex will cause the industry to die out. But even if you agree with the premise that punishing sex workers will lessen the supply of commodified sex and- therefore- the presence of illegal prostitution, if those who buy the service continue to do so without near impunity, and the benefits they experience from commodified sex outweigh the negatives, the service will maintain a strong demand and any worker taken away from the trade will easily be replaced.
And this delves into a main reason why there is such a numerous and overt presence of illegal sex worldwide: commodified sex is lucrative, as the demand for sex is strong and it sells well. So even if we punish pimps and johns in the same manner we punish prostitutes and escorts, the high-value of sex in our society makes it so that the service is desirable to those who have money to spend on the service and for those who want to make money through the service. Therefore, the most apt way to stop the sex trade is not only to make the general public aware of the pervasive nature of illegal sex work, but to also make sex less lucrative. But since sex is viewed as a scarce, divine, and intriguing act in modern culture, in order for us to devalue sex as a commodity we will first have to retrain our conditioning of sex as this rare act of ultimate pleasure, a mentality that the most romantic of us and the most sexually incited of us (which is a large proportion of the modern population) hold on to with tenacity.
In its base form, sex is similar to carnal desires such as eating, sleeping, drinking, and communicating, actions the majority of us- although we enjoy doing them- do not unnecessarily elevate. But sex shouldn’t be seen as utterly fantastical, or as unethical, primal, and wrong, at least until we learn to speak about sex openly, consensually, and positively so that we can develop a mature attitude towards sex rather than condone our adolescent idealization of the act into old age.
Will de-romanticizing sex actually serve to obliterate the need for illegal sex work? Perhaps to some extent. It could make sex less intriguing and therefore lessen the market value and subversive demand for such services. Regardless, sex is something that the majority of us physically desire, so the service (which is not an inherently bad or immoral service) will always have a place in human societies.
But that doesn’t mean that the oppressive, harmful, and shameful manner in which we approach sex and the sex industry can’t change.
[i] I have enclosed three free and informative YouTube videos you can watch about the sex trade in the United States:
[ii] A beautiful story about the fate of one of Flushing’s sex workers:
Barry, Dan and Jeffrey E. Singer. “The Case of Jane Doe Ponytail.” The New York Times. 16 Oct. 2018. New York Times. Web. 20 Oct. 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/10/11/nyregion/sex-workers-massage-parlor.html.