The whole sex worker/prostitution rights/sex trafficking/human trafficking debate is a very hot topic in feminism. I still haven't come to my own conclusion on the matter, but I thought Miller's recent NYT Op-Ed was an interesting piece, and I'm kind of surprised I haven't really seen it around the feminist blogosphere very much.

One thing that does annoy me is that any time somebody suggests that prostitution, stripping, etc. can have a negative affect on women and/or feminism, they are labeled as anti-sex. This simply isn't true. It's just a very tricky issue.

On the one hand, prostitutes should be protected. They should not be seen as victims if they really did make the decision, but it also shouldn't be assumed that all sex workers are there by choice. It's not that simple and such generalizations (from either side) are unfair.

It's especially hard for me to figure out where I stand and how to articulate where I stand because I've always been a big believer in women owning their sexuality.

But it is difficult to think of somebody giving money to their pimp as owning much of anything. Not to mention that some women start out so young, that they never really gain control. And, of course, there's the also the fact that women are already seen as objects and assigning a monetary value to that reinforces the notion that women are things to be bought and sold.

UGH! I can't wrap my brain around all the layers of this issue. Now my head hurts...

Is it just me, though? Does anybody else have a hard time figuring out exactly what to make of this issue? How are some feminists able to clearly define where they stand?

7 comments:

At Mon Jul 14, 02:59:00 PM Anonymous said...

Here via Shakesville...

This is a perfect encapsulation of the issue, IMHO:

But it is difficult to think of somebody giving money to their pimp as owning much of anything. Not to mention that some women start out so young, that they never really gain control. And, of course, there's the also the fact that women are already seen as objects and assigning a monetary value to that reinforces the notion that women are things to be bought and sold.

The thing is, sex work doesn't happen in a vacuum. The choices women make are NEVER solely their own. They are influenced by, and influence, the culture around them.

Sex work in and of itself (and of course sexuality itself--even heterosexuality) is not inherently oppressive or perpetuating of oppression. But in the context of a sexist culture, it can't help but be so.

There are cirumstances in which a given act of sex work is, if not oppressive, at least minimally so. A woman who is otherwise economically independent, mentally healthy, working independent of pimps or producers, who chooses her partners and acts based on her own interests and who has other options for work can be reasonably thought to be engaging in her work of (somewhat) free will. But unless she makes a point of advertising her work as something within that context, she'll still be perpetuating the woman-as-commodity issue that causes so many other women to be exploited.

This is not a condemnation of erotica, FWIW. If someone gets off on filming themselves and a partner doing the deed and wants to share that film with the world via pornotube or something, fair enough. It's when you start introducing money into the equation that things start getting icky.

 
At Mon Jul 14, 11:36:00 PM Amy said...

The world is full of strong, independently wealthy millionaires and billionaires, male and female, who get up every morning and go to work, be that on a sports field or a soundstage or an office, and make more money. These people work not because they are powerless and need the money, but because the work fulfills them, provides them with their identity, and because they really want to do it.

And exactly zero of them do sex work.

Part of being sympathetic towards sex workers is respecting their feelings and their statements about what they do, but they reality is that if they were free to do as they pleased, they would not do it.

 
At Tue Jul 15, 01:55:00 PM Sally said...

Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

if they were free to do as they pleased, they would not do it.

That's the thing I keep going back to. So many of these women either started young, grew up in poverty, ran away from home, have been abused, etc. that I can't see it as an actual choice.

But, at the same time, how much of anything is an actual choice is what I presume others might say.

 
At Wed Jul 16, 09:35:00 AM Habladora said...

Thanks for pointing to the op-ed - I don't know how I missed it! And thanks too for this thoughtful piece. I do think you are right to point out that, while we do want women to own their sexuality, it is wrong to think that all of them are there by choice. How to protect those who aren't in the business by choice while not infringing on the liberties of those who are... that's tricky, though.

 
At Wed Jul 16, 01:46:00 PM hysperia said...

Well, you know, the thing is, why are we focussed on the fact that sex trade work reproduces a patriarchal culture in a way that's a bit different from how we see other ways in which women do that reproductive work? As in, women who are in traditional marital relationships? Believe it or not, for me, one is no more thinkable than the other. But I just can't and don't crap all over women who are wives. All our choices are constrained. THAT'S what I want to change. The circumstances in which the choices are made.

I really don't have too much trouble recognizing the full rights of sex trade workers to their dignity. But I sure as hell have difficulty when the issue of "choice" becomes even more cloudy due to age (as in very young women), homelessness, poverty, drug dependence, mental illness and/or history of sexual abuse, immigrant status and generalized desperation. Some women are not prostitutes, they have been prostituted. I can't ignore that out of respect for the rights of women who feel that they've more or less freely chosen.

This is a brave post!

 
At Mon Jul 21, 04:19:00 PM SnowdropExplodes said...

Firstly, I don't think it's a valid characterisation of the response that, "any time somebody suggests that prostitution, stripping, etc. can have a negative affect on women and/or feminism, they are labelled as anti-sex."

Most sex worker rights advocates make no such claim, but they reject the notion that, "if they were free to do as they pleased, they would not do it." And that notion is definitely a sex-negative idea, because it suggests that sex is something to be avoided unless there is some other "pay-off" to be gained.

Just what do you say about the stripper and porn star who has two degrees (including one in law) and has an independent means of income already lined up, but still chooses to go and make money in sex work?

Sex worker rights activists most certainly acknowledge that coercive sex work is extremely harmful, and I think in every case they acknowledge and push very hard for there to be adequate escape routes for those who are not in the trade willingly. But such escape routes are always made harder when sex work is stigmatised in any way by the law. To protect those who are unwilling while also protecting the rights of those who are, one need only decriminalise sex work and then apply standard employment laws that protect working conditions, right to leave and seek work elsewhere, right not to be discriminated against because of one's former occupation and right to support from the state while seeking alternative employment.

Decriminalising prostitution also makes it possible for prostitutes to approach the police and ask for protection against abusive clients, which is simply not possible when it is stigmatised.

In case anyone thinks that I, as a man, have no right to make these assertions, I would like to point out that these are all arguments that women (especially women in sex work) have used, although I arrived at them independently (I'm not a mere parrot!)

 
At Mon Jul 21, 04:33:00 PM frau sally benz said...

snowdropexplodes, first, thanks for stopping by! Second, I can't stand when men's opinions are discounted just b/c they're men, so don't expect any of that here!

Just what do you say about the stripper and porn star who has two degrees (including one in law) and has an independent means of income already lined up, but still chooses to go and make money in sex work?
I say, go them! Like I mentioned in my post and through the comments, the part I really have an issue with is women who don't have a choice or whose choice is based on poverty, age, etc. THAT'S what I point to when I think "if they were free to do as they pleased, they would not do it," not as much as what amy was referring to.

To protect those who are unwilling while also protecting the rights of those who are, one need only decriminalise sex work and then apply standard employment laws...
I understand (and used to make) that argument, but that still leaves the people who have a choice, but not really. Not the people where you can clearly trace that they've been trafficked, but the women who just didn't see any other option.

 

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