Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Prostitution Quagmire

I have thought about posting this and I have changed my mind several times. I am still not entirely sure it is a good idea, but I think, for the purposes of the debate, that it is important to highlight some of the problems with prostitution.

In my native country, Sweden, there seems to be a consensus that prostitution is inherently evil. It is a patriarchical expression of female oppression and cannot be anything else. In my most recent blogpost I touched upon victimisation and the dangers of it. The logic applies even here and that is what I am going to attempt to highlight.

Now, I am all for the freedom of choice. The liberal streak runs strong in me and I believe that anyone has a right to choose as long as it does not obviously harm someone else. This is where the conundrum with prostitution. Is it really inherently evil? Does it always harm the women or men selling their bodies for money?

I also want to point out that I am talking about women who enter the trade voluntarily so to speak, i.e. without any coercion or threat of violence or otherwise, so trafficking victims are not what I am writing about here. I am also not talking about women who are forced into slavelike positions through debt bondage. I am talking about the women who made a conscious choice to enter the trade, whether or not it was because of societal norms and/or pressures. I am also focusing this post on women, because this is the area of my knowledge and interest and while I am sure there are certain similarities between male and female sex workers, the societal views on the both genders differ greatly.

Some people argue that prostitution is indeed evil. It is a strong expression of men’s view on women as their commodity to use and trade as they wish. Women cannot make the choice to become sex workers, they are always forced into it by society, economic circumstances or force. Even if women openly state they are working in the sex trade voluntarily, it is only because society has forced the view upon them that women have to be at the disposition of males. Society requires them to serve men.

While there is some validity in that argument and I would not doubt that many women are forced into prostitution due to economic and social circumstances or, indeed, violence (in fact, I have read a lot of research that proves this), there is also a danger in it. By arguing that even women who voluntarily enter the trade cannot make that choice because there is this metaphysical veil of male oppression surrounding them, they are effectively denying any choice to any woman. Furthermore, by taking away the agency in this way, saying that men stand behind these women’s choices they are reinforcing the assumption that these women are not strong enough and thus need saving. They are essentially reinforcing the same gender stereotypes they are trying to battle.

I personally do not believe that I am one to say whether or not these women have made that choice or not. I am not them, I do not know of the potential circumstances that led them into the sex trade and I cannot answer for them the question of whether or not they are happy doing so. Only they themselves can answer that. This is where the quagmire comes in. Sociological and psychological research done on the topic can argue both ways, but essentially it is subjective, and dealing with something subjective, a researcher cannot always trust that she or he will get truthful answers from their research subjects. Point being, we cannot know the absoute truth as to what these women feel, all our assumptions are subjective based on our reality.

I do recognise that there are several problems with prostitution. Women and men all over the world are used and absued by people who buy sexual favours of them. Moreover, I have yet to hear a compelling argument that argues that female oppression is not reinforced by the current practices of prostitution. However, I also believe that it is a part of women’s liberation, not to mention sexual liberation, to make that choice to become a sex worker. If a woman feels content with her decision to become a sex worker it can be very empowering in the sense that she is able to break social norms and taboos and do what she chooses to do, just like the movement of women who burned their bras.

To answer the question I posed at the beginning of this entry: No, I do not believe that prostitution is inherently evil. On the contrary, as I just said, I believe that it can be empowering for women to take control over their lives and make a choice like that. Sadly, I also believe that in the current state of the world, this is not possible. The view on women needs to be improved before we can have a society that respects sex workers, that will not abuse legalisation of prostitution. Currently legalisation of prostitution generally means an increase in trafficking victims who are used and abused, sold, threatened and held in debt-bondage. There are men who seize the opportunity to reinforce their own views of women as near equals to cattle and society’s view on sex work is too riddled with old-fashioned morals that too oppress women in their own way. Until we can have a society where women are respected as decision-makers, as versatile individuals and as worthy of the same status and rights as men, this freedom is just harmful.


  1. International Women’s Day was created in 1910 to promote socialist political objectives and was always referred to by the Communist name ‘International Working Women’s Day’. It was restricted to the socialist bloc. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the word ‘working’ was dropped along with it’s socialist meaning. Beginning in the 1970’s IWD became a vehicle for feminist concerns. Whereas IWWD was previously used to promote women’s oppression by a class of bourgeois upper class men and women, 1970s feminists changed the basis of the day by stating that men as a class of “chauvinists” completely controlled women who were each and all men’s victims. Women were no longer viewed as part of the bourgeois upper class.

    One can say that in the 1970s IWD became a brand new IWD with males -all males- for the first time becoming the single enemy. But even with this new ideological basis IWD limped along as a fairly insignificant world event until 1980s when “Patriarchy Theory” was elaborated as the brand new theory and also new basis for the need to observe IWD. It was in the 1980s that women began to celebrate IWD in vast numbers (mostly out of a new concern that men were out to oppress them) and on this basis the event has continued to grow primarily in terms of a gender war, the principle being that men alone as a privileged class hurt women alone as the oppressed class.

    International Men’s Day has a completely different reason for coming into being. Although IMD objectives occasionally intersect with those of IWD, such as advocating equality between the sexes, it is predominately about celebrating positive male role models, a very worthy aim in a social context which tends to highlight ONLY males behaving badly.

    Said concisely, International Women’s Day started as a day for women to promote socialist objectives, especially for proletarian women to fight against oppression by the upper bourgeois class comprised of men and women both. In the 1970’s it became a new movement claiming that men alone oppressed women, and that IWD will be used as a vehicle to promote, primarily, an assumed gender war. Said differently IWD shifted from being a class war, to a gender war.

    International Men’s Day is not based on the assumption of a gender war. IMD is primarily about promoting and celebrating positive male role models in a contemporary world context which is obsessed with teaching all young boys and girls that males behave badly, and only badly.

  2. That is why it is important that you do not confuse the objectives of IWD with the objectives of IMD. They are different.


  3. Ok, I don't really know the purpose of those comments for this blog post, but they are educational, so I'll let them be.
    I also want to point out that nothing I write is blaming the men in society, I don't think they are the evils of the world. It's centuries of practices that have led to the unfortunate situation today. In my world, men and women are equal. No one is better than the other. The point being, I'm not one of those feminists who wishes to take over the world and reform it to a matriarchy, Í just want to be recognised for being just as much worth based on my individuality.

  4. I know you are not one of those feminists. The fact that you raised the subject of International Men's Day but did not answer by the cliché "you have all other days to celebrate" means you are a very intelligent woman who does not need to hide her bigotry or stupidity behind meaningless slogans.

    If all "feminists" were like you, I'd immediately become a feminist. As matters stand I will never be a feminist.

    I admire you!

  5. Thank you! I really do appreciate that, and I try hard to get that message through because I believe it is important so as not to alienate men from the process. If we're ever going to reach equality, we need everyone on board. Unfortunately, we have a long way to go.

    I see now why you posted this here. My older posts I have to moderate the comments before they are published otherwise there will be a lot of spam. I have to delete about 16 "make money here" comments before I get one that's on topic.

    As for feminism, there are several different types of it. Unfortunately, as with a lot of other political ideologies, the radicals seem to shout the loudest. There are many others out there that share my opinion which is why it's important that we also claim our part of feminism and keep the discussion alive.

  6. That interests me, that there are other feminists like you who want everyone on board for equality. If there are a lot like you it is a big surprise and the radicals, assumedly, are shutting your voices out completely. Yours is the first intelligent and inclusive voice I've heard. Sure, the majority of feminists make overtures about equality but on thier lips equality is a euphemism for gender narcissism.

    All i can say is that, after reading your blog, I'm going to try and be more reasonable toward women who call themselves feminist, just in case they are more like you. Guess you've cracked a not-so-hard shell in this man!

    Keep speaking out..... you are good at it.


  7. Intressant och bra skrivet Linnea, ser fram emot att sitta i soffan med dig på kvällarna.

  8. If you cannot accept an exchange of sexual services between consenting adults you can hardly label yourself "liberal".

    The fact is the sex law is oppressing women, treating them as little children. This is not beneficial for the sexual liberation of women.

    Respect other people`s choices! Noone can better then themself decide if free will is involved or not. And certainly the State should not interfere with consenting adults deciding to exchange sexeal services for money.

  9. I agree with you that the sex law is oppressing women and that women should be able to decide for themselves whether they want to sell sex or not. We're completely on the same page.
    However, I don't trust the safe guard mechanisms that would have to be in place to ensure that women weren't coerced (trafficked) into sex work. I believe that in society today, where women aren't fully empowered, a completely liberated sex work sector would lead to an increase in trafficking, something which has, unfortunately, happened in places where prostitution is legal. If it is fully legalised it is harder to find these women who are coerced, because upon being questioned, they would lie since usually their traffickers know where their family lives etc.

    I do also believe that regardless, the current sex law in Sweden should be seriously revised and loosened, if not scrapped completely in favour of other legislation.

    And yes, I can still call myself a liberal. There are many positions on the liberal spectrum. There are different types of liberal. Politically liberal, socially liberal and economically liberal. All of those are not necessarily mutually inclusive. And to be liberal, one does not have to be a libertarian.