Thursday, November 18, 2010

Sex Work and the Logic of Business

Tonight I have been watching the US Senate hearing on the ratificiation of the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Interestingly, USA is the only industrialised country that has not ratified the treaty since it was agreed upon 1979. No, not 2009, not even 1999, but 1979 - 31 years ago.

Not so surprisingly there were a lot of supporters and not many opponents. The only opponent debating was Steven Groves, expert at the Heritage Foundation, an American conservative think-tank. I do not wish to talk about exactly what was said for and against CEDAW in this hearing, as the ratification has not yet been voted on in the Senate, so I will leave that to be the contents of a possible later post. What I wish to discuss is something I picked out from his speech.

Groves had problems with CEDAW because of different points in the treaty he believes to be against US morals and views. He disagrees with CEDAW's 'social engineering', i.e. the points where CEDAW urges that changing and challenging gender roles are key to women enjoying full equality in any society. One of the problems he has with this is the CEDAW committee's encouragement of the protection of sex workers. They have at one point urged that it is important not to punish women in the sex trade as it is likely they are already in an exploited position, usually due to socio-economic reasons.

The problems, I would assume, he has with this is the moral implications of making sex into a trade, and that the women sex workers, through selling sex, encourages and fosters such an environment and thus, also, the eradication of the morals in society. This assumption is really interesting, because it implies an elaborate scheme on the part of these women to corrupt humankind. Somehow, along the lines of the evolving sex industry, which has survived as long as civilisation has, women have gathered and decided that they are going to use their sexual powers to corrupt men, and along with it, society.

I think it is quite clear that assuming such an elaborate conspiracy that has be inherited through history, with sex workers being completely unrelated to each other, is a bit far-fetched to say the least. It would require an organisation that women resorting to a highly stigmatised work simply do not have the resources for because they usually get involved in the sex trade precisely because they do not have any resources.

What Mr. Groves has completely failed to see here, or just intentionally neglected is that sex work, as any other type of work follows the simple logic of supply and demand. The supply continues to be there because the demand is. Now, as I have pointed out before, sex in itself is not an inherently bad thing, neither does sex work necessarily have to be, it is under the current power structures of society that it becomes a means of exploitation and power abuse. However, this is exactly the point. The morals are not being corrupted through some kind of mythical succubus prostitute; they are already in place. It is exactly the morals in today's society that allows a sex industry to thrive, and a great part and energiser in that is sexism. The rigid confines of our gender roles, including both men and women here, lead us to take actions within the framework of these.

Masculinity is the exact antonym to femininity. It is the absence of all that is deemed to belong to the feminine. For every masculine gender role there is a feminine gender role that corresponds just a little bit too neatly: calm/surging, weak/powerful, passive/active, nurturing/violent are just some examples. Therefore, in order to be masculine, or a man, one needs to be the exact opposite to a woman, which includes exerting power over them. If you can subject the feminine, then you are a man. These are the kinds of morals that society impresses upon us and, more crucially, have been for centuries.

I am not saying that every man and every woman adheres to these stereotypes - in that case society would be far more frustrating than it already is, but there is a force in society that steers us in the direction of respecting these presumed innate qualities and many of us simply have not stopped to reflect long enough about them to be aware of them.

Point being, these kind of morals and virtues have been in place for a very long time. Sex work is one of the oldest types of work known. Once it may have been the simple transaction of sexual favours, but it has long since evolved into something else. Prostitutes have been viewed to be dirty, cheap and less than human for a very long time. It is because we have these values that the sex industry can thrive, not because women have some innate corrupting capability as Groves would like to think. It is because these power relations are in place that CEDAW encourages countries to ensure that sex workers have some basic rights; the simple reality is that many of them are being exploited and abused. They are not paid nearly as much as they should be, and they are often victims of violence - both sexual and other. Prostitutes are quite often raped because the men who commit these acts see these women as a commodity. Yes, sex workers can be raped, even if you give her money after the act. There is still a lack of consent involved and her line of work is irrelevant in that respect. Where do those morals come from, Mr. Groves?

There is one thing Mr. Groves and I agree on - there are a lot of things wrong in the sex industry, but that is an even stronger reason to ratify CEDAW and ensure other women's rights laws are in place to help stop the exploitation and stigmatisation of women in this line of work.

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