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HOW DO we explain the phenomenon of prostitution? If we believe it to be a form of exploitation, is it better described as gendered or classed?
The feminist position on the sex industry, if not always well understood, is certainly well known to be critical, especially in its most traditional manifestations. But what about a socialist feminist perspective?
After all, the make-up of the sex industry can be most effectively described as the renting of working-class, migrant and poor women, by middle-class or otherwise materially comfortable men.
Though prostitution is without doubt an example of the entrenched ways in which women’s culture is cultivated so as to disenfranchise us socially, in this dynamic it is most acutely felt by women from economically marginalised backgrounds.
Indeed, prostitution is one of the most poignant examples of the ways in which gender and class intersect in creating social hierarchy.
There are many political positions that make up the debates on prostitution, ranging from those who wish to abolish the industry and those who wish for it to develop and grow, who see it as a legitimate source of national economy.
There are also those who would not go so far as to make this assertion, but who would wish for prostitution to be decriminalised as a form of progressive policy designed to emancipate the workers in it.
Arguments about women’s poverty are often imperative to this position. If women’s poverty was eradicated, then the sex industry would diminish, but in the meantime, the industry itself should be fully unleashed, so that it no longer attracts criticism or taboo.
But this argument, made by organisations like the English Collective of Prostitutes (curiously you don’t have to be a prostitute to be a member) pins prostitution solely down to a decontextualised view of poverty, as though it had nothing to do with gender, historical oppression, colonisation or capitalist profiteering.
Added, their central objective is for the decriminalising of the industry (not just the women in it) far more so than any socialist reforms.
A decriminalisation which we have been hoodwinked into believing is progressive, but in reality (as per New Zealand) has given the framework for a growing gap between the wealth of the prostitution profiteers and workers, with multimillionaires like the Chow brothers able to claim 70 per cent of Wellington’s sex trade.
Someone should perhaps tell the ECP, and those like them, that any social policy that provides the conditions that allow monopolisation and super-wealth, doesn’t often do very much for poor women. Or poor anyone.
But such rhetoric — which seems to notice that women are disproportionately affected by cuts to social security, but hasn’t stuck around long enough to ask why — is populist and plays well to those who imagine their support of the oxygenation of the industry to be “right on.”
A unionisation of workers is often touted (although in legalised Germany the prostitute “unions” have scant few members) but this seems fundamentally wrong-headed within this context.
Because “we must liberate the bosses so that we can unite the workers against them” reads like a cult leader imploring you to offer up whatever power you do have, in order that you might be free.
In any case, pursuing the deregulation of the industry during an age of growing wealth inequality, further slashes to women’s social security and, now, the social and economic uncertainty of Brexit, displays a failure to differentiate between what you would like to happen in principle (New Age-style prostitutional women’s collectives who share benefits) and what would happen in practice.
When you try to limply use only a superficially socialist viewfinder to locate the sex industry, you neither fully understand it, nor do you have the real answers to its problems.
Which is why often well-meaning defenders of prostitutes invariably find themselves stultified by a mentality of lacklustre libertarianism, despite all of their leftist posturing.
It is true that poverty and inequality are push factors into prostitution. Most poor women don’t become prostitutes, but almost all women who become prostitutes do so, at least in part, in a frantic attempt to escape the tedium of poorness.
The extent to which they may have suffered at the hands of sex or race-based oppression or violence and the extent to which women have limited financial options to escape penury work in tandem.
The options that women choose within the industry also function along this continuum.
In 2014 The Economist released a study that showed how a woman’s “elements” are indicative of her rental price, with athletic rather than skinny or obese, educated rather than uneducated and white rather than black women being able to request the highest fees — facets that to varying degrees relate to structural and historical forms of inequality.
It also demonstrated that a prostitute could charge more for more risky “services,” such as oral without a condom and simultaneous sex with multiple men.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that women who are more vulnerable by virtue of their ethnicity or education may be market-pushed into putting themselves into more danger. Indeed uneducated women were more likely to see more men and work for longer hours.
Many socialists have argued that capitalism, in its thirsty bid for more profits, will commoditise more and more aspects of human life.
Yes, prostitution has an old history, but that does not mean we should allow the property developers or casino owners, who set up brothels post-legalisation, to give it a more meaty future.
We need to unearth the hypocrisy of those who use loosely progressive soundbites to support the industry’s growth, whether intentionally or through ignorance — because my socialist-feminism concerns itself with the majority of the most vulnerable and the most used, not the minority most greedy.
We must reclaim the narrative of social justice in relation to prostitution, from those with fickle, contentious or dubious aims because prostitution is indeed a socialist feminist issue.
- Rae Story worked in prostitution for a decade.
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