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Published: Sunday, 9/24/2006

Feminists fight over prostitution

For the third year, people from across the country will gather this week for the University of Toledo's national conference on prostitution.

Presentations range from the scholarly ("From preprostitution to postprostitution eras: An anthropological and psychosocial approach") to the personal ("My life as a dancer").

But a tense undercurrent will course through the meetings on Thursday and Friday, just as it did during both previous UT annual conferences:

Not everyone agrees on something as seemingly basic as the definition of prostitution.

"It's a feminist debate, and its two feminist camps believe very differently," said Celia Williamson, the UT social work professor whose longtime research into the lives of prostitutes led her to organize these conferences.

In this corner, she explained, are "the folks who believe prostitution equals exploitation - period, any way you cut it."

In the opposite corner of the ring, "the second camp [believes] women don't sell their souls, they sell sexual services. Much like a woman sells her hands for typing, a woman will sell her vagina for sex."

Both camps, Ms. Williamson said, are unyielding. They often refuse to appear together for panel discussions, and she's even heard women from both sides of the debate speak of showing up for conferences under police escort.

"Over the last decade, this side [tries] to push legislation through or something. Then the other side shows up and they try to knock it down."

At the first UT gathering, Ms. Williamson said, a round-table session seeking common ground turned into mediation: "People sat in a room and hated each other."

By now, she said, conference planning requires diplomacy to "make sure we never have a keynote speaker from one side or the other."

Robyn Few, a former exotic dancer and prostitute, is the founder of the California-based Sex Workers Outreach Project. She has spoken at each UT conference and is coming again this year, presenting the prostitution-as-empowerment outlook.

"We have women who don't believe women deserve choice over our bodies. Believe me, that puts sex-worker rights back 100 years," she argued.

And to those who insist prostitution is exploitation, Ms. Few said: "I made my choice, and it was my choice. And I know hundreds of women and men in our society who've made the same choice. We are normal, living, community-service assets to this society, and we live next door to you."

Melissa Farley is one of the nation's best-known prostitution abolitionists. While not on the UT agenda this week, her counter argument is widely embraced by those who agree that sex discrimination, poverty, and racism push women into prostitution. As Ms. Farley wrote on the Web site of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women:

"Women who 'choose' prostitution are sexually abused as kids at much higher rates than other women. Other ways that they 'choose prostitution' include poor or no education and no job that pays the rent. Prostitution is a choice based on lack of survival options."

Celia Williamson, meanwhile, still tries to bring both schools of thought together. "Our conference is an academic one, so we invite all the voices to be heard. At the beginning, I always have to say, 'You're going to hear different points of view. Be respectful.' "

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