X-post # 17 [end-violence] Legitimizing prostitution

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Subject: X-post # 17 [end-violence] Legitimizing prostitution
From: Jyothi Kanics (jkanics@igc.apc.org)
Date: Wed Mar 17 1999 - 10:40:17 EST

From: Dianne Post <diannepost@glasnet.ru>
Date: Tue, 16 Mar 1999 21:29:53 +0300
Subject: [end-violence] Legitimizing prostitution

A recent book, Pornography: The Production and Consumption of Inequality,
Dines, Jensen, Ruse, (1998) points out that the existence of pornography
is by itself not only an indication of women's subordination, but a tool
for the continuation of same. So is prostitution.

Some argued that after the Netherlands decriminalized pornography, sex
crimes fell dramatically. Such "facts" were highlighted as arguments for
pornography. However, a closer look at those statistics revealed a
different story. The reason sex crimes fell was because of the
decriminalization of homosexuality. In fact rape, a crime of assault
primarily against women, increased along with the increase in pornography.
Thus whenever statistics are paraded out to support prostitution or
pornography, we must look at every study with a feminist eye and
disaggragated data so the true impact on women can be known. While some
try to pretend there is a "universal he"; there isn't.

Many people refer to prostitution as the "oldest profession" which is one
of the myths continuing to hamper discussion. It isn't the oldest by any
means. Agriculture is. Further, there were societies prior to recorded
male history in which women were not in a subordinate position to men and
in which prostitution was unknown. It also isn't "profession" as a
profession requires some advanced knowledge or skills which prostitution
does not.

Many writers attempt to make a distinction between prostitution and
"forced" prostitution. Is there such a thing as voluntary prostitution? To
be voluntary, there has to be free choice. In fact the oft-mentioned ILO
report says, "some women go into prostitution as a matter of free personal
choice or the right to sexual liberation." In a patriarchy, which this
world undeniably is, "free choice" for women does not exist. All choices
open to women are circumscribed by the oppression under which we live.

That does not mean women are eternal victims or incapable of agency. It
simply means that every choice we make must be contextualized. Yes I chose
to be an attorney working on issues of violence against women. But if I
truly had a choice, I would not have chosen this profession or this topic
because there would be no violence against women and I would not need to
do this work. Given the context in which I live, a patriarchy where
violence against women is the norm and the tool for maintain subordination
of women, I choose to do this job.

Is that a "free choice" or a choice between existing options, all of them
bad and none of them mine?

Likewise women do not have free choice when there is massive poverty. The
ILO report admits that most women "choose" prostitution for economic
reasons. Surely no one can argue that this is "free choice" any more than
the cattle in the squeeze chute made a choice to go to its death.

If women enter prostitution for "sexual liberation", what is it they need
to be liberated from? Are they seeking liberation from a male imposed
double standard of sexuality? Are they seeking liberation from their own
moral or religious qualms preached by male priests and ministers? What are
they seeking liberation to? To do what they want when they want it or when
someone else does? If women were truly free, we would not need to be
"liberated" from anything. The reason women need liberation at all is
became males imprison us. To seek escape from a prison cell is liberation,
but when women are living in a global patriarchy, we can never escape the

One of the other common arguments is that if it's all right for women to
"give" sex away then why isn't it all right for them to "sell" it. If the
meaning attached to being a prostitute was a positive one; we would not be
having this discussion. But it's not. So, some say, we are trying to
change that meaning to be positive. All right, let's say that happened
with a snap of the fingers. Then women who "sold" themselves to men for
men's sexual fulfillment are positive, and women who refuse to sell or
give themselves to men for men's sexual fulfillment (lesbians) are
negative, which in most places in this world, they are so viewed. Then it
becomes crystal clear that once again we are valuing women in terms of
what men want them to be. Does that sound like "free choice"? Does that
sound like "liberation"?

The difference between "giving" and "selling" is not just semantic. The
eroticization of women's bodies by men creates secondary meaning more
powerful than the original. In some cultures, a bare breast does not
invoke sexual imagery. In America in particular, breasts have been so
eroticized that an entire industry has grown up around it. Likewise
women's legs, buttocks, lips etc. have been so eroticized that putting
these "items" into the stream of commerce has a different meaning than
putting widgets into the stream of commerce. So long as we continue to
live in a society where men define women, any such "selling" will continue
to have a secondary meaning negative to women.

The other difference is that there are many things we allow people to do
for free but not for pay. We can "give" our baby away for adoption but we
cannot sell it. We can "give" our kidney in a transplant but we cannot
sell it. Why? Because society has made a value judgement that certain
things will not be allowed because of the impact they have on the greater
society. Babies are humans; not commodities for sale. Organs are parts of
the body of humans; not commodities for sale. The fear of making babies
and organs commodities is the coarsening of the human race, devolving if
you will. Of course both babies and organs are sold illegally. But is
anyone arguing that it should be legalized? If it's not all right to sell
babies and it's not all right to sell organs, why is it all right to sell
women's bodies?

That same argument swirls around surrogate motherhood and cloning. Women
were, in fact, once commodities in the stream of commerce owned by their
fathers and then their husbands and counted as his property just like his
horses and pigs. She could be sold or killed if he liked with no recourse.
A human rights movement, especially a feminist one, should be seeking to
evolve away from that time period; not return to it.

However, the retort is raised, prostitutes do not "sell" their bodies only
their sexual services and use of the body for a short time just like I, an
attorney, give the use of my brain power i.e. my "services" or if I were a
bricklayer the use of my body for a short time for money to my clients.
But because of the eroticization of women's bodies and of sex in general
at least in America, these things cannot be equated; the secondary
meaning eclipses the primary.

Second, there are "services" we allow and those we don't. Employers are
not allowed to use the services of their employees beyond reasonable time
limits (sweat shops aside). Attorneys are not allowed to use their
services to help clients commit crimes. Doctors are not allowed to use
their services to do sex selected abortions. Again, why? Because society
has made a value judgement. That is what the law is all about. Drawing
lines. When I'm 17, I am not mature enough to go into a bar and drink. One
day later, when I'm 18, I am. Not much happened to me over that 24-hour
period. It's an arbitrary line. Likewise we say a 17 year old is a victim
of prostitution, but 24 hours later, she has freely chosen that
occupation. It's an arbitrary line. A distinction with no difference.

As Sheila Jeffreys pointed out in her email of March 2, 1999, in Victoria,
Australia, the government legalized brothels while keeping street
prostitution illegal. While the motives were allegedly to keep women
safer, what is the underlying message? Prostitution, the sale or use of
women's bodies, is all right when done by the government, which is
primarily run by men. But not all right when women do it themselves. Thus
so long as the State benefits from the sale of women's bodies i.e. taxes,
license fees, sex tourism, it is acceptable. If only women benefit from
it, it's not acceptable. The underlying message of women's subordination
to a male dominated State could not be clearer.

In answer to Sheila' s message, Sue Metzenrath, also from Australia, wrote
that she, and others, had benefited from prostitution because they used
the money they earned to get a tertiary degree. That may be so. But the
fact that someone benefits from an oppressive system, even when that
someone is a member of the oppressed group, does not mean the oppressive
system is therefore permissible. Some Africans benefited from selling
their brothers and sisters into slavery. Some madams benefit from selling
their sisters into sexual slavery. That does not negate the oppressive
system. Rather that is a strategy of the oppressor to keep the oppressed
group divided - benefit them unequally and they will keep fighting each
other and not turn their combined force on the real enemy. Besides, why do
Australian women have to prostitute to get enough money for a tertiary
degree? Why aren't the resources provided by the State: low tuition,
loans, scholarships, inexpensive housing etc? Why isn't that the goal?

The ILO report argues that, "If human rights and morality were enough"
which presumably they are not. Well, wasn't human rights and morality what
opposition to apartheid in South Africa was about? In South Africa, there
were also very strong incentives to maintain apartheid not only for south
African whites but for those other nations who traded with them getting
items at less cost because of an exploited system of labor. There were
many vested interests who derived profits from keeping apartheid as there
were in the American south during slavery. Likewise there were strong
economic reasons why South African Blacks continued to work for white
concerns and the white government just as there are strong economic
reasons why women continue to work in prostitution and pornography. In
South Africa, macroeconomic developments contributed to the continuation
of white rule. However, that did not prevent the world from expressing its
disapproval of apartheid with not only high sounding words and
resolutions, but an economic boycott that helped to bring the South Africa
government down. Why isn't that happening to Afghanistan which has
instituted a brutal system of gender apartheid?

A November 20, 1998 letter from ILO to Clare Nolan states that a human
rights and moral perspective is not likely to lead to effective solutions
because of the entrenched nature of prostitution into the economy. Well,
in South Africa apartheid was not "entrenched" in the national economy -
it WAS the national economy. Likewise in the American south, slavery was
not "entrenched" in the economy, it WAS the economy. Granted moral and
human rights perspectives ALONE will not lead to the most effective
solutions, but they are a part of the solution and cannot be jettisoned
for solely economic concerns. Economic concerns should be buffered by
human rights, not the other way around.

The ILO report says the "sex sector has strong economic and social basis
that are too large, powerful, well-organized and entrenched to ignore, and
that an approach that focus only on the women and children from a purely
human rights or moral perspective is not likely to lead to an effective
solution." Those who oppose prostitution are well aware of these facts. It
was feminists after all who exposed and objected to the massive legal and
illegal profits by private organizations and governments in the first
place. I personally have been physically threatened and attacked and sued
for exposing pornography and prostitution. I don't believe those of us who
oppose it are naive.

In fact, the huge economic profits and the entrenchment of such economic
activity in national economies by national governments is precisely the
point: women are becoming commodities not only for private business but
the State as well.

Because of that phenomena, we know that legitimization of sex as work will
result in more money (as proven in Australia) and less legitimate work for
women in the rest of the economic sector: after all, they can always be

We certainly do not advocate ignoring the economic interests; in fact that
is one of the main problems. I absolute agree both the economic and social
basis must be attacked. That is precisely why there should be no
legitimization: that only strengthens the economic and social basis.

Nor are we only looking at the problem from the welfare of the individual
prostitute. In fact, isn't that why we are criticized; because we say that
the ultimate impact on ALL women is too negative to allow. However, we do
insist that the individual prostitute cannot be ignored and must not be
criminalized. The ILO report agrees that, "Prostitution is also deeply
rooted in a double standard of morality for men and women." Obviously
maintaining prostitution maintains that double standard rooted in that
inequality. That is why legitimizing is wrong.

Dianne Post

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