Alison Bass’s book Getting Screwed opens the door on sex workers and their clients in the United States. She gives readers a view of when and where and how sex work is organized, why it is still illegal in the United States, and why criminalization is a problem. She also provides the personal stories of several sex workers themselves, from history and from contemporary life. They may not be the people you think they are.
American sex work occurs in hotels ranging from the no-tell motel, to the ritziest four-star, to apartments, but in each two or more people meet for an experience that often culminates in pleasure and satisfaction (of one kind or another) for the parties involved. The sex worker earns a living for another hour or another month. He or she may have to share part of that income with a pimp or madam, but many are independent and happy, or as happy as they can be with police presence and without the kind of civil protections assumed by other American workers.
Bass observes that is not unheard of for the police to be clients themselves and to look the other way in return for sexual favors or payoffs. At their worst, the police threaten and manipulate sex workers by interfering with their personal lives, their children, or their other jobs. Like many Americans, police and lawmakers have complicated feelings and attitudes about sex. Sex is everywhere, but apparently paying for it is just going too far for some people—although that’s a gray line too, because putting a five-dollar bill in an exotic dancer’s g-string is acceptable for some groups, whereas meeting someone in a hotel room and paying for more than dancing is out of bounds.
In one of the best chapters in Getting Screwed, “From Bad Laws to Bad Cops and Violence Against Women,” Bass observes that in the Netherlands, sex workers who are victims of crime feel more free to report what has happened to the police because they will not be arrested themselves for prostitution. This has resulted in far fewer violent offenses toward sex workers compared to the United States, where people working as prostitutes do not feel that they can come forward to report such crimes.
To be fair, many people worry that sex workers are underage, exploited, or otherwise mishandled and misplaced human beings. They are concerned about sex trafficking. They worry that prostitution in their cities goes hand in hand with crime. They worry that the value of their properties goes down where the streetwalker walks, that drug addiction and other types of addiction are at the center of prostitution, and that people working in prostitution are victims who are to be pitied or saved. Of course, this is true in some cases, but it is not true of everyone.
Bass offers the story of Julie Moya as an example of someone who runs “a top-of-the-line escort business” in New York City and owns a beautiful house near a marina in Long Island, where her own luxury cruiser waits to take her out. The catch is that she works twelve hour days and only takes Sundays off, but that is her choice. It is a complicating factor, but she has the right and the self-determination to make changes if they are needed.
A further complicating factor in sex work is immigration. Bass describes a situation in which an undocumented woman from Mexico who had been doing cleaning work decided to take up sex work in order to make more money to support her family back at home. When she was taken to a shelter as part of a sting operation that resulted in arrests for the two men involved (one for trafficking and one as a john), she feared deportation and vanished before morning. Undocumented immigrants who work in the sex trade have little to no protective rights.
Finally, in order to make her general argument that legalized sex work would better protect sex workers and help to eliminate such problems as violent crimes against them, poor health care, underage sex trafficking, and police intimidation, Bass explores the workings of prostitution overseas: prostitution is forbidden and outlawed in some countries and regulated but legal in others. She makes comparisons between these countries’ actions and what occurs in America.
Bass’s writing is clearly supported by careful and thorough research from a wide variety of sources including medical and social science journals and legal documents. She identifies sex rights organizations and other resources that readers can pursue. Anyone who wants to know exactly what the circumstances of sex work in America look like would do well to begin with this comprehensive and reader-friendly book.