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Opinion: Behind the myth of the "happy hooker"

In order to stem the trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and children, we need to address the root of the problem: the men.

According to a 2008 study by the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, the majority of men who buy prostitutes do so in order to obtain sex they are uncomfortable asking for. As one interviewee put it, “I want to pay someone to do something a normal person wouldn’t do. To piss on someone or pay someone to do something degrading.” The same study revealed that johns subscribe to a tremendous amount of denial — 87 percent thought women choose prostitution, “just like any job,” and 64 percent believed that the women they bought were sexually satisfied by the encounter.

Though corresponding data isn't easily accessible in Eastern Europe, it is widely assumed by experts that men in most countries share the same beliefs. Research suggests that in most countries men buy women with impunity. For example, Victor Malarek, in his recent book "The Johns," cites numerous international studies that estimate that approximately 70 percent of men in southeast Asia and Japan buy sex; and between 19 and 39 percent of European men regularly buy sex depending on the country.

And yet, the vast majority of women worldwide who engage in prostitution endure extreme abuse and violence, ranging from being raped to being kicked while pregnant or being choked with wire. Many prostitutes interviewed in a U.S. nationwide survey in 2004 said they had been punched, burned with cigarettes, hit with baseball bats and had their heads slammed into walls and floors, or held underwater in the toilet. That same survey revealed that 64 percent of women suffered permanent disabilities as a result of beatings and 33 percent had sodomy forced upon them. A 2006 British study held similar findings — 80 percent reported being “severely” beaten and 90 percent were forced into engaging in sexual acts they refused to perform.

If we are to really address the horror of the buying, selling and trafficking of human beings for sexual exploitation, then we must make efforts to stop the demand by making the buying of sex a crime with harsh penalties. At the same time, the selling of sex should be decriminalized so that the women, who are already victims, are not further abused by the penal and immigration systems. (Legalization of prostitution only exacerbates slavery — human trafficking flourishes where prostitution is legal.) It is time we recognize that the commodification of women and children is a nefarious form of sexual violence and stop pretending that it is benign.

Prostitution is rarely a free choice and it is never a preferred career path. Behind the myth of the “happy hooker,” hides a horrific human rights abuse.

Kate Transchel is a professor of Russian and Eastern European history at California State University in Chico, California. She is currently working on a monograph entitled, "Hidden in Plain Sight: An Oral History of Slavery from Russia and Eastern Europe."