Prostitution: Prohibit or Legalize?
The debate over prostitution is one that divides feminists into two groups: the Radical Feminists who want prostitution abolished, and the Liberal Feminists who would like to see prostitution decriminalized, and normalized in our society - Prostitution: Prohibit or Legalize? introduction. Scott Anderson (2002) describes in his essay the strong and weak points of both the radical feminists’ and the liberals’ arguments, with the most positive emphasis on the radical feminists position for abolishing the institution. Nick Larson’s account of prostitution (2001) is much more objective than Anderson’s, but he points ut that decriminalizing prostitution, and transforming it into a “viable service-related occupation” (2001:62), would have many health and safety benefits for the prostitute.
Both Larson and Dr. Maggie O’Neill (1996) would like to see brothel-keeping laws removed, so that women can work in environments with health and safety standards, and also for the protection that would come with operating in small groups of women with mutual interests. Yvonne Abraham with Sarah McNaught (1997) bring up valid points on either side of the debate, directly from such radical eminists as lawyer Catherine MacKinnon and anti-pornography theorist and ex-prostitute Andrea Dworkin, (who also has a quote in Anderson’s essay (2002), describing the horror of violence from men who “are expressing pure hatred for the female body”), who believe prostitution “is too patriarchal to be tolerated”.
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And from the other extreme, who they call “sex-radical feminists” (but who share the same values and opinions as those others describe as liberals or liberal feminists), argue that “sex work can be a good thing: a bold form of liberation for women, a way for some to take control of their lives” (1997).
I also looked to Kingsley Davis’ essay on “The Sociology of Prostitution” (1979) for his description and analysis of the institution of prostitution, its problems, and possible solutions. Based on the arguments presented, Anderson gives the most thorough, well supported account of either side of the debate, and gives a credible conclusion: that prohibiting prostitution would be better for society in the long run, on the grounds that normalizing it would be, in fact, more degrading than it is in its current state, and would require the sacrifice of sexual autonomy.
He centers his resolution around what he believes, and backs up, are possible societal outcomes of either normalizing the institution or abolishing it. In my analysis of the debate over whether to prohibit prostitution or to have it decriminalized, and normalized in society, I will begin by looking at what the various authors have written about the institution as it is right now, and its problems. I will then be able investigate the solutions presented by the liberal feminists, the problems with those, and the solutions presented by the radical feminists, and the problems with their arguments as well.
What is Prostitution? The legal definition of prostitution is defined by Larson (2001:51) as “engaging in sexual behavior for financial payment”. Davis (1979:234) describes the basic principle of prostitution as “the use of sexual stimulation in a system of dominance to attain non-sexual ends”, mainly survival, and relates it to our close relatives, the primates. But, obviously, this cannot be a complete definition of prostitution, as one could never go into the jungle and see an ape being arrested by the police for being a prostitute doing the sexual things in order to distract another so he former may swallow his food before the other takes it by force. Also, many other institutions in our culture, which are very respectable, are in a sense, the trade of sexual goods for non-sexual, survival needs, such as marriage. It would also include employing attractive people in stores, cafes, advertisements, movies.
Anderson (2002), creates an analogy of a man, taking his date to an expensive restaurant, and spending an impressive amount of money, in return for which, he will hope for some kind of sexual reciprocity. Such payment is not required on the part of the second arty, and should she not consent to sex, he could not demand it. Should he try to take it by force, that would be harassment, and a violation. In commercial prostitution, neither party is using sex for a socially acceptable end, one is looking for pleasure, the other for money (Davis, 1979: 235).
So, as Larson explains later in his chapter (2001: 52), the sociological definition of prostitution is “activities in which sex is exchanged for immediate financial reward, and in which there is no ongoing emotional and/or social relationship between the participants. There are a lot of problems with commercial prostitution that need to be addressed in order to benefit the prostitutes, and society as a whole. What Do We Need to Change About Prostitution? Anderson (2002) describes in his essay two sets of problems with the institution of prostitution. First the “narrow set,” and then the “broader set. ”
The “narrow set” consists of problems that directly affect the prostitute, such as the specific acts of violence of the customers and pimps who harm, abuse, degrade and exploit the prostitutes they employ. Also included in his set of problems are the issues that arises from the state’s efforts to suppress prostitution, such as the prostitutes’ inability to organize collectively, and the fact that prostitutes are not protected by the law, because they are ‘outlaws. ‘ The “broader set” of problems are the ones that affect society more as a whole, rather than the individuals. These include the gender marked characteristics of the trade, as it is described by Dworkin (in Anderson, 2002) as “a kind of inhuman violence targeted at the female body,” the social stigma attached to prostitutes and imps. The fact that women earn lower wages than men, and that there are fewer employment options available to them is a factor that Davis (1979) approaches.
He suggests that if the wages of working girls were raised, there would be less incentive for women to go into prostitution rather than the more socially accepted forms of employment. There would, therefore, be fewer prostitutes on the street, and the ones still there would be in higher demand, and would then be charging more for their services. The larger amounts of money being made by prostitutes would hen entice even women who have legitimate occupations into the field of prostitution, and there would be as many prostitutes as there were to begin with. Social conditions that force women into the trade, and seem to undermine their ability to avoid the harms and abuses that accompany this sort of work also fall into this category.
Many girls go into prostitution because of prior physical or sexual harassment and brutality, or because of homelessness, substance addiction, or financial emergency. And finally, the idea that the problems prostitutes face are rarely seen by the public as njustices that need to be solved. As Anderson (2002) remarks sarcastically: “they’re not like us; they do things we wouldn’t dream of doing. ” And as Abraham and McNaught (1997) point out: “what prostitutes need… is not a bunch of goody-goodies looking down on them. ”
In looking for a resolution to these problems, I will first address the radical feminists, and their campaign as to why prohibiting prostitution is the best solution for women, and society. The Radical Feminist Critique of Prostitution The radical feminists are against prostitution because of the sexist nature of the institution: heir claim is that it “exploits women and reinforces their status as sexual objects, undoing many of the gains women have made over the past century” (Abraham with McNaught, 1997). They are against normalization of prostitution because of its threat to sexual autonomy, a radical feminist value, and if sex work was accepted as “just another way to use your body,” as Martha Nussbaum (in Anderson, 2002) suggested, that value would need to be sacrificed.
According to Anderson (2002), the radical feminists feel that absolute abolishment of prostitution is necessary ecause the good purchased from a prostitute is partly her own degradation; the existence of prostitution is dependent upon the inequalities between the customer and the prostitution, in social and economic power; and because prostitution contributes to the persistence of the inequalities that the practice is dependent upon. Radical feminists believe that the very existence of prostitution “denigrates all women by reinforcing chauvinist attitudes regarding women as sexual property” (Larson, 2001:56), and prohibiting the practice would end the definition of women in general as available sexual objects, for any man who desires them.
Since it is unlikely that the institution of prostitution will disappear the way the radical feminists would like it to, they consider the next best option to be shifting the blame away from the prostitute, by freeing them from legal penalties, and condemning rather the male customer, and the pimp. As Anderson (2002) points out, it would make the prostitutes life much easier, as they are already disadvantaged, and it makes more sense to reprehend those who make the job a dangerous and degrading one. Larson (2001:60) notes that the legal authorities in Toronto found that the ustomers, who were mostly middle-class men, with families, were more easily deterred than prostitutes, because the latter group normally had long criminal records already.
The liberal feminists would also like to see legal measures taken against those who abuse prostitutes. This group would like to see all sex-trade workers treated as fairly as any other social-service worker. Their beliefs are outlined in the next sub-category. The Liberal Feminist Critique of Prostitution The liberal feminists see that prostitution as it is right now is a harmful, degrading nstitution, but they believe prostitution (and sexual commerce in general) is not necessarily a bad institution (Anderson, 2002). Their solution to the problem is not to get rid of it, but to legalize it, or at least decriminalize it, and to make it a normal part of our society. Some liberals, such as Nussbaum (in Anderson, 2002) hold that “any reluctance to normalizing prostitution is based in an unjustifiable prejudice, one that we should strive to overcome,” just as we have overcome prejudices pertaining to women working on the stage, as actors and dancers.
The liberals’ responses to the radical feminist assertions to eradicate prostitution are that prostitution may be the best employment option some women have, and that to eliminate it would make things worse for the poorest women by denying them what small benefits they might have gained from such work; and that there is much diversity within the bounds of prostitution, and that the different institutions may not have any of the same problematic characteristics in common.
Normalization would go a long ways towards protecting prostitutes from the harms they experience from lients, pimps, psychopaths and police officers. They would be able to organize collectively, and it would be easier for them to sue for damages caused by the violence against them. O’Neill (1996) and Larson (2001:63) both state that lifting the laws against brothel keeping would improve prostitutes’ circumstances by allowing them to work in safe, healthy environments, and provide the protection that comes with operating in small, mutual interest groups. In the Netherlands, where prostitution is decriminalized, police officers and prostitutes are on the same side.
Prostitutes speak at police academies, and the communication pays off in safer working conditions (Abraham with McNaught, 1997). Conclusion In conclusion, the radical feminists want to completely get rid of prostitution in any form, because of its sexist, chauvinistic patriarchal nature, and because it is harmful and degrading to women. The liberal feminists want to make life better for the prostitute by allowing them to continue to work in the sex trade, with the law on their side, to protect them and make their working conditions as safe and healthy as any other worker in our society.
Anderson (2002) has the fullest, most complete argument, presenting both sides equally, and giving substantial reasons for his siding with the radical feminists to abolish the sex trade, because to normalize it would be to give up sexual autonomy. Abraham with McNaught (1997) also have very convincing arguments for both sides of the debate, quotes directly from extreme radical feminists, and those from the other end of the spectrum as well. Davis (1979) also has good arguments, that are very objective. They are good material to read to begin forming a personal opinion on the debate.