This is essay is part of the OOPS course Law and Sexuality.
In the first half of the twentieth century, two hundred thousand women were taken from China and Korea (BBC News, 2017) to be sold into prostitution (BBC News, 2017). Today, twenty to thirty million people across the world are sex slaves (dosomething.org, 2017), the overwhelming majority of them women (dosomething.org, 2017). The origins of contemporary sex work are rooted in the systematic oppression of women, yet the debate over the legalization of sex work continues to be at the forefront of third-wave feminist politics. By supporting the legalization of sex work under capitalism in the United States, the classist, racist, and sexist character that prostitution was born from are ignored, leading sex work to be viewed outside of the oppressive context of its roots. This is done by focusing on some very specific cases of women who find sex work liberating, rather than viewing sex work as a result of the historical, structural inequalities that perpetuate its existence as a profession. Sex work, in its contemporary configuration, was not created as a way for women to earn money and feel autonomous; it has been a way to enslave and dehumanize women, disproportionately working-class women of color. Yet, some still think that the legalization of sex work would be a step forward for women’s rights. Viewing the structural problem of sex work from this liberal perspective is a direct result of the individualistic, alienating nature of capitalism. It is essential to point out that being opposed to the legalization of sex work does not mean being opposed to the sex worker; in fact, it is quite the opposite. To protect women, prostitution must be decriminalized, as criminalization is yet another tool to keep women legally and socially subordinate in society. In order to achieve true gender equality, sex work must not only be decriminalized, it must be abolished, and women, and all working-class people, must be freed from the wretched reality that is the dictatorship of capital.
To understand prostitution, its racist character must be acknowledged. Women who were and continue to be forced into prostitution are disproportionately women of color. In her book, sociology professor, Mimi Goldman, describes how prostitution in America is built on racist, sexist, and capitalist foundations. She discusses how, although enslaved black women were not technically prostitutes, they were “at their masters’ sexual disposition” (Goldman, 1974, 90). Therefore, enslaved woman had to face subjugation of not only their lives and their labor, but their bodies as well. Even after slavery was made illegal, the racialized character of prostitution remained. In order to become a part of American society, “South and Latin American women in the nineteenth century were not sold, but rather were indentured as prostitutes for several years to pay for their passage to the U.S.A. A disproportionate number of Third World women are currently prostitutes because of interacting sexual, racial and economic oppression” (Goldman, 1974, 91). The coercive exchange of one’s body and the right to American citizenship demonstrates how this country is founded on the exclusion of women, particularly women of color.
The South and Latin American women who were forced to sell their bodies in exchange for citizenship shows how the law views women of color’s bodies as commodities to be bought and sold. This exclusion of women of color from the legal system, based on race and gender, makes these women second-class citizens in the eyes of the United States. The legal system in the United States also subordinates women by criminalizing prostitution. Feminist sociologist, Kathleen Barry, summarizes this phenomenon in her book with her discussion of pimps. Since prostitution is criminalized, if a prostitute turns in their pimp to the police, they expose themselves as well. Barry states that “the criminal justice system, by treating women as criminals, closes them out of the legal system” (Barry, 1995, 226); if a woman turns in her pimp, the person who profits from her work, she herself can be punished. The structural subordination of women causes them not only to be treated as commodities, but to be excluded from all legal protections that supposedly exist to defend them. The criminalization of prostitution is yet another way to punish women for being women. In order to create a more just society, prostitution must not only be decriminalized; it must be made illegal for men to marketize and profit from women’s bodies.
Third-wave liberal feminists equate sex work to wage work. As feminist political theorist Carole Pateman puts it, liberal “feminist discussions have argued that prostitution is merely a job of work and the prostitute is a worker like any other wage laborer” (Pateman, 1999, 54), but this is simply not the case. Marx himself wrote on this idea, by connecting the exploitative nature of wage labor to prostitution; “‘Prostitution’ writes Marx, ‘is only a specific expression of the general prostitution of the laborer…’ Forced to work in order to survive, the wage laborer produces labor which is not one’s own and thereby becomes alienated from the product of that labor, the act of production, and fellow workers” (Weisberg, 1996, 191-192). Although wage work and prostitution are much different, the connection between the alienation caused by wage labor and by prostitution is striking. Contemporary sex work is born from and results in the same alienation and objectification from which capitalist wage labor is born. Since prostitution disproportionately affects women, it is a very particular form of oppressive wage labor that is used to keep women structurally subordinate under the capitalist patriarchy. The central problem with contemporary sex work is that it exists within the context of market capitalism, meaning that it can never be separated from the capitalist system. This forces people to participate in wage labor merely to survive, which relies on the subordination of women through care work and reproductive labor. The idea that one person can exist outside the systems of oppression in society is simply false; one cannot just decide that they are not part of the structures that govern society. Therefore, the liberal argument that prostitution is just like any other wage labor job holds no weight.
This is not an attack on prostitutes themselves, but an attack on the system that forces women to endure such conditions, merely to survive. Again, Pateman states that criticizing the institution of prostitution is not criticizing the women who are prostitutes. She states that even though some women may choose to be prostitutes, “they make that choice today in a context where the institution of prostitution is part of a global sex industry and part of the capitalist market” (Pateman, 1999, 63). The global capitalist market has a demand for the bodies of women and girls, and “the crucial question that is too rarely asked is why there is such an enormous global demand from men that women’s bodies be available for purchase, just like any commodity in the market” (Pateman, 1999, 63). The problem with prostitution is not that women are prostitutes; it is that a market exists that allows this gross injustice to occur, all while shaming women for being subject to it. Another important point in relation to this is the legitimization of the commodification of women’s bodies by people in positions of power. Men with the financial means of hiring prostitutes are able to hire them virtually whenever they wish to, and these women “are frequently provided as part of business, political, and diplomatic transactions” (Pateman, 1999, 53). Thus, the male practice of hiring prostitutes is normalized. The irony in all of this is that women face the social, psychological, and legal repercussions for what men view as such a casual act.
Prostitution is riddled with coercion. The availability of female bodies existing to be used purely to pleasure a mean is proof that the current capitalist socio-economic order cannot sustain equality. Feminist journalist and activist, Susan Brownmiller, in her groundbreaking book Against Our Will, discussed this idea; “according to Brownmiller, prostitution institutionalizes the concept of male right of access to the female body and of sex as an obligatory female service. This perception of male power and female sexuality fuels rape mentality and must be changed in order to eliminate sexual violence against women” (Weisberg, 1996, 188-189). Brownmiller acknowledges the essential point that women’s bodies are viewed as a commodity, which is yet another form of alienation that sex workers face. The female body is not treated as a body. It is treated as a means of economic survival, since, in the capitalist patriarchy, sex work is often a woman’s last resort. The argument that sex work is liberating because it allows women to choose their own hours, and work less for the same amount of pay as a traditional 40-hour a week job, highlights the inherent flaw in capitalism. Capitalism subjects people to working 40 or more hours a week in jobs they do not find fulfilling or socially necessary. The women who use sex work as a way to escape this system teach us that it is the system that needs to be changed, as both men and the institution of capitalism work together to elicit coercion in this way.
Prostitution, to conclude, is used as a means of reinforcing the structural oppression of women. In order to overturn the capitalist patriarchy, prostitution must be decriminalized for the women who are forced and coerced into such a jobs, and while being criminalized only for those who are buying sex and sex workers. Additionally, the racialized, gendered, and capitalist character of prostitution cannot be separated from this debate. The alienating nature of such work is a result of the dictatorship of capital, as well as the extreme measures one must take in order to survive in such a world. In order to free women from the capitalist and patriarchal sources of their oppression, we must first understand the capitalist order that constructs and reinforces these structures. Survival should not require people to sell their bodies; this is inhumane and violates all basic human rights. Supporting the legalization of sex work, let alone having the audacity to call it a feminist act, ignores the hierarchical structure of the capitalist patriarchy.
Barry, Kathleen. The Prostitution of Sexuality. NYU Press, 1995.
“’Comfort Women’: Researchers Claim First Known Film.” BBC News, BBC, 10 July 2017.
Goldman, Mimi. Prostitution in America: Crime in America. Vol. 2, Social Justice/Global Options , 1974.
Pateman, Carole. What’s Wrong with Prostitution? Women’s Studies Quarterly, Vol. 27, The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1999.
Raymond, Janice G. Not a Choice Not a Job . University of Nebraska Press, Potomac Books, 2013.
Weisberg , Kelly. Applications Of Feminist Legal Theory . Temple University Press, 1996.
“11 Facts About Human Trafficking.” DoSomething.org | Volunteer for Social Change.