Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Girls on Film: Happy Endings? is an Important Contribution to the Prostitution Debate

Rhode Island, in its time, has been known for many important and influential industries: slave importation, textiles, jewelry. In our time, another industry has gained considerable prominence, and attracted considerable controversy: the Asian massage parlor (AMP) industry. The undisputed truth is that the act of prostitution, when carried out behind closed doors, is 100% legal in the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. 'Happy Endings?', directed by first-time documentary filmmaker Tara Hurley, is a compelling document that adds real data points to a debate that has been, at best, opaque.

The bulk of the film revolves around an unnamed spa, run by pseudonymous 'Heather', a Korean immigrant, and 'Chris', her elephantine American husband. Two sex workers, 'Jen' and 'Danielle', are also prominently featured. Hurley and cinematographer Nick Marcoux also managed to obtain interviews with important figures in the prostitution debate, from Providence Mayor David Cicilline to Joanne Gianinni, a state representative who perennially introduces bills that would close the purported “loophole” in state law that keeps indoor prostitution legal.

There is a lot of material here, and even after several viewings and a viewing of the excellent and enlightening audio commentary (worth the price of the DVD alone), I'm not sure that I've picked up 100% of the knowledge to be found in this film. The filmmakers take great pains to avoid inserting their opinions, though it is fairly clear that Hurley, at least, shares my impression that these girls are doing no great wrong and are being unjustly targeted by police and politicians for doing something legal yet socially unacceptable. But how can this be so? Isn't the debate about the AMP industry about human trafficking, sex slavery, and coercion?

It sure seems that way. The filmmakers begin their dissection of the politics of prostitution with an analysis of the word that I put in scare quotes above, that is the nefarious “loophole”. The use of this word would suggest that current law is simply worded in a way that inadvertently criminalizes only outdoor prostitution, while accidentally legalizing indoor prostitution. In fact, the myth of the “loophole” is so endemic to the AMP debate that it's even used on a Happy Endings? promotional postcard. Actually, though the law as it is, was set in 1980, when the General Assembly amended the prostitution statutes, leaving only street prostitution illegal. This was done in response to a lawsuit brought by COYOTE, a sex workers' rights activist group. The 1976 suit, COYOTE v. Roberts, alleged that Rhode Island prostitution law was so broad that even consensual sex not done for money could be prosecuted. The 1980 bill turned prostitution from a felony to a misdemeanor, and decriminalized the act entirely when done indoors.

And how did that work out? Well, at this particular spa, it seems to have turned out rather well. By the testimony of Providence Phoenix advertising agent Ginny Hall, who deals directly with the spas that advertise in the notorious Phoenix Adult section, “the girls are clean” and never give any hint that they are being coerced, held against their will, or are having their earnings withheld from them. In fact, it is alluded to (though not directly said as a rule) that it is quite possible for a woman to make well over $200,000 per year in a Rhode Island spa.

This leads me to the first great fault of 'Happy Endings?': a sometimes annoying, sometimes critical lack of clarity. It is shown in interviews that Rhode Island's law is meant to keep prostitutes off the streets, and that this was set in the wake of COYOTE v. Roberts, but the history of that case, the social context leading to it, and the immediate results are left up to the imagination. So is the near-term response to it by the General Assembly. It is never said outright what a girl could take home financially from a career in a spa. 'Chris' and 'Heather''s relationship is only clear on the second or (more likely) third viewing, even if you've been taking notes. I will attribute these errors to the fact that it is Hurley and Marcoux' first documentary, but they are flaws nonetheless. I think a bit more history and context could have given policy wonks (like yours truly) even more to chew on, as we weigh out the issues and consequences. That said, almost all contextual information can be found online, with a concise history of the issue to be found on Wikipedia.

Regardless, the documentary provides some important insights into the psyches of all sides of the prostitution equation: the politicians (particularly Mayor Cicilline), the sex workers ('Jen' and 'Danielle'), the management ('Heather' and 'Chris'), and the johns ('Chris', as well). An important insight of Hurley's in the (again, essential) audio commentary is that everyone profits from the prostitution status quo. The sex workers profit (literally), the johns find gratification, management profits (literally), the police get something to do (and clearly some gratification as well) and the politicians earn political points from posturing on the issue, particularly the Mayor, who has been made to look like quite the charlatan: a gay former ACLU lawyer cracking down on a legal act between consenting adults that the ACLU, represented in the film by RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown, vehemently defends. The police, well, the police bully some small women, ignore the johns, and receive the services that the women provide, ostensibly to collect “evidence” against them.

In fact, the police response is one of the most striking elements of the film. In one major segment, 'Heather's' spa is raided by Providence's Finest, who roll in with ('Jen's' words) “10 or 15 big men”, who detain the girls and bring them to be interrogated by police for approximately two hours. The women report policemen “checking in” periodically on targeted spas. Raids are executed which result in fire or health citations, prosecutions for giving a massage without a license. The police are clearly very aggressive in their efforts to find something to prosecute these spas for. 'Jen' describes a situation where she is patronized by an undercover policemen who gets her to consent to sex during a massage. As she begins the act, he runs off, ostensibly to report that he has evidence to use against them, now knowing that prostitution takes place there, even though it is legal, and can't result in a prosecution.

A cynical game, not altogether different from what one would expect to find in a state as (politely) dysfunctional as Rhode Island.

So where do we go from here? 'Happy Endings?' does not make this clear, but not because it wasn't trying. My best guess is that the Kabuki dance continues, a never-ending con that preys on criminally innocent (though debatably morally guilty, if that's your thing) women and blames them for preying on men, fails to recognize the essential economic truth that demand creates supply, and rewards cynical politicians and journalists for misrepresenting what should be a basic reading of the law.

And yet the law does not change, at least not enough to change anything. Covered within the scope of the film are the attempts of two lawmakers, Senator Rhoda Perry and Representative Joanne Giannini, who both have bills that will criminalize or recriminalize elements of what goes on (and what is believed to go on) in Rhode Island AMP spas. Perry's bill criminalizes human trafficking and sex slavery, which I believe are or should be illegal at one level or another. This bill passes, at the end of the film, and is signed by Governor Carcieri, becoming state law. Giannini's bill, a more ambitious measure that would “close the loophole” by recriminalizing indoor prostitution and imposing equal punitive measures on sex workers and johns. This bill fails to pass through committee, and in fact is lampooned by a well-edited sequence of bill opponents testifying against the measure in a hearing.

So what changed? Well, according to Hurley in a question I asked at an early showing of the film on 6 June, basically nothing. The Human Trafficking measure has not led to any prosecutions since its 2007 passage. I would imagine that the police, who so zealously pursue our state's legal sex workers for fire code violations and failure to possess massage licenses, and do so by having sex with them, would have been hard at work collecting damning evidence against actual instances of sex slavery taking place in Rhode Island, the kind of brutality condemned at a meeting of the National Council of Jewish Women, a conference of activists (taking place conveniently the day after 'Heather's' spa is raided) condemning the sex slavery that undoubtedly occurred in Rhode Island, featuring the Mayor himself.

Again, a cynical game. A dishonest debate. A spectacle rather than a resolution. Wherever the debate goes from here, thanks to Tara Hurley and Nick Marcoux for contributing some new data for us all to chew on. Keep up the good work!

Order a copy
of Happy Endings? on its website.

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