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Studying Sex With the Professionals

Research: CSUN center co-sponsors gathering for scholars and prostitutes.

March 12, 1997|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VAN NUYS — In an unprecedented gathering expected to draw 400 participants from around the world, the ivory tower will meet the bordello at the first International Conference on Prostitution, starting tomorrow at the Airtel Plaza Hotel.

Sociologists will rub elbows with porn stars. And instead of the usual coffee-and-cookies reception, the meetings will open with a self-styled "Whore Carnival: A Festival of Sexual and Social Insurrection," hosted by X-rated performers Annie Sprinkle and Scarlot Harlot.

Co-sponsored by the Center for Sex Research at Cal State Northridge and COYOTE Los Angeles, a prostitutes' rights group, the conference will bring together academics and prostitutes and their supporters. Over four days, they will discuss everything from whether prostitution should be decriminalized to religious aspects of sex work and the threat of the AIDS virus, according to event co-chairman James E. Elias.

The gathering will also be the latest in a series of conferences on sex-related topics sponsored by the Northridge center, which keeps a low profile but has an international reputation for research on sexuality.

The presence of sex-work celebrities such as Xaviera Hollander, known as the Happy Hooker, and Sydney Biddle Barrows, the Mayflower Madam, will attract most of the media attention. But the seriousness of the gathering is underscored by the presence of such mainstream speakers as Dr. Joycelyn Elders, former surgeon general of the United States, who is scheduled to speak at a Saturday luncheon.

Why devote so much time and effort to a subject that many people regard as simply sleazy? "One reason is simply to understand a phenomenon that is so persistent," said co-organizer Vern L. Bullough, founder of the Northridge center and author of two books on the subject. "Prostitution has existed in almost all cultures and at all times."

Millions of women and men around the world trade sex for money. Adult prostitution is illegal in most of the U.S. and a capital crime in some Islamic states. In fact, each participant's packet of conference materials will contain the warning: "California laws regarding prostitution are so strict that you can be arrested by the police if they believe you 'intend to commit' prostitution."

But it is legal in the Netherlands, Belgium and several other European countries, and there are no laws against it in many parts of the developing world, including much of sub-Saharan Africa, according to Cheryl Overs, a sex-workers advocate and conference participant.

"It's a behavior, rather than an identity, in many countries," Overs said.

For serious sex researchers such as Elias, the conference will offer an opportunity to get instant feedback from a community that is often scrutinized but rarely heard. Thus, a panel on johns, as prostitutes often call their clients, will include a scholarly paper, "The Social and Sexual Characteristics of Men Who Have Paid for Sex." But it will also feature the comments of a john from New Jersey.

Much of the program will consist of scholarly presentations. At one session, UCLA historian Kathryn Norberg will analyze notebooks kept by a Parisian madam between 1751 and 1757. "She was like an 18th century Heidi Fleiss," Norberg said.

In order to keep her high-class brothel open, the madam supplied information to the police about who her customers were, what they were saying about the king and any criminal activity she heard about.

At the same session on prostitution's place in history, Mary Elizabeth Perry, a historian at Occidental College in Eagle Rock, will read her paper on "Throwaway Women and the Politics of Sexual Commerce in Golden Age Spain."

The paper deals with an inquiry by the Spanish Inquisition into the death of a young woman in 16th century Spain who died when a man threw a rock at her as she sang in a Seville street with a group of her friends. Accused of murder, the man first denied it, then argued, "What does it matter? She was only a prostitute."

The woman's mother and her friends ultimately persuaded the Inquisition of the man's guilt, and he was fined. In fact, the woman and her friends probably were prostitutes, Perry said, pointing to such circumstantial evidence as their lack of husbands or other visible means of support.

Even today, Perry said, women, and especially sex workers, are often seen as disposable, to be thrown away after use. In Perry's view, the response of the woman's friends is an example of the kind of community action that continues to bring about change. "She would never have been exonerated if her friends and her mother hadn't fought so this man would be brought to justice."

Philosopher Laurie Shrage is another academic who sees the merit of sharing the podium with prostitutes and their advocates. Chairwoman of the philosophy department at Cal Poly Pomona, Shrage will moderate a panel on decriminalization, a major goal of COYOTE--the acronym for Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics.

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