by Carol Hanisch
“There is something very odd about the prostitution debate,” declares Swedish journalist, writer, and activist Kajsa Ekis Ekman in a recent Feminist Current post. “While the absolute majority of sex buyers are male, an overwhelming majority of intellectuals defending prostitution are women. It’s a strange phenomenon that most definitely needs its own analysis.” (Emphasis added)
Indeed it does!
Ekman asserts that with the increasing success of the Nordic model – which holds the buyer responsible for the illegal transaction rather than the woman – the john is finally coming to be “at the center of discussion.” She recounts a number of recent advances that those attempting to bring prostitution to an end have won and points out that women are now collectively speaking out about what really goes on in the world of prostitution where men could once “do almost anything with a woman and no one would find out.”
“Have we reached the point in history where a man actually has to be liked by a woman in order to get inside her pants?” she asks.
Not so fast, she cautions, and lays out the situation:
“[W]hen a man is threatened, a woman comes along to help him out. At the forefront of international “sex work” discourse, we generally do not find a sex buyer, but a female academic. In any magazine, at any conference, at any event where the john is to be even remotely criticized — a pro-prostitution female academic is there to defend him.
Who is she? Well, she calls herself “subversive,” “revolutionary,” even “feminist.” That is exactly why the john needs her as his ambassador. A defense of prostitution coming from this woman makes prostitution look queer, LGBT-friendly, modern, fair trade, socialist – the very epitome of female liberation. But most importantly, when she speaks, we forget that the sex buyer exists. …
The queer academic will use the prostituted woman as a shield, blocking the john from the limelight. She will use the prostituted woman any way she can – analyzing her, re- and deconstructing her, holding her up as a role model, and using her as a microphone (i.e. a career booster), thereby positioning her as “good” vs. the “evil” feminist. …
Here is the truth: the function of this academic is not that of a revolutionary or a feminist – she is not trying to defend women – rather, she is the sex buyer’s nanny. One of the oldest patriarchal functions that exists. She soothes him when he is worried and takes on his enemies. She makes sure nobody will take away his toys, whatever he does to them. …
The john…is the man who will command and expect his every whim to be catered to, but will not take responsibility for what he does. If he ruins other people’s lives, spreads STDs to women in prostitution and to his wife, contributes to the organized slave trade – so what? Not his problem.
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While Ekman’s article (quoted only in part above) admirably brings into sharp focus the responsibility of johns and their “academic nannies,” she neglects to talk about the critical role of capitalism in the proliferation of prostitution. (That she understands and opposes capitalism is clear in her TedTalk.)
Though there are exceptions, almost all women who become prostituted do so because they need money to survive and sex is often all they have to sell, or have the means to sell, or know how to sell. And there are always men eager to buy. Prostitution is a multi-billion dollar business, often with middlemen (pimps or brothel owners) taking the greater cut. In times of war, women become another kind of “collateral damage” as scarcity makes women’s lot even more precarious. In addition to being victims of outright rape, both Black and white women in the South during the U.S. Civil War frequently found prostitution the only means of putting food on their table, which is just as true in today’s war zones.
Nearly all women need decent paying jobs to be able to leave or avoid prostitution, and capitalism is unable to provide nearly enough jobs for everyone – never has and never will. Therefore when feminists advocate abolishing prostitution, we also have to fight for a socialist society geared to meet everyone’s needs, including those of women. Of course that means pushing our governments right now to allocate funds for women to exit prostitution under capitalism as well. But we must be clear that prostitution is economic-based as well as driven by male supremacy. It will exist as long as capitalism forces workers in general to “prostitute themselves” in one way or another to make enough money to live on, and for women this all too often means sexual violation and even death.