Vala rushes in where angels fear to tread

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This whole prostitution/sexwork/C36 business, well, I’ve tried, partly out of cowardice, to stay out of it, because people I agree with normally are passionately on all sides of it, and while I long ago admitted my love of trolling, this is one of those issues that really has to be handled with kid gloves, because it touches on so many things. So instead, rather than straight-up trolling, I’m going to “concern troll.”

I feel that the motivations for why some feminists may hope and pray for anything, anything that stigmatizes and punishes the purchasers of sexual services (aka “johns”) are not always well characterized in this discussion, being associated too tightly with others who have the same aim but come at it from a more traditionally patriarchal perspective of enforcing public morality. The topic is a very large one with a huge history behind it, including a very large volume of internet discussion going back to Old USENET. I won’t talk about whether the Nordic Model has worked — I gather the evidence base is hotly debated — but rather the more thorny ideological question of “agency” and what it should mean in this context. So here is my attempt at contributing a clarificatory explanation.

Some of the misunderstanding comes through in this Colby Cosh article (just for example, I don’t regularly read McLean’s):

We seem to have exchanged demonizing women for infantilizing them. (Perhaps someday we’ll discover some kind of crazy third alternative!) The new law concentrates on the demand for prostitution, rather than the supply, because “women are vulnerable” and the sex trade is never a choice—except possibly for some male prostitutes, although Conservative statements on the law always speak only of women and children. Somehow, this is exactly the opposite approach from the one our law takes to the war on drugs: In that case, the demand is considered relatively harmless and natural, while the suppliers can never be persecuted harshly enough. Why do you suppose this distinction is never noticed, much less accounted for?

So: the idea is that sex and reproduction as a transaction under unequal/asymmetrical/unfree conditions is the ur-oppression, prior to and qualitatively different from other oppressions. There is a component of prostitution that is like other labour, no doubt, but there is a component that isn’t. That component consists of at least two parts: (1) the profound way in which sex and reproduction condition not only how we produce and consume, but also our familial bonds and obligations, not to mention the economics of pregnancy, etc, and (2) the “psychic” aspect of the traditional (hetero)sexual interaction, the experience of which is held to be asymmetric relative to biological sex.

In this manner, patriarchy and direct-sale of sex, especially without any continuing obligation, are deeply intertwined. In fact, the very interaction in prostitution is patriarchy brought down to its essence and reinscribed not only on the body of the woman sex worker, but on all female individuals, including e.g. lesbians. That men are by far the majority buyers and women the majority sellers is not an after-effect of patriarchy, to be straightened out to relative equality as time goes by, but in fact the raison d’ĂȘtre of the institution, with exceptional circumstances (gay prostitution, female clients, etc.) being mere sad mimic or pantomime of the real thing: men buying women.

From this perspective, decriminalization is simply a libertarian approach, equivalent to there being no protection against exploitative workplaces—-with the important caveat that radical feminists do not agree that there is a point at which the selling of sexual services is not exploitative, even if it’s a rich professional with other options doing the selling, as it is sometimes. From a narrow perspective, in the transaction, the (male) buyer is always the more powerful participant, creating a space where consent for intimately physical actions have been obviated by the transfer of money—-what could not be achieved even under “ordinary” patriarchal privilege is thus obtained by other means. Socially, the floor is thus ratcheted down for what males can and cannot expect from females, what they are trained to believe they have a right to, at the very least with money, and negotiating space is partly stolen from women as a class to set the terms of sexual encounters in general.

Now: whether it is right that sexual oppression is prior to other oppressions and must be treated differently from any other form of labour can be and is hotly disputed. But the position is not equivalent to the sort of moralizing performed by neo-Victorians, even if it coincides on certain overlapping policy prescriptions. Consent and agency and the denial thereof are red herrings that liberals pursue in their wars with conservatives to decide under which regime women’s bodies shall be commodities: in private or in public. Decriminalizing drugs may be a good thing, because it would reduce the power of the cartels who supply it; but women are not meaningfully a cartel. To “abolitionists” or radical feminists or whatever, women’s lives are conditioned by what position on the supply chain they have been placed, regardless of what kind of agent-y “empowerful” feelings they may have. The minimum requirement for ending this system is returning sexual relations to a position of mutual enthusiastic enjoyment and genuine feeling, and outside of the conventional domain of production and economic transaction. And the only way to do this, as they see it, is to impose a cost on the users of the ur-institution of patriarchy.

As I said, whether they’re right is another matter, and even if they’re right, whether the costs that may or may not be imposed on sex workers/prostitutes/whatever are worth the benefit is still another matter.

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This page contains a single entry by Mandos published on July 13, 2014 12:53 PM.

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