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Feminism & Prostitution: A Nonmonolithic Debate
by Vanessa Forro Saturday, May. 07, 2005 at 9:56 AM
om4padme1@netzero.com (216) 650-3963

Feminism cannot be defined as one mode of thinking, nor can prostitution be defined as one experience, although historically it has been defined as such. This article argues that feminism and prostitution are similar in that they are both not monolithic modes of thinking, or in the case of prostitution, working. Thus, feminists can be prostitutes, and prostitutes can be feminists. The experiences, freedom of choice, and equality of ALL women is part of the female experience and cannot be defined as one or the other alone.

Feminism cannot be defined as one mode of thinking, nor can prostitution be defined as one experience, although, historically it has been stereotypically defined as such. Although the pervasive stereotypes exist, the basic and universal ideas of choice and equality are at the core of both feminism and prostitution. Definitions of choice and equality vary across different feminist theories and elements of choice and equality vary according to different kinds of prostitution. For the purposes of generalization, I will use the term sex work in place of prostitution, even though they are interchangeable to say the least. This paper will discuss different feminist theories and historical definitions of feminism in relation to sex work in the United States. I will also discuss the dichotomy among and between feminists on the topic of sex work in the context of different feminist theories. I conclude that feminism and prostitution are similar in that they are both not monolithic modes of thinking or, in the case of prostitution, working. Thus, feminists can be prostitutes, and prostitutes can be feminists because they both cannot be defined as static. The experiences, freedom of choice, and equality of all women is a part of the female experience and cannot be defined as one or the other alone.


There are a number of different schools of thought relevant to feminist theory. Early liberal feminists believed that there were few, if any, sex differences between men and women. They believed women should be afforded the same opportunities as men in all areas of life such as employment, education, promotions, pay increases, and so forth. Liberal feminists held that there was an inherent hierarchy within society and that opportunities should be given to both men and women equally at each level. They believed that where there was equality of opportunity equality of condition would follow. However, the 'glass ceiling,' where women could hold same positions as men, but were not afforded higher employment beyond a certain position, countered this belief. One of the main criticisms of liberal feminism is that it excluded the experiences of many women who were outside the middle class, white, socioeconomic status.


Radical feminism blamed traditional patriarchy for the oppression and subordination of women in society. Some radical feminists suggested that female sexuality was partly responsible for the subordinate position of women. A major issue radical feminists argued was that pornography reinforced and caused violence against women. Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon are the most notable in the feminist community for aiming to make the access and production of pornography in the United States disappear. Radical feminists held that rape caused and influenced violence against women and rape of women. Yet, rape has often been described as a crime of power rather than sexually motivated.


Cultural feminism holds that just as there are different cultures such as African American and Native Americans, there, too, is a culture of Women. Their main concern was that anything denoted as feminine was what defined woman. Similar to radical feminists, they believed that patriarchy was the cause of women’s subordination in society, but did not want to overthrow society. Instead, cultural feminists stress that because of the patriarchal structure of society the female experience has historically been devalued. They believed women and men should work separately from each other, but women’s work should be given the same value as men’s work. However, cultural feminism assumes a universal female experience, which hinders from individuality.


Socialist feminism, on the other hand, suggests that capitalism along with patriarchy are responsible for the oppression of women. They do not believe in one female experience, but that there are many experiences according to various group affiliations. In capitalism, society is stratified into economic classes upper, middle, (lower-middle), and lower. Female oppression exists within each of these classes. Thus, socialist feminists hold that the elimination of capitalism and patriarchy would provide women equal opportunities and the disappearance of female oppression.


Finally, postmodern feminism is one that comes out of literary criticism. This group of feminists holds that all knowledge is socially constructed, and that what each individual believes to be true is influenced by a variety of societal assumptions. Postmodern feminists believe that there are many ways of perceiving an experience and no single interpretation is necessarily correct. They disregard objective construction of experience and embrace the subjective where each experience is as important as the next. Thus, postmodern feminists embrace all women’s experiences regardless of race, class, culture, or nationality which embody and define the female experience.


Prostitution is defined as the oldest profession in the world. Often prostitution is a form of monetary transaction where an individual is given cash for various sexual services. In some cases, those sexual services are used to acquire food, shelter, drugs or alcohol, and a number of needs deemed necessary by an individual for survival. Similarly, prostitution encompasses a broad range of sexual services including, but not limited to, street prostitution, escort services (both private and agency), call girls, strip clubs, burlesque dancers, exotic dancers, phone sex operators, and massage parlors. Prostitution has been debated among and between feminists since the advent of the feminist revolution in the late 1950s. However, more recently prostitution has been embraced as not a vice or crime, but a way of life. In some countries prostitution has been given the same recognition as many other service-based employment. This part of the paper attempts to define prostitution within the different theoretical frameworks of feminism discussed earlier.


Liberal feminism holds that women should be given the same opportunities as men within each hierarchical sector of society. Prostitution, like social hierarchy, has its many forms most of which are occupied by women. The patriarchal economic hierarchy defined by liberal feminists would not apply to the sex industry for several reasons. For example, street prostitution comprises about 5-10% of the entire sex industry. Most often street prostitutes will exchange sex for drugs, or they will have a number of customers each night in order to make enough money to buy drugs. On the other hand, many escorts/call girls will have approximately 2-10 customers a week, depending on type of services, length of time, location, or fees. They are often working in the sex industry to pay for higher education, feed their children, raise a family, or put a family member through school. Thus, the hierarchy evident within the sex industry is different from the liberal feminist definition of the patriarchal/economic hierarchy because it is often a hierarchy among women, not men and women. Also, in terms of economics, women and men in the sex industry are rarely competing for equal pay because, generally, women are paid more than men for sexual services. When looking at the sex industry as work and not involving the transaction of money from males and sex from females one would notice that this liberally-defined hierarchy is individually defined and sometimes chosen.


A criticism of liberal feminists was that they often excluded all female experiences, especially those of the lower class and minority women. This criticism holds strong in the feminist debate on prostitution. The majority of what society knows or sees about prostitution is the most visible part of the industry - street prostitution. Yet, even then, street prostitutes are not given a voice in how to define the work they engage in and why, especially their experiences, both positive and negative. Also, most of the research on prostitution are conducted on street prostitutes, thus ignoring the experiences of other areas of the sex industry.


Radical feminists blame female sexuality in part for the subordination of women. This in and of itself goes against a main component of human nature and identity whereby generalizing all sexuality to be negative. Radical feminists attacked the pornography industry claiming that it was an institutional way of advocating subordination and subjectification of female sexuality for the purposes of male enjoyment. They also hold that the porn industry capitalized on violence against women. However, in recent years, there has been a huge movement within the porn industry to create female-positive, female-centered adult movies created by, for, and about female sexuality. One such producer and former porn actress is Veronica Hart. She created a the first ever adult film enterprise Feminist Pornography, Inc. in response to the traditional, Hollywood-manufactured, male-dominated adult film industry. In recent years many female adult actresses have capitalized on their chosen profession on their own and are now wealthy, famous, and professional staples in the adult film industry. A few of these individuals include Candida Royale, Vanessa del Rio, Jenna Jameson, and Dr. Annie Sprinkle.


Prostitution in a cultural feminist framework would be in most cases virtually impossible, other than those prostitutes who services cater to the same sex. These would include homosexual, transsexual/transgender, and bisexual prostitutes. During the 1950s there were lesbian brothels known as Temples of Sappho. The aim of cultural feminists to separate men and women as much as possible in society would not include these areas of prostitution because lesbian sex workers are economically independent of male influence. Cultural feminists assume that there is a universal female experience, thus impeding on individualism. Thus, if all female experiences are one in the same, then a woman who is promiscuous and a prostitute’s sexual experiences are the same as well. Yet, the only difference between the promiscuous woman and the prostitute is that one involves monetary compensation and the other generally empty, unemotional sexual transaction. Why, then, are prostitutes so condemned in society, and especially by feminists, for a simple contractual exchange which happens to involve sex?


Socialist feminism holds that both capitalism and the implications of sex and gender are the causes of women’s oppression. In the context of prostitution, this theoretical framework would hold that there are various levels of oppression within different kinds of prostitution. Yet, the main component that necessitates prostitution’s higher evil, in a socialist feminist term, would be the exchange of money, or in some cases, goods or drugs, for sexual services. What this theory does not recognize is the independent factor of women in prostitution in a capitalistic society. As mentioned earlier, what of the lesbian prostitutes who provide sexual services to other women? The whole idea of capitalism plus patriarchy equals female oppression does not define this particular portion of sex workers. In fact, lesbian sex workers defy the patriarchal code of dependence on men, therefore the only obstacle in regard to socialist feminism and prostitution would be capitalism. However, eliminating capitalism altogether is an entirely different and complicated issue in and of itself.


Lastly, postmodern feminism is the one theoretical framework that recognizes individuality, and that no one experience is universal or correct. This theory is the only feminist theory that defies the monolithic assumption of both feminism and prostitution. Postmodern feminism holds that individual choices, perceptions, and lives are influenced greatly by society and individual subjectiveness. In the context of prostitution, postmodern feminism takes into account all experiences and types of prostitution. Indeed, the experiences of a drug-addicted street prostitute are very different from a high class call girl. One may suggest that both the street prostitute and call girl are victims of a patriarchal society where women’s bodies are a commodification. Yet, what the street prostitute uses her body for (i.e., drugs, food, clothing, or a place to sleep) may be different from the call girl who sees a few dates a week in order to pay for college courses. Another element that is readily not taken into account is the street prostitute’s addictions, possible history/cycle of poverty, lack of opportunity, and a number of others factors that may or may not apply to a high class call girl. Postmodern feminism is an advantageous theory when it comes to discussing sex work because it stresses individual experience. Yet, most of the time, regardless of theoretical framework, the voices of prostitutes are drowned by the cries of feminist debate. Recently, in an attempt to redefine the prostitution experience, many feminists are now seeing sex work as a defiance of patriarchy. Priscilla Alexander, a famous feminist and sex workers’ rights advocate, stated that some sex workers voluntarily exchange sex for money and, in effect, defy the patriarchal system by capitalizing on their human sexuality.


Feminism, like prostitution, is not one mode of thinking, being, or believing in the rights of women, and men, in a democratic world. The basic and universal ideas of choice and equality are core elements of what a democratic society is made up of. When feminism and prostitution are defined as one experience or another, it ignores the multitude and diversity of either of the topics. Therefore, feminists can be prostitutes, and prostitutes can be feminists because they are both not monolithic and static. The experiences, freedom of choice, and equality of all women is a part of the female experience and cannot be defined as one or the other alone.





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