Feminist views on prostitution
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As with many issues within the feminist movement, there exists a diversity of feminist views on prostitution. Many of these positions can be loosely arranged into an overarching standpoint that is generally either critical or supportive of prostitution and sex work.
Anti-prostitution feminists hold that prostitution is a form of exploitation of women and male dominance over women, and a practice which is the result of the existing patriarchal societal order. These feminists argue that prostitution has a very negative effect, both on the prostitutes themselves and on society as a whole, as it reinforces stereotypical views about women, who are seen as sex objects which can be used and abused by men.
Other feminists hold that prostitution and other forms of sex work can be valid choices for women and men who choose to engage in it. In this view, prostitution must be differentiated from forced prostitution, and feminists should support sex worker activism against abuses by both the sex industry and the legal system.
The disagreement between these two feminist stances has proven particularly contentious, and may be comparable to the feminist sex wars (acrimonious debates on sex issues) of the late twentieth century.
Newman and White in Women, Politics and Public Policy argue that feminist perspectives on prostitution agree on three main points: “First, they condemn the current legal policy enforcing criminal sanctions against women who offer sex in exchange for money. Second, they agree that authentic consent is the sine quo non of legitimate sex, whether in commercial or non-commercial form. Third, all feminists recognize that commercial sex workers are subject to economic coercion and are often victims of violence, and that little is done to address these problems.”
They go on to identify three main feminist views on the issue of prostitution. The sex work perspective, the abolitionist perspective and the outlaw perspective. The sex work perspective maintains that prostitution is a legitimate form of work for women faced with the option of other bad jobs, therefore women ought to have the right to work in the sex trade free of prosecution or the fear of it. The sex work perspective also argues that governments should eliminate laws that criminalize voluntary prostitution. This, the sex work perspective asserts, will allow prostitution to be regulated by governments and business codes, protect sex trade workers, and improve the ability prosecute people who hurt them. The Abolitionist perspective holds that governments should work towards the elimination of prostitution. The Outlaw Perspective views work in the sex trade as a “stepping stone to a better career or an expression of sexual freedom”.
- 1 Arguments against prostitution
- 2 Pro-sex worker perspectives
- 3 Other perspectives
- 4 See also
- 5 References
- 6 Further reading
- 7 External links
Arguments against prostitution
A proportion of feminists are strongly opposed to prostitution, as they see the practice as a form of violence against women, which should not be tolerated by society. Feminists who hold such views on prostitution include Kathleen Barry, Melissa Farley, Julie Bindel, Sheila Jeffreys, Catharine MacKinnon and Laura Lederer. Their arguments against prostitution are explained and detailed below.
Coercion and poverty
These feminists do argue that, in most cases, prostitution is not a conscious and calculated choice. They say that most women who become prostitutes do so because they were forced or coerced by a pimp or by human trafficking, or, when it is an independent decision, it is generally the result of extreme poverty and lack of opportunity, or of serious underlying problems, such as drug addiction, past trauma (such as child sexual abuse) and other unfortunate circumstances.
These feminists point out that women from the lowest socioeconomic classes—impoverished women, women with a low level of education, women from the most disadvantaged racial and ethnic minorities—are overrepresented in prostitution all over the world. "If prostitution is a free choice, why are the women with the fewest choices the ones most often found doing it?". A large percentage of prostitutes polled in one study of 475 people involved in prostitution reported that they were in a difficult period of their lives and most wanted to leave the occupation. Catharine MacKinnon argues that "In prostitution, women have sex with men they would never otherwise have sex with. The money thus acts as a form of force, not as a measure of consent. It acts like physical force does in rape."
Some anti-prostitution scholars hold that true consent in prostitution is not possible. Barbara Sullivan says, "In the academic literature on prostitution there are very few authors who argue that valid consent to prostitution is possible. Most suggest that consent to prostitution is impossible or at least unlikely.". "(...) most authors suggest that consent to prostitution is deeply problematic if not impossible (...) most authors have argued that consent to prostitution is impossible. For radical feminists this is because prostitution is always a coercive sexual practice. Others simply suggest that economic coercion makes the sexual consent of sex workers highly problematic if not impossible...".
Finally, abolitionists believe no person can be said to truly consent to their own oppression and no people should have the right to consent to the oppression of others. In the words of Kathleen Barry, consent is not a “good divining rod as to the existence of oppression, and consent to violation is a fact of oppression. Oppression cannot effectively be gauged according to the degree of “consent,” since even in slavery there was some consent, if consent is defined as inability to see, or feel any alternative.”
Long-term effects on the prostitutes
Anti-prostitution feminists argue that prostitution is a practice which leads to serious negative long-term effects for the prostitutes, such as trauma, stress, depression, anxiety, self medication through alcohol and drug use, eating disorders and a greater risk for self harm and suicide, as they say prostitution is an exploitative practice, which involves a woman who has sex with customers to whom she is not attracted, and which also routinely exposes the women to psychological, physical and sexual violence.
Andrea Dworkin stated her opinions as: "Prostitution in and of itself is an abuse of a woman's body. Those of us who say this are accused of being simple-minded. But prostitution is very simple. (…) In prostitution, no woman stays whole. It is impossible to use a human body in the way women's bodies are used in prostitution and to have a whole human being at the end of it, or in the middle of it, or close to the beginning of it. It's impossible. And no woman gets whole again later, after.”
Male dominance over women
Anti-prostitution feminists are extremely critical of sex-positive perspectives, wherein prostitution by choice is said to be part of the sexual liberation of women, that it can be “empowering” for women, etc. Some feminists who oppose prostitution agree that sexual liberation for women outside of prostitution is important in the fight for gender equality, but they say it is crucial that society does not replace one patriarchal view on female sexuality - e.g., that women should not have sex outside marriage/a relationship and that casual sex is shameful for a woman, etc. - with another similarly oppressive and patriarchal view - acceptance of prostitution, a sexual practice which is based on a highly patriarchal construct of sexuality: that the sexual pleasure of a woman is irrelevant, that her only role during sex is to submit to the man’s sexual demands and to do what he tells her, that sex should be controlled by the man and that the woman’s response and satisfaction are irrelevant. These feminists argue that sexual liberation for women cannot be achieved as long as we normalize unequal sexual practices where a man dominates a woman.
Such feminists see prostitution as a form of male dominance over women, as the client has sex with a woman who does not enjoy it and who may be making a tremendous psychological effort to mentally dissociate herself from the client. They say that the act of prostitution is not a mutual and equal sex act as it puts the woman in a subordinate position, reducing her to a mere instrument of sexual pleasure for the client. These feminists believe that many clients use the services of prostitutes because they enjoy the "power trip" they derive from the act and the control they have over the woman during the sexual activity. Catharine MacKinnon argues that prostitution "isn't sex only, it’s you do what I say, sex."
Prostitution is seen by these feminists as the result of a patriarchal societal order which subordinates women to men and where the inequality between genders is present in all aspects of life. These feminists believe that prostitution is very harmful to society as it reinforces the idea that women are sex objects which exist for men's enjoyment, which can be "bought" and which can be "used" solely for men's sexual gratification. Anti-prostitution feminists argue that when a society accepts prostitution it sends the message that it is irrelevant how the woman feels during sex or what the consequences of sex will be for her, and that it is acceptable for a man to engage in sexual activity with a woman who does not enjoy it and who could be mentally and emotionally forcing herself in order to be able to cope; the normalization of such one sided sexual encounters might negatively affect the way men relate to women in general and might increase sexual violence against women.
These feminists strongly object to the patriarchal ideology which has been one of the justifications for the existence of prostitution throughout history (and which they say continues to justify it in many cultures), that is, that prostitution is a "necessary evil", as men cannot control themselves, and thus it is "necessary" that a small number of women be "sacrificed" to be used and abused by men, in order to protect "chaste" women from rape and harassment. These feminists see prostitution as a form of slavery, and say that, far from decreasing rape rates, prostitution leads to a sharp increase in sexual violence against women, by sending the message that it is acceptable for a man to treat a woman as a sexual instrument over which he has total control. Melissa Farley argues that Nevada's high rape rate is connected to legal prostitution because Nevada is the only US state which allows legal brothels and is ranked 4th out of the 50 U.S. states for sexual assault crimes, saying, "Nevada's rape rate is higher than the U.S. average and way higher than the rape rate in California, New York and New Jersey. Why is this? Legal prostitution creates an atmosphere in this state in which women are not humans equal to them, are disrespected by men, and which then sets the stage of increased violence against women."
A consequence and correlate of violence against women
Some feminists, including many who identify as supporting the abolition of prostitution, see the selling of sex as a potential after effect of violence against women. Supporting data for this position include studies of the background of prostitutes. Most prostituted women experience a very high level of violence both in childhood before they become prostituted and while they are being prostituted. Studies of violence experienced by women in prostitution prior to entering prostitution show 60% to 70% were sexually abused as children that 65% had been raped, most before the age of 15, and that many young women and girls enter prostitution directly from state care in at least England, Norway, Australia and Canada.
Prostitution abolitionists also object to the high rates of violence against women in the sex industry. Studies of women in prostitution show an extremely high level of violence is perpetrated against prostituted women. Figures vary across studies. One representative study showed 82% of respondents had been physically assaulted since entering prostitution, 55% of those by johns. Additionally, 80% had been physically threatened while in prostitution, 83% of those with a weapon. 8% reported physical attacks by pimps and johns of a nature that resulted in serious injury, for example gunshot wounds and knife wounds. 68% reported having been raped since entering prostitution, 48% more than five times and 46% reporting rapes committed by johns. Finally, 49% reported pornography was made of them while they were in prostitution and 32% had been upset by an attempt to make them do what johns had seen in pornography. Women in indoor and outdoor prostitution both report high levels of violence and constant need for vigilance and fear. Many brothels have installed panic buttons because of the ongoing threat of violence indoors.
Beyond the individual instances of violence or the history of violence suffered by most women in prostitution, prostitution abolitionists see prostitution itself as a form of male violence against women and children. This understanding is the major theoretical root of calls to decriminalize prostituted people (mostly women), but continue to criminalize those who prostitute them, including johns, pimps, procurers and traffickers. Similarly, in other forms of violence against women, anti-violence feminists expect women who are battered, raped, incested, harassed and threatened will not be punished for the crimes committed against them, while the male perpetrators, mostly known to the victims, will suffer criminalization in accordance with the law.
Prostitution abolitionists also cite similarities between prostitution and violence against women. Farley, Lynne and Cotton (2005) argue the prostitution is most like battery because it similarly involves a pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour (by pimps, procurers and traffickers as well as johns) that results in the control of the prostituted woman. Research conducted by Giobbe (1993) found similarities in the behaviour of pimps and batterers, in particular, through their use of enforced social isolation, threats, intimidation, verbal and sexual abuse, attitudes of ownership, and extreme physical violence. Many ex-prostituted women argue prostitution has similarities to rape because it is a form of sexuality that is entirely controlled by the john, as rape is a form of sexuality in which the rapist controls the interaction, disregarding the desires, physical well-being or emotional pain of the victim.
The raced and classed nature of prostitution
Prostitution abolitionists adopt an intersectional approach to understanding the power relations involved in prostitution. That is, they see prostitution as compelled by multiple forms of oppressive social power, not just sexism against women. Some analysts on human rights issues surrounding prostitution, such as Sigma Huda in her report for the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, also adopt this approach:
- “The act of prostitution by definition joins together two forms of social power (sex and money) in one interaction. In both realms (sexuality and economics) men hold substantial and systematic power over women. In prostitution, these power disparities merge in an act which both assigns and reaffirms the dominant social status of men over the subordinated social status of women.”
- “The demand for commercial sex is often further grounded in social power disparities of race, nationality, caste and colour.”
Abolitionists attribute prostitution to women's comparative lack of economic resources. Globalisation and neoliberalism have exacerbated already unequal economic relations, including by cutting back social spending in Northern and formerly socialist countries, and increasing the demand for cheap labour, including in prostitution, in both Southern and Northern countries. Combined with sex discrimination in wages and job type, sexual harassment in the workplace, and an undue burden of caring for children, the elderly and the ill, women are at a significant economic disadvantage in the current economic structure. Poverty is the single greatest “push” factor making women vulnerable to accepting prostitution as a means of subsistence.
In addition, racism shapes women's entry into prostitution, both because it makes women more vulnerable to prostitution and because johns demand racialized women in prostitution. Racism in education, economic and political systems affect the choices of women of colour. Additionally, racist sexualisation, through pornography in particular, of Black and Asian women as over-sexed and submissive or otherwise available for prostitution contributes to the demand for specifically racialized women. Massage parlours, strip clubs and other prostitution businesses are often located in poor and racialized neighbourhoods, encouraging johns to troll those neighbourhoods for women, making all women in those neighbourhoods vulnerable to prostitution-related harassment and women in those neighbourhoods more likely to accept their use in prostitution as normal.
Indigenous women the world over are particularly targeted for prostitution. In Canada, New Zealand, Mexico, and Taiwan, studies have shown that indigenous women are at the bottom of the race and class hierarchy of prostitution, often subjected to the worst conditions, most violent demands and sold at the lowest price. It is common for indigenous women to be over-represented in prostitution when compared with their total population. This is as a result of the combined forces of colonialism, physical displacement from ancestral lands, destruction of indigenous social and cultural order, misogyny, globalization/neoliberalism, race discrimination and extremely high levels of violence perpetrated against them. The Aboriginal Women's Action Network, an abolitionist organization in Canada, has specifically noted that because the prostitution of Aboriginal women results from and reinforces such extreme hatred of Aboriginal women, no regime of legalisation (which will expand the industry and entrap more women) can be safer for Aboriginal women. Prostitution can only further harm Aboriginal women.
Outlawing of buying sexual services
In 1999, Sweden became the first country to make it illegal to pay for sex, but not to be a prostitute (the client commits a crime, but not the prostitute). Similar laws were passed in Norway (in 2009) and in Iceland (in 2009).
During 2011, the newly elected government of Denmark began discussing the possibility of banning the buying of sexual services. while during 2009, there is lobbying taking place for such a law in Hungary.
These laws are a natural extension of the views of the feminists who oppose prostitution. These feminists reject the idea that prostitution can be reformed, and oppose any harm reduction approach. Trisha Baptie, a former Canadian prostitute, who now opposes the industry, and lobbies for the outlawing of buying sexual services, wrote: "Harm reduction ? You can’t make prostitution "safer" ; prostitution is violence in itself. It is rape, the money only appeases men’s guilt, " "One of the most “sex-positive” things you can do is make sure men cannot buy sex, because the buying of sex is violence against women and is a direct deterrent to women’s equality. "
These feminists see prostitution as a form of violence against women and vehemently condemn the common pro-legalization argument that "prostitution has always existed and will never go away", arguing that other violent acts such as murder, rape and pedophilia have also always existed and will never be eradicated either, and that is not a reason to legalize them. These feminists argue that the idea of legalizing prostitution in order to control it and "make it a little better" and reduce harm is no different from the idea of legalizing domestic violence in order to control it and "make it a little better" and reduce harm.
The criminalisation of clients is controversial, significantly due to adverse health effects such a law entails. A paper published by the BMJ found that in Vancouver, British Columbia, an approach towards criminalisation of clients had a limited deterring effect on the purchase of sex, but severely impacted the safety of women involved in prostitution, including their ability to adequately vet clients before transacting business, their ability to protect against sexually transmitted infections, and their freedom to report abusive clients to the police.
Pro-sex worker perspectives
Unlike those feminists critical of prostitution, pro-sex work perspectives do not believe that sexual acts of prostitution have an inherent element of coercion, exploitation, or domination. As such, pro-sex feminists instead assert that sex-work can be a positive experience for women who have employed their autonomy to make an informed decision to engage in prostitution.
Many feminists, particularly those associated with the sex workers' rights movement or sex-positive feminism, argue that the act of selling sex need not inherently be exploitative; but that attempts to abolish prostitution, and the attitudes that lead to such attempts, lead to an abusive climate for sex workers that must be changed. In this view, prostitution, along with other forms of sex work, can be valid choices for the women and men who engage in it. This perspective has led to the rise since the 1970s of an international sex workers' rights movement, comprising organizations such as COYOTE, the International Prostitutes Collective, the Sex Workers Outreach Project, and other sex worker rights groups.
An important argument advanced by pro-sex work feminists such as Carol Queen highlights that all too often feminists who are critical of prostitution have failed to adequately consider the viewpoints of women who are themselves engaged in sex work, choosing instead to base their arguments in theory and outdated experiences. Feminists who do not support the radical anti-prostitution view argue that there are serious problems with the anti-prostitution position, one of which is that, according to Sarah Bromberg, "it evolves from a political theory that is over-verbalized, generalized, and too often uses stereotypical notions of what a prostitute is. The radical [anti-prostitution] feminist views are ... not always delineated sufficiently to support a credible theory that prostitution degrades all women".
Pro-sex worker perspectives are also suspicious of the logic behind the arguments of anti-prostitution feminists, often believing such feminists to be basing their arguments on outdated notions of sexuality that existed to constrain sexual practice and regulate the behaviour and sexual expression of women. Indeed, such an analysis asserts that anti-prostitution feminists are themselves pandering to a construction of sexuality that is a product of the patriarchy. Jill Nagle considers this to be part of a binary construction of women's' identity as being either a 'good girl' or 'bad girl', a notion she believes we must undermine.
Pro-sex work feminists say that the sex industry is not a "monolith", that it is large and varied, that people are sex workers for many different reasons, and that it is unproductive to target prostitution as an institution. Instead, they believe things should be done to improve the lives of the people within the industry.
Legalization or decriminalization
Feminists who support the legalization or decriminalization of prostitution argue that one of the significant flaws with the radical anti-prostitution feminist view is that a majority of its arguments are premised on the assumption that prostitution itself is inherently laced with sexism, classism and other unbalanced power relations. The institution of prostitution itself is seen by abolitionists as resting on these conditions and therefore they believe legalization or decriminalization will only lead to the reinforcement of these conditions. Pro-sex-work feminists argue that this assumption is flawed, and that while prostitution, as it currently exists in our society, can be misogynist or degrading in some manifestations, there is a grave danger in attributing these conditions to prostitution itself. They argue that targeting prostitution as a whole unduly focuses attention on this single institution in our society, rather than looking at society at large and the social institutions, laws and practices that lead to the subordination and oppression of women. There has been much debate over the last few decades amongst feminists about how laws relating to prostitution should be reformed. Most feminists who look at prostitution from a rights-based perspective support some form of either decriminalization or legalization.
Decriminalization is the removal of all penalties for prostitution itself and for all the activities necessary for prostitutes to do their work, such as advertising, communicating with clients, etc. It does not mean the reversal of all laws relating to prostitution, for example laws that exist against forcing someone into prostitution. For the purposes of decriminalization, Feminists for Free Expression defines the word “prostitution” to mean any consensual sexual activity between adults where compensation is involved; nonconsensual sex acts or sex acts perpetrated against minors are not prostitution, in their view. Instead they prefer the term "criminal sexual acts".
The term 'legalization', on the other hand, is usually used in the context of prostitution to refer to the use of criminal laws to regulate prostitution by determining the legal conditions under which prostitutes can operate. Legalization can mean anything from rigid controls under a state-controlled system to merely defining the operation of a privatized sex industry. Legalization is often accompanied by strict criminal penalties for anyone who operates outside the legally defined framework. With legalization there may be rules about where prostitution can take place (for example only in state licensed brothels), what prostitutes can do, mandatory registry/licensing and frequent mandatory health exams.
Some pro-sex-worker feminists support decriminalization and some support legalization, for different reasons. Proponents of decriminalization believe that all people, including sex workers, are entitled to the same rights regarding safety, health and human rights, and that outdated criminal laws need to be reformed in order to improve the living and working conditions of sex workers. They argue that decriminalization is better for the workers than legalization and that both criminalization and heavily-regulated legalization infringe on the workers' safety and human rights. Many feminists who support sex workers favor decriminalization because it allows prostitutes to go into business for themselves and self-determination is a tenet of feminist politics. They believe decriminalization fosters responsibility, empowerment, self-esteem and self-care, all important feminist values. The goal in decriminalizing sex work is that anyone doing any type of sex work would be treated the same way, with the same rights and responsibilities, as any other self-employed person. Whether they support decriminalization or some form of legalization, pro-sex work feminists believe that the current laws that exist surrounding prostitution in many countries need to be changed and are harmful to the people who work in the industry.
Notable feminists who support sex workers' rights
Activists and scholars who are proponents of the pro-sex work position include: Margo St. James, Norma Jean Almodovar, Kamala Kempadoo, Laura María Agustín, Annie Sprinkle, Carol Leigh (also known as Scarlot Harlot), Carol Queen and Audacia Ray.
There are many feminists whose views on prostitution do not fit in either the anti-prostitution feminist or the sex-positive feminist viewpoints, and in some cases are critical of both. These feminist authors have criticized what they see as the unproductive and often bitter debate that characterizes the two-position analysis of prostitution. Such authors highlight that in allowing arguments about prostitution to be reduced to a stale analysis and theoretical debate, feminists are themselves contributing to the marginalization of prostitutes, simplifying the nature of the work they carry out and the personal circumstances that involve each individual.
Feminist scholar Laurie Shrage has also criticized the haphazard nature of feminist views on prostitution. Shrage claims that in a determination to undermine patriarchy, pro-sex feminists have advocated a reckless and "Milton Friedman style" deregulation of laws surrounding prostitution, without considering the implications that this may have upon women involved in sex work, particularly given the nature of the sex trade, which is more likely to be plagued by exploitation and poor working conditions, concerns that must be of importance to any feminist.
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- van der Meulen, E. et al., eds. (2013). Selling Sex: Experience, Advocacy, and Research on Sex Work in Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press. ISBN 9780774824484.
- * "Feminist Perspectives on Sex Markets: Prostitution" by Laurie Shrage, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, July 13, 2007.