Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Some thoughts about Prostitution

Feminists hate prostitution. The latest bugbear of uber-feminist Julie Bindel, writing in the Guardian, is sex tourism, especially the type "exposed" in a recent Channel 4 documentary. A club-resort focussed on by the programme-makers, in Venezuela, caters to a largely American and British clientelle. The men choose "girlfriends" from a menu presented to them. The chosen girl then moves into the man's room, providing sex and companionship for the remainder of his stay. They make $80 per day, a lot of money in Venezuela.

According to Bindel,

Unlike regular prostitution, where the women at least get a break between customers and shifts, these women never stop. If the customer gets ill while she is in his employ, she will be required to clean up his vomit. Although the publicity for such package holidays promotes the "real girlfriend experience", it is anything but. Men who travel to such destinations are buying a dangerous delusion - that there are plenty of women in far-away "exotic" locations who will pander to their every desire, and love it to boot.

While the customers in such resorts can enjoy 24 hours of constant attention and pure, hedonistic pleasure, the women hate the experience. The worst of it, the women admit to each other, is the fact that there is no escape. Their facial muscles look almost fixed in fake smiles, and the voices sound hoarse from laughing at the unfunny jokes, coming out of the mouths of men they would not glance at twice, were it not for the money. Sex tourism promotes an insidious form of racism. The men view the women for sale as "exotic" and "other" - so unlike their mothers and sisters that they can treat them as mere commodities. Research has shown that many sex tourists do not consider the women as prostitutes. They believe that women from the countries they visit simply love having loads of sex with western men.

That there are at least two different sorts of imperialism on offer here. There's the imperialism that says, I have a right to possess the produce of country X. The purchase of women is, on one level, a metaphor for the expropriation of the third world by the first. Thus the woman working in a shoe factory, or forced to sell coffee at a below-subsistence price to Starbucks, is as much a victim of foreign oppression as the "holiday girlfriend". Perhaps more so. After all, despite what Bindel might think, a reasonably non-abusive form of prostitution is actually an attractive option when the only alternative is a sweatshop. It holds out the prospect of economic independence: at best, the possibility of a new life in a rich country. These resorts trade on the physical attractiveness of their inmates. How come there's such a high proportion of attractive young women? Because they are the ones who get hired.

Having watched the programme, it seems to me that Bindel's horror is misplaced. The Total Satisfaction resort may be sleazy, certainly, but there are far worse evils in the world. One of the women was working there to pay for her education so that she could pursue her chosen career, something not entirely unknown in this country, of course, since Labour introduced tuition fees. One can, of course, deplore the fact that there weren't other equally lucrative options available to her; it was a case of sell her body or lose her dream. But she was determined enough, and future-oriented enough, to make that sacrifice, and I think her choice, made in difficult circumstances, is deserving of our respect, even admiration. Bindel and Co, of course, would deprive her of her education and condemn her to a lifetime of drudgery.

This type of thought-process is in some respects deeply misogynistic. What it amounts to is the assertion that women are inherently victims, men are inherently evil, and that in the balance of the sexes men always have the power while women are poor darlings who need protecting from themselves by Big Sister who always knows best.

This is deeply, deeply, patronising. It is little more than an updating of a quasi-Victorian notion of female inferiority.

The idea that it's the business of well-meaning feminists in comfortable western countries to tell poor women in less-developed countries how to live their lives, while at the same time tolerating the economic system that makes prostitution attractive to these women, strikes me as post-imperial paternalism not entirely distinct from the impulse that made Bush and Blair want to rescue the Iraqis from Saddam Hussein, with catastrophic consequences for all concerned (apart from Blair, now off making his millions). The world looks very simple from Planet Bindel: filthy, greasy, fat, unattractive men preying on vulnerable, abused women. Yet the argument could so easily be phrased in precisely the opposite way. Gullible losers being fleeced for all they're worth by smart, cynical, self-confident women playing up to stereotypes of submissive oriental women for their own betterment.

Once you stop drawing a line round sex as being existentially different from any other human activity, then much of the argument collapses. Thus it is essential to maintain that line, which is, at base, rooted in Christian and other religious morality. Granted that prostitution is often in practice abusive, is it also in principle abusive?

It's usually asserted that prostitution cannot be a free choice for young women in deprived circumstances. But who is to say whether a girl from a dirt-poor family isn't in a position to make such an assessment? Many of them actually want to work in sweatshops that would give H&S people in Europe massive coronaries, so unappealing is the alternative: penury and backbreaking agricultural labour. Yet many in such factories would rather work in "bars". They're not all teenagers, by the way.

If you outlaw sex tourism, in what ways will the women benefit? Many would be made destitute. I think that the implicit acceptance of other forms of exploitation, in the context of concentrating on the sex industry as being a unique evil, is somewhat questionable. Especially when the parts of the sex industry in question are voluntary. Rescue the children, rescue the women imprisoned in brothels, and the trafficked women, then start worrying about free women working in resorts like that featured in the documentary, who earn relatively good money and struck me as adults responsible for their own actions.

Even the sexual alternatives available to such women may not be particularly appetising: some have fled "arranged" marriages, others suffer in a social order that devalues female children. Strange as it may seem, the unappealing sex-tourist may be the first man who has treated her with any sort of respect. They're not all monsters. Most of them are just lonely.

The top priority of any legislative regime must be to protect women who are abused, involved in a sordid trade, trafficked, drug-addicted and hopeless.

The problem with feminist demands to criminalise the buying of sex, as has happened in Sweden, is that those are the women least likely to benefit. If the result of criminalise paying for sex is to drive prostitution underground, those parts of the industry that are already underground will be the least affected. Instead of new laws, the government should be concentrating resources on enforcing those laws which already exist against trafficking, sex slavery and so on.

There is a deeper question of principle at stake here, however, and I don't think it's ever consciously addressed by policy makers. And it is this: is prostitution wrong in itself, or is it wrong because of its attendant evils? Are the attendant evils inevitable, and if they were banished would we still be left with something undesirable?

Religious moralists have no compunction in answering that prostitution is wrong in itself. But what of secular moralists? For me, I think it's impossible to separate the situation which women involved in the sex industry find themselves in from the status which the prostitute occupies morally. The prostitute is culturally an un-person, defined either by her victimhood or by her notoriety. It isn't a job like any other because anyone engaging in it is tainted.

This isn't an inevitable situation: there have historically been societies in which prostitutes were not considered fallen women. The opprobrium which surrounds prostitution is thus best considered as a hangover from Christian morality. If the effect of legalisation were to in part reduce that stigma, and the women were happier as a result, in what ways would it be deleterious for society?

There is a type of woman that does possess the mental toughness, the singlemindedness and the ability to compentmentalise necessary to enter, and then get out of what is a peculiarly dangerous occupation. Such women (and indeed men) have always existed, and tend to end up famous and rich. The "fuck lit" of the Belle de Jour variety, which feminists deplore, is only a modern twist on a very ancient phenomeon. The Greeks understood it, making a distinction between "2 obol girls", who were literally slaves, and high-class hetairai who were just about the only women in Athens able to live independent lives. The 18th century understood it: Georgean London had sexual squalor as bad as anything today, yet some courtesans ended up as duchesses.

To pretend that different levels of prostitution do not exist is a peculiarly modern piece of wishful thinking. It reminds me of the bishop's wife confronted with Darwin's theory of evolution. "I pray it isn't true; but if it is, I pray it does not become widely believed."

The logical conundrum faced by anti-prostitution feminists is that, supposing the premisses of 1) equal rights and 2) informed choice, it must be at least conceptually possible that some women will choose prostitution, not out of desperation, but because they actually find it preferable to the alternatives (which include, for example, graduating with a huge student debt, or being unable to get on the property ladder). The fact that the choice is, by and large, unavailable to men does not ipso facto mean that it is a bad one. It might just as logically be the case that women are peculiarly fortunate in having the option. Yet this goes against the dogma that prostitution is a form of exploitation, in which male economic power is exercised over female "victims". This is, of course, an argument about society rather than one about prostitution. Apart from anything else, while on average women still earn less than men, there are plenty of rich women..

This, I think, is why traditional feminists wish to assert that Belle de Jour represents merely a "fantasy", despite the incontrovertible evidence that that side of prostitution does exist. Rather than concentrate on the abuses, they prefer to deny any complexity, any hierarchy, any nuance. Because to acknowledge the nuances in the situation would bring them up against the logical incoherence of their feminist position. Much more than prostitution is at stake.

There's a word I'm looking for, but I don't find it, so I'll have to make it up. Pornophobia: a fear of and aversion from prostitution and other manifestations of the sex industry. Arguments such as we're hearing on this thread may lay claim to a grounding in evidence and logic, but at base they're pornophobic. It is a phenomenon which should be very interesting to anthropologists.

A point I made earlier concerned the limited sexual options available to many women in the third world. In some places, the main fate of most women will be an "arranged" marriage in which she is effectively sold by her family in a transaction only linguistically separable from prostitution. Rape and abuse within marriage are commonplace in such situations. Prostitutes, with their relative independence and freedom, have been objects of envy, as well as of fear and superstition, in many societies. Their position is a liminal one, simultaneously inside and outside of society. Thus they threaten the social order which they simultaneously (by "mopping up" excess male sexuality) help to maintain.

They also parodise sexual relations in an often uncomfortable manner. To the woman whose respectable marriage was based on property transactions and social duty, and not on emotion, and who may be having a miserable and abusive relationship, the prostitute seems to mock her: for how does her marriage differ? The answer is to look upon the prostitute as a degraded and fallen creature, a victim to be pitied and simultaneously shunned. Pornophobia thus becomes a psychological survival strategy.

1 comment:

atom said...

This is a frighteningly insightful post, as are all the other posts I've read on this blog. You've written everything I wish I could write, even though I probably know a lot more about sex tourism and prostitution than you.

Feminists tried to stop sex tourism by claiming that many underage girls are involved. This turned out not to be true, so they claimed that many women are forced into sexual slavery. This is also not true, at least not in the places where most sex tourists go.

I struggle to understand why prostitutes are apparently seen so negatively by mainstream society.

One explanation that makes sense to me, cynical and misogynistic as it sounds, is that they are viewed by non-prostitute women as unfair competition, lowering the implicit, possibly subconscious, bargaining value of sex.

As you point out, the vast majority of prostitutes do so by choice - It is true that in third world countries choice is often limited by economic circumstances, but it's still a choice and indeed the women generally can choose which customers they will go with.

Feminists who want to limit that choice are doing so with impure motives, driven by their own attitude to sex and you are right to say that they should be trying to help the very small minority of underage girls and trafficked women that do exist, preferably starting in their own country.

Post a Comment