There are no easy solutions: feminism and the sex industry
November 13, 2008
There’s actually a fairly interesting piece in The Guardian today by Zoe Williams on the subject of prostitution. I say fairly interesting, because I think she’s right about how prostitution is viewed by the general public.
Basically, Williams argues that the current discussion around sex work tends to divide sex workers into three areas – “high class” prostitutes like Belle De Jour; street workers feeding drug habits, and “proper low life sex industry hookers” with no “personal agency” and who are so disadvantaged they can be considered as “kidnapped.” Therefore, the issue becomes less that people go to prostitutes full-stop but that they exploit vulnerable people (and Williams gets serious bonus points from me for including European women who travel overseas for sex from local men as exploiters; shockingly, I find exploitation based on racial and class privilege as appalling as exploitation based on gender privilege). This is especially true if you take the stigma out of sex – then it does seem like for “high class” prostitutes, sex work is just a job like any other.
Williams argues, though, that ultimately no feminist can align herself as “pro-prostitution” because so much of it involves violence against women.
First of all, I think it’s very perceptive of Williams to recognise that “ordinary” sex workers, the ones working in brothels, flats, etc. are often constructed as having no personal agency, and I think that the feminist movement actually has a lot to answer for here. I remember having a surreal conversation once with some radical feminists where they argued that it was OK to chant outside a strip-club because the strippers were colluding with the patriarchy. About 5 minutes later, the same women were arguing that all sex workers are effectively slaves since no one can be said to “choose” sex work. Obviously, both of these statements can’t be true.
Any discussion of sex work has to involve a discussion of what we mean by personal agency and “choice.” No one makes completely free choices; are options are limited not only by material factors (ie I’d like to do a full-time PhD but I can’t afford it) and also by ideological, discursive factors (I don’t like showing my bare legs when they are hairy, which is clearly internalised sexism). I do believe that within these confines, however, free will is possible. I can’t afford to do a full-time PhD, so I’ll do a part-time one; but I’ve still made a decision regarding whether I want to do a PhD. I don’t feel comfortable in bare legs if my legs are hairy, but I can choose whether to shave my legs or whether to wear trousers. This is the arena of personal agency.
Most of the writing I’ve read by sex workers, and many of the sex workers I’ve met, are people trying to make the best of some fairly appalling situations. There was a well-known case in Thailand a few years ago where some American missionaries attempted to “rescue” a whole bunch of sex workers, who then ran away from the American mission at the earliest available opportunity. The missionaries weren’t going to feed their families.
This doesn’t mean that sex work is a “good job” – and I’d really appreciate it if certain radical feminists could stop caricaturing everyone else’s beliefs in this way. I agree wholeheartedly with Williams that it usually involves appalling violence and exploitation. What it means is that we should be focusing on the structures that put people into situations where sex work seems like the best of a lot of bad options – not only sexism, but capitalism, racism (First Nations women are disproportionately represented among sex workers in Canada), imperialism, homophobia, migration controls, transphobia (trans*people are disproportionately represented among sex workers), the lack of routes out of sex work, a justice system that treats an illness (drug addiction) as a crime, etc. And clearly, neither side of the criminalise/decriminalise debate addresses these issues. I believe in the decriminalisation of sex work myself, but only because I think it would make addressing a lot of the above issues a lot easier.
I also do think it’s fair to say that not only are some people properly forced into sex work (kidnapped and held against their will), but that for some people the constraining factors are such it’s hard to see whether they are actually exercising agency. I’m thinking particularly of people who get into sex work to feed a drug habit, and also people who were subjected to such appalling sexual abuse as children, and have so many mental health issues because of it, that it’s hard to see what they are doing as a choice. I know at least one person who falls into the latter category, and she does not see herself as having “chosen” sex work, but does see herself as having been “forced”.
But what of “high class” sex workers? Victims? Or are they colluding with violence against women by suggesting that sex work is a job like any other? I certainly feel Williams’ discomfort on this issue. As a friend of mine once said “I don’t judge sex workers, but I feel perfectly comfortable judging their clientele.” No matter how “high class” the sex worker in question is, no matter how able to choose his/her clients, I still have this gut feeling that buying sex from someone is somehow inherently exploitative. And I can’t tell you exactly why – as sex workers have pointed out, there are a lot of people whose jobs are just as intimate and are “affective”, ie. designed to make other people feel something. Is the care worker being paid minimum wage to give people sponge baths really less exploited than the “high class” sex worker?
I think part of it is that we live in a society where sexuality is considered key to our identity in a way that washing other people is not. And I do think it’s significant that most sex workers are women in a society where women are often reduced to sex; in that light buying sex from a woman seems almost equivalent to buying the woman (though I know many sex workers find this idea objectionable).
I do think the existence of people like Belle de Jour serves as a sop to the patriarchal conscience. She’s not a victim, so it’s perfectly OK to buy sex, even from women in more dire straits!! However, that seems to hold the sex workers accountable for the actions of their clients, which is clearly unfair. Sex work as an industry exists because people are willing to buy sex; is it fair to blame the people who take advantage of this to make ends meet? If all the Belle de Jours of the world gave up the sex industry, that might put a dent in the idea that buying sex is OK, but it wouldn’t end the industry in and of itself. So while “high class” sex workers might be reinforcing the sex industry, that reinforcement is dependent upon a complete abdication of moral responsibility on the part of the clients. Guess who I think is really responsible in this case?
Additionally, I’ve met a couple of “high class” sex workers and they’ve always said that they felt less exploited as a stripper/dominatrix/porn star, etc. than they did in their regular jobs. That’s pretty significant and suggests, once again, that the overarching issue of capitalism has to be addressed when discussing the sex industry.
With regard to the aforementioned care giver – I think we have to stop seeing it as a competition. Certainly, this is also something the feminist movement is responsible for; the notion that no other job is as exploitative as sex work and consequently that no other workers are as exploited. It’s not a competition. The care giver is alsoexploited, and you know what – that’s a feminist issue. Please see BFP’s fantastic post on migrant farm workers in the US and then ask yourself if you still believe that sex workers are automatically the most victimised people in the world.
As in so many other areas, I think often feminists are looking for a “magic bullet” or a quick fix – and I definitely think that’s what Harriet Harman is looking for. There is no quick fix; prostitution is the consequence of multiple systems of oppression, not the cause, and it will not be solved by a simple legal change. The best statement I’ve ever read on the issue of sex work was from UBUNTU! a sex worker’s collective from North Carolina (h/t BFP). They argue that activism around sex work should move away from criminalisation v decriminalisation and reconceptualised as being responsible to the communities involved? What would this look like?