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What a U.S. military prostitution ring tells us about workers' rights

Based out of Dallas, Texas, Mary McCoy is a writer and social worker for disenfranchised women and children. She's a single mom, lover of Texas barbecue, and a die-hard fan of yoga

Lurking in plain sight

Sergeant First Class Gregory McQueen faces continued military court testimony about his role in recruiting young female soldiers into a prostitution ring in Fort Hood, Texas. What's shocking about this story isn't that it happened. Rather, it's that our female soldiers feel so cash-strapped that prostitution became a viable option in the first place.

Female soldier

Photo credit: Todd Headington/iStock/360/Getty Images

McQueen, who served as an Army sexual assault prevention non-commissioned officer, faces multiple charges, including pandering, adultery and sexual assault. He allegedly groomed young, broke female soldiers into his prostitution ring, and pimped them to male soldiers for $100 per sexual encounter.

So how is it that we live in a society in which our soldiers feel pressure to work as prostitutes to make financial ends meet?

The role of poverty in prostitution

When I first heard this story, I was disheartened but not terribly surprised. The female experience of poverty is a major predictor of entry into prostitution. In fact, in their book Backstreets: Prostitution, Money and Love, prostitution experts Hoigard and Finstad say, "Money is the reason for prostitution. We know of no woman who prostitutes for any reason other than money." According to research published in Issues in Mental Health Nursing, economic instability both pushes women into prostitution and keeps them there. Finally, a National Institute of Justice summary is clear that most women in prostitution continue turning tricks because they see no other way to make ends meet and keep a roof over their heads.

While McQueen's betrayal and abuse of power is egregious, his methods are as time-tested as the oldest profession itself. He is being accused of what all pimps do — recruit young and vulnerable women who perceive few reasonable options to pay their obligations.

A look at the living wage

Visit the Go Army website, and the subjective feelings of impoverishment become a lot more objective. Our nation's lowest-ranking soldiers earn roughly $18,000 per year, not including variable allowances. If you do the math, this comes out to about $9 per hour for extremely challenging, stressful and sacrificial work. It may meet minimum wage requirements, but $9 per hour doesn't seem like a fair wage for our soldiers. If any of the young soldiers lured into prostitution earned this rate of pay — particularly if they have children or other financial obligations — it makes perfect sense that they'd need extra cash to meet their needs.

As a social worker, I've seen what happens when women must work a low-wage job. They bring home $1,500 per month in income, and have to pay $1,000 of it to a daycare provider. Never mind food, rent and clothing.

Some might argue it's appalling that our women soldiers succumbed to this but if you had less education, less income, less support—and, most importantly, less hope that your financial status was only temporary — would prostitution really be off the table as a financial choice?

More about women's rights

#Yesallwomen: The scary truth about the bad thoughts of our best men
Hawaii police officers allowed to have sex with prostitutes, until now
This mom thinks the only thing you should "lean in" to is marrying smart

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