For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking about the objectification, sexualization, and commodification of women, and now my friend figleaf has brought the topic (inadvertently) to a boil by questioning the motives of men who pay for sex. I have a lot of sympathy for his perspective – not so much for people who immediately take umbrage at any discussion of the ethics of sex work, or for those who willfully misconstrue people’s arguments. Being “sex positive” doesn’t oblige anyone to gloss over ethical issues related to sexuality.
So, while I welcome comments on this topic, including from those who disagree, I’ll only entertain those that are civil. I see no point in engaging with people at either extreme of this issue who consider either sex work or any criticism of its structure as ipso facto offensive.
I say “its structure” because my intent here is to reflect on the structural relationships that sex work entails – specifically in prostitution since that’s what prompted the dust-up at figleaf’s and got me thinking. I won’t make any arguments about the experiential level of sex work because I’m simply not qualified to do that. Many sex workers say that they’re satisfied with their work on the whole, and I have no wish to call their feelings or experiences into question. I recognize that not all are coerced (though too many are), and that sex work may be the best-paying option for many women. (But this in itself says something damning about the choices society offers us: Something is seriously screwed up when women write to advice columnists asking why they shouldn’t finance their Ph.D. work by stripping. And getting that degree might not help. I suspect many sex workers make better money than I do as an adjunct college instructor, never mind my fancy-pants diploma.)
Anyway: A key structural feature of prostitution is that it commodifies sex workers’ bodies. This is one thing that sets it apart from most other occupations under capitalism. Instead of selling only one’s labor power that has been alienated from one’s body, one is selling one’s body itself. One’s body becomes a commodity.
The relationship between the buyer and the seller in prostitution is thus characterized by more intense exploitation than in most other sorts of occupations. This doesn’t deny the prostitute’s agency: nearly all humans take part in exploitative relationships of one sort or another, without totally giving up our own agency, intelligence, etc. It does mean that this particular relationship merits closer scrutiny.
I want to emphasize that exploitation entailing the body itself and not just labor power is not specific to sex work. Traditional marriage, in which women essentially cede unlimited access to their bodies in return for economic support and protection, is a more extreme form of such exploitation because it’s usually a life-long, irrevocable contract. Surrogate motherhood (for remuneration beyond medical expenses) is a similarly exploitative type of relationship because a woman’s body is rented out and sometimes her genetic material is sold outright. Most medical ethicists condemn the sale of human organs for analogous reasons.
As in any exploitative relationship, ethically the onus would rest on the buyer to put a stop to the exploitation. Practically and politically, it’s almost always the seller of labor power who throws a wrench into the gears of exploitation because they are the ones who stand to benefit. But that doesn’t neutralize the buyer/employer’s ethical obligation.
This is why it’s the client and not the prostitute who enters into an ethically problematic transaction.
Does this mean it’s always wrong to hire a prostitute? Maybe not. In some cases, where a person would truly have no other access to sexual activity over the long term, it might be the lesser harm. That’s a question for individual judgment. But I think such judgments can only be made fairly if one first acknowledges that buying a prostitute’s services isn’t just ethically neutral. I also suspect that such situations are quite rare, unless you accept the premise that people have a right to sexual gratification that requires little patience or effort on their own part.
So far, I’ve been writing as though this were a gender neutral problem. Of course, it’s not. Whether the prostitute is a man or a woman, the client is almost always a man.
And here’s where I think ethical reasoning alone is inadequate, because at a macro level, this is an issue of gender, class, and power, not just a matter of individual rights and choices. If you assume a right to sexual satisfaction not just through solo sex but through access to another warm body, why then has our society basically guaranteed that right to men but not to women? Yes, there are male prostitutes who cater to women, but they are very few. You sure don’t see them on street corners (or at least I never have).
The ethics of prostitution thus have a political dimension, and figleaf is absolutely right: As an institution, prostitution shores up masculine sexual entitlement. It also undergirds the idea that there’s one class of women willing to have sex with men for money but not so much for their own pleasure, while the majority of women are consigned to what figleaf calls the “no-sex class” – a scheme that envisions female sexual pleasure as largely irrelevant to both groups of women.