on the perplexing business of prostitution (1)
Like pornography, prostitution invites opposition and support from uncanny bedfellows. Radical feminists and the religious right want to see its complete elimination. ‘Pro-sex’ liberal feminists, pimps and the pornography industry argue it needs some tweaking. This bizarre scenario partly accounts for the muted feminist responses in South Africa to prostitution. Very few things divide feminists globally more consistently than pornography and prostitution. In a context of solidifying misogyny, out of self preservation of a fragile feminist movement, it seems foolish to amplify those aspects on which feminists and other gender-progressives differ when there is so much else for us to do. Another reason for this muted response is the ambivalence many of us feel when confronted with prostitution. We feel as though we should have a very clear stance on something that is part of so many marginalised women in our society and the world.
It was with this deep sense of ambivalence that I attended a feminist workshop in Johannesburg earlier this week. As I write this, I have changed my mind several more times. One of the workshop’s speakers, Catharine MacKinnon, a radical feminist and law professor, has written and worked for the elimination of both pornography and prostitution for almost three decades. One the one hand, I share McKinnon’s and other radical feminists’ stance on pornography as violence. On the other, I have often used prostitution and ‘sex work’ interchangeably. I preferred the latter because it highlighted the work aspect often hidden when we speak about ‘prostitution’ as ‘sexual intercourse of a certain kind’.
For as long as prostitution is criminalised, those who work as prostitutes are open to various forms of exploitation and violence from state agencies, the police and clients. As workers, prostitutes should be entitled to healthcare cover and attention without stigma, protection under our labour legislation, to unionisation and affiliation to larger union federations for greater political might, if they so wish.
Decriminalisation would also mean that when clients and other members of society rape prostitutes, these women would have recourse to protection under the law like other citizens. Rendering work visible has opened formal domestic work, for example, to better legal protection.
Today, I am less comfortable in my previous stance which seems grossly inadequate for thinking about prostitution. At Monday’s workshop, MacKinnon reminded us that a significant number of adult prostitutes started out as prostituted children, and that sexual abuse is often a major precondition to entry on all continents. Unless you believe child labour and sexual abuse are justified, this puts the first spanner in the ‘sex work’ argument. Second, very few people get out of poverty through prostitution, and in South Africa the percentage of post traumatic stress disorder among prostituted people is 75%, higher than the 65% global average. Even more frighteningly, 80% of prostitutes interviewed in South African studies indicated that they’d like to leave prostitution but feel unable to. MacKinnon then turned and asked: “When exactly does she choose to enter into prostitution, then?”
I was not the only one who waivered in the face of this question. Given what we know about limited choice for unfree people, the dehumanisation of poverty, what does it mean that all over the world the majority of prostitutes are the most marginalised women? What happens when we think about prostitution as an institution that reinforces other inequities of race, sex and age alongside class? To say something is labour is not enough. Slavery is work too; it is also exploitation. The similarities are clear when we consider prostitution as ‘the purchase of a person for sex’ rather than ‘the purchase of sexual services’.
We are often invited to think about prostitution in relation to the looming FIFA World Cup. The coincidence of this moment with the longer legal review of prostitution legislation in South Africa offers us a rare chance to ensure that our country has the kind of legislation that contributes to full recognition of prostituted women. This may mean questioning our longstanding understandings of what is at stake and acting differently.
Posted on 26 February 2010, in feminist worlds, Women's wit and tagged African nation state, Blogroll, Catharine MacKinnon, decriminalise prostitution, domestic work, gender based violence, pimps, pornography, prostitution, prostitution and the FIFA World Cup, radical feminists, sex-work, slavery, south african feminists. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.