Prostitution Theory 101
By Yvonne Abraham and Sarah McNaught
OCTOBER 27, 1997: Few things have divided feminists as much as the sex industry. Theorists who agree on a vast swath of issues -- economic equality, affirmative action, even sexual liberation -- often find themselves bitterly opposed over pornography and prostitution.
Most 19th-century feminists opposed prostitution and considered prostitutes to be victims of male exploitation. But just as the suffragette and temperance movements were bound together at the turn of the century, so too were feminist and contemporary moral objections to prostitution. Women, the argument went, were repositories of moral virtue, and prostitution tainted their purity: the sale of sex was, like alcohol, both cause and symptom of the decadence into which society had sunk.
By the 1960s and '70s, when Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer asserted that sexual liberation was integral to women's liberation, feminists were reluctant to oppose prostitution on moral grounds. Traditional morality, Greer argued, had helped to repress women sexually, had made their needs secondary to men's. That sexual subordination compounded women's economic and political subordination.
Today, some feminists see hooking as a form of sexual slavery; others, as a route to sexual self-determination. And in between are those who see prostitution as a form of work that, like it or not, is here to stay.
Radical feminists such as lawyer Catharine MacKinnon and antipornography theorist Andrea Dworkin oppose sex work in any form. They argue that it exploits women and reinforces their status as sexual objects, undoing many of the gains women have made over the past century.
Others detect in this attitude a strain of neo-Victorianism, a condescending belief that prostitutes don't know what they're doing and need somebody with more education to protect them. Some women, these dissenters point out, actually choose the profession.
Feminists who question the antiprostitution radicals also point out that Dworkin and MacKinnon sometimes sound eerily like their nemeses on the religious right. Phyllis Schlafly, a rabid family-values crusader, has even cited Dworkin in her antipornography promotional materials. This kind of thing has not improved the radicals' image among feminists.
At the other extreme from Dworkin and MacKinnon are sex-radical feminists like Susie Bright and Pat Califia. They argue that sex work can be a good thing: a bold form of liberation for women, a way for some to take control of their lives. The problem there, though, is that the life of a prostitute is often more Leaving Las Vegas than Pretty Woman (see "Pop Tarts").
Many feminists fall somewhere in between the rad-fem and sex-radical poles. Wendy Chapkis, professor of sociology and women's studies at the University of Southern Maine and the author of the Live Sex Acts: Women Performing Erotic Labor (Routledge, 1997), is one of them. For nine years, Chapkis studied prostitution in California and the Netherlands, as well as in Britain and Finland, and conducted interviews with 50 sex workers. Chapkis says she sees the profession as it is: many of her interviews confirmed much of the ugliness that radical feminists abhor, as well as the empowerment that sex 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 of sexual violence." What prostitutes need, she argues, is not a bunch of goody-goodies looking down on them, but decent working conditions.
Chapkis believes prostitution should be decriminalized. Just because it can be 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 just exacerbates prostitutes' problems by isolating them from the law and leaving them vulnerable to abusive pimps and johns. "In a profession where women traditionally are not treated well, aren't empowered, and should be able to go to the police for protection and assistance," she says, "we make the police an extra obstacle, another threat."
In the Netherlands, by contrast, where prostitution is decriminalized, police and prostitutes are on the same side: hookers speak at police academies to educate the officers about their work, and Chapkis says the communication pays off in safer working conditions for the women.
But what of the radical feminists' claim that prostitution is too patriarchal to be tolerated? Chapkis points out that many things in modern life began as patriarchal institutions -- marriage, for example. Problems within marriage, she says, can be addressed without resorting to abolition: these days, marital property is distributed more fairly, and abused wives have places to go for help. Even Catharine MacKinnon has found a way to reconcile herself to the 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 no easy generalizations about sex workers' lives, she says: "I interviewed street prostitutes 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, which would prevent prostitutes from getting arrested. "I'm as concerned as any of the abolitionists to deal with the problems of prostitution -- violence, drug use, poverty," she says. "But you can't solve those problems by further criminalizing prostitution, driving it further underground. [That makes] it more 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 support group of more than 300 sex workers, has been in the movement to decriminalize prostitution since 1975. "Prostitutes are just a part of the whole mix of society, whether people like it or not," she says. "Prostitution must be treated like an industry."
But many workers are careful to distinguish between decriminalization and legalization, which would create new laws and regulations governing the industry. That, many sex workers and advocates believe, would only place additional demands on women whose lives are difficult enough already.
Carmen, a 28-year-old who has been a sex worker for four years, questions the benefits of legalization, as demonstrated in Nevada. "Under the current system," she says, "if you are arrested and incarcerated, you are put behind bars. Legalization would be the same thing. You're being put behind barbed wire, and it is dictated to you where you can go, when you can go there, and who you can talk to. That's certainly not enticing to me."
Norma Jean Almodovar of COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), a national advocacy and assistance organization for sex industry workers, explains that "those of us who are out-and-out whores want our [fellow workers] to be free." Quan adds that although some prostitutes find that legal brothels such as those in Nevada work for them, others choose illegal action 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 is possible."
And many prostitutes are as cynical about the government and the cops as they are about pimps and johns. "There have been numerous examples of how law enforcement officials have used laws as a form of extortion," says Almodovar. " 'Blow me for your license' is not the answer."
Sarah McNaught can be reached at email@example.com.
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