Feminism on Prostitution

Feminism, a word that has come to mean, at least in the art world, equal rights for all marginalized people, both male and female.  I still say that if this is indeed so, then feminism needs a new name, because feminism to me, and I think to the majority of those in the world that hear the word, it means equal rights for females.  And, no matter how many waves it has experienced over the decades since its inception, it is still most closely linked with the most radical viewpoints of the group.

Frankly, until I went to art school, I would have never thought of myself as a feminist. I actually had one professor say that she thought that I was rather misogynistic at times.  So, even amongst women we accuse each other of not being feminist enough.

I can say that if we are defining feminism as promoting a world in which women enjoy an equal share of the rights and power, then I am a feminist.  But, feminism has got at least 5 different branches of thought and they all have their own views as to how things should be done.  They also all differ on their point-of-view on prostitution.

So, to answer some of the questions I have gotten about feminism and prostitution, I have done some research on the subject and have found, of course, that I am not the only one who has had this question asked of them.  Some scholars appear to have devoted their entire body of work to answering these questions.  Here is what I found out.

We most often hear about feminism opposing prostitution on the grounds that it degrades women and furthers the power politics of men.  That is certainly the position of radical feminists, but there are many other kinds of feminism.  I, personally, do not identify myself as a radical feminist.  I believe in liberal feminism’s view of prostitution where prostitution is conceived of in the contractual sense of being a private business transaction.

Carol Pateman, in The Sexual Contract, states that the prostitute is not really a wage laborer but rather and independent contractor who has it within her means to start or stop a transaction. Her contract is with a male customer and not an employer.

In existentialist feminism, prostitution allows women an avenue of escape from dependency on men in a way that does not leave them victims, but empowered women.  In the existentialist view, the power of a competent woman over a man is not an illusion.  A man may think he is in charge of a situation by virtue of his power to degrade and subdue a woman, but with a woman of competence and spirit this “power” is not incontrovertible.  According to Patemen, “the man may think he ‘has’ her, but his sexual possession is an illusion; it is she who has him…she will not be ‘taken,’ since she is being paid.”  The spirit of entrepreneurship prevails.

Sarah Bromberg, in her address to the International Conference on Prostitution states the following:

Oversimplifying an issue frequently produces a logical outcome that can support just about any political position.  Prostitution is an enormously diverse and complex issue.  Lumping virtually all prostitutes into one general category will yield an inaccurate and insensitive view of their lives.

She further states that there are at least 9 categories of description that prostitute women appear to fall into.  Some of these categories are: women who come from a poor background and lack education, women who fall into the profession inadvertently (really?), women who through childhood trauma seek this kind of work for attention, women who enjoy it and, unfortunately, women who are forced into it which most often is due to lack of education, economic circumstances or bad boyfriends/bad male relationships. However,  my favorite is, what Bromberg states as the ninth category:

…some people are irrepressible personalities who seek the challenge of the most dangerous of undertakings. This category, includes artists, poets, writers, and political activists of many descriptions who are of adventurous spirit, testing the limits of their society. These are intelligent members of the high culture of prostitution that promotes the profession on a higher spiritual and intellectual plane than other categories.  They, with their many supporters in mainstream society, often see prostitution in a different light than that of oppression, abuse, and despair.  They are on the cutting edge of change for prostitutes and are its main moralizing force gradually evoking openness in the hearts and minds of ordinary people.

Bromberg goes on to say:

In spite of the seemingly tragic aura of some of their lives, many prostitutes might be more accurately described as being friendly, warm, and sensitive human beings; not as women whose greatest value is to be pawns in a game of political chess for the empowerment of one political group over another.

The corruption of conscience is endemic to human life without regard to gender.  Possessing power demonstrably exacerbates the misuse of it no matter who possesses it.  Whether men or women were in the dominant position the situation might not be much different.  The heart of the issue is not to be found in vivid descriptions or oppressions and wrongdoing by this party or that, but rather in the wider context of morality itself.


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