Playing The Prostitution Shame Game, Ctd

by Elizabeth Nolan Brown

A reader agrees that a lot of anti-prostitution sentiment stems from an inability to look beyond personal aversion:

You wrote, “That is unless, like Allen, you can’t conceive of a world in which anyone could purchase sexual services from someone and still respect their humanity.” Spot-on. This whole notion that all sex workers are slaves is stripping a huge number of rational, adult people who choose to make money this way, for whatever reason, of their agency and their humanity. It also perpetuates the noxious notion that sex is something men take from women, and that sex is some kind of untouchable sacred cow that must never be involved in a commercial transaction.

Neither argument makes any sense. Sex is just another thing humans do with other humans. It can be given, taken, shared, or forced – just like most anything else. The trick is obviously to reduce the incidence of force in the equation, while enabling free expression and, yes, trade.

Indeed! And there’s even evidence that decriminalizing the sex trade could decrease the use of force in sex. Also: yes, yes, yes on the agency bit. The operating principle behind the trendy Nordic model of criminalizing sex work is that all prostitution is a form of male violence against women, who are legally defined as victims whether they consent to this sex or not. In terms of agency, it reduces women to the level of children and the developmentally impaired.

But, alas, people continue to champion the Nordic model as being more female-friendly than letting women use their own bodies as they see fit. From another reader:

Women are oppressed by men on the basis of reproductive capacity worldwide – legally, religiously, culturally – and are therefore not able to engage in the prostitution transaction in a way that is not inherently exploitative to womankind. Before a discussion of the legalization of prostitution can happen, robust action needs to be taken to address, at the very least:

(1) ample access to contraception and abortion and (2) equal pay and non-discriminatory work and school environments.  The johns at this point have little to complain about.  Prostitution, as you acknowledge, IS happening everywhere, with men getting off scot-free the vast majority of the time.  By comparison, women always have everything to lose, least of all legally.  Sex is fatally dangerous for women in many more ways than it is for men:  (1) the risk of violent partners; (2) STDs; (3) pregnancy and its associated ill affects depending on how misogynist the society is; (3) social banishment, and shame killings; (4) the emotional toll suffered by women who choose prostitution as a last resort.

I also think the very men who cheer this idea are focusing on unlimited access to female bodies.  Those same men, I believe would be appalled at and indifferent to implementing the regulatory infrastructure it would take to legitimize prostitution in a way that actually makes it safe for women.  As it stands, we don’t even have a legal system capable of dealing with rape!

As Catharine Mackinnon famously said, “women don’t work hard to beat the odds so they can prostitute themselves; women prostitute themselves when the odds beat them.”  Let’s increase the odds for women in our society by addressing the behemoth barriers they face to equal participation in society, so that they control the material reality of their lives, then have a discussion about making prostitution legal.

Well, at least we agree on part of that last part. Let’s do banish gender inequity and pull women worldwide out of poverty! But in the meantime, let’s not make sex workers’ lives worse just because we can’t make them perfect.

Previous Dish on the Nordic Model here.

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