Is prostitution something feminism should object to in principle?

In her work on Money, Sex and Power (Hartsock, 1985), stated sexuality is a social construction, in which individuals as individuals are not free to experience eros just as they choose. Yet just as the extraction and appropriation of surplus value by the capitalists represents a choice available, if not to individuals, but to society as a whole, so too sexuality and the forms taken by eros must be seen as at some level open to change (Hartsock, 1985). The sex industry, like other institutions in our society is structured by deeply ingrained attitudes and values which are oppressive to women (Shrage, 1989). It is noted Mid-Victorian feminists treated prostitution as the end result of artificial constraints placed on women’s social and economic activity. Inadequate wages and restrictions of women’s industrial employment forced some women onto the streets. Furthermore, feminists saw prostitution as a paradigm for the female condition, whereby women became a symbol of powerlessness and sexual victimisation (Walkowitz, 1982). However, according to moralists, prostitutes are sinful creatures who ought to be banned from civilised society. In addition the harlot is seen as a threat to the family, and corrupts the young. It is noted to engage in prostitution signifies a loss of character (Ericsson, 1980). The hostile and punitive attitudes of society towards prostitution can be explained using anthropological fact, with sexual institutions being ranked on the basis of their relation to reproduction. Therefore when coitus is practiced for pecuniary reasons, whereby pleasure and not procreation is the main focus, we have a sexual practice that far from being sanctioned finds itself at the extreme opposite on the scale of social approval (Ericsson, 1980). However, for sentimentalists mercenary sex is seen as lacking affection and tenderness, and is characterised by emotional non-involvement. Although, it is argued the sentimentalist charge makes the mistake of contrasting the virtual sex ideal with prostitutional sex. It is noted only a minute share of all sex that takes place deserves to be describe as romantic love. Furthermore, the sex lives of ordinary individuals often fall short of the sentimentalist ideal (Ericsson, 1980). Contrastingly, it has been argued prostitution has never been a threat to reproduction within the nuclear family. It is however the complete sexual liberty for both sexes which poses the greatest threat to both the family and prostitutes itself (Ericsson, 1980). Lastly, prostitution remains an industry which is shrouded in secrecy despite its scale. Despite this statement statistics report over 800 women in Birmingham work as street prostitutes either from their home or hotels. In addition nearly 14,000 men buy their services each week (Pateman, 1999). Aforementioned, how actions are widely perceived and interpreted by others, even if wrongly or seemingly irrational, is crucial to determining an individual’s moral status. Though some interpretations may not hold up against some objective reality, they are a part of the social reality in which we live (Shrage, 1989). (Shrage, 1989), argues that the problem with prostitution is not that it violates deeply entrenched social conventions and ideals of feminine purity, and the non-commodization of sex, it epitomises other cultural assumptions and beliefs which reasonable or not serve to legitimate women’s social subordination. However, egalitarian heterosexual economic and romantic relationships do not (Shrage, 1989). Conversely in his defence of prostitution Lars Ericsson states that we have something to learn from prostitution in that coition resembles nourishment. In addition the sex drive provides a non-economic basis for explaining the demands of commercial sex. He further posits because of the irrational nature of this impulse prostitution will exist until all persons are granted sexual access upon demand to all other persons (Shrage, 1989).  Contrastingly, (Pateman, 1989), refutes Ericsson’s charges. She states to treat prostitution as a natural way of satisfying basic human need, vulgarly obscures the real social character of contemporary social relations. Prostitution as Ericsson claims is not the same as ‘sex without love or mutual affection’ (p.341). It is argued the latter is morally acceptable if it is the result of mutual physical attraction that is freely expressed by both individuals (Pateman, 1989). (Pateman, 1989), further posits the difference between love and prostitution is not the difference between cooking at home and buying food in a restaurant. It is the reciprocal expressions of desire and unilateral subjections to sexual acts with the consolation of payment, whereby women position themselves between freedom and subjection (Pateman, 1989). Alternatively contract theorists argue that a prostitute contracts out a certain form of labour power for a given period in exchange for money. It is noted there is a free exchange between the prostitute and client, it is here the prostitution contract acts as an employment contract (Pateman, 1999). From the standpoint of this contract the prostitute does not sell herself as alleged, but contracts out her sexual services. Furthermore, it is argued there is no difference between prostitutes and any other worker or seller of services, as the prostitute stands in an external relation to the property in her persons (Pateman, 1999). For contractarians the objection that the prostitute is harmed or degraded by the nature of her trade, is a misunderstanding of the nature of what is traded. The body and the self of the prostitute are not offered in the market, she contracts out the use of her services without detriment to herself (Pateman, 1999). Therefore feminists who argue that prostitutes epitomise women subjection to men, hold outmoded attitudes to sex, which are fostered by men’s propaganda and the old world of women’s subordination (Pateman, 1999).Alternatively, for Marxists, prostitution represents the economic coercion, exploitation and alienation of wage labour. The prostitute is seen as the incarnation of the degradation of the modern citizen as producer. In addition, they posit the prostitute contract is not merely an example of an employment contract, rather the employment contract becomes a contract of prostitution. Therefore the figure of the prostitute symbolises everything that is wrong with wage labour (Pateman, 1999). Contrastingly, Margo St James who is a member of the Call off Your Old Tired Ethics (COYOTE) group, argues prostitutes can function as sex therapists, as they fulfil legitimate social needs as they provide a source of experimentation and alternative conceptions of gender and sexuality (Satz, 1995). This position is supported by sex radical theorists, as they state the buying and selling of commercial sex serve as legitimate features of erotic diversity. Furthermore, in his work on Public Sex: the Culture of Radical Sex Pat Califia states prostitution serves a valuable function, and would not disappear even if full gender, race and class equality had been achieved (O’Connell Davidson, 2002). He further posits:“There will always be people who don’t have the charm and social skill to woo a partner. In a society where mutual attraction and sexual reciprocity are the normal basis for bonding, what would happen to the unattractive people, those without the ability or interest to give as good as they get? Disabled people, the elderly, and the sexually dysfunctional would continue to benefit from the ministrations of skilled sex workers who do not discriminate against these populations.”                                                                                                                                  (Califia, 1994, p. 245)With this in mind (O’Connell Davidson, 2002), argues prostitutes should be socially honoured because they facilitate the gratification of erotic needs that would otherwise go unmet. This honour she argues should be held in the same capacity as healthcare professionals and teachers, because it meets a human need that will continue to persist in a society that has achieved full gender, race and class equality (O’Connell Davidson, 2002). In opposition to the aforementioned, feminists put forward the following three claims; the goods purchased from a prostitute reinforces her own degradation. The existence of prostitution depends on the existence of an inequality between prostitute and client, and thirdly, prostitution contributes to the perpetuation of inequalities that underlie the practice (Anderson, 2002). The first claim is given a powerful voice by Andrea Dworkin, who is a survivor of prostitution. She paints a frank and harrowing picture of prostitution for the reader, that positions prostitution as an inhumane violence targeted at the female body (Anderson, 2002). She expands on this position in her work on Prostitution and Male Supremacy, whereby she states:“She is perceived as, treated as… vaginal slime. She is dirty; a lot of men have been there. A lot of semen, a lot of vaginal lubricant… her anus is torn from the anal intercourse, it bleeds. Her mouth is a receptacle for semen that is how she is perceived and treated. All women are considered dirty because of menstrual blood but she bleeds other times, other places. She bleeds because she’s been hurt, she bleeds and she’s got bruises on her.”                                                                       (Dworkin, 1997, pp. 144-145) Dworkins graphic description of the damaged body and the repetitive nature of prostitution reify the subordination and degradation reflected in these harms. They are a part of what men purchase in prostitution, hence these harms are not incidental to nor easily separable from the practice of prostitution (Anderson, 2002). The second contention holds that in prostitution, men of relative privilege and power exploit the poverty, powerlessness, and history of sexual abuse that characterise the lives of many women. It is argued by radical feminists that the very existence of a supply of willing prostitutes should be seen as a mark of entrenched injustice (Anderson, 2002). They posit further, no person would willingly be consumed as a sexual object, thus prostitution is a form of exploitation as its existence depends on the role social inequality plays in ensuring that the socially powerful have access to objects of their choice (Anderson, 2002). Furthermore, while the conditions that lead individuals into prostitution are not unique to women, these conditions seem to occur in a pattern that is particularly gendered to the detriment of women. It is noted on average women are poorer than men, thus more vulnerable to economic exploitation. In prostitution pimps or procurers capitalise on the economic and social vulnerabilities of prostitutes, whilst law enforcement treat them as outlaws (Anderson, 2002). Lastly, the institutional criticism of prostitution holds that prostitution reinforces the social inequality of women by reifying them as sexual objects which are available to any man who desires them. Thus, the stereotypes conjured by the common consciousness provide images of not only of prostitutes but women generally (Anderson, 2002).  In order to emphasis this statement (Anderson, 2002), draws on the work of political theorist Carole Pateman as she makes a connection of the demonstrative effect of prostitution to the history of women’s oppression in her work the Sexual Contract, whereby she states:“When women’s bodies are on sale as commodities in the capitalist market, the terms of the original (sexual) contract cannot be forgotten; the law of male sex-right is publicly affirmed, and men gain public acknowledgement as women’s sexual masters-that is what’s wrong with prostitution.”                                                                                                                                          (Pateman, 1988, p. 208)This statement reaffirms that prostitution supports a pernicious stereotype of what women are for, thus reinforcing society’s tendency to view women first and foremost in sexual terms (Anderson, 2002).  Such opposition to prostitution has posed the question of whether prostitution should be legalised. It is a contentious debate which the International human rights organisation Equality Now opposes. At present they have launched a campaign calling on the United Nations to listen to the survivors and address the root causes of sex trafficking and exploitation (Moran, 2013). Rachel Moran who is an ex sex industry worker posits the demand should be criminalised. Furthermore she states women are in a position in society where circumstances push them into prostitution, but men have a choice. Men don’t need to have sex available to them, and by legalising prostitution men are being told by the government its ok to purchase women (Moran, 2013). In support of this statement (Post & Datta, 2013), state the legalisation of prostitution cannot exist alongside the true equality of women. Furthermore, failure to challenge legalised prostitution undermines every human right mandating the dignity of the individual and equality for all. In Sweden, prostitution has been officially acknowledged as violence against women. It is also seen as a tool of oppression (Post & Datta, 2013).  It is further posited the legalisation of prostitution allows the state to impose regulations, which they can use to control one class of women as prostituted. In addition prostitution reinforces the discrimination, exploitation and abuse women experience at the hands of men, thus maintaining the inequality between men and women (Post & Datta, 2013). It is argued the legalisation of prostitution would give approval to this violence, control and devaluation. It is noted the Swedish model calls for no arrests, or victim blaming. In addition it does not implement the criminal justice system in order to control women, it does however, make appropriate use of the state system in order to control violence against women (Post & Datta, 2013). Conversely, is reported regulated prostitution increases the overall market for commercial sex, which in turn benefits criminal enterprises that profit from sex trafficking. This was evident in the ‘Sneep case’, which detailed how German pimps crossed the border into the Netherlands and took control over large parts of the Red Light District in Amsterdam. By using intimate relationships and brutal violence they were able to coerce women into selling sex and then handing over their profits (Anon, 2018). Such statements oppose those of sex radical theorists who apply a bourgeois fiction to prostitution in order to posit the notion that in exchanging money for commodified sex the individual becomes liberated from his or hers fixed relationship to the sexual community, and is thus recognised as a sexual subject that is set completely free (O’Connell Davidson, 2002). However, such freedom is contingent on the existence of highly political, economic and social relations, since individuals choose neither wage labour nor prostitution unless they are denied access to alternative means of subsistence. The ‘freedom’ aspect allows the individual to picture themselves as abstractions from the social relations of power in order to become a despotic subject (O’Connell Davidson, 2002).  It is posited masturbation may offer a useful starting point in the re-visioning of the sovereign sexual subject. It is stated a prostitute’s use can be understood as a response to the social devaluation of masturbation and sexual fantasy, as the construction of masturbation as a form of sexual expression and experience do not count (O’Connell Davidson, 2002). (Bennett & Rosario, 1995), emphasis this point in their work Solitary Pleasures whereby they argue;“Beyond the constraints of orthodox reproductive practices, solitary pleasure is a fundamentally generative form of sexual behaviour, deeply implicated in the creative process and therefore basic too much that is good and enriching in human life.”                                                                                        (Bennett & Rosario, 1995, p. 15)Therefore to recognise masturbation would be seen as carrying equalising potential. In addition if masturbation was socially valued in the same manner as heterosexual coupling, it would put us in a position to recognise and realise ourselves as sexual subjects, without turning anyone into an object (O’Connell Davidson, 2002). Therefore, when occasions arise which permit individuals to find mutual and reciprocal desires, whether it be in the form of partner, friend or stranger, it might allow the individual to appreciate, value and choose non-masturbatory sex for its relational qualities and connective potentials (O’Connell Davidson, 2002). In summation feminists have a legitimate reason to politically oppose prostitution. As the principles which sustain and organise the sex industry are ones which support the aforementioned pernicious gender asymmetries in a plethora of domains in our social life. By tolerating a practice which epitomises these principles reinforces women’s oppression (Shrage, 1989). Conversely, (Beloso, 2012), states that by taking sex worker liberation as seriously as our own, is to realise that the exploitation of sex work in not something that happens to prostitutes, but is part and parcel of what happens under the capitalist umbrella. In addition, seeking to save one’s soul by saving prostitutes, is to denote under capitalism, all privilege is not purchased at the expense of another’s exploitation. Thus, it is to imagine that some of us see ourselves as above the law of capital and that capitalism is not an adversarial, zero sum system (Beloso, 2012).