Prostitution Theory 101
by Yvonne Abraham with Sarah McNaught
Few things have divided feminists as much as the sex industry. Theorists
who agree on a vast swath of issues — economic equality, affirmative
action, even sexual liberation — often find themselves bitterly opposed over
pornography and prostitution.
Most 19th-century feminists opposed prostitution and considered prostitutes
to be victims of male exploitation. But just as the suffragette and
temperance movements were bound together at the turn of the century, so
too were feminist and contemporary moral objections to prostitution.
Women, the argument went, were repositories of moral virtue, and
prostitution tainted their purity: the sale of sex was, like alcohol, both cause
and symptom of the decadence into which society had sunk.
By the 1960s and ’70s, when Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer asserted
that sexual liberation was integral to women’s liberation, feminists were
reluctant to oppose prostitution on moral grounds. Traditional morality, Greer
argued, had helped to repress women sexually, had made their needs
secondary to men’s. That sexual subordination compounded women’s
economic and political subordination.
Today, some feminists see hooking as a form of sexual slavery; others, as a
route to sexual self-determination. And in between are those who see
prostitution as a form of work that, like it or not, is here to stay.
Radical feminists such as lawyer Catharine MacKinnon and
antipornography theorist Andrea Dworkin oppose sex work in any form.
They argue that it exploits women and reinforces their status as sexual
objects, undoing many of the gains women have made over the past century.
Others detect in this attitude a strain of neo-Victorianism, a condescending
belief that prostitutes don’t know what they’re doing and need somebody
with more education to protect them. Some women, these dissenters point
out, actually choose the profession.
Feminists who question the antiprostitution radicals also point out that
Dworkin and MacKinnon sometimes sound eerily like their nemeses on the
religious right. Phyllis Schlafly, a rabid family-values crusader, has even
cited Dworkin in her antipornography promotional materials. This kind of
thing has not improved the radicals’ image among feminists.
At the other extreme from Dworkin and MacKinnon are sex-radical
feminists like Susie Bright and Pat Califia. They argue that sex work can be
a good thing: a bold form of liberation for women, a way for some to take
control of their lives. The problem there, though, is that the life of a
prostitute is often more Leaving Las Vegas than Pretty Woman (see Pop
Many feminists fall somewhere in between the rad-fem and sex-radical
poles. Wendy Chapkis, professor of sociology and women’s studies at the
University of Southern Maine and the author of the Live Sex Acts: Women
Performing Erotic Labor (Routledge, 1997), is one of them. For nine years,
Chapkis studied prostitution in California and the Netherlands, as well as in
Britain and Finland, and conducted interviews with 50 sex workers. Chapkis
says she sees the profession as it is: many of her interviews confirmed much
of the ugliness that radical feminists abhor, as well as the empowerment that
sex radicals perceive.
I don’t think prostitution is the ultimate in women’s liberation, she says.
But I think it’s better understood as work than as inevitably a form of
sexual violence. What prostitutes need, she argues, is not a bunch of
goody-goodies looking down on them, but decent working conditions.
Chapkis believes prostitution should be decriminalized. Just because it can
be lousy work doesn’t mean it should be stamped out, she argues. After all,
she says, there are lots of jobs in which women are underpaid,
underappreciated, and exploited. Criminalizing the profession just
exacerbates prostitutes’ problems by isolating them from the law and leaving
them vulnerable to abusive pimps and johns. In a profession where women
traditionally are not treated well, aren’t empowered, and should be able to go
to the police for protection and assistance, she says, we make the police
an extra obstacle, another threat.
In the Netherlands, by contrast, where prostitution is decriminalized, police
and prostitutes are on the same side: hookers speak at police academies to
educate the officers about their work, and Chapkis says the communication
pays off in safer working conditions for the women.
But what of the radical feminists’ claim that prostitution is too patriarchal to
be tolerated? Chapkis points out that many things in modern life began as
patriarchal institutions — marriage, for example. Problems within marriage,
she says, can be addressed without resorting to abolition: these days, marital
property is distributed more fairly, and abused wives have places to go for
help. Even Catharine MacKinnon has found a way to reconcile herself to
the idea of getting married. Why can’t prostitution be similarly transformed?
Still, Chapkis isn’t so naive as to see prostitution as benign. There are no
easy generalizations about sex workers’ lives, she says: I interviewed street
prostitutes who feel powerful and in control and are making a lot of money,
and I met many high-class call girls who hate their jobs.
Either way, Chapkis is certain that the only option is decriminalization, which
would prevent prostitutes from getting arrested. I’m as concerned as any of
the abolitionists to deal with the problems of prostitution — violence, drug
use, poverty, she says. But you can’t solve those problems by further
criminalizing prostitution, driving it further underground. [That makes] it
more difficult for women to access what help there is.
Which is where a lot of prostitutes’ organizations stand, too. Tracy Quan,
director of the Prostitutes’ Organization of New York (PONY), a support
group of more than 300 sex workers, has been in the movement to
decriminalize prostitution since 1975. Prostitutes are just a part of the whole
mix of society, whether people like it or not, she says. Prostitution must be
treated like an industry.
But many workers are careful to distinguish between decriminalization and
legalization, which would create new laws and regulations governing the
industry. That, many sex workers and advocates believe, would only place
additional demands on women whose lives are difficult enough already.
Carmen, a 28-year-old who has been a sex worker for four years, questions
the benefits of legalization, as demonstrated in Nevada. Under the current
system, she says, if you are arrested and incarcerated, you are put behind
bars. Legalization would be the same thing. You’re being put behind barbed
wire, and it is dictated to you where you can go, when you can go there, and
who you can talk to. That’s certainly not enticing to me.
Norma Jean Almodovar of COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), a
national advocacy and assistance organization for sex industry workers,
explains that those of us who are out-and-out whores want our [fellow
workers] to be free. Quan adds that although some prostitutes find that
legal brothels such as those in Nevada work for them, others choose illegal
action because they want to be in control.
Nevada doesn’t encourage hookers to become madams, Quan says. And,
to us, it is very much an industry just like any other money-making career.
We want to know there is a level of hierarchy where upward mobility is
And many prostitutes are as cynical about the government and the cops as
they are about pimps and johns. There have been numerous examples of
how law enforcement officials have used laws as a form of extortion, says
Almodovar. `Blow me for your license’ is not the answer.