Prostitution Theory 101by Yvonne Abraham with Sarah McNaughtFew things have divided feminists as much as the sex industry. Theoristswho agree on a vast swath of issues — economic equality, affirmativeaction, even sexual liberation — often find themselves bitterly opposed overpornography and prostitution.
Most 19th-century feminists opposed prostitution and considered prostitutesto be victims of male exploitation. But just as the suffragette andtemperance movements were bound together at the turn of the century, sotoo were feminist and contemporary moral objections to prostitution. Women, the argument went, were repositories of moral virtue, andprostitution tainted their purity: the sale of sex was, like alcohol, both causeand symptom of the decadence into which society had sunk. By the 1960s and ’70s, when Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer assertedthat sexual liberation was integral to women’s liberation, feminists werereluctant to oppose prostitution on moral grounds.
Traditional morality, Greerargued, had helped to repress women sexually, had made their needssecondary to men’s. That sexual subordination compounded women’seconomic and political subordination. Today, some feminists see hooking as a form of sexual slavery; others, as aroute to sexual self-determination. And in between are those who seeprostitution as a form of work that, like it or not, is here to stay.
Radical feminists such as lawyer Catharine MacKinnon andantipornography theorist Andrea Dworkin oppose sex work in any form. They argue that it exploits women and reinforces their status as sexualobjects, undoing many of the gains women have made over the past century. Others detect in this attitude a strain of neo-Victorianism, a condescendingbelief that prostitutes don’t know what they’re doing and need somebodywith more education to protect them. Some women, these dissenters pointout, actually choose the profession. Feminists who question the antiprostitution radicals also point out thatDworkin and MacKinnon sometimes sound eerily like their nemeses on thereligious right.
Phyllis Schlafly, a rabid family-values crusader, has evencited Dworkin in her antipornography promotional materials. This kind ofthing has not improved the radicals’ image among feminists. At the other extreme from Dworkin and MacKinnon are sex-radicalfeminists like Susie Bright and Pat Califia. They argue that sex work can bea good thing: a bold form of liberation for women, a way for some to takecontrol of their lives.
The problem there, though, is that the life of aprostitute is often more Leaving Las Vegas than Pretty Woman (see PopTarts). Many feminists fall somewhere in between the rad-fem and sex-radicalpoles. Wendy Chapkis, professor of sociology and women’s studies at theUniversity of Southern Maine and the author of the Live Sex Acts: WomenPerforming Erotic Labor (Routledge, 1997), is one of them. For nine years,Chapkis studied prostitution in California and the Netherlands, as well as inBritain and Finland, and conducted interviews with 50 sex workers. Chapkissays she sees the profession as it is: many of her interviews confirmed muchof the ugliness that radical feminists abhor, as well as the empowerment thatsex radicals perceive.
I don’t think prostitution is the ultimate in women’s liberation, she says. But I think it’s better understood as work than as inevitably a form ofsexual violence. What prostitutes need, she argues, is not a bunch ofgoody-goodies looking down on them, but decent working conditions. Chapkis believes prostitution should be decriminalized. Just because it canbe lousy work doesn’t mean it should be stamped out, she argues.
After all,she says, there are lots of jobs in which women are underpaid,underappreciated, and exploited. Criminalizing the profession justexacerbates prostitutes’ problems by isolating them from the law and leavingthem vulnerable to abusive pimps and johns. In a profession where womentraditionally are not treated well, aren’t empowered, and should be able to goto the police for protection and assistance, she says, we make the policean extra obstacle, another threat. In the Netherlands, by contrast, where prostitution is decriminalized, policeand prostitutes are on the same side: hookers speak at police academies toeducate the officers about their work, and Chapkis says the communicationpays off in safer working conditions for the women. But what of the radical feminists’ claim that prostitution is too patriarchal tobe tolerated? Chapkis points out that many things in modern life began aspatriarchal institutions — marriage, for example. Problems within marriage,she says, can be addressed without resorting to abolition: these days, maritalproperty is distributed more fairly, and abused wives have places to go forhelp.
Even Catharine MacKinnon has found a way to reconcile herself tothe idea of getting married. Why can’t prostitution be similarly transformed?Still, Chapkis isn’t so naive as to see prostitution as benign. There are noeasy generalizations about sex workers’ lives, she says: I interviewed streetprostitutes who feel powerful and in control and are making a lot of money,and I met many high-class call girls who hate their jobs. Either way, Chapkis is certain that the only option is decriminalization, whichwould prevent prostitutes from getting arrested. I’m as concerned as any ofthe abolitionists to deal with the problems of prostitution — violence, druguse, poverty, she says.
But you can’t solve those problems by furthercriminalizing prostitution, driving it further underground. itmore difficult for women to access what help there is. Which is where a lot of prostitutes’ organizations stand, too. Tracy Quan,director of the Prostitutes’ Organization of New York (PONY), a supportgroup of more than 300 sex workers, has been in the movement todecriminalize prostitution since 1975. Prostitutes are just a part of the wholemix of society, whether people like it or not, she says.
Prostitution must betreated like an industry. But many workers are careful to distinguish between decriminalization andlegalization, which would create new laws and regulations governing theindustry. That, many sex workers and advocates believe, would only placeadditional demands on women whose lives are difficult enough already. Carmen, a 28-year-old who has been a sex worker for four years, questionsthe benefits of legalization, as demonstrated in Nevada.
Under the currentsystem, she says, if you are arrested and incarcerated, you are put behindbars. Legalization would be the same thing. You’re being put behind barbedwire, and it is dictated to you where you can go, when you can go there, andwho you can talk to. That’s certainly not enticing to me.
Norma Jean Almodovar of COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), anational advocacy and assistance organization for sex industry workers,explains that those of us who are out-and-out whores want our to be free. Quan adds that although some prostitutes find thatlegal brothels such as those in Nevada work for them, others choose illegalaction because they want to be in control. Nevada doesn’t encourage hookers to become madams, Quan says. And,to us, it is very much an industry just like any other money-making career. We want to know there is a level of hierarchy where upward mobility ispossible.
And many prostitutes are as cynical about the government and the cops asthey are about pimps and johns. There have been numerous examples ofhow law enforcement officials have used laws as a form of extortion, saysAlmodovar. `Blow me for your license’ is not the answer.Legal Issues