On Choice, Agency and the Nordic Model

Choice and Agency

One of the criticisms that regularly gets directed at feminists who critique prostitution is that we are denying the “choice” or “agency” of the women because they have “freely chosen” prostitution. This is disconcerting when it comes from our leftwing comrades, because (a) they don’t accuse us of denying the “choice” or “agency” of workers who are trapped on zero-hour contracts when we critique those, for example, and (b) it echoes the neoliberal argument that justifies zero-hour contracts and other exploitative practices by saying the workers choose them and so to criticise those practices is to deny the workers their “choice” and “agency”.

We don’t buy that neoliberal argument in any other arena. Because it is completely obvious to all of us, I am sure, that critiquing zero-hour contracts is not a criticism of the workers on them. We understand that many workers have few options and most people who accept zero hour contracts do so because they don’t actually have much choice or social or economic power.

So why is it that when we point out that most women in prostitution are there because of a lack of options rather than a real choice (between, say, prostitution and a nice job in banking, nursing or IT), are we accused of attacking those women’s “agency”?

Continue reading “On Choice, Agency and the Nordic Model”

Trade Unions and Prostitution

In 1977 a Swedish project was launched to discover the everyday reality of prostituted women’s lives. Researchers interviewed hundreds of women, johns and pimps. What they found exploded the old Victorian myths that prostitution resulted from a biological urge in men and a mental defect in the women. Instead they found it was something that men do to women with tragic consequences. Around the same time feminists, such as Kathleen Barry and Andrea Dworkin, in the United States and elsewhere were making a powerful analysis of pornography and prostitution as key elements in the systematic subordination of women. As a result the sex industry had a serious image problem on its hands.

This article aims to provide an insight into the ways in which the sex industry fought back. One of these being the use of the idea of prostitutes unions to give itself legitimacy. I draw on research and arguments by Kajsa Ekman in her excellent book, Being and Being Bought. Ekman shows that in almost every case these so-called unions are facades put up by those with vested interests – some of them pimps and others who exploit the prostitution of others, some of them johns and some of them people who, for various reasons, have carved out a niche for themselves promoting the industry. Continue reading “Trade Unions and Prostitution”

Neoliberalism, Queer Theory and Prostitution

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.)

Continue reading “Neoliberalism, Queer Theory and Prostitution”

Grooming Children into Prostitution

“A pimp is someone who freeloads off the misfortune of women and children.” (Indoctrinated: The Grooming of our Children into Prostitution)

There have recently been a number of high profile cases of girls being groomed by gangs into what experts are calling child sexual exploitation but which is essentially another name for the sexual abuse and prostitution of children. The extreme Right have latched on to the fact that many of those convicted have been Muslim Asians. However, that is a red herring and doesn’t alter the fact that there is a huge problem of girls and young women being groomed into prostitution not only by groups and gangs but also by individuals. Continue reading “Grooming Children into Prostitution”

Prostitution is Unlike Other Work

“People who have had luckier lives, as well as those who profit from the sex industry in some way, frequently refer to prostitution and pornography as ‘victimless crimes’. They point to a tiny fraction of sex workers who actually might be involved by choice. They selectively read history to find some tiny minority, somewhere, at some time, who gained something in the sex business. The very selectiveness of their attention indicates that, on some level, they know that for almost everyone, involvement in the sex industry is a terrible misfortune. As many an old cop will say, ‘Anyone who thinks prostitution is a victimless crime hasn’t seen it up close’.” (Parker, 2004)

It is sometimes claimed that prostitution is simply a service that is not that different from, for example, care work or waitressing, and as such it should be considered work like any other work. In this article I show that this is not true and that in fact prostitution is fundamentally different from all other work. Continue reading “Prostitution is Unlike Other Work”

Choice in an Unequal World

“At the core of the phenomenon of prostitution is ‘the treatment of the body as an asset, as a means to seek subsistence’. In prostitution, the body itself becomes a commodity, which reduces the human subject, socially and psychologically, to an object to be exchanged” (Melrose, 2000)

In order to understand the meaning of choice in respect to participation in prostitution, we need to understand the context in which the choice is made.  It does not take a lot of imagination to understand that given a certain set of circumstances we might all choose to do things that in other circumstances we would not choose to do. For example, if you were trapped in a tall building that was on fire, you might choose to jump out the window. Is this a free choice? Perhaps, but from a very limited set of options – jumping or being burnt alive. Does that mean we don’t need stairs and lifts and outside fire escapes, even? Continue reading “Choice in an Unequal World”