perceive that they have historically
beenand still arevictims
of both direct and subtle forms
of male oppression. Feminist beliefs
widely as to the most effective
way to end this oppression. The
of prostitution in society is thought
by radical feminists to reinforce
and perpetuate this climate of
Radicals and liberals, however,
are divided about the role of prostitution,
seeing it in a range of perspectives
from that of an ordinary business
to an activity that degrades all
women. It follows then that there
a difference of opinion on whether
prostitutes are victimsand
should be protected by eliminating
of prostitutionor should
be considered free agents pursuing
Radical feminism in this writing is discussed at greater length
than other forms of feminism because of the nature of certain beliefs radical
feminists hold about prostitutes. They tend to be mechanical in their analysis
of prostitution, separating the moral and spiritual forces of relationships from
the temporal forces. In doing so they present an incomplete view of relationships
between men and women, as well as the intricate relationships between prostitutes
and their clients.
spite of their tendency to misrepresent and exaggerate the meaning
of words such as degradation and rape, radical feminists make a philosophical
case for the idea that mens aggressive sexual nature is not biological,
but rather culturally engendered and therefore capable of being modified.
Many men believe their sexual inclinations are inherited traits, and
therefore a birthright. This belief serves to perpetuate the myth of
their natural dominance. Radical feminists promote the idea that changing
mens attitude towards women to a more enlightened one is an important
goal for all feminists. Their argument that male attitudes can be changed
enjoys some credibility as a result of biological studies which show
that all human behaviors are not necessarily inherited; that many behaviors
potentially arise as a function of human cultures.
the exception of existentialist feminism, the other four feminisms
discussed rely all too often on stereotypical notions of the personal
lives of prostitutes by focusing too much attention on one socio-economic
group at the expense of examining the wide diversity of experiences,
values, and beliefs of prostitutes. In an effort to shed some light
on prostitution, nine categories of prostitution are discussed.
Basic to this writing is the idea that a climate of immorality is everywhere
evident in the society, and obviously not only in the lives of prostitutes.
This pervasive cultural climate of immorality (cheating, lying, manipulating,
and exploiting others to serve ones own ends) contributes to the oppressions
that feminists condemn. The common belief that the manipulation of people
in pursuit of ones ends is an acceptable behavior reinforces and perpetuates
a myth that such behavior is right. The problem is that once such a belief
becomes embedded in the society, more forceful forms of exploitation can
arise. Thus, it is reasonable to posit the idea that a multiplicity of influences
leads to the oppression of women, not simply the aggressive impulses of men.
Radical Feminism, Prostitution,
From the beginning, prostitutes and radical feminists
have appeared to be at odds with each other. Laurie Shrage makes a case for the
radical feminist perspective when she says female prostitution oppresses
women, not because some women who participate in it suffer in the eyes
of society but because its organized practice testifies to and perpetuates
socially hegemonic beliefs which oppress all women in many domains of their lives.1 Such
views of radical feminists are seemingly well-thought-out and difficult to dismiss.
However, if some of their arguments are analyzed in the context of classical
and contemporary ethics, they begin to take on a different light and lose their
integral character. Even though the argument that prostitution corrupts women
appeals to logic, it is a position driven by highly charged emotions that ultimately
corrupt its logic. The position further deteriorates, as exemplified in the first
two chapters of The Prostitution of Sexuality, because it oververbalizes2 the
issue and overemphasizes statistical information in an attempt to paint a real-world
view of prostitution. Gail Pheterson, in her book The Prostitution Prism, touches
on other research abuses and the misuse of statistics to define what a prostitute
is.3 This is perhaps the greatest failing of the radical feminists
who have built a theory of social right and wrong on a stereotypical notion of
what constitutes a prostitute. Statistics about a person or group of persons
obviously are not the actual person or group. In relation to this, linguist S.I.
Hayakawa reminds us in Language In Thought and Action that the word is
not the thing, that the habitual confusion of symbols with things
symbolized, whether on the part of individuals or societies, is a perennial human
feminist Kathleen Barry, in The Prostitution of Sexuality, envisions
prostitution as connected to a darkened world of sex, abuse, and violence.
But to others more connected to the world of sex work, common sense
and ordinary experience show that the world of prostitution is not
a grim and humorless world of only pain, suffering, and abuse. Some
of what Barry has to say is relevant and has elements of truth to it,
but there are other important aspects of prostitution that are positive
and life-affirming. Barrys book largely paints prostitution in
the light of a violent, thankless, and grim occupation that degrades
not only the prostitutes themselves but the whole feminine gender as
well. It is her statistical analysis of many facts that seems to guide
her conclusions rather than a deep understanding or intimacy of the
world of sex work. The way prostitutes are analyzedin some instancesobjectifies,
dehumanizes, and strips them of any personality, like so many flies
pinned to a board for an entomologist to study. She reduces prostitutes
in moral stature by objectifying them in the same way she charges that
men objectify and reduce women.
feminism does not view prostitution as a victimless crime,5 but
as a situation where men have reduced women to an image of being mere
sexual objects. This allows men to unconscionably oppress and coerce
women in order to satisfy their own fantasies through prostitution.
Political and economic power seems unfairly divided in the world to
these feminists. Men are in the position of dominance, demanding and
getting what they want. According to the radical feminist view,
men are socialized to have sexual desires and to feel entitled to have
those desires met, whereas women are socialized to meet those desires
and to internalize accepted definitions of femininity and sexual objectification. 6
the radical feminists standpoint, the issue of prostitution is
an extension of the power politics that govern social intercourse between
men and women. They assert the inherent immorality of prostitution
by defining its wrongness in terms of its corrupting influence on the
dignity of all women. They also seize the higher ground in a battle
between men and women, using prostitutes as pawns in a struggle to
assert their world view. In the heat of this battle, the idea of prostitution
is oversimplified and subsequently molded into a form that fits well
into the political views of the radical feminist. Oversimplifying an
issue frequently produces a logical outcome that can support just about
any political position. Prostitution is an enormously diverse and complex
issue. Lumping virtually all prostitutes into one general category
will yield an inaccurate and insensitive view of their lives.
In constructing theories about prostitutes and prostitution, radical feminists
would do well to take into account the diversity of reasons why people enter
the profession. They also need to take into account the corrupting effect
of any deviant behavior as it makes an impact on society. Moral degeneration
of any sort affects people both individually and collectively. It could be
argued that prostitution, while it undoubtedly degrades women to some extent,
is not necessarily as degrading as many other forms of degeneracy.
There is not just one, but at least nine, categories of description that
prostitute women appear to fall into."7 First, there are women
who inadvertently fall into poverty and turn to prostitution but have the
emotional fiber to withstand the hardships of the profession until they can
find something else to do. Second, there are women born poor into families
with a long history of poverty and a lack of education. Third, a woman may
be abducted against her will for no reasons of defect in her character and
be forced into prostitution. Fourth, a woman might voluntarily enter the
profession because of defects in her moral character that allow her to fall
into association with violent and exploitative social predators, who, like
her, do not wish to follow the rules of any legal or moral system. She associates
with people in an intimate way, well beyond the protection of the police
or the assistance of social agencies that can effectively assist her in fighting
off abuse. She underestimates her intelligence and skills and ends up being
pimped or trafficked as a prostitute. As illustrated in a subsequent chapter,
there is a relationship between working within the social value system(s)
and abuse. Thus, it can be said there is potentially a cost for deviating
too far from social values."8 This is where Kathleen Barrys
statement that most women would leave if they could"9 is
most relevant to the issue of prostitution. Fifth, a woman may have been distanced"10 and
demoralized by a fiercely competitive childhood in which she was unable to
compete successfully for sufficient attention from parents, teachers, or
employers for her to find acceptance and develop direction. Many prostitutes
who have their rational faculties intact are able to resist the intimidations
of pimps and avoid a considerable amount of abuse. Sixth, low intelligence
and physical and mental problems may lead a woman to find a viable way to
be part of a productive society through prostitution. Some of these women
might be so unpredictable or incorrigible that they would not make good
women for pimps. They would be difficult people to get close enough
to for exploitation by a pimp trying to establish a relationship by way of
feigned intimacy. Some, on the other hand, are perhaps easily guided by the
more intelligent pimp. Such women might feel protected by a pimp in spite
of low-level abuse which might be considered acceptable by the standards
of their experience. Seventh, some women perhaps find that they take to prostitution
naturally like fish take to water.11 This category
may include prostitutes whose mothers or relatives were prostitutes through
several generations. Such women often know what they are doing and are confident
that they can handle most of the dangers. Knowing how to derive value and
meaning from what they do, they overcome hardship, obstacles, and abuse.
Eighth, in the smallest category, that of attractive women who are very smart.
These women recognize an opportunity to make an extraordinarily high income
as prostitutes. They place themselves out of danger with wealthy, influential,
and intelligent men who can afford a premium price for sexual service. Finally,
ninth, some people are irrepressible personalities who seek the challenge
of the most dangerous of undertakings. This category, includes artists, poets,
writers, and political activists of many descriptions who are of adventurous
spirit, testing the limits of their society. These are intelligent"12 members
of the high culture of prostitution that promotes the profession on a higher
spiritual and intellectual plane than other categories. They, with their
many supporters in mainstream society, often see prostitution in a different
light than that of oppression, abuse, and despair. They are on the cutting
edge of change for prostitutes and are its main moralizing force gradually
evoking openness in the hearts and minds of ordinary people.
of the violence and abuse radical feminists talk about fall into the
first four categories. Abuse in the sixth category, that of physical
and mental problems, is a special consideration of its own. The women
of the first four categories at greatest risk are those lacking moral
fiber, who, with an outlaw attitude, try to tackle the world on their
own terms only to be outsmarted by cunning social predators. Their
lives perhaps look grim and bleak, but they often voluntarily lead
themselves into danger. An analogy could be made comparing prostitution
with mountain climbing. It appears easy to do, but in the end it is
an occupation fraught with hazards that only the best and the brightest
appear to overcome. This inherent danger is mirrored in the moral device
of stigma. Stigma of certain descriptions serves to warn unwary people
of the inherent dangers of any entry into a particular area of social
life. In this instance, it serves not so much to pronounce on morality
but to dissuade people from climbing mountains they are unskilled at
climbing. The many fine points of stigma are too involved to discuss
here but are dealt with in subsequent writings.
Radical feminists do not generally subscribe to this broader view of prostitution
as outlined in the above nine categories. It seems almost imperative for
such individuals to find a link between pimps as oppressors and a generalized
theory of male dominance that views men as perpetuating their power by being
oppressors. By narrowing their view of prostitution, radical feminists make
a point. Moreover, by reducing social dynamics to sexual oppression as the
central focus of male-female relationships, radical feminism attempts to
make an end run around conventional and classical ethical views of right
and wrong. Constructing a theory for the restriction of the rights of prostitutes
in terms of oppression, not morality, is simply another creatively conceived
method of rejecting prostitution as a valid way of life.
focus of Barrys writing, which can in some senses be seen as
representative of radical feminists, appears to be a heroic intervention
on behalf of prostitutes and women in general to save them from violence
and degradation. The extensive abuse that Barry cites can be viewed
as a statement on the condition of human civilization in which it is
clear that humans are not nearly as moral as they believe themselves
to be. She cites numerous instances where violence perpetrated by pimps
is the rule rather than the exception in prostitution."13 Violence
and abuse are about immorality. Political dialogue constructed in terms
of oppression is a second-order attempt to solve a first-order problem
better resolved in conventional moral terms. Contemporary and classical
ethics have built, over centuries of ethical discourse, a fairly stable
foundation (or foundations) from which to evaluate self-serving and
exploitative behaviors. On the other hand, the social theory of Barry,
which assigns the cardinal value of moral discernment to be sexual
oppression, does not have a substantial foundation on which to build
and integrate well into other areas of credible thinking. Theory that
is held to be superior is generally theory that integrates well into
a broad spectrum of human experience, scientific fact and other theoretical
views. Theory that is narrowly subjective usually has a limited scope
of application. In my view Barrys assessment of the moral nature
of prostitution falls into this limited category.
There are other reasons for being skeptical of her strong case against prostitution.
First is the hasty way in which she develops her ideas and second is the
way in which she holds out a pitiful view of the prostitutes life without
distinguishing a wide spectrum of experiences relating to prostitution. She
frequently moves from premise to conclusion with great rapidity, and employs
strong, emotionally laden language to assert the authority of a premise.
This kind of reasoning guides one down a selected pathway rather than conveying
an understanding of the situation. Appeal, however subtle, to the wretchedness,
despair, and abuse of prostitutes can support a theoretical position only
so far. Quite a few of Barrys ideas are presented well, but the constant
hammering away at oppression eventually paints a portrait of wretchedness
and despair afflicting prostitute women without any counterbalancing concepts.
Observations that might include enjoyment of prostitution in repartee with
clients, or experience that might show pimps in a different light, are totally
absent from her work.
The Prostitution of Sexuality does in fact inspire a sense of pathos
for women to make a point, it commits an informal fallacy of logic"14 because
the issue becomes clouded with emotions that prevent an objective analysis
of the situation. Observing poverty is almost always a situation that
evokes emotions. Mixing poverty and prostitution together as one thing
may give prostitution a different emotional appeal than if it were
analyzed on its own. In an over-populated world, there may simply be
situations that leave no other choices to women. The pain and suffering
they experience might perhaps be realized with any choice they might
make. Many probably enjoy what they do. In spite of the seemingly tragic
aura of some of their lives, many prostitutes might be more accurately
described as being friendly, warm, and sensitive human beings; not
as women whose greatest value is to be pawns in a game of political
chess for the empowerment of one political group over another. If the
primary cause of predatory practices and trafficking is a function
of over-population, educational deficiency, feudal social policy, or
fierce social competition for attention at school, wealth, and jobs,
the fact that prostitution thrives and subsequently degrades women
is beside the point. Feminists are likely blaming the wrong people
for the existence of a degradation that is a part of a vicious cycle
The corruption of conscience is endemic to human life without regard
to gender. Possessing power demonstrably exacerbates the misuse of it no matter
who possesses it. Whether men or women were in the dominant position, the situation
might not be much different. The heart of the issue is not to be found in vivid
descriptions of oppressions and wrongdoing by this party or that, but rather
in the wider context of morality itself. Barry, as well as many other feminist
writers, cites a seemingly endless list of human rights violations. Such violations
are not new to people dedicated to attempting to lead the moral life and
commonly experiencing a world in which morality is always a struggle."15 Where
there is unfairness, there is often immorality at work. Morality attempts to
bring reason and fairness to an unreasoning world, but it is a difficult struggle.
Ethicists have endured consciousness of many forms of unfairness for centuries,
but this is a brand new form of injustice to some feminists.
Prostitution should not always bear the brunt of condemnation for
abuse or inspiring abuse. The sheer folly of getting involved with people so
obviously unscrupulous has to be noted as a contribution to scenarios of abuse.
The mean and complex balances of power, greed, dominance and dependency between
prostitutes and pimps give rise to abusive interactions, a subject surprisingly
undiscussed in Barrys work. In contrast, Priscilla Alexanders essays
in Sex Work show more awareness of the larger world of prostitution. She utilizes
more restraint than Barry does in the matter of leaping from premise to conclusion
Robert M. Stuart, ed., Philosophical Perspectives on Sex and Love (New York, Oxford, Oxford University Press 1995), p. 74.
2. S.I. Hayakawa, Language In Thought and Action, 4th ed. (Harcourt Brace
Jovanovich, Inc. 1978). Oververbalization If our intentional orientations
are serious, therefore, we can manufacture verbally a whole system of values...out
of connotations informative and affective...That is to say, once the term
is given, we can, by proceeding from connotation to connotation, keep going
indefinitely. p. 251.
3. Gail Pheterson, The Prostitution Prism (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University
Press, 1996), pp. 30-36.
4. Language In Thought and Action, p. 24. Also see the section on the process
of abstracting, ...leaping a huge chasm: from the dynamic process...to
a relatively static idea... p. 154.
5. Jody Freeman in Applications of Feminist Legal Theory to Womens
Lives: Sex, Violence and Reproduction, D. Kelly Weisberg editor, (Philadelphia:
Temple University Press, 1996) says Radical feminists say that prostitution
is not a harmless, private transaction but a powerful means of
creating, reinforcing, and perpetuating the objectification of women through
sexuality. p. 242.
6. Ibid., 194.
7. Prostitutes are generally described in these writings as being women.
They are by far the largest group by gender of all prostitutes. Men and transgenders,
of course, are also prostitutes, but the focus here is on women. Some of
these nine categories can also be applied to men and transgenders.
8. By flaunting societys values and behaving immorally, a person believes
he or she is getting away with something, but they are not. They become less
valuable people. See Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations, (Belknap
Harvard, 1981), p. 409.
9. Feminist Legal Theory, p. 248.
10. Kathleen Barry, The Prostitution of Sexuality (New York and London: New
York University Press, 1995), p. 30. Distancing can also be thought
of as the result of the abuse caring people experience as they withdraw from
a society that takes their kindness as a sign of weakness. Distancing may
also result because every time a person gets socially intimate he or she
has no defenses to keep from being exploited by that closeness.
11. Terri Goodsen coined the phrase in reference to her relationship to prostitution
and reasons why she felt some women became prostitutes.
12. Women in the eighth category are described as smart and those in the
ninth intelligent. Smart denotes purely optimizing strategies at work in
thinking that is self-serving, while intelligence implies to some degree
altruistic and non-optimific thinking. The former are in it for the money,
because that is where the money is substantial compared with any other career
they might choose. The intelligent women are in it for the money but on a
higher level of social integration that includes helping other prostitutes
and helping each other overcome political and social obstacles.
13. In one study that appears representative of her view of the pervasiveness
of violence, 63% of women in a study said they were horribly beaten by their
pimps. (The Prostitution of Sexuality), p. 202. Another study by feminist
Catharine MacKinnon in The Problems of Pornography, says that only 7.8% of
all women have not been sexually assaulted. The pervasiveness of violence
and pimping needs to be examined more closely with better research methods,
14. The pathetic fallacy is an informal fallacy in philosophy. If an argument
appeals to pity it is considered fallacious. There is a subtle, not exaggerated,
sense of this in Barrys descriptions.
15. Paul Tillich.