Feminism, Women and the Sex Industry
30 Wednesday May 2012
The third wave has thrown up many challenges to the prevailing ideas within feminism. One of the most debated topics is relationship between feminism, sex workers and the sex industry. The sex industry is wide and sprawling, encompassing not only prostitution, but also lap dancing, topless waitressing and everything in between. Some feminists see the sex industry in its entirety as paid for abuse which should be eradicated by any means necessary, while some sex-worker rights activists see it entirely as labour, and see abuses within the industry as issues of regulation and conditions of work. A more nuanced analysis is called for.
There is labour in almost all manifestations of the sex industry, except at its most brutal – trafficked and enslaved women who are hired out for the profits of their owners. These women (and it is primarily women) are at the sharp end of the industry, and inform much of the feminist analysis of prostitution, but proportionately they comprise very few of the women who participate. Almost all sex worker activists condemn such abuse, but (quite rightly) point out that it is not representative of all women in the industry and suggest that their solutions would see that abuse decline. Most of the industry combines abuse and labour in some proportion. Many women in the sex industry have a range of skills – marketing, counselling, waitressing, negotiation, dancing, market analysis etc, – perform skills with that labour in their activity. Nonetheless using economic coercion to obtain consent for sexual activity is fundamentally abuse, whether that be being fucked, being touched or being displayed.
It is difficult to talk of prostitution, the sex industry and the people who work in it using terms which are acceptable to all. I’ve used ”women in the sex industry” above to denote women who sell sexual services with or without other forms of primary labour (eg waitressing or dancing) and “women in prostitution” to denote people whose primary activity is the sale of sexual services. Sex worker rights activists generally make no distinction between the two groups, using the term “sex-worker” to denote anyone involved in the sex industry in any capacity. Some feminists use the term “prostituted women” to denote the second group. I regard the distinction between these groups as too important to be obscured by a general term, but at the same time, while I used to use the term “prostituted women” I can now not only come to see how inaccurate it is to imply that all women in prostitution are there through third party intervention, and also how offensive it is to obscure the agency of women in this manner.
While the sex industry frequently combines the direct sale of sexual activity with labour, it is in prostitution that the direct sale of the activity is primary, and while I appreciate that it is not only women who are involved in the industry, they comprise the vast majority of those who are and that the industry exhibits gender based sexual violence.
I have serious problems with the law on prostitution as it currently stands which criminalises the sale of sex and surrounding activities while letting the perpetrators of the abuse off scot-free; not to mention a society which looks down on women who sell sex, but frequently regards those who buy it as “one of the lads”. I am a strong supporter of the Swedish model which criminalises the purchase of sex, while decriminalising its sale. That is the way round it should be. It is those who buy sexual services who abuse and those who sell who are abused; targeting them legally is merely adding state persecution to that abuse.
Sex-worker rights activists have (rightly) criticised many feminists for the denial of agency and the promotion of the “rescue industry” that the position that some of them take. This rescue industry has been a disaster, particularly in Third World. Some women do find themselves in positions within the industry where they are so entrapped that they cannot exit without third party assistance, and it is right that this assistance is there, however “support” which is unsupportive is no support at all. Sometimes the choice to enter the sex industry (and in the overwhelming majority of cases it is a choice, however limited that choice may be) is the best option from a range of shit ones and a choice to exit is a bad one because the social conditions that they would exit to are so bad that being fucked for money is the best option available. Improving the options that women have as alternatives to the sex industry, and the conditions that they would emerge to when they wish to exit is critical to any anti-prostitution activity.
Many sex worker rights activists however conflate support for women in prostitution with support for the industry. It is perfectly possible to support women and not support the industry. The industry is fundamentally abusive, it can be no other way. Sometimes the abuse is greater, sometimes lesser, sometimes the individual womans’ agency is greater and they have more control over their terms of engagement, sometimes less, but at its root, paying someone to consent to a sexual act that they would not otherwise have chosen to perform is sexual abuse.
In engaging in prostitution you take the patriarchal bargain. First coined by Deniz Kandiyotti, it is described by Lisa Wade as
A patriarchal bargain is a decision to accept gender rules that disadvantage women in exchange for whatever power one can wrest from the system. It is an individual strategy designed to manipulate the system to one’s best advantage, but one that leaves the system itself intact.
The existence of prostitution disadvantages women, it commodifies female sexuality. As an individual strategy it may advantage the individual woman who chooses – however restricted, constrained or limited that choice may be; however it disadvantages women as a group.
The sex which is had under a prostitution arrangement is for the benefit of one party only. Negotiations take place out of bed through the proxy of cash. There is no ongoing dialogue over limits no need to be aware of the other party’s desires, wishes, responses or excitement. The pretense of those have already been paid for. While sexual activity appears on the surface to be a corporeal affair, sex really takes place in the mind. The mindset of someone who purchases the sexual services of another is deeply fucked up and the idea that money can give you access to another person’s body is not one which should be encouraged.
Men who use prostitutes do so because of the ease of the encounter. A one-off can be compared to a one night stand, while an ongoing arrangement to a fuckbuddy arrangement. In both of the non-paid for arrangements, although the eyes, laws and codes of patriarchy shape the encounters, it does not have the pressure that the money has in a paid for arrangement. There is an expectation in prostitution that you will clearly lay out what you are prepared to do, and what compensation you require in order to do it. The feelings, sexual or otherwise, of the woman providing the services doesn’t come into it.
Participating in the purchase of women for sex ruins men and their sexuality – seeing sex as an activity which they desire to do to another person who requires compensation for accepting that activity, rather than a mutually desired activity that is shared and negotiated. It feeds into the sense of entitlement that men feel, and feelings of obligation that women feel when an encounter which has started off well goes off kilter and its course needs changed to ensure that both parties are comfortable with the activities taking place. The pre-arrangement, and pre-payment leave no room for this kind of explicit re-organisation, and while an experienced prostitute may have developed the skills to guide an encounter, it is done on the basis of deceit rather than on frank re-negotiation.
There are many reasons why women enter the industry, its high correlation with mental health issues, low self-esteem and prior sexual abuse indicate that these are factors, but ultimately it is the money which is the primary motivating factor. Prostitution is harmful for all who participate in it, be that as a punter or as prostitute. It means that prostitutes have to put their feelings, desires and wishes to one side to guarantee payment, while the punters have to take no regard for those feelings, desires and wishes as the payment has already bought the activities desired.
Beyond the effects of prostitution in the bedroom, it contributes to street harassment. In areas with high prostitution, whether on the streets or indoor, women are more likely to be harassed on the street, partly in error through men assuming that they are engaged in the industry, but also through the attraction of predatory males to such areas, who have little respect for women, their bodies and their boundaries.
Women in Scottish society still earn considerably less than men, work under conditions established for male employees and are more likely to have expensive responsibilities, such as the care of children, disabled or elderly relatives; the need for the comparatively high earnings and flexible working that prostitution can bring is self-evident. Women are more frequently sexually abused then men, generating condition in which they minimise or ignore the effects of such abuse, meaning that they are more likely to accept the abuse inherent in prostitution as a worthy trade. Women are raised to associate their sexual desirability with self-worth, meaning that women who feel worthless can see their value measured in pounds and pence, giving reassurance that for a particular purpose they have value.
Sex worker activists have criticised the Swedish model (criminalise buyers, decriminalise sellers) and its proponents by accusing them of seeking to rescue women from the sex industry; while that may be the motivation of some proponents, exit of the industry is not the primary aim of such legislation. Its aim is to end the demand for prostitution. Sex-worker activists point out that decreasing the demand will drive out some punters from the industry, and harms their business. That is quite correct.
It is not my concern whether women choose to sell sex, as explained above as an individual choice it may be in the best interests of that individual, as a social phenomenon however, prostitution is harmful and abusive. Just as laws against child labour may harm individual children in bad situations, for the overall benefit of children as a group, so too with laws against prostitution.
I support women in the sex industry, but I support them as women. Their voices must be heard and listened to carefully, however it must also be accepted that in engaging with an abusive industry they take the patriarchal bargain. It is not for me to criticise any particular woman, in circumstances I know nothing of for accepting male sexual abuse in exchange for payment either in case or in kind, only to work to improve those circumstances – the decriminalisation of the sale, increased healthcare provision and support to enable them to protect themselves against unacceptable violence, sexual or otherwise are important. Accepting the choices that women make however should not lead us to shy away from condemning the men who exploit them. Supporting women in the sex industry, does not mean supporting the industry in which they are engaged no more than supporting workers in the nuclear weapons industry.
The choices they make are their own and we should defend the right of women do whatever they like with their bodies; they harm no-one but themselves and as feminists we should work with them to minimise that harm, but the choices that the men who buy them make harm not only the individual they abuse, but contribute to a society where women are commodities. Working to eradicate prostitution is not done for the benefit of women in the industry, who are capable of making their own choices within a fucked up system, but for the benefit of all women of which they are a small part.