I went to a really good session at a dayschool ran by the ISG yesterday on sexual commodification and socialism, ran by one of their new organisers. Feminism and socialism have always been uneasy bedfellows since the start of the second wave, where the personal got political and the political was dominated by men. The second wave’s emphasis on domestic labour, reproductive functioning and sexual relations took the discourse out of the more comfortable areas of factories, unions, elections and parliament – areas where men excluded women where they could, and into areas where men were already engaging with women.
In the 90s feminism lost its way, stories of women who had it all were questioned, but put down to poor choices. But choice is something which comes at a price, and that price is much easier to meet if you have money. Money gives you access to choice.
Sex work is portrayed in raunch culture as liberatory, a use of your “Erotic Capital”, and a means by which to advance. Invest in some sexy clothes, an expensive haircut and maybe even a boob job and you can reap the rewards. If you come off lucky, you might get spotted, maybe get on into a reality TV show where you get watched 24/7 followed up by a magazine deal where your most intimate moments are photographed and dissected. Fame and wealth will be yours as an aspiring young footballer with a temporarily empty arm will snap you up, giving you column inches and book deals. After ten years, your initial investment will have paid off a hundredfold as you retire to the realms of “being famous”. Wasn’t she maybe a singer? They will say. Or an actress? And you could smile sweetly.
Prominent women in the media are women who have used their “erotic power”. Angela Merkel is one of the main protagonists in a major crisis that is engulfing Europe, but she commands far less media space than Kim Kardashigan. I have absolutely no idea who Kim Kardashigan is or what she’s done, except that she is really pretty. I suspect I may possibly know all of significance that there is to know. The representation of women in the media is of pretty objects, decoration and fluff. The trivial creatures are mocked for their triviality, but the media industry which feeds of this distraction never questioned. The public want to know every last detail of Jade Goody’s trials, of Posh and Beck’s domestic arrangements, of Paris Hilton’s lovelife. and the public get what the public want, but little question is raised from where society gets its desires.
And it is in this context that we see the rise of sex work. Prostitution is reputed to be the world’s oldest profession: absolute rubbish – but it has certainly been around a long time. Its not a new thing – what is new is the normalisation of the industry. No longer confined to back alley “sex cinemas”, or seedy closes, it is on your television, your laptop, your town centre and your high street. Sex work has two components: sex and work. For women there is no clear division between sex work and not sex work, just a continuum. At the one end we have prostitution, at the other you have the flirty smile that you flash a client to close a deal. A barmaid grins at the suggestions being made across the counter, the checkout girl smiles coyly at the sexualised comments, the shopworker puts up with the innuendo accompanying a man buying fancy underwear.
Lap-dancing clubs have sprung up everywhere. The dodgy employment conditions underscoring the fact that this is not just work, to be regulated by contracts and health and safety laws, but the facilitation of a means by which women can obtain money. The rewards for working in such a club are usually lucrative, far more so than as a cleaner or shopworker. Working in such a club affords young women a level of financial independence that they would be unable to gain otherwise. The student struggling with debt, the lone mother who can’t make ends meet, the unqualified who have little opportunities all find that the “erotic capital” that they have – their youth and beauty – can be exploited.
The men visiting these clubs go to purchase an experience, an experience that they feel entitled to, to be entertained by women, to feel their power over them. The men pay and the women dance. That power to make the women dance for your own entertainment. To sit back and be entertained in a sexual manner is worth the price paid, the expensive entry and drinks. Greater male access to washing machines and life survival skills has sanitised the “Dirty Mac Brigade”, who now come with their mates, after a night on the town. The sleezy clubs of old have been transformed into glittering temples of steel and glass, where their fear of rejection disappears, filled with beautiful young women all eager to amuse them, and all for just a few bits of paper.
Both sides then feed off each other for their independence. The money the women make buys them the freedom to make other choices in their lives, while the money the men pay buys them the freedom from sexual rejection. They are free to view themselves as the studs that they wish they were, as they gaze on the women, paid to reflect that view back to them.
Men are continually trained to see themselves as the desiring; women that they should be desired. Looking more deeply, however, it is women who are in the position of desire, it is the money desired which drives their actions. In their own minds, men – ignoring the price that they have paid – subscribe to the illusion that the women are desiring them, that they are so fantastic that young beautiful women would fall at their feet.
From celebrity magazines to lapdancing clubs, women lay themselves bare for economic independence. The non-stated value that a woman’s economic independence can be achieved through being sufficiently attractive to men, is only a restatement of the old trope of women “catching a man” to “take care of” her. With the demise of traditional marriage, each relationship is being trained to be a financial one, from prostitution to the affair with the footballer. Prostitution is touted as a way to achieve independence – whether that be direct or more oblique.