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.
• • •
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.
Excellent point – prostitution is economic-based and a “job” of last resort.
There’s one thing I’ve noticed. On the one hand, I have major problems with some liberal feminist abolitionist organisations, because they sometimes have a “not in my backyard” approach – something I noticed radical feminists ran into when joining the Stop Page 3 campaign and realising the main liberal feminist opposition to Page 3 was that it was in a family newspaper. And also, on the one hand, they want to abolish prostitution, but on the other, uphold family values. Plus they tend to have a very superficial approach that on the one hand is purely legalistic (so they’ll cheer a new law that in fact may be just a tiny step in the right direction as a definitive victory), but on the other hand they’re not interested in the specifics of the law either, otherwise they’d realise that “abolition”, in a purely legal framework, doesn’t really make sense, because prostitution is already dubiously legal in many places and that hasn’t helped much. And then if you bring up those problems to them they’ll often call you a liberal, or one of their gentleman ally friends will, on account of how he’s read a facebook bingo card on the topic. I don’t think that’s to do with them being abolitionist, I’d probably dislike their position even more if it was regulationist, either way they’re making women’s individual personal choice into a sacred moral duty, which, in my view, is a position that barely treats women as human or as part of society.
But, radical feminist and Marxist abolitionists, most of the time, primarily focus on helping women who are in prostitution and in improving the situation for them, and on making a world where women no longer have to do this. Whereas the opposition focuses on demonising abolitionists.
And let’s be honest, in academia, often, it’s as much about building a personal brand (as subversive, radical, transgressive, etc.) and pumping out publications and conferences as anything else. In all areas with that kind of academic you’ll get eyerolls and giggles and “oh you can’t take my radicalism” if you argue with them, even though at heart they’re often pretty traditional and even Protestant in their focus on personal choices and enlightenment through suffering and so on. It’s just that much worse when their currency is the personal experiences of women in vulnerable situations.
Thanks for the comment Jen but we’re not aware of this Stop Page 3 campaign. Please explain more.
And one wonders what liberal feminist family values are being upheld? Are you referring to the old fashioned Madonna/Whore dicotomy?
We and others have often lampooned the “postmodern” fixation on individual “choice.” One can go around and around with that one.
The No More Page 3 campaign was a campaign in the UK, involving a number of liberal feminist organisations, NGOs and even members of parliament, to stop the Sun newspaper from putting a topless model on page 3, as it did for decades. The campaign was successful, although I remember seeing radical feminists at the time getting disillusioned with the campaign, because they were working with people who didn’t have a fundamental objection to women being commodified in this way, more to it appearing in a good family newspaper (which raises all kinds of questions about considering a Murdoch rag a good family newspaper which I won’t go into here).
I guess my objection to what I’m calling liberal feminist groups is a lot deeper than just what they uphold, because a lot of these groups come out of an explicit attempt to market feminist identity to young women in the early 2000s. And I’m talking about literal marketing campaigns, with the participation of advertising agencies, media people, cosmetics magnates and so on. So, their campaigns tend to take place on a really purely moral, ideological level. So really my objection is less with them being liberal, or anything that they think, than simply what kind of organisations they are. They tend to very much uphold bourgeois values, as a result of this, e.g. there being “good men” as opposed to thugs and so on.
As a result, of course, they simply don’t examine the effects of the bourgeois femininity they grew up with, because once you’ve identified as a feminist, it means you’ve put on the magic goggles and you’ve seen the light. So, they tend to operate on the basis that they’re fine, it’s all the other women who need saving. It was always hard to get them to look long and hard at their own situations and the assumptions they grew up with. With recent focus on privilege and intersecting oppressions and so on, it’s even harder, because they just see any work that looks at middle-class Western femininity as “only looking at the oppressions of white middle-class women”. So they just won’t look. So, in the end, their work tends to boil down to protecting women from jarring things and upholding good common sense. Actually, I have an exhibit for you – and I hate to say it, because Laura Bates seems like a good person and I’ve never heard a word against her, but I was pretty horrified to see her in the Guardian in a wedding dress sitting on top of a copy of the Second Sex:
But there are plenty of other examples.
Regarding choice, I think it’s made even worse by the huge focus on lived experience at the expense of all else, and what I’ve heard referred to as the “legitimacy of speaking in the first person”, because everyone can play that game. Experiences become a kind of commodity, and women are almost under pressure to have had terrible things happen to them, or to pretend they suffered more from a given situation than they did. When, taking the example of prostitution, surely if it’s a form of exploitation, then it’s always a form of exploitation and it’s always unacceptable.
Plus, I’ve been involved in a lot of discussions where the conclusion about a given topic (something like make-up or miniskirts) is “it’s OK if you chose it”, so choice almost becomes this moral duty. The situation becomes that, if you chose to do it then you should keep doing it, and if you didn’t choose it, then stop immediately. It reminds me a bit of Victorian ethics manuals for young women, where they’re told in no uncertain terms to choose between being good, or being happy: but they must choose all by themselves. So it’s something that definitely predates postmodernism, even if postmodernism gave it a new lease of life and a “transgressive” sheen. I saw a talk by Christine Delphy recently, where someone made that point, “in our group we decided that it’s OK if women choose it”, and she asked the questioner if she thought kids chose to go to violin classes, and yet isn’t it good that kids go to violin classes: choice is largely irrelevant in most cases.