Sex “work”

Liberal feminist perspectives on prostitution have focused the policy and scholarly debates on the need to protect the rights of women to choose prostitution. (emphasis added]

Cheryl Nelson Butler

The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich as well as poor from begging in the streets, stealing bread, and sleeping under bridges.

Anatole France

The gnostic, Scientology-like cult of neo-Nietzschean gender-warriors would have you believe that prostitution is exactly like taking a job at Lowe’s or Burger King. They have an approved vocabulary, which they have partially succeeded in forcing onto the metropolitan petit bourgeois left, a question-begging vocabulary that employs words as stealth premises, then buries their own dogmatic conclusions in those words — like smuggling a dog’s medication into a piece of cheese.

One of their favored terms — which through the liberal professional managerial class they’ve successfully foisted onto the public is “sex work.” But the more amazing accomplishment has been to drip it into the ostensibly anti-neoliberal “left” like an IV, where it can be incorporated into very cell.

“Sex work” is a neoliberal term, beginning to end.

In an issue of DSA’s Democratic Left last year, one dedicated to “socialist feminism,” Angel Castillo wrote an article called “Decriminalizing Sex Work,” which was a kind of neoliberal paean applied to the question of prostitution, which is emblematic of this anti-feminist turn on the left. Truthfully, feminism had always found the left to be a very hard, sometimes inhospitable, ground; but now the neo-Nietzscehan hipsters and vocabulary police have driven out whole sections of feminists.

Castillo started with an issue of law, so I will, too.

On the question of law and prostitution, there are three dominant approaches. Two are patriarchal. The first approach is what I call patriarchal-traditional. This is the conservative patriarchal approach that sees prostitution as some form of moral failure on the part of those who are prostituted — mostly women, with substantial numbers underage. The second approach is the (patriarchal) neoliberal, for which I put the modifier in parentheses to emphasize how liberal mystifications have concealed the deeply patriarchal origins of both capitalism and libertarian/liberalism. Neoliberal ideology is essentially libertarian ideology is capitalist ideology.

The patriarchal roots of these ideologies has been perfunctorily concealed by liberal legal abstraction. The third approach is feminist — but feminism unmodified — feminism that seeks the emancipation of women from male domination without that “emancipation” meaning to make a few women as powerful as a few men.

Unmodified feminism points out that within patriarchal social structures —ALL patriarchal structures, even on the left — women (on the whole) are structurally disadvantaged by men’s power as men. That social, political, and economic subordination is the condition within which most women are entrapped, and it underwrites the conditions of the vast majority of women who are conscripted into commodifying their very bodies to satisfy men’s “entitlement” to sex.

The left has fallen for the okeydoke on sex, because so much of the left — as evidenced by this article — has adopted the naturalistic fallacy about sex, reducing it to a morally-neutralized instantiation of “natural appetites,” like the hunger I can simply satisfy at the local McDonalds (think about that).

Unlike the caricature you will see below of my own position and that of others in the anti-prostitution camp (not anti-prostitute!), we do not oppose organizing some prostituted women for greater power against johns and pimps and procurers. We will support any half-measures that make these people less vulnerable, but abolition is the goalpost; and we have a much deeper analysis of prostitution than the one represented in this article. Deeper as an historical phenomenon, as a sociological phenomenon, as a capitalist phenomenon, as a racial phenomenon, and as a patriarchal phenomenon.

This analysis, as you will see, contradicts and corrects the characterization of the problem of prostitution in Comrade Castillo’s article.

Unfortunately, many leftist men share a popular cultural belief in both the
(neoliberal/libertarian/capitalist) proprietary body, because they just haven’t studied it yet. The liberal proprietary body is still naturalized for them.

Many men on the left are also academics, and may have studied the liberal “proprietary body,” but the emergence of (individualistic) neo-Nietzschean gender studies as an academic orthodoxy has captivated, or captured, them, and their desire to belong in the jungle of academia is strong enough to turn their heads.

Some other men on the left gravitate toward the neoliberal approach, because in that echoing canyon of feminist-illiteracy, male sexual entitlement is protected and even valorized. When it comes to sex, some of the dudebros become libertarians, because they want to maintain male access to female bodies.

The latter is the least charitable account, and though I have seen it firsthand more than I like to admit, I will not attribute that specifically to Castillo.

The article begins with a highly abbreviated description of two recent pieces of legislation — the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA). If objections to these two recent laws, recently passed, were the crux of the article, I would be writing about . . . I don’t know, backyard birding or pasta recipes. The laws are not what I take issue here, but the follow-on apologetic on behalf of legalizing the prostitution of human beings.

I use this phrase — prostitution of — because the overwhelming majority of people (mostly women) who are exchanging sex with strangers for money are not the far rarer species who work on their own (and who are held up by prostitution apologists as representative), they are under the thumb of traffickers, pimps, and procurers as persons whose experiences as women — abused, ignored, exploited, and addicted — left them at the mercy of traffickers, pimps, johns, and procurers.

Castillo is involved with labor organizing efforts aimed at what he calls “sex workers,” a term I do not use (nor do I refer to women [or others] as prostitutes, but as prostituted). “Sex work,” the term,” is a bastardized amalgamation of libertarianism, post-feminism, and workerism — the latter that decrepit tendency of earlier Marxists to dismiss questions of race, gender, nationality, and even ecology, based on the assumed centrality of some vulgar account of class.

When we return to the actual Marx, however, we find that his original preoccupation was not with work per se, but with a far more personal concern — alienation. All three volumes of Capital are based on his attempt to understand and describe the causes of this alienation.

What is alienation?

For Marx, it is the broken expression of some essential aspect of one’s own humanity. Marx was trying to reveal an economic form of alienation, and his study subjects were factory workers. Human beings work — this is an aspect of human nature. We “make” our livelihoods with our backs and hands, our actualization. Marx showed how this essential human characteristic is converted into a source of misery, by separating the purpose and intent of work from the actual worker. Not just taking away that surplus value that constitutes profit, but taking away one of the most important satisfactions (work as actualization) of a “good life.” (Marx was fundamentally an Aristotelian.)

To alienate means to separate from; and this alienation of work has its corollary in the mind of the worker. S/he has to surrender X number of hours a day on work that is meaningless to her/him, even miserable and-or offensive, because that worker is captive within a social structure of dire dependency.

The worker has, by having her/his work alienated, been violated. Marx did not argue for a revolution to better compensate that alienation, that taking-away. He surely didn’t argue to commodify more spheres of human life (like sex). He argued for a revolution that would end this form of violence.

The goal of capitalism’s alienating structure is to satisfy the desires of capitalists to accumulate wealth. The goal of prostitution’s alienating structure is to satisfy the desires of men to use women (and children, and some men) for sex. A prostituted woman is compelled to rent her body to strangers for sex — is to satisfy the desires of men, class irrespective, who believe they are entitled to sex, even and especially if they have to pay for it.

The product of labor — say, curtain rods — is alienated (separated) from my person in the factory where I work. I have no real connection to that work, like I would the deck I built at home or the picture I painted or my garden. The curtain rods are like thousands of little tyrants to me. I hate them. The product of labor for the prostituted woman is her very body. This is why so many prostituted women describe “work” as a dissociative state in which they feel separated from their own bodies.

That curtain rod does not belong to me.

My body does not belong to me.

“Sex workers” do not produce the product. They become the product. “Men create demand. Women are the supply,” as Donna Hughes said.

The attempt of the “sex work” camp to reduce prostitution to a labor-process conceals precisely the form of alienation with which feminists confronted Marxism — not in work being what is most taken-away, but in one’s own sexuality being what is most taken-away. This is different, because women’s sexuality is taken-away in many more spheres than work. It is taken-away one way or another everywhere women encounter men in patriarchal society, which is one reason that feminists were met with hostility on the left when they pointed this out. What was at stake was not only the workerist fallacy, but male sexual entitlement.

For most women in patriarchy, the oppressors are not just bosses. He is also that little tyrant at home who she can’t afford to divorce. It’s that stalker ex-boyfriend. It is the co-worker who can’t keep his goddamn hands to himself.

The #MeToo movement over the last couple of years is a direct response to
this kind of sexual power, and it cuts across race, class, and nationality.

So when Comrade Castillo writes that “we [DSA] must establish ourselves as radical allies of all workers by coming out in full support of decriminalization of sex work . . . a feminist issue, a prison abolition issue, and a labor issue,” how does that square with the question of alienation, with the taking-away of women’s sexuality through commodification?

I’m sorry to be short, but many feminists advocate for the Nordic model (as do I) of criminalizing the buyer and not the seller, and it has next to nothing to do with prison abolition. Prostitution is not alienated labor based on separation from a work product, but separation from the most intimate
aspects of one’s own personhood.

We are back in that chasm of feminist illiteracy (read Carole Pateman’s The Sexual Contract on “slave contracts”), and if these erroneous claims are not enough, consider this declaration in Brother Castillo’s next paragraph:

“Patriarchy and capitalism do not exist separately. They are symbiotic. If we recognize that all wage labor under capitalism is inherently coercive, and thus all workers have their agency negated to some extent regardless of gender, then we should ask ourselves how our negative views on sex work versus other forms of wage labor might come from the patriarchal views that have surrounded most of us since birth.”

“Patriarchy and capitalism do not exist separately. They are symbiotic.” The editors even made this into a giant block quote on page nine, apparently with not a single person in the room pointing out that it is patently not true.

Symbiotic, yes. Inseparable . . . there is around 5,000 years of history that says patriarchy was around a lot longer than the last 500 years. Patriarchy did not exist until capitalism? Patriarchy cannot exist within capitalism apart from the relation that is capital? The end of capitalism be the end of patriarchy?


Here is where the article goes completely off the rails: “ . . . we should ask ourselves how our negative views on sex work versus other forms of wage labor might come from the patriarchal views that have surrounded most of us since birth.”

Well, no.

As we just explained, the feminist opposition to prostitution that I am outlining here does not “come from patriarchal views,” but from a rather rigorous decades-long feminist/womanist analysis of patriarchy. The motivation to make this false claim is that so many on left to refuse to see sex per se as an issue is because sex-as-an-exercise-of-power threatens their liberal (“choice”) world view, if not their privilege. That’s why this camp continually tries to subsume the question of prostitution into a labor-process framework.

Castillo’s claim that opposition to legalization is motivated by archaic attitudes toward sex is appropriate against the conservative view that sex is a purely moral issue. The misdirection of this claim effectively dismisses (and misrepresents) the feminist argument. The most charitable reason for this dismissal of the feminist case against prostitution with a response appropriate to the conservative one would be that he just didn’t know any better. But, then, he follows up with a crude and deceptive characterization of the feminist argument.

“On the one side,” he says, “are those who say it is useless to distinguish between ‘voluntary’ sex work and ‘coercive’ sex work, as all instances of selling and buying sex are coercive because of the balance of power caused by patriarchy. The other side [his side] responds that is inherently anti-feminist to erase the agency of people who engage in sex work of their own free will.”

He admits that there is a schism on the left about this issue; but his caricature of the opposing view at least does note that (other people believe) power and sex are inextricable. And for the record, not a single person I have ever talked to or read on this has suggested that there is no difference between an independent escort and a woman working the street. Ever. What we are saying is that the former is a tiny minority, and not representative of the phenomenon.

His response to the straw woman he has constructed, asking about how male power contextualizes women’s lives and choices, is . . . drum roll please . . . agency.

“The other side responds [Castillo’s side] that it is inherently anti-feminist to erase the agency of people who engage in sex work of their own free will.”

Dude, if it’s real agency, it can’t be erased by a difference of opinion.

“Agency” is almost a mystical term among post-modernists and post-feminists, and closely related to a media product called “power femininity.” Agency is so evocative, giving one the aspect of some wizened Continental philosopher. Agency, all my snark aside, is nothing more or less than being able to choose. By itself, apart from context, it is a meaningless idea, because as the existentialists drearily pointed out, one always has this kind of “freedom,” even if the only choice one can make is suicide. It’s hardly something one can “erase” . . . or celebrate except by its fruits.

As an acolyte of De Certeau, I do celebrate the ability of people who are relatively powerless to make subversive choices; but that’s a far cry from the re-privatization of political issues — which is exactly what this whole “sex-positive,” neoliberal approach to the human catastrophe that is prostitution accomplishes.

A person on Death Row exercises agency when s/he chooses a last meal. The question has never been about agency [a neoliberal red herring] but sustained structural power that puts pretty substantial limitations on people’s agency prior to the amnesiac liberal moment of telescopic exchange. This is the ultimate sleight of hand at the heart of liberal philosophy. Here is our moment of exchange where sexual gratification goes one way and money goes the other.

From afar, the liberal moral universe is strangely everywhere and nowhere, and the liberal “individual” is everyone and no one. Two people, we see them down along through our telescope, because we are focusing here (and excluding everything else) . . . each is giving something in return for something. This is the contractarian instant, divorced, as it were, from any historical process.

Through this lens, the “individual” (see how strangely ahistorical this being is, no particularity of experience, no membership in any groups, sexless, ageless, colorless) times two. Not much to see down this telescope . . . and this is liberal “equality.” One equals one. Homo economicus is back, now dressed up as a socialist “agent.” What does the telescope exclude? That sustained structural power is historically and materially constituted (Where in the world have we heard this before!?).

Actual enfleshed creatures making an actual exchange in the actual material/spatiotemporal/semiotic world, inevitably have a mountain of dissimilarities. Some of these dissimilarities constitute sustained structural
power (gender, race, class, nationality, etc.). When that white-collar john hands the money over and dictates what sex acts he wants to perform on a an abused eighteen-year-old heroin addict, and she agrees, there are horrific disparities of power on display, but — here it is again, that liberal sleight of hand — those power differentials are invisible to the law.

This is how we can claim a formal equality between me and Bill Gates — the laws apply to us equally — but Bill and I will remain on a power gradient where he is on one end and I am much nearer the other. This also allows us to think of this exchange as an exchange — when it is the construction of a relationship in which this affluent man can have sexual access to the body of an eighteen-year-old heroin addict. Liberal law conceals actual inequality behind a veil of formal equality, even as it transforms a power-inflected relationship into an exchange.

“The root question of an abolitionist approach to prostitution,” writes my late friend Kathy Miram, “is not whether women ‘choose’ prostitution or not, but why men have the right to ‘demand that women’s bodies are sold as commodities in the capitalist market.’”

There is an apocryphal story around Hollywood about Jack Nicholson, wherein he said “I don’t pay hookers to come to the house, I pay them to leave.” In the neoliberal/libertarian world, prostitution no longer even triggers an enquiry into the misogyny that underwrites much male sex, most commercial sex, and nearly all pornographic sex. Because, censorship. Because, agency. Because, choice.

If there is one thing essential for any socialist to understand, it is how liberal law protects power by dividing the world into two spheres: public and private. It is epitomized by “castle doctrine” in liberal law. “A man’s home is his castle.” Inside it, until relatively recently, this man ruled over his own little kingdom of wife and children, with the most minimal legal oversight.

Prostitution is not on par with a job, it is one expression of the sexual hierarchy called patriarchy. Does a wife who fears divorce but hates her husband consent when she has sex with him to avoid his anger or abandonment? Surely, we see this question with enough nuance to surpasses the anemic liberal legal standard of “consent.” What would you say to your friend if she told you this?

But when the same survival dynamic underwrites prostitution, are we to immediately jump out of the ring where we struggle against patriarchy and position ourselves alongside liberals by shifting the issue from one of sexual hierarchy to labor-process?

The public sphere is visible to the law, the private sphere — to the extent feasible — is invisible to the law. Works for capitalism and patriarchy equally well. Private choices embody “freedom,” even the freedom to alienate one’s own body. It’s about contract, and property. Before a thing can be reduced to a commodity, it has to be claimed as a property — a possession.

The liberal idea of autonomy derives directly from this conceit: the proprietary body. I “own” “my” body — subject/object. You can get a bit dizzy trying to get your head around it. How can I be a body and have a body at the same time? Jolt!

Would a socialist quote John Locke with anything except irony?

Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this nobody has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.

John Locke, “Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration,” 2.25

“. . . a property in his own person . . .”

“With respect to prostitution, “continues Dr. Miriam, “the central political fiction of prostitution-as-an-exchange is the story that through the prostitution contract, a woman sells ‘sexual services’ for money, as if sexuality were not actually embodied, as if there existed a subject who, magically, was capable of separating her physical/sexual capacities from her ‘self.’ This ‘conjuring trick’ (to use Pateman’s phrase) called ‘sexual services’ obscures the real meaning of prostitution as ‘an institution which allows certain powers of command over one person’s body to be exercised by another.’”

Welcome to the proprietary body, owned by a ghost inside a machine.

Contract, the proprietary body, and the public-private dichotomy are the cornerstones of (neo)liberal philosophy. Together they constitute a “model of agency . . . that both presupposes and conceals the social relations of domination that obtain for prostitution.” (Miriam)

Yes, in that sense, the alienable body/self is also presupposed in the labor contract; but the progressive commodification of every aspect of our lives that these phenomena buttress is an aspect of capitalist expansion. In prostitution, there is this, but also another relation of domination — apart from unequal signatories to the capitalist contract — and that is patriarchy, a relation of domination that is not based on money, but on sex.

Contract establishes a “civil” society that exists exclusively in that public sphere. The public sphere is politically relevant; and the private is to one degree or another immunized against political intervention, and counted as irrelevant to public/political discourse. Prior to feminist intervention, the public was a sphere of activity where men ruled fraternally; and in the private sphere, men ruled individually. (An important corrective to limitations in this critique is Patricia Hill Collins comparison of the difference between the private sphere for white American women and African American women.)

“Sex-work,” seen economistically as it is in Castillo’s article, is tantamount to supporting patriarchy by pretending it does not exist (privatizing) in order to force it into the Procrustean bed of the contract (public). The contract favors the powerful; it was their invention. So does the contractual sex-work hermeneutic, by simultaneously concealing and reproducing the forms of power that obtained prior to the (neo)liberal, amnesiac instance of exchange that makes patriarchy disappear in the analysis. (This is only descriptive, we’ll note again, for a small minority of prostituted people, who are generally subjected to violent or potentially violent coercion every single day.)

Feminists have produced many of the best analyses of this public-private dichotomy, because feminist critique focuses on domination that happens apart from the public, political gaze. The domination of women, who in the past, and to a great degree in the present, have been excluded from the public sphere except as consumers, happens most often in the intimate settings of the private sphere. This is what feminists meant when they said, “The personal is the political.”

The same thing can be paraphrased as “the private is the political,” political referring here to issues of social power.

In the contractarian origin myths, which are Western male myths, there were no political subjects who were not adult white men. The private realm of the husband-headed nuclear family is where the women and children can be hidden from public view and politics. Rousseau admitted of these “prior social relations” related to sex in his origin myth, highlighting the public-private split in an explicitly gendered way. “The education of women,” he wrote, “should always be relative to that of men. To please, to be useful to us, to make us love and esteem them, to educate us when young, to take care of us when grown up, to advise, to console us, to render our lives easy and agreeable; these are the duties of women at all times, and what they should be taught in their infancy.”

Vive la révolution!

In addition to the economistic interpretation by “sex work” advocates, there is an even more neoliberal pretense of something called “empowerment.” Kathy Miriam adopts “Charles Taylor’s term ‘expressivist’ to refer to a specific heritage of Western Romanticist thought that defines individual freedom in terms of a ‘poeisis,’ an activity of self-creation.” Freedom is being left alone. This is bedrock liberalism. “Empowerment” feminism, or more tellingly, “power femininity” (there the old gender binary re-rears its head!), is bedrock individualism. Empowerment is self-fulfillment, getting what you want. If there is one thing that has always been anathema to liberal philosophy, it is restraint. It makes four-year-olds of us all: mine, more, now.

Rosalind Gill has something to say about this “empowerment.”

“Notions of choice,” she notes, “of ‘being oneself’,

and ‘pleasing oneself’ are central to the postfeminist sensibility that suffuses contemporary Western media culture. They resonate powerfully with the emphasis upon empowerment and taking control that can be seen in talk shows, advertising and makeover shows. A grammar of individualism underpins all these — such that even experiences of racism or homophobia or domestic violence are framed in exclusively personal terms in a way that turns the idea of the personal as political on its head. Lois McNay has called this the deliberate ‘reprivatisation’ of issues that have only relatively recently become politicized.

Michele Lazar weighs in, too:

“Postfeminist [cultural production] suggests that patriarchal ideologies of gender in terms of women’s powerlessness and oppression are outdated. Instead, this is fast becoming a women’s world, in which relations of power are shifting in favour of women. Such representations, however, far from supporting the feminist cause, are quite detrimental to it. Feminists’ concern for women’s empowerment is appropriated and recontextualized by [media], evacuating it of its political content and instead infusing meanings quite antithetical to feminism . . . Structurally, the gender order remains dualistic and hierarchical, but the players have been switched. There appears to be at work a perverse sense of equality — if women traditionally have been the subordinated group, and in the media sexually objectified, it is a sign of social progress to turn the tables on men along similar lines. This is hardly the kind of gender order restructuring envisaged by feminists of any persuasion.”

Kathy Miriam:

The sex worker as postmodern text [which tumbles back into a neoliberal political frame] issues from an elite vantage point, the abstract intellectual projecting its own version of abstract individuality onto prostitutes in general, the vast majority of whom lack a fraction of the mobility enjoyed by the privileged group who craft the theory.

And there is the next topic: relative privilege.

Yes, women make real “choices” in deciding to exchange sex for money. No one is contesting that here. What is at issue is not “choice” [the neoliberal red herring], but the intentional ignorance of the (neo)liberal standpoint. Deploying choice (even as “agency”) is a deception, what magicians call
misdirection, a mystification (if you prefer Marxist terminology) of “the reality that it is men’s demand that makes prostitution intelligible and legitimate as a means of survival for women in the first place.”

Using the example of a comparatively privileged high-end escort who has “chosen” prostitution in some neo-Nietzschean pursuit of authenticity through transgression is to utterly (and intentionally) misrepresent the reality of prostitution as a social phenomenon, which is highly racialized “physical violence, economic exploitation, social isolation, verbal abuse, threats and intimidation, physical violence, sexual assault, and captivity.” It takes a blinding form of privilege to interpret that as empowerment . . . or even employment.

The experiences of a woman who prostituted primarily in strip clubs, but also in massage, escort and street prostitution, are typical. In strip club prostitution, she was sexually harassed and assaulted. Stripping required her to smilingly accommodate customers’ verbal abuse. Customers grabbed and
pinched her legs, arms, breasts, buttocks and crotch, sometimes resulting in bruises and scratches. Customers squeezed her breasts until she was in severe pain, and they humiliated her by ejaculating on her face. Customers and pimps physically brutalized her. She was severely bruised from beatings and frequently had black eyes. Pimps pulled her hair as a means of control and torture. She was repeatedly beaten on the head with closed fists, sometimes resulting in unconsciousness. From these beatings, her eardrum was damaged, and her jaw was dislocated and remains so many years later. She was cut with knives. She was burned with cigarettes by customers who smoked while raping her. She was gang-raped and she was also raped individually by at least 20 men at different times in her life. These rapes by johns and pimps sometimes resulted in internal bleeding. “Yet this woman described the psychological damage of prostitution as far worse than the physical violence. She explained that prostitution ‘is internally damaging. You become in your own mind what these people do and say with you.”

Melissa Farley, Psychiatric Times

The actual exchange of money for sex, that amnesiac liberal instant, is preceded by a history and encapsulated within a larger sexual social structure of which this exchange is but a final expression.

There is a difference between productive labor and the commodification of a body, as a body, for some strange man to stick his dick into. Feminism is a movement against male entitlement, just as socialism is a movement against capitalist entitlement. They are similar in their accounts of domination-subjugation, but they are about qualitatively different things. By converting the struggle against male entitlement into a struggle against capitalist entitlement, what is rescued is male entitlement.

Refusal to acknowledge the structural dominance of men in addressing the question of prostitution is matched by a similar refusal to acknowledge race. Critical race theorists, like Gerald Torres, and feminist/womanist interlocutors, like Patricia Hill Collins and Kimberle Crenshaw, have noted how the prostitution debate, framed in (neo)liberal/libertarian terms, has not only effaced gender domination structures that preface the phenomenon of prostitution, they have effaced the racialized structures that are manifest in prostitution and force women of color into prostitution disproportionately.

They do NOT see this as a labor issue.

Cheryl Nelson Butler, writing for the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, citing feminist Catharine MacKinnon who is anti-prostitution, writes, “MacKinnon’s . . . focus has been on challenging structural oppression and recognizing that, in the context of prostitution, this structural oppression of women manifests itself as, and intersects with, racial subordination.”

Butler critically supports radical feminists on this account, as opposed to the liberal/libertarian approach, because critical race theory is likewise concerned with structural domination, as opposed to decontextualized arguments about personal choice. Women of color are associated with prostitution through a cultural lens of stereotypes about racially-othered women; but the libertarian account (Castillo’s) can make no reference to the sexual-stereotypes of black women, for example, because that would be disruptive to an unspoken subtext of the neoliberal argument that Castillo and others have made: that sex per se can depart the cosmos and become innocent of power through “choice.”

Sex, in a society still stratified around sex, cannot be disentangled from power, or the structures of power. Sex, and prostitution, are imbricated in a sexual power structure that interacts with class and money, but they are utterly unintelligible without a specific account of sexual hierarchy, which cannot be reduced to class. Leftist history has also shown how accounts of class are routinely constructed with hardly a mention of gender as a power system . . . so the idea that class analysis suddenly has some special dispensation to guide feminism’s critical enquiries seems pretty bass-akward to me, and the reduction of women and children’s sexual exploitation to an abstracted labor-process is as offensive as it is presumptuous.

Libertarians and neoliberals argue from exception. They have no use for trends or tendencies, because a preponderance of evidence might run contrary to their hyper-individualistic ideology. When confronted
with poverty statistics, for example, and racial demographics (libertarianism is very white), that show how African America still exists in a kind of colonially subordinated status in the United States, they will cite Oprah as the super-rich exception. Their arguments and rebuttals are exceptional not tendential, because they are always arguing in bad faith. They are not primarily concerned with getting at the truth, because the truth to them is a set of ironclad and highly abstracted principles (there’s the contradiction, right there); they are concerned with defending the principles themselves, even if those principles in action have the potential for substantial collateral damage.

Using the example of a few sexual dilettantes and a handful of women who have “chosen” to exchange sex for money as representative of women who are prostituted generally is exactly this kind of libertarian gambit. The vast majority of women, in the US and abroad, who are exchanging sex with strangers for money, are not “power feminists” who are reveling in their own “agency,” they are victims of childhood sexual abuse, childhood neglect, sexual abuse more generally, drug addiction resulting from self-medication, and under the power of violent men. Representing that reality with a stylized sample of the few who constitute this exception makes collateral damage of the vast majority who are living with a daily diet of humiliation, degradation, addiction, and abuse.

A predominant form of bad faith argument in politics is when a policy campaign becomes the tail that wags the critical dog. Let me compare two forms of this bad faith — one on abortion and this one being made about prostitution — since both arguments revolve around “choice.”

I can already hear chair-scooting and throat-clearing . . . is he about to say something against reproductive choice? In advance, no and yes. No, I am not going to argue for the criminalization of abortion. Yes, I am going to argue that reducing it to a simple, deracinated “choice” is a politically expedient minimization that obscures the actual complexity of the issue of abortion. We take sides on the argument about policy, and then move to advance that position tactically through political terrain by accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative. We give selective accounts, in other words, that shore up support for our side and erode support for the other side. Black and Third World feminists will tell you that the abortion debate treats them as if they don’t exist, framing the whole debate from the standpoint of white (often affluent) women; because reproductive freedom in African America, for example, includes abortion, forced, or coerced, as a crime committed against one’s people, alongside forced sterilizations and other eugenic measures. The pro-choicer does not want to publish about women whose husbands and boyfriend pressured them to have an abortion; and the pro-lifer does not want to publish materials that show how dangerous are underground abortions or about the myriad conditions in a woman’s life that would make her feel she had to have an abortion (there is a pro-life offshoot that is addressing “abortion-reduction” now, but they are marginalized by absolutist conservatives).

It’s remarkable that “my body, my choice” — the pro-choice mantra — has now been taken up by the most patriarchal of men in support of prostitution. That proprietary body carries a worm of contradiction.

The same applies to the sex-work libertarians . . . The “sex-work” liberals’ issue (this was what provoked Castillo’s article) is that the law might allow internet censorship, in this case of anonymous sex ads online. The no- censorship line (and I have deep reservations about censorship, but also the kind exercised by the woke-gnostics), as demonstrated in Castillo’s article, is the lodestar of his prostitution legalization argument. That’s why a power analysis of men vis-à-vis women — which forms the core of the argument for the Nordic model in law, policies that address the core causes of prostitution, and of sex-critical scholarship — is absent. It blurs the lines on an abstract principle. The abstract principle of “free speech,” a libertarian shibboleth, and “choice,” reduce the whole question to the abstract individual — Homo economicus — that is the cornerstone of neoliberal ideology. Calling this socialism or feminism is frankly appalling.


FOOTNOTE: Angel Castillo also misrepresented the outcomes of the Nordic model. Within fifteen years of implementation in Sweden, prostitution dropped substantially, prosecutions (of johns) dropped by half, and trafficking has declined. The law was passed first in Sweden, the most feminist government on the planet.




Author of the books “Hideous Dream,” “Full Spectrum Disorder,” “Borderline,” “Mammon’s Ecology,” and “Tough Gynes.”

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Stan Goff

Stan Goff

Author of the books “Hideous Dream,” “Full Spectrum Disorder,” “Borderline,” “Mammon’s Ecology,” and “Tough Gynes.”

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