Neoliberalism, Queer Theory and Prostitution

Traducción al español | Traduction Française

Over the past 40 years or so pornography and prostitution have been mainstreamed and pornography has become more misogynistic, sadistic and paedophilic. In many countries prostitution has come to be considered a regular industry that now counts towards the GDP. Pornography has moved further and further into the open, and prostitution has burgeoned and is more acceptable than ever – while the conditions for the women and girls involved remain appalling.

In spite of the advances made by the women’s movement since the 1960s, men still control the big power blocks – the government, the armed forces and police, finance and banking, big business and the media. The ‘sex industry’ is overwhelmingly for men, and feminists have found enduring resistance to its critique. In this article I attempt to draw together some explanation for this resistance and argue for a different approach.

“Perhaps more surprising is the difficulty we have had finding allies in this effort. Even though there is a fairly strong consensus among progressive or liberal people about the value of peace, economic justice, and human rights – and about the negative values of corruption and secrecy in government, excessive concentration of wealth in the hands of small elites, and so forth – there is a remarkable non-consensus about issues of gender power and sexual exploitation. The sexual privileges claimed by men under the rules of patriarchy are often still claimed by ‘progressive’ men marching under the banners of peace and justice.” (D.A Clarke, 2004.)

The rise and rise of neoliberalism

From the 1970s, big business in the United States and the UK fought back against the progressive measures introduced in the years after the Second World War and set out to redefine itself as the pinnacle of civilisation and the ultimate purpose of human evolution. Finance capitalism displaced industrial capitalism; deregulation allowed capitalism to appropriate the resources of the world and destroy the conditions of workers and the environment; the gap between the rich and poor ballooned and steady well paid jobs increasingly disappeared. Everywhere women have been hardest hit by the combined strategy of cuts in social welfare, the erosion of jobs and working pay and conditions, and the destruction of traditional subsistence agriculture.

Traditionally commerce and profiteering existed in tension with social forces such as religion and cultural and labour organisations that defended non-market values such as social conscience and mutual responsibility. But the balance has shifted towards a celebration and flaunting of wealth and corporate power – a cult of business for its own sake.

Simultaneously a process of the commercialisation of mass culture occurred and the mass media, which is largely owned by big business or dependent on it for advertising revenues, became concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. As a result it is now largely controlled by corporations whose primary purpose is no longer providing news and analysis but to sell the audience to the advertisers. Pornography moved further and further into the open, with the result that much of current mainstream culture would have been considered porn just 30 or 40 years ago. This is not only a commercialisation of our sexuality and, I would argue, what it is to be human itself, but also propaganda for a world where everything, including our humanity itself, can be reduced to a commercial exchange and that the “right” to have our every whim and desire fulfilled is sacrosanct – provided we can pay for it of course. And pay for it we do. In one way or another.

“Most of us are by now familiar with the line taken by corporate CEOs and their apologists with regard to cheap overseas labour. If women in the Philippines or Mexico, they say, are willing to work in FTZ factories for 60 cents (US) a day, then those women are free agents making their individual contracts with their employer. They have chosen the best deal, as all rational actors do in a free market; anyone who questions the terms of the deal is impugning their personhood and their rationality. Anyone who tries to get the transnationals to pay their sweatshop workers more, or to alleviate the brutal conditions under which many labour, is merely working against the women she is trying to help, because the corporations will simply leave if their costs rise too high, and then the women will be jobless again.

The language of ‘feminist’ and left-leaning apologists for prostitution eerily echoes the language of the corporate CEOs and their apologists. Prostitutes, we are told, choose their line of work in a free market; they are rational agents. To criticize the industry which exploits them, or even to say that they are exploited, is to deny their agency. To attempt to regulate or restrict it is only to deny them ‘opportunities’ and ‘choices’. The similarity of the language is no coincidence, of course: the incursion of commercial values and beliefs into academia as well as popular culture has been gathering momentum for decades. It is becoming increasingly difficult – and increasingly marginal or disreputable – to think outside the box of the Market.

Popular culture reflects the Zeitgeist accurately and unflatteringly in such media excesses as the reality shows […], in which ‘contestants’ are pitted against each other not unlike Roman gladiators in a bitter contest for wealth. Some ‘radio shows’ now offer their ‘guests’ money or ‘fame’ as an incentive to submit to various public humiliations. In one notorious incident, shock-jock Howard Stern convinced a woman to strip in the studio and to eat dog food out of a bowl on the floor, in exchange for his giving air time to music recorded by a friend of hers. The pseudo-Smithian ideology of ‘choice’, and the rest of the market-populist mumbo-jumbo, would of course emphasise this woman’s ‘choice’ to endure such a scene, rather than questioning the ethics of Stern, the radio station, or its advertisers and listeners. The scene itself is paradigmatic of prostitution: a man holds out the offer of something a woman wants or needs, in order to persuade her to do humiliating things for his amusement.

In an era dominated by neoliberal ideology, it is obviously difficult to mount a successful campaign against the sexual exploitation of women and children. On every front, feminists meet a brick wall.

First, the prevailing Market-worship mocks and devalues any suggestion of altruism; if women fortunate enough to have escaped sexual exploitation in their own lives demonstrate concern and caring for prostituted women, they are dismissed as naive, unrealistic idealists and (of course) ‘ideologues’. The ‘sexual liberation’ pseudo-progressive ideology then serves to cast women who object to exploitation, profiteering, coercion and other routine practises of the sex industry as ‘crypto-conservatives’, ‘neo-Victorians’, ‘anti-sex’, and so forth. Should either of those barriers fail to discourage the feminist social critic, the neoliberal dogma is trotted out to prove that, for example, the woman eating dog food on the floor of Stern’s studio is exactly where she wants to be. Any woman who expresses disgust at the men who enacted and enjoyed this ritual of humiliation is actually an anti-feminist: she is denying the agency and choice exercised by this ‘liberated’ female, the ‘good sport’ who is ‘tough enough to take it’ and needs no sympathy or interference from well-meaning nannies. Just as, of course, the poor are quite capable of pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps and need no insulting assistance from the smothering hands of Big Government.” (D.A Clarke, 2004)

At the same time that big business fought back against the progressive social and economic measures introduced after the Second World War, neoliberalism became the new orthodoxy in academic economics and post-modernism or deconstructionism became the new orthodoxy in the literature and cultural studies departments, and queer theory displaced the scholarship of the women’s liberation and gay liberation movements.

Women’s Lib and Gay Lib

The women’s liberation and gay liberation movements of the 60s and 70s were movements of personal and social change to which the rejection of gender stereotypes and hierarchies was fundamental. Feminist thinkers drew on Marxist analysis that all societies are class systems stratified as a hierarchy of social groups with different relationships to the means of production, and showed that societies are also systems in which men and women are two socially distinct groups with a hierarchical relationship based on their different biological roles in human reproduction. The exploitation and oppression of women are not just accidental phenomena but are intrinsic parts of a system (known as patriarchy) that has existed for thousands of years. Feminists have shown that patriarchal exploitation and subordination is in fact necessary for the capitalist economic system that is based on extended accumulation (Mies, 1998).

In the patriarchal family children learn their place in the sex-class hierarchy and through this they learn to operate in the wider social class hierarchy. Men may be screwed in the class system but they get to have power, pretty much absolute, over their women and children. Women’s cooperation is often founded on their hope that if they go along with it, their children will at least have a chance of a better life, or they accept that power and material well being through men’s patronage is better than nothing at all. And most of the time they don’t have a choice anyway. Once this oppressive system is internalised, it becomes the model for all other oppressions and the children grow up to become foot soldiers for capitalism and colonialism. Or at least that’s how it traditionally worked. One of the great successes of the women’s liberation movement is that women are no longer so ready to put up with oppressive marriage.

Many feminists see the explosion in porn over the last decades as part of a backlash against this and other advances made by the women’s movement. But it can also be seen as a continuation of, or replacement for, the patriarchal family now that it is in decline. If our induction into the gender system is incomplete in the family (because, for example, thanks to the women’s movement, women can now live with their children without a man), then exposing pre-adolescents and adolescents to the kind of violent porn that only pervy men had access to in the past quickly gets them up to speed.

Feminists saw gender as socially constructed roles that ensure the system of male dominance – masculinity being the behaviour of male dominance and femininity the behaviour of submission to that dominance – and feminists rejected the gender system as part of the system of male supremacy. They argued that without the system of male dominance, there would be no need for gender, that we could meet simply as human beings and that therefore refusing to conform to stereotyped gender roles was in itself an act of rebellion against the patriarchal system.

The gay liberation movement embraced a similar broad analysis of oppression and was modelled on the struggles of colonised peoples against imperialism and it understood that the oppression of gay men stems from the oppression of women and the imposition of sex roles (gender) which they saw as politically constructed. They also considered homosexuality and heterosexuality to be themselves socially constructed.

Post-modernism and queer theory

Post-modernism (or deconstructionism) asserts that there is no objective reality, that everything is just one of a limitless number of possible narratives, that no political system or work of art is superior to any other; words only acquire meaning through their relationships with other words and there is no ultimate meaning. All that is possible is to “deconstruct” text. From this point of view, literature (such as To Kill a Mockingbird, The Grapes of Wrath or The Women’s Room) that exposes social and structural inequality is no better than literature (such as Fifty Shades of Grey) that glamorises and legitimises such inequality. Post-modernism is a profoundly conservative doctrine that obfuscates political and social reality. It arose at a particularly conservative moment in history when neoliberalism was in the ascendant and radical social critiques had fallen out of fashion.

It was in this context that queer theory arose. Queer theory sees gender as performance, that there are many possible genders, and it romanticises mismatches between gender and sex (which it calls “transgression”). So a butch lesbian, a drag queen, a masculine gay top, and a prostituted woman can all be considered different genders and “transgressive”. Thus gender is detached from the material differences between the sexes, and male supremacy and the oppression of women are obscured. Instead of challenging dominant and submissive roles and behaviours, queer theory ultimately upholds and perpetuates them.

Considering prostitution to be “transgressive” in this way romanticises it and obscures its reality – the reality that for most women, it is not a choice between a number of viable options, and by its very nature it is abusive and destructive (as I show in Choice in an Unequal World and Prostitution is Unlike Other Work). But when feminists criticise systems of prostitution, queer theorists decry it as an assault on the “agency” of the prostituted women, which echoes the neoliberal riposte to those who dare to suggest that multinationals should improve the pay and conditions of the workers in their sweatshops in Bangladesh, for example.

The term “queer” is supposed to encompass lesbians as well as gay men, but because of the greater social and economic power of men, lesbians became less visible and gay liberation was replaced by a movement for gay rights, much of which can be seen as gay men demanding their share of male privilege, and an enormous commercial sex industry grew up to serve gay men. Gay men’s demand for male privilege can be seen in their demand for the “right” to public sex, a right that few lesbians or women feel the need or desire for and which can be seen as yet another aspect of male sex-right. Finding little support for this so-called “right” among their lesbian sisters, gay men enlisted the support of female advocates of the straight sex industry (Jeffreys, 2003) – so there is a perception that any challenge to straight prostitution is also a challenge to the “freedom” of gay men. It is hardly surprising therefore that any criticism of this “freedom” tends to be rebutted as viciously as any criticism of the male “right” to prostitution.

Post-modernism is waning in popularity just as the criticism of neoliberalism is becoming more mainstream. However, queer theory is as popular as ever and because post-modernism dominated academia in this country for several decades, generations of students have been educated within that paradigm. We should therefore not underestimate its enduring legacy.

The traditional Left

“Our experience demonstrated, once again, that people often wilfully hold onto their ignorance of social reality when that ignorance allows them to maintain and justify their privileges. Doing so is much easier than challenging the status quo.” (Wu, 2004)

Feminists who critique the prostitution system are often dismayed to find that many in the traditional left roll out the familiar old criticisms – that they are puritanical, anti-sex, attacking the “agency” of the prostituted woman, etc. – while expounding a sophisticated critique of neoliberalism, unrestrained capitalism, the extension of the market into every sphere of life, the patenting of life forms, etc. and arguing coherently that it is wrong to commodify and trade in some things. How then the inability to recognise the feminist argument that women and children’s bodies should not be for sale? And that prostitution is not a humane solution to the impoverishment and lack of opportunities for women and girls worldwide?

Seeing prostitution as a system of exploitation and oppression requires seeing its connection with the patriarchal system that exploits and oppresses women and privileges men. If we let this understanding enter our consciousness, we have to admit our own complicity in this system – that we are accomplices if you like. As men our privileges are based directly on the system, but as women we are also bound up in the system, our privileges so often dependent on the privileges of the men around us. If we let this knowledge enter our consciousness, we see that if we want to come to a truly free human relationship, we have to give up our complicity. How scary is that? How much easier to aim our ire at those puritanical humourless anti-sex feminists.

“The neoliberal is prevented from perceiving any negative aspects to the boom in prostitution precisely because it is a boom – an upswing in monetarist activity, an increase in the number of market transactions. It is good business. To me as a feminist, the neoliberals’ centre/rightist ideology carries a familiar and unpleasant whiff – it smells rather like the same logic (or illogic) that has consistently been applied to prostituted women by the doublethink of the US (and international) Left.

Though we know, culturally, by experience or by osmosis, that women and children are prostituted most commonly through violence, through poverty, through deprivation or betrayal – Western liberalism has pretended for decades that more prostitution and pornography only mean more freedom, openness, and […] democracy. The fact that real democracy plays very little part in the day-to-day experiences of the average prostitute, does not seem to register. The ideological fanaticism with which the neoliberal theorist ignores all negative effects of the ‘freeing’ of markets is not unlike the resolute effort with which the traditional sex-liberal theorist has ignored the negative effects of the so-called ‘sexual revolution’.

Inconvenient statistics, feral facts like the average life expectancy of prostitutes, the average age of induction into prostitution, the average income of prostitutes, and so forth – hard demographics – have never disturbed those who defined the sex business as a force of liberation. The fact that the ‘freedom’ being realized is mostly the freedom of men to access the bodies of women and children – or of G7 nations to access the markets and raw materials of Third World nations – is conveniently overlooked when predation is redefined as progress.” (D.A Clarke, 2004)

Desire and demand

“Consumerism is the drug by which women and men are made to accept otherwise inhuman, and increasingly destructive, conditions of life. The new ‘needs’ created by industry in its desperate effort to keep the growth model going are all of the type of addictions. The satisfaction of these addictions is no longer contributing to more happiness and human fulfilment, but to more destruction of the human essence.” (Mies, 1998)

Any mother will tell you that one of the challenges of child rearing is setting and enforcing boundaries for their children’s desire – that no, you can’t just eat sweets instead of dinner, you must wear a safety harness in the car, you can’t just take something that doesn’t belong to you, and so on. Somehow as an adult you have to convince the child that it is in their own interest to moderate their desires – that giving up the right to take other people’s possessions contributes to a world in which we can feel confident that other people won’t take our own possessions, for example. And the value of mutual trust is worth more than stealing your friend’s new toy. Moderating desire is part of being human.

But of course moderating desire is not good for business, and understanding the price of unmoderated desire is even worse. So big business does its best to ensure we don’t understand the price of our desires, that we can’t see the exploitation of the women sewing the dresses we buy on our Saturday shopping spree, for example. Or the cost to the environment of the irrigation and pesticides used in the farming of the cotton, or the cost to the health and education of the children who are forced to pick it, or the cost of transporting it across the ocean on a container ship, of the cost to the sea life when a container falls into the ocean and splits open, and so on. The world is finite, human life is finite and a world of unmoderated desire is ruthless and unsustainable.

But Margaret Thatcher was wrong – there is an alternative and we must envision that alternative. Perhaps that alternative will mean we need to moderate our desires, to wear our clothes until they wear out. We need to give up something to gain something more important.

I would argue that the price of prostitution is too high – not only is the price on the women, children, transgendered people and men involved too high, but the price on society is too high and the price for the punters is too high. Just as with consumerism, the price is kept out of sight. But ultimately we all pay a price. Socialists, feminists, anti-racists and those who fight for a fairer world must be clear that no one, not a single person, must be blackmailed or forced to do things that are against human dignity in exchange for subsistence or survival. And no one should be allowed to build up their ego and identity on the exploitation and subordination of others. Prostitution is incompatible with these principles. This means that men must give up their ancient patriarchal sex-right. This is a necessary pre-condition to a more egalitarian society.

“I want to suggest to you that a commitment to sexual equality with males, that is, to uniform character as of motion or surface, is a commitment to becoming the rich instead of the poor, the rapist instead of the raped, the murderer instead of the murdered. I want to ask you to make a different commitment – a commitment to the abolition of poverty, rape and murder; that is, a commitment to ending the system of oppression called patriarchy; to ending the male sexual model itself.” (Dworkin, 1976)

I therefore recommend supporting the Nordic Model. This decriminalises all women, children, men and transgendered people who are involved in prostitution in recognition of the exploitation it involves and the exploitative conditions in which their involvement came about, invests heavily in harm reduction services for those involved and exit strategies for those who want to leave it, and criminalises the pimps and punters in order to make it clear that prostitution is incompatible with human rights, and to reduce the demand that fuels it.

“Pornography is hate propaganda, and prostitution is exploitation. If we want a world that is based on justice – gender justice, racial justice, class justice, justice among people of various sexual orientations – then pornography and prostitution must be eliminated. To eliminate pornography and prostitution requires that men be involved – not only because men are half the population, but more importantly because men are the main producers, distributors, and consumers of women and men in pornography and prostitution. The morality of justice is our morality, and it cannot coexist with pornography and prostitution.” (Funk, 2004)

For a French translation of this article, see Néolibéralisme, théorie queer et prostitution.


  • Clarke, D.A. 2004. ‘Prostitution for Everyone: feminism, globalisation, and the “sex” industry’ in Not for Sale Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography. Spinifex, Melbourne.
  • Dworkin, andrea 1976. Our blood: Prophecies and Discourses on Sexual Politics. Pedigree Books, New York.
  • Funk, Rus Ervin 2004. ‘What does pornography say about me(n)?: How I became an anti-pornography activist’ in Not for Sale Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography. Spinifex, Melbourne.
  • Jeffreys, Sheila 2003. Unpacking Queer Politics, Polity Press, Cambridge.
  • Mies, Maria, 1998. Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour. Zed Books, London.
  • Pollitt, Katha, 2014. Why Do So Many Leftists Want Sex Work to Be the New Normal?
  • Wu, Joyce, 2004. ‘Left Labor in bed with the sex industry’ in Not for Sale Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography. Spinifex, Melbourne.

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