Subjects, Objects and the Sex Industry

One of the areas which causes most consternation in feminist circles is the sex industry.   Many, particularly women in the industry consider some of the narratives that surround abolitionist discourse insulting, demeaning and ultimately harmful. It is critical to appreciatie that within a situation of pre-existing power relations, the choice – however restricted that choice may be – to participate in the industry reflects a desire to subvert the economic and sexual power relation of mainstream society.  The views of exited women, with a dual vantagepoint of participative and non-participative experience of the industry are critical to considering prostitution and its eradication from a subjecive “female gaze”.

For a person wishing to purchase sex, the primary desire is for sexual gratification.  That may be linked with other desires, for domination, for the thrill of the purchase or of engaging in something considered seedy, or for the illusion of companionship, intimacy and reciprocal human contact.  For someone wishing to sell sex, the primary desire is for money.  Again that may be linked with other desires, a desire to prove sexual attractiveness, the power of being “rewarded” for something which other wo/men give for free, a faux glamour associated with media representations.  In both cases, the seller and the buyer see their counterparts as primarily objects, they are the conduit through which their primary desire for sex or for money can be gratified.

Much of the discussion around abolition talks of the objectification of women within the industry, of how they are seen as objects for purchase, use and discard.  That  is indeed very true, but that only looks at one side of the duality, from the  male viewpoint.  It positions the discussion on prostitution and pornography from within the male gaze. The blogsphere has allowed women both currently working in the industry and those who have exited,to discuss and share their experiences, both positive and negative, unhindered by the filtering of voices which occurs in mainstream media.

What emerges, from both current and former women in the industry is a resentment of this objectification.  From exited women, the majority of the resentment is directed at the men who refused to see them as people, but merely as things which enabled their own desires to be met.  From current women, the majority of the resentment is directed at those feminists who also see them as objects from the male point of view, to  be rescued, saved and rehabilitated.

The male perspective has an unhealthy root which negatively affects the universal position of women.  The existence of prostitution and the objectification of women in this manner has a kickback effect to all women – men who see some women as objects “for purchase”, can easily extend that to all women are objects for purchase, similarly seeing them purely as victims denies their autonomy and agency, which can again be extended to all women.  So the dual challenging of the male buyer objectification of women in the sex industry, has a wider resonance out into how other women see women within the industry.

But women currently in the industry have a different perspective.  Outwith trafficking and sexual slavery, from the high class hooker to the poverty stricken street walker, the buyers are the objects.  They are the means by which they can realise their desires.  For a woman in the industry, although the buyers may see them as an object, they themselves view the buyers as an object.  From such a perspective, they are the subjects acting on the men.  It is here that the feminist discourse collides head on.  From within the situation of the universal woman, the existance of the sex industry means an objectification of the class of women, but from within the situated perspective of sex-industry women, the roles are reversed.

Women who choose to participate in the industry thus have a dual role – as women, they are the objects of male sexual gratification; as participants in the industry, they are acting subjectively in their own interests.  The industry is empowering for them in an overaching situation of disempowerment.

 A power relationship can only be articulated on the basis of two elements which are each indispensable if it is really to be a power relationship:  that “the other” (the one over whom power is exercised) be thoroughly recognized and maintained to the very end as a person who acts:  and that, faced with a relationship of power, a whole field of responses, reactions, results, and possible inventions may open up

Foucoult, Subject and Power


Given a situation where sexual objectification and exploitation occurs, some women actively choose to exploit that male desire and become agents within it, seeking to subvert its power, obtain an element of control over the conditions of objectification and benefit from it.  The class of women is disadvantaged as a whole by this; but within the class of women, those who participate in the sex industry regain a level of control.  The levels of sexual violence experienced by rural women in South East Asia; transgendered women, adult survivors of child abuse and drug addicted women – all groups found in higher numbers within the industry – are far higher than in the general population of women; poverty only tells half the story.

Once we move into these marginalised populations, which are over-represented,  the objectification of women becomes entwined with other power structures.  The effect of neo-colonial power, for example, is apparent in the sex-tourism industry of South East Asia, where indigenous women from rural areas move to cities to earn money from selling sex to Western men, sending money back to support their families.   The higher numbers of transgendered people within the sex industry also reflects both their economic marginalisation and their sexual objectification.

Violence and consent are critical elements of power relations but stand not in opposition, but on a continuum.  Within the sex industry there are two gendered power relations operating – that of male sexual domination  and male economic advantage. Women in the industry chose to situationally re-establish themselves farther along the “consent” continuum and increase their economic status.  In doing so, from their own particular standpoint they are increasing the control and agency that they have over their sexuality, and improving their economic position.

As feminists seeking to eradicate sexual exploitation and economic coercion for sexual purposes, we should be mindful of the “male gaze”, through which the industry is most commonly viewed: as victims requiring rescue.  The rescue industry – particularly in developing countries – does far more harm than good to the women that it proports to help.  We must recognise that from the internal standpoint of the industry that women within it engage with the desire to gain control over their sexuality in the face of gendered violence and economic disadvantage.

Participating in the sex industry is a method by which women can regain control of an objectified sexuality, but the eradication of objectified sexuality is an advantage to all women, including those within.  To eradicate prostitution without the accompanying attack on that objectification is a futile process, and we must devise ways in which prostitution can be eradicated while maximising the empowerment of the women within.

There are three primary models of “Sex Industry Management”, commonly found, although many systems are a mix of two, or even all three – only some of which is explicit.  Under the Traditionall model, sellers are criminalised either directly or through associated activities; under the Nordic model, buyers are criminalised directly for the purchase of sexual services; under the Sex Worker Rights model, the industry is decriminalised allowing women to agitate for increased rights over the terms of their participation.

One major issue with the SWR Model is that  Sex Worker Rights” organisations are riddled with pimps, johns and supported by players who make money out of sexual exploitation, undermining genuine attempts by women in the industry to self-organise; furthermore the demand for complete decriminalisation legitimises and supports the underlying gendered and economic power structures.  In such a situation marginalised women seeking to reclaim agency under a structure of heightened sexual violence and feminised poverty find themselves drawn to the industry as a means of subversion, but when trying to agitate to maximise that power find themselves caught in the broader power structures which underlie it.

The Nordic model as a means to send out a clear social signal that the purchase of sexual services and the consequent sexual objectification  is unacceptable, and universally harmful to women, and indeed has reduced serious violence within the industry – although more minor forms of violence have increased.  While advocating for the criminalisation of clients, we must be clear that women in the industry participate as a means of regaining agency and subjective control in a situation in which they are rendered less powerful through its existence.  The aim must not only to be to eradicate prostitution but to eradicate the wider gendered sexual and economic structures which constructs the differentials of power.

The viewpoints of exited women, who can shift between the perspectives of the universal class of women, and the specific class of women within the industry are critical to understanding how we can eradicate in tandem with empowering women who chose participation as a means of subverting the existent power structures to which they are subjected.  For their understanding of the motivations of women who enter and choose to continue within the industry they are able to explore ways in which eradication can be obtained with minimal harm to those within, through an understanding of the broader forces which puts women in a situation where chosen sexual exploitation,  is the least bad option and the effects of wider social narratives that entrap women who wish to exit but find themselves stigmatised and persecuted for their participation.


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