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Patt Morrison: Prostitution – it isn’t ‘Pretty Woman’

It stands to reason that if someone under 18 can’t legally consent to sex, then that same someone also can’t be arrested for prostitution, right? Oh so wrong.

The paradox of such prosecutions has engendered the “No such thing as a child prostitute” national campaign, which has taken hold in Los Angeles. L.A. County is now considering how to punish “johns” caught paying children for sex.

But San Francisco psychologist and researcher Melissa Farley has for more than two decades been more concerned about the prostitutes themselves: Rescuing them; rehabilitating them; and getting politicians and prosecutors to agree that even when it comes to adults, they aren’t criminals but victims. This interview has been condensed and edited.

Q: What brought you to this cause?

A: Twenty-something years ago, when the San Francisco task force on prostitution was looking at laws, I was a psychologist at Kaiser and was asked to write a letter because people knew I cared about violence against women, against prostitutes who tragically were still considered unrapeable or worth less than the rest of us women.

I interviewed 130 women and transgenders and men and kids in prostitution, finding out the stunning violence they experienced. That expanded to a study of prostitution in nine countries. I have spent the last 20 years talking to a huge number of survivors of this crime. My focus was to give voices to people who are virtually never heard.

Q: Some law enforcement leaders, like Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, have ordered that underage prostitutes be treated like victims, not like criminals.

A: In California and in Texas, it’s been amazing to see law enforcement officials stopping the prejudice about women in prostitution. I visited a team in Dallas working with the police to offer women alternatives to arrest, like drug and alcohol treatment, interventions, housing; it was truly remarkable. It’s more like drug-diversion courts where, rather than arrest, arrest, arrest, you offer alternatives.

In California, some wonderful police are working to educate first responders; what’s changing is that instead of being treated like a criminal, the person is being treated like a victim of a transaction that is abusive, exploitative and frequently very violent. Prostitution is not a choice; it’s a last-ditch survival alternative for kids and adults. Kids being sexually assaulted for money and then treated as criminals is sickening to me.

Q: What you describe are enforcement choices. Have the laws themselves changed?

A: When it comes to trafficking and prostitution, laws in the United States are sometimes all over the place. Laws often come way behind educated public opinion. The Swedes changed their law after 20 years of public education. Sweden passed a law that says women in prostitution are decriminalized – no arrests. Men who buy sex are arrested.

Q: We sympathize with Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, an abused orphan taken off the streets and turned into a young criminal. Girls in the same situation now are lured into prostitution.

A: Poverty is a driving factor in prostitution. Homelessness of children is an extremely high risk factor. We don’t provide shelter for runaway youth – and what are they usually running away from? Some kind of abusive home environment, where they’re getting beaten up, where there’s some kind of addiction, where parents are not watching out for kids, or kids are sexually abused. So they’re already traumatized, and who reaches out a helping hand? Pimps.

Q: How are entertainment and social media affecting sexual attitudes and perceptions of prostitution?

A: There’s a lot of pornography available, especially to children. I’m talking about sixth- and seventh-grade boys watching cellphone images of women enjoying being abused, hurt and humiliated. It’s not Playboy of the 1970s.

Q: Underage girls send nude photos of themselves to boys, too.

A: In some ways girls are being taught that sex is like prostitution. They look at online escort ads or read something like the 2005 article in Marie Claire magazine saying, “Prostitution gives me power.” I cannot tell you how many kids I’ve heard say, “I saw ‘Pretty Woman’; it looks pretty good to me.”

Q: What do you think the laws should be?

A: Decriminalize the women in prostitution, criminalize the buyers and the pimps. Put serious money into helping women get out and stay out. Provide support: housing, drug, alcohol treatment, mental health resources, appropriate vocational training. You don’t want to send her out to a McDonald’s where she’s not going to be able to make enough to support two kids.

Patt Morrison is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Write to her at patt.morrison@latimes.com or on Twitter: @pattmlatimes.