Sunday, November 28, 2010

Junk Sex: Prostitution and Notions of 'Choice'

Not long ago, here in the UK, there was a bit of a sensational news story over the outing of a ‘high-class’ hooker. She had published (as ‘Belle du Jour’) a number of popular books about her life in prostitution (did proceeds from her books go to women’s shelters? Educational initiatives for young girls? Perhaps to a women’s health clinic in rape-ravaged Darfur? I highly doubt it, but would be happy to learn otherwise). The sensational bit was that this ‘high class’ hooker turned out to have a PhD in a scientific field.  (She worked as a prostitute to survive financially during her PhD studies.  Funny, I've been doing my PhD studies for five years and not only have I not needed to become a prostitute to do so, but I have saved 20+ grand along the way...).  The fact that Belle du Jour's father has used over 150 prostitutes, even introducing many to his daughter, had absolutely nothing to do with her decision to pursue this work (really?).

So what’s wrong with a smart, pretty woman cashing in on her sexuality? It’s the oldest trick in the book, really, and good for her if she’s clever enough to make a fortune off of it, right? Besides, it’s much easier (why pay your way through college with a work-study or minimum wage coffee shop job when you can strip or prostitute a couple of nights a week and make loads? The joke’s on them, right? Right?) 

I must growl at this notion.  The issue of prostitution-as-empowered-choice gets right to the heart of my own biggest frustration with mainstream feminism today: how we think about choice.  Not reproductive choice, but women's agentic choice.

Women have fought long and hard (and continue to fight) to have choices.  To choose to work, to choose whether or not to marry, to choose when, how, and under what circumstances to reproduce, to choose how to dress, to choose when, how, with whom, and under what circumstances to have sex, to become educated, etc. etc.  Having some choices in life is integral to human integrity and the pursuit of happiness.  Many more women are now able to make choices than has been the case historically.  Still, many, many women today live highly constricted lives with little or no choice- not only women in societies that burn and disfigure women routinely, deny them access to education, etc. but also in societies that deny poor women access to healthcare and contraceptives, or to stable, living wage jobs, and deny women, poor and privileged alike, choices about their own sexuality, beauty, and bodies and freedom from violence, sexual and otherwise.

Now it seems to me that there is an ever-widening gulf between privileged women who have some choices, and disadvantaged women (economically or otherwise) who have little or no choice.  It seems to me that many women are increasingly divorced from both a sense of liberation from patriarchy and solidarity with each other (not that women have at any time nailed solidarity on the head).  

This is particularly evident and disturbing in regards to beauty, bodies, and sexuality.

It's more than a little suspicious to me that the 'choices' of privileged women coincide so perfectly with male and media-driven consumer capitalism.  That the totems of male and media-driven consumer capitalist conceptions of beauty and sexuality- extreme waxing, extreme thinness, breast implants, skyscraper heels, heavy makeup, dressing hyper-sexually, stripping, prostituting- turn out to also be the empowered choice of masses of privileged women is... well, it's a bunch of junk.  I can't be the only highly sexual woman with more interesting and nuanced ideas about my beauty, my body, and my sexuality than those copied from mass media and male 'fantasy' (I'd also like to believe there are men out there with more interesting and nuanced ideas/fantasies about beauty, bodies, and sexuality than those for which they are generally credited).  

This isn't to say that only privileged women are spending vast amounts of time and money trying to emulate 'beauty' standards, or taking pole-dancing classes, or watching violent, misogynistic porn, or buying Belle du Jour's books and reconstructing prostitution as an empowered life choice.  Disadvantaged women do these things too.  But it is to say that privileged women- that is, women with choices- should feel some obligation to do better.

A woman with choices is a profoundly fortunate woman.  It seems to me that she should show her gratitude for her own good fortune, and her commitment to women's broader liberation, by making principled choices that are in the interests of raising life standards for all women, instead of making 'personal choices' that, oddly, seem so often to revolve around expensive shoes and pandering to men's (apparently sadly limited) sexual fantasies.  

But who are you, Penny Sociologist, you may be asking, to decide what a 'principled choice' is?  Ultimately, it is up to each of us to draw out our own principles and to decide what principled choices might be.  I do not advocate organized religion, or popular media, or parents, or partners, or friends, or myself as the arbiter of principles and dictator of choice.

I ask only that we reflect deeply and seriously on the question.  And I suggest that weighing what is 'good' for one’s self against what is good for women might be a place to start.  

For me, principled choice means doing my absolute best to make choices that do not hurt other women, and certainly not to profit from choices (practices) that hurt other women.  At the same time it means giving absolute protection and support to women who have no choice.

In practice, acting out my principled choice might mean not buying Belle du Jour's books and not promoting prostitution as glamorous (or selling myself as a high class hooker), while volunteering at a shelter for trafficked women, working to raise awareness about the costs of prostitution, and fighting to end penalties for women who prostitute and impose penalties for the men who buy them.

But, Penny Sociologist, you might say, not all women in prostitution are drug-addled, or come from sexual/physical abuse backgrounds, or are driven to it by desperation, or are beaten up by pimps, or live on the streets, or are desperate women desperately in need of real help.  Some are just powerful, healthy women who are happily making choices.  I would first say that, in fact, the vast majority of women in prostitution are there without their consent or have 'chosen' to prostitute because, in fact, they have abusive backgrounds and very little other choice.  The powerful, healthy women happily making the empowered choice to prostitute under safe conditions are quite rare in practice.  And even for those women in prostitution who will state that it is their 'choice', we must keep in mind psychological mechanisms whereby human beings reap mental health benefits by accepting and rationalizing their 'choices' as free and agentic even, or especially, when they are not.

But even if I grant that there might be a minority of healthy, happy prostitutes out there, it really is ultimately quite irrelevant.  The happy, healthy, well-paid prostitutes are much like the happy, healthy, well-paid loan sharks, tax lawyers, bankers, and assorted corporate overlords who profit at the expense of society in general and the poor in particular.  There are many distasteful, predatory jobs out there that ideally would not exist, and it is not unreasonable to hope that bright, capable people with the resources to make choices might choose to do something better with their talent and energy.  A happy, healthy, well-paid prostitute is, at the end of the day, propping up and sometimes glamorizing an industry that at worst enslaves and at best seriously hurts millions of women.  There is nothing to celebrate in that.

A final point in this long, difficult, somewhat rambling post: Just because a woman makes a 'choice' does not mean that it is to be unthinkingly celebrated.  We don't generally celebrate men who use prostitutes, so why should we celebrate women who are 'empowered' prostitutes?  We don't celebrate men who produce violent, misogynistic porn, so why should we celebrate the women who (freely, empoweredly) 'act' in it?  We don't celebrate men who watch violent, misogynistic porn, so why should we celebrate it when women do?  These choices/practices are no savorier when enacted by women and dressed up as empowerment, to hell with the realities and consequences for the overwhelming majority of women.

And to extend the idea of making principled choices: Beauty, sex, and bodies are an easy place to start thinking about choices and consequences and principles.  But it is by no means the only area in which women (and men) who have choices should perhaps feel an obligation to make principled choices.  Think about domestic work.  The low wages and poor conditions of domestic workers (i.e. maids) are well-documented.  Is it even vaguely principled for a wealthy woman to use her class privilege to exploit and oppress a poor woman by employing her to work in her home as a nanny or maid, paying her lousy wages, and demanding far more than 40 hours a week of her time?  


  1. This is a link to a documentary about women in Rhode Island who used a 'legal loophole', now closed, to sell sex. It's one of the few places where the women themselves are heard.

  2. Dear Penny,
    This is so well said. May I quote some of this and link to your post? Our site has had a lot of discussion of human trafficking and justice.

  3. Ninjanurse- Thank you for the link! I enjoyed reading the post- you are quite right about the necessity/importance of hearing women themselves.

    Nancy- Thank you! And yes, please do.

  4. I have a confession-- both names are me. Sometimes I forget which one I'm using.
    Here's a link to my blog with quotes from you, thanks again.


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