Revisiting the dispossession of women: prostitution

Thinking about prostitution and sex work debates.

I agree with the tenet of radical feminism that maintains selling sexual access to a woman’s body cannot be dignified as empowering work. It is a form of violence – sexed and sexual violence that appropriates women as the object of men’s sexual drive and social entitlements. Unionization and campaigns to ‘improve working conditions’ normalize sexual violence and rationalize its subjection to regulation without disturbing the central dispossession that defines the character of this particular way of earning a living.

If earning a living is how one defines work, however, selling sex is a way that women have earned money. When running away from sexual abuse at home, or as an alternative to becoming economically entirely dependent on one man in marriage, or giving in to the demands for sexual access made on women in work settings and any public or private space, prostitution can appear as the way to take control of violence that will be done to you one way or another. The sex trade encapsulates what capitalist patriarchy means for women as the bleakest and most cynical opportunity for direct participation in the market economy – equally available for contract exploitation, unequally sexed or ‘sexified’ (as Max Dashú translates Collette Guillaumin’s concept of ‘sexage’).

But abolishing prostitution through law and policy (e.g. the Nordic model designed to criminalize sex buyers and pimps but not sex sellers, and to support women to exit) will not change the conditions that bring it about. It will not free women from either sexual predation by men or economic marginalization as a part of the labor force easily reduced to contingency and precarity. (This marginalization is not new nor does it refer to the US 1950s campaign to install the middle-class housewife as prime consumer. Marx talks about it in Capital and housewives were considered by Chinese communist feminists to be an important group to mobilize politically, see Finding Women in the State, by Wang Zheng.) I support the Nordic model as an imperfect strategy to combat a particularly intense form of sexual exploitation but need to dig deeper and link the abolition of prostitution to the full inclusion of women currently or formerly selling sex in the defeat of capitalist patriarchy. To the extent any of us use strategies of survival or advancement that rely on acceptance of violence, exploitation or dispossession we need to be able to confront them and release them with all the grief they have caused us.

The subsistence perspective promoted by Veronica Bennholdt-Thomsen and Maria Mies, which relates closely to the land dyke movement discussed in my earlier post and to modern matriarchal studies and the movement for a maternal gift economy, offers a more holistic way to understand the exploitation, appropriation and dispossession by capitalism of women and others whose labor produces and reproduces the necessities of life. Importantly it offers a way to think about a way out of capitalist patriarchy through persistence and care for the necessities of life. As Jeanne Neath has said in discussing the subsistence perspective, capitalism can’t survive without subsistence underneath it, but subsistence can thrive without capitalism. (Or as Buffy Sainte-Marie sings in ‘Carry It On,’ ‘It ain’t money that makes the world go round, That’s just a temporary confusion.’) I’m still reading the Subsistence Perspective book, so stay tuned for further reflections and feel free to comment with your own knowledge and insights.

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