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.

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Posted on 26 February 2010, in feminist worlds, Women's wit and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Great piece, Prof. Two early morning thoughts on why you need not change your previous view. You seem tempted in the face of two arguments lifted from the seminar. But neither strikes me as cogent – upon reflection.

    First, you say “Unless you believe child labour and sexual abuse are justified, this puts the first spanner in the ‘sex work’ argument”. Not so. A socially, morally or psychologically undesirable past, and one that explaisn a taste or habit you develop later, does not imply lack of agency in adulthood about doing this or that, even when ‘this’ or ‘that’ is something you are willing to do only because you were, say, abused when you were a kid. MacKinnon assumes here that that past has a psychological stranglehold over the adult woman when she now acts in the world – why can’t she act as a free sex worker fully aware that her girl-child past was an undesirable one? I don’t see the inconsistency in the sex worker or us acknowledging the abuse she suffered in the past (if that happened) was a violent crime while still insisting it is ok that she now use her body to generate income ifs she chose to. If not (and this is the crux of my rejoinder), we would in effect be implying that our agencies (or part of it) are permanently compromised when we experience abuse early in life. That can’t be true. So this first reason is not wholly persuasive.

    Second, and less interestingly, the fact that sex work cannot get you out of poverty is not a persuasive reason etiher. Being an academic or aspiring public intellectual will trap us in poverty forver- should you and I quit our jobs, Prof? Less silly examples, of course, include farm work or domestic work: wage level in itself cannot be a decisive argument to quit a job- ESPECIALLY when the alternative is joblessness, not corporate upward mobility.

    I would suggest your previous view of the pragmatic benefits of decriminilisation remain right. Don’t abandon them – just think of the seminar as having deepened your awareness of the complexity of the issues (a valuable outcome), but not having offered you overriding reason to adopt new conclusions on the legalisation aspect of the debate.

  2. Just finished with a workshop with sex workers – all but one said they don’t choose to be sex workers, all said they would get out if there was a viable alternative. All wanted sex work to be decriminalised, and not regulated. Sex work is undoubtedly exploitation, it’s abusive and an expression of inequality. But to ask the state to intervene is not working – they are part of the patriarchal system that abuses and oppresses sex workers. I’m not convinced that criminalising the client will work here – to ask the police who currently rape and steal from sex workers to arrest their clients (with a sex worker as the primary witness?) i think will still mean her life is endangered. Decriminalise sex workers, provide alternatives and end stigma of sex workers. Provide free health care, punish those that abuse sex workers…. this is what sex workers want, and I think I agree. (who am I to argue?!) As one participant said: “Why am I the one arrested? The only body I am hurting is my own!” if we criminalise sex workers, we give ownership of these women’s bodies to the State – and the police its representative.

  3. i guess i’m still a pimp on this one. The choice argument gets me because i think it’s the kind that choose people. I accept that it’s not a choice in the way that i’d like choice to be exercised. If pushed i can even agree that it is not work. Whilst the arguments against sex work make sense i have never been convinced of the alternatives. Who will provide decent jobs and when? The use of criminal laws to deal with sex work is what i find to be a problem.

  4. i seem to always come back to decriminalisation even if i think it is a mean-time solution and maybe naively thinking (without fully grasping the details of what decriminalisation entails and/or the impact thereof on the future of this conundrum) it will immediately address the children and safety matters…

  5. Criminalising sex work is like sticking one’s head in the sand like an ostrich…,

  6. Great piece, Prof. Two early morning thoughts on why you need not change your previous view. You seem tempted in the face of two arguments lifted from the seminar. But neither strikes me as cogent – upon reflection.

    First, you say “Unless you believe child labour and sexual abuse are justified, this puts the first spanner in the ‘sex work’ argument”. Not so. A socially, morally or psychologically undesirable past, and one that explaisn a taste or habit you develop later, does not imply lack of agency in adulthood about doing this or that, even when ‘this’ or ‘that’ is something you are willing to do only because you were, say, abused when you were a kid. MacKinnon assumes here that that past has a psychological stranglehold over the adult woman when she now acts in the world – why can’t she act as a free sex worker fully aware that her girl-child past was an undesirable one? I don’t see the inconsistency in the sex worker or us acknowledging the abuse she suffered in the past (if that happened) was a violent crime while still insisting it is ok that she now use her body to generate income ifs she chose to. If not (and this is the crux of my rejoinder), we would in effect be implying that our agencies (or part of it) are permanently compromised when we experience abuse early in life. That can’t be true. So this first reason is not wholly persuasive.

    Second, and less interestingly, the fact that sex work cannot get you out of poverty is not a persuasive reason etiher. Being an academic or aspiring public intellectual will trap us in poverty forver- should you and I quit our jobs, Prof? Less silly examples, of course, include farm work or domestic work: wage level in itself cannot be a decisive argument to quit a job- ESPECIALLY when the alternative is joblessness, not corporate upward mobility. … See more

    I would suggest your previous view of the pragmatic benefits of decriminilisation remain right. Don’t abandon them – just think of the seminar as having deepened your awareness of the complexity of the issues (a valuable outcome), but not having offered you overriding reason to adopt new conclusions on the legalisation aspect of the debate.

  7. Just finished with a workshop with sex workers – all but one said they don… See more’t choose to be sex workers, all said they would get out if there was a viable alternative. All wanted sex work to be decriminalised, and not regulated. Sex work is undoubtedly exploitation, it’s abusive and an expression of inequality. But to ask the state to intervene is not working – they are part of the patriarchal system that abuses and oppresses sex workers. I’m not convinced that criminalising the client will work here – to ask the police who currently rape and steal from sex workers to arrest their clients (with a sex worker as the primary witness?) i think will still mean her life is endangered. Decriminalise sex workers, provide alternatives and end stigma of sex workers. Provide free health care, punish those that abuse sex workers…. this is what sex workers want, and I think I agree. (who am I to argue?!) As one participant said: “Why am I the one arrested? The only body I am hurting is my own!” if we criminalise sex workers, we give ownership of these women’s bodies to the State – and the police its representative.

  8. Decriminalise it. Regulate it as a formal job. Stop treating them as victims (Some are sex addicts and they like what they do.) unless you can identify cases where they are (i) coerced forcefully as in illegal immigrants and (ii) not old enough to make conscious adult decisions to enter into the business, e.g. underage sex and solicitation thereof… See more. Either way, control and legalization allows the law to root out the fundamentally illegal aspects of it. There is a reason it is the oldest profession.

  9. Putuma, what is the reason that its the oldest profession?

  10. Supply and demand, perhaps ?
    Sorry if I sound existentialist, but you can’t paint all these women as victims. Some don’t even do it for the money. And besides, not all people that get abused as children, not all people with childhood emotional baggage end up as prostitutes. And NOT all prostitutes are sad, sick, diseased and powerless women in need of sociologists to expose … See moretheir plight. Some women who offer sex in exchange for money are very powerful; some of them are even, I dare say, FEMINISTS ! Some think, and are convinced that, it is they who actually pimp these “weak men”, i.e., the tricks who fiend for the fix outside their committed relationships; these women don’t need your sympathy;they think they are in control.

    • Hi Putuma
      I think that’s a myth created by the media – the happy/empowered hooker, exploiting men who are at the mercy of their sexual desires.
      Ive not seen this version of sex work at all in reality – Im not saying that all sex workers are ‘victims’ in the stereotypical sense of the word, but certainly in looking at the larger picture.

      • Hi Sally !

        You have a right to your opinion, but note that I didn’t reference the media when I stated what I said about some of these people in the skin trade, i.e., that some are powerful women who have made a conscious choice to pursue that career and that they don’t need Captain Save-a-Hoe anthropologists, sociologists or even “tricks” who want to sponsor a return to the life of housewives and “squares”.

        Try “saving” some prostitues yourself and see some rebuke you, if not merely take you for a ride and then return to their profession. Also, how do you call something a myth when it is pretty clear you don’t know the whole story ? Maybe you know the sorry Third-World prostitute that needs your help, but not the independent entrepreneur who is (trying to if not) making a healthy living from the sex industry doing something they clearly enjoy. Maybe that’s all the South African context is, but it is hardly the complete picture. In some countries, these women finance themselves through college; some simply finance an opulent lifestyle of glitz and glamour and they wouldn’t have it any other way.

        The media doesn’t manufacture these women and force them to say these things. These women exist, but it’s the puritanical society that tries to confine them to the sidelines and shun them as outcasts, despite completely patronising and sustaining their enterprise under the cover of the night.

        The operational phrase in your response to my assertion is, ” I’ve not seen…” and that just about sums it all up for me. Just because you have NOT seen doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. So, go out there and learn more about the complex faces of this industry and get some perspective.

        Also, be careful of treating the issue of prostitution from only one vantage point; that of your crusade and that alone. Look, I commend you for the noble work of standing for some of these misunderstood members of society and trying to highlight their plight for whatever cause you stand for, but sometimes be careful of those who do NOT need your help NOR your analysis. They exist ! Maybe not much in SA, but they DO exist !

  11. Enlightening viewpoint. This is a subject I struggle with myself – never thought of the slavery parallels. Women’s empowerment should not be at the expense of their dignity.

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