By Donna Lee Schillinger
In May of this year, my kids and I had the awesome opportunity of living in an apartment in Buenos Aires for one month, half a block off of the Argentine equivalent of Manhattan’s Broadway and 34th. Our daily strolls took us past the best of Argentine theaters, countless tango venues and Buenos Aires’ famous pedestrian streets, Florida and LaValle. This would be a small thrill even for a New Yorker, but for us country folk from rural Arkansas, well, boy howdy, what a treat!
Whereas I wouldn’t have traded that month for anything, I also wasn’t sad to see it end. There were some things I just could not get used to, and one in particular was the daily barrage of pornographic images. Walking along Corrientes, Buenos Aires’ “street that never sleeps,”, light poles, walls and phone booths are plastered with mini-flyers that advertise prostitutes in various compromising poses and varying degrees of undress. Additionally, there is no standard in Buenos Aires that porn magazines should be in any way concealed, so there they are in prime shelf space on the corner newsstand, right next to the Toy Story and Mickey Mouse coloring books!
My initial reaction to having my children exposed to these images (though my three-year-old really had no idea what he was looking at), was to get red in the face – not out of anger, but embarrassment – probably the same reaction my teenager was having. After a few days, however, my embarrassment soured to irritation and my new response was to rip those flyers down, as many as I could, as I walked by, occasionally pausing at a light pole here or a phone booth there to completely clean it off.
Sometimes, on the back to our apartment, we would see the same spots covered again with new flyers, often the glue was still wet – and we knew the pimp’s (glue) gunman had to be nearby. At times, my heart beat a little faster, contemplating the possibility that the (glue) gunman might have the chutzpah to confront us, or that he might follow us and see where we were living. A couple of times, I allowed my mind to wander too far into dark fantasy and I got downright scared.
What were we doing anyway? Was this making a difference? It surely wasn’t helping the prostitutes to get a better life – if anything it was hurting their income! We might have been making life a little harder for the johns – one evening I saw a horny man walking the streets, examining closely the remnants of the flyers in frustration as he was unable to get a complete phone number off of any of them. But a determined john just need walk a block or two more to find a plethora of prostitute promos.
If there was any impact, it was probably in causing more than one Argentine man or woman to consider what might possibly be offensive about these flyers. We got very many stares from all sorts of people. Surely a few of them wondered, “Why is Mother Gringo teaching her young ones to throw away prostitute flyers?” And maybe a few even concluded that we must find them offensive. Then perhaps one went on to reflect on why such a thing might be offensive. I allowed my mind to wander along that light fantasy as well.
Mostly, it just made me and my daughter feel better to tear these things down; and so we did – every day on every walk.
I presumed prostitution must be legal in Argentina, but I wanted to research the matter just to be sure. After all, it’s hard to believe, from our American perspective, that one of the most advanced countries in South America could still be so savage. So imagine my surprise to learn that legal prostitution has nothing to do with a country’s level of development or human rights record. Among those “highly civilized” places offering legal exchange of sex for money are: every country in the North America except the United States, all of Western Europe and all but two of the poorest countries in South America (Guyana and Suriname). In fact, I was surprised to see that illegal prostitution – to my American perspective, a more enlightened stance – actually corresponds to some of the least developed countries in the world, including most of Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe (see Wikipedia’s color-coded continent maps). Isn’t it paradoxical that legalized purchase of sex – a practice that actually degrades women – correlates with greater women’s rights?
Why aren’t human and women’s rights’ activists up in arms about prostitution to the same degree they are reproductive rights (among them, the right to abortion). In fact, at HumanRightsWatch.org, a leading Web site in the field, prostitution is mostly mentioned in the context of human and women’s rights abuses as it relates to the illegal trafficking of women and girls for prostitution. It seems other countries don’t share the American thinking on prostitution as a rather savage and degrading practice. In fact, in 2005, under “intense pressure from an international coalition of organizations,” the United States rescinded a position requiring countries that receive HIV/AIDS relief from the US to adopt policies opposing prostitution. Touted as a great victory, HumanRightsWatch.org said they have worked to combat discrimination and violence against sex workers, implying that the US’s position would heighten hostilities against sex workers and make it harder for them to access HIV/AIDs treatment and prevention.
How about, instead, working hard to combat one of the root problems of the HIV/AIDs pandemic in Sub-Saharan Africa – prostitution? Human Rights Watch’s position makes about as much sense to me as saying we should work hard to dress poor people in nice clothes so they won’t be ashamed of being poor. The root problem here is not discrimination against sex workers, it is the fact that there are sex workers at all! They should be working hard to combat people – mostly women – making a living off of selling their bodies and souls! Is this position not tenable in NGO circles while all of “cool” Europe gleefully engages in legal exchange of sex for money?
It would be oversimplifying things to say that this is all a result of unchecked testosterone – that women don’t have the legal, political or social clout to change things. In fact, in some of these very countries where prostitution is legal, women head the governments. It would also be oversimplifying things to say that making prostitution illegal would put an end to it in the near future. In fact, it is rampant in our own country, despite the prohibition. But shouldn’t it be illegal anyway? Isn’t making something illegal often the first step to social change? The law to abolish slavery certainly preceded the end of slavery by a substantial margin, and it preceded the end to systemized discrimination by almost a century; but the fact of the matter is that it worked. I bet it was also controversial when the first pagan congress entertained putting an end to human sacrifice. I can just imagine the clamor it must have caused: “Oh, that will never work! The gods will always have an appetite for human flesh!”
As Christians, we can hardly support anything but the total abolition of prostitution. (If you really need some scriptural references to support this statement – please, message me, or just randomly open the New Testament.) Even people who cannot see moral grounds for opposing prostitution should be opposed from a public health standpoint. Sure, there will be this awkward, if not extremely difficult economic transition for women as they find other vocations, but hey, there were also a lot of slaves out of work at the end of the Civil War, and I bet not one of their descendants looks back now in resentment that great-great-grandpa went without work for a while. Future generations have acknowledged their sacrifice and all the world is better off because of it.
I know that there’s a lot wrong in the world today, but there has also been a lot of improvement in the general human mentality. We got rid of that nasty human sacrifice thing; we now acknowledge people’s humanity, for goodness sake, whereas there was a time when some of us thought others weren’t even the same species! Women and children have tons more rights than they used to and even animals have some now! The light and salt of this world has made an impact, and we must continue to do so. And yet there are so many targets for change – what can possibly be done? For starters, how about ripping down that offensive image of a woman right in front of your face?
By Donna Lee Schillinger