Marc Andre requested a discussion about prostitution as a choice from an ethical point of view. This is a really big topic, and I’m sure it will generate some talk, so get ready kids!
OK, so I’ll begin by saying that I don’t have a problem with prostitution from a moral standpoint. Selling sex for money isn’t really problematic for me morally. But it’s not so simple as that, is it?
There is much I do find problematic about prostitution. (I will save discussion of pornography for another time; I’ve written a bit about it before, but not enough to satisfy myself.) To start, prostitution is an unsafe industry for workers because it is not regulated. I strongly support regulating prostitution for the protection of sex workers. I think prostitution should be legalized worldwide, and the industry should be taxed and monitored, and the health of sex workers should be of paramount importance in regulation. I also think illegal prostitution should be vigorously prosecuted, particularly when the sex worker is underage or under the physical/psychological control of another person, and both the workers and the customers who engage in illegal prostitution should be legally penalized.
The second thing I find problematic about prostitution is the commodification of female sexuality. This is a concern that I have about pornography as well. Female sexuality is being subverted left and right in this society, for selling everything from cars to beer to deodorant. Female sexuality is a tool for marketing, a tool used by white male power to build more power through generating wealth, a tool to control those who are not in power. Women’s bodies become mere conduits of female sexuality – which promises everything, if you can harness it. Vicious cycle. And it seems to me that the most devastating effects of this are seen in two places: rape victims/survivors and sex workers. The bodies of sex workers are used for more than simply sex. They are used to reaffirm male power and privilege through the trading of female sexuality for money. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Women’s bodies and the sites for the expression of patriarchy. ***I haven’t studied enough about gay prostitution to comment much, but I think some of this must be transferable, particularly the power dynamics around money that occur between customers and sex workers.
Sex workers sell sex, and in the world of supply and demand, the demand is what controls the supply. Meaning the customer decides the terms of the transaction. So far, this is no different than selling anything else. But when what you are selling is your body, your sexuality, your body and your sexuality is no longer your own – at least not for however long it takes to perform the service. (a little Marx with your coffee?) When all you have is your labour – your body, your sexuality – to offer the market, you have little power.
The third thing that I find troubling about sex work that there does seem to be a lack of other options among sex workers. For the most part, sex workers trade sex for money because they don’t have much choice. They don’t have education or marketable skills behind them. There is often addiction involved. Sometimes other factors play a part in not being able to secure legal employment – for example, people on the fringes of mainstream society – like transfolk – sometimes turn to prostitution because of the prejudice they face in traditional workplaces. Much of the time, there is a history of sexual abuse. There simply isn’t a lot of opportunity to make a decent living doing anything else. The argument that prostitutes could simply choose to get up one morning and get a job at Tim Horton’s doesn’t hold a lot of water with me. *** I am not saying that all prostitutes fit into this description, or that all poor, uneducated, unskilled, sexually abused, addicted, and/or transgendered people have no other option than sex work. I’m saying that there’s more to the story of the lives of prostitutes than simply choosing their work. When it’s a matter of a roof over your head and food in your stomach and the stomachs of your children, and having no skills, no education, no prospects of employment that will pay for everything you need, and you have nobody to help you out, there isn’t much choice involved.
Which brings me, finally, to a particular segment of feminism that sticks in my craw every time. Choice feminism. The feminism that says, “The women’s movement is all about choice.” I find this branch of feminism both extremely frustrating and extremely intriguing, because I think there is a lot of potential, but also a lot of gaps. There are many, many sex workers out there who say they have made the choice to do their work, that they do have other options and they like what they do or they prefer it for whatever reason, and there is no false consciousness (more Marx) involved, and any claims to the contrary are condescension that denies them their autonomy. Well, here’s what I think about that.
I think that in a capitalist patriarchal society, as a woman, it isn’t really possible to make a completely free choice to sell your body. Period. Hell, if I don’t think Britney Spears is particularly free, I sure as hell don’t think sex workers are! I think there are lots of choices a woman can make freely, but this is not one of them. As I’ve said before, I think there are many many obstacles to exercising free will, and we only have as much freedom as determinative forces allow us to have. Autonomy is not black or white, either have it or don’t. It is a matter of degrees. As is choice. And a choice to resist does not make a necessity the corollary choice to comply.
So, if I feel this way, why do I advocate legalizing sex work? And how do I explain my own behaviour that plays into patriarchy, like wearing skirts and high heels and lipstick?
Well, I advocate legalizing sex work because I think it is not safe for women and men and transfolk who do it. I think that prostitution is not going away anytime soon, and I would rather see protections put in place for sex workers than have the situation continue on in the manner it currently exists. I think that is the least we can do to alleviate some of the problesm sex workers face. I think it would also be wonderful to offer sex workers education and skills training in other industries for free, so that their options are not limited to sex work or minimum wage. I would love to make drug testing mandatory for sex workers along with STI testing. I would love to see psychological counselling made available to sex workers to help them work out issues around sexual abuse, rape, abortion, family and friends, violence and other potential hazards of their job and their life intersecting. I first and foremost want to see prostitution be at the very least a safe way to make a living – if not a free one, a safe one.
As for other “choices” under patriarchy, well, I don’t have an easy answer about that. I struggle a lot with how patriarchy impacts my life, and the ways in which I have been conditioned to be feminine. I don’t claim that all my choices are free just because I’m aware of my conditioning and I participate in things like high heel wearing and leg shaving anyway. But, I don’t think that feminism is about making women into men. I think feminism is about celebrating women, and making it possible to make a free choice to be as feminine as you want to be, as androgynous as you want to be, as butch as you want to be, whatever. I think it is about removing the negative associations with femininity and womanhood and creating equality, true egalitarianism for everyone regardless of sex (and sexuality, and race, and ability, and class, etc). So, one day, I hope to say that a woman can freely choose to be a sex worker. I just can’t say it today.
Marc Andre, thanks for the suggestion for this post!
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