Radical Feminism


      To radical feminists, women’s oppression is the most fundamental form of oppression."39 It is the model for all other kinds of oppression. A prostitute, in their view, does not act out of free choice but is a victim of coercion in both its most subtle and direct forms. Because oppression is so entrenched in people’s thinking, changes in the structuring of society alone are not sufficient to overcome it. The attitudes of men must be changed and a state of equality made manifest in the power dynamic between men and women. As in the case of the socialist feminist and the Marxist feminist, once equality has been achieved and the structuring of society corrected, prostitution as we know it will play a diminished role in society—if one at all. Liberal feminism and radical feminism contrast sharply in certain of their fundamental views. Liberal feminist thinking is a more reasoned, intellectual perspective than the radical feminist position, which has both emotional and political centering in its logical expressions. It has been said of the radical feminists that their tactics and their philosophy are inseparable."40 This is understandable, since their focus is on widespread cultural awakening rather than on scholarly debate."41 Their political vibrancy comes in part from the fact that (1) they are saying something relevant and true about men that can almost universally be appreciated by women, and (2) their logical standards are predicated on politics rather than precise theory and thus they become the be-all and end-all for a diversity of people. While their central logic may be “unrefined” compared to the scholarly approach, it could ultimately command the widest base of political support given certain changes. Radical feminists tend to muddle their ideas, producing concepts that do not make finer distinctions of reality."42 The oppression of women by men is assumed to be of the same intensity among all men, yet obviously as Imelda Whelehan has pointed out, “Men have different degrees of access to [the] mechanisms of oppression.”"43 The distinction between rape and prostitution is obscure; its logic is tied to an abstract theory of degradation distant from representing the actual sense of the word “degradation.” Radical feminism focuses on men as oppressors, yet says little about the possibility of the woman being an oppressor of other women or of men."44
Radical feminists do not view prostitution as a harmless private transaction. On the contrary, they believe that it reinforces and perpetuates the objectification, subordination, and exploitation of women."45 They see men as universally believing myths regarding their own sexuality. Two myths are: (1) that men need more sex than women and (2) that they are genetically the stronger sex and therefore should be dominant in relationships with women. Feminist writer Alison M. Jaggar describes the radical feminist view as one in which “almost every man/woman encounter has sexual overtones and typically is designed to reinforce the sexual dominance of men.”"46 To the feminist, a man’s belief that he has no choice other than to respond to his sexual urges, creates a self-validating tautology of belief predicated on the notion that his aggressive behaviors are linked to his inherited traits. The feminist sees otherwise, viewing the source of men’s sexuality as deriving in part from the culture and not exclusively from biology. According to this line of thinking, prostitution and pornography as factors in male experience only exacerbate his self-serving belief in the primacy of his sexuality. His role as the “dominant” sex is reinforced in his mind as something very real, when in fact it is not. In this sense, influences such as prostitution and pornography can be viewed as degrading to all women, as acceptance of these events reinforces and perpetuates a cruel fantasy of women as weak and submissive. D. Kelly Weisberg, in Application of Feminist Legal Theory to Women’s Lives, describes this process in the following way: “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.”"47 As men cling to the idea that their sexuality is an absolute expression of their need and dominance, they prevent women from effecting new attitudes, self-realizations, and behaviors.

     As discussed earlier, when radical feminists speak of “degradation,” they inappropriately apply the term in ethical statements setting forth right or wrong behavior. What they mainly are talking about is degradation in a social sense and not a moral sense, although they allude to their ideas as morally sound. In a social sense they seem to see degradation as existing over a broad spectrum of society in which everything that men do, from opening doors for women to sexual assault, reinforces their view of men as “dominating.” Discussion, in a social sense, could well do without framing everything in terms of degradation. Such rhetoric obscures their more important premise that specifically addresses the male power dynamic that reinforces and perpetuates itself by ignoring certain biological and cultural facts.

      In spite of the fact that radical feminists tend to overemphasize or globalize concepts such as degradation, they appear to more than compensate for it by making several assertions that have high credibility. One of these assertions is that human sexuality derives essentially from culture and not from biology. This idea is reasonable and consistent with contemporary biological theories which emphasize the role of culture rather than genetics in viewing the evolution of human societies. For example, zoologist Theodosius Dobzhansky would recognize the radical feminist assertion framed in biological and genetic terms. He views culture as an instrument of human adaptation that is virtually inseparable from biology."48 Dobzhansky separates biological and cultural theories into three categories: ectogenic, autogenic, and biological."49 One interesting thing he brings up is a biological belief called eugenics that was popular in the early part of this century. Eugenics asserts the strategic role of heredity in determining one’s class and dominant status in society. He goes on to explain that with the rise of Hitlerism this idea was carried to tragic excess, as expressed by the statement, “The belief in the influence of heredity overreached itself when it was used—as it still is all too often—to justify the continued domination of some particular caste or group.”"50 Surprisingly, this sounds somewhat like the ideological beliefs of some men who view their role in society to be one of dominance over women. Dobzhansky, however, does not take one side or the other in the biological dispute between cultural and biological factors as determinants of behavior. To him the various viewpoints represent credible realities that interact with the environment, creating a cybernetic state in which “...there exists a feedback between biological and cultural processes”"51 to maintain the organic system’s equilibrium. Thus, there is a certain degree of support for the radical feminist view that people are not necessarily responding to biological forces that are exclusive of cultural influences.

      In the same way that biological knowledge can expand the ground of support for the arguments of feminists, so too can the study of ethics. The exploitation and oppression of human beings is considered to be an immoral act. Once women’s oppression is framed in moral terms, it becomes easier to understand that there are other moral influences that can cause and exacerbate oppression. For example, if a man is forced by career interests to manipulate and pressure clients into making decisions that benefit his company, he soon develops habits in which lying and manipulation become part of the job. When he comes home he brings with him habits that can prove detrimental to his marriage. In this light, one must weigh the corrupting effects of prostitution on the degradation of women’s lives against many other powerful influences such as the lying and manipulation just mentioned. A climate of immorality is evident everywhere in society, not just in the lives and actions of prostitutes. In a cultural climate where manipulation, half-truths, lying, and cheating are commonplace, people begin to believe that such practices are acceptable. Once they are established as acceptable, more virulent forms of manipulation and exploitation surface, leading to greater forms of social oppression. In this respect, a broader analysis of the radical feminist arguments about the degrading"52 effects of prostitution must be made within an ethical context.
One place to begin examining the ethical aspect of prostitution is the effect it can have on the tranquillity of a woman’s home life. 53 This is the balance point in the argument between the radical feminists and prostitutes since “love’s delicate balance” is at risk in a marriage if prostitution is easily accessible,54 flagrant, predatory, or medically unsafe. Marriage is a highly regarded social institution that has for centuries inspired moral beliefs which encourage and protect it. Relationships which maintain a fine social balance are treasures in all civilizations because they inspire other relationships and contribute to a positive, cooperative, and stable social environment.
It is important to recognize that where struggles in a home exist there are at least three factors at work. There is the woman’s experience, the man’s experience, and illusions in the minds of both that create stress in the heat of conflict. Marriages can be stressful for reasons that emerge not only from the partners themselves but also as a result of influences from outside the marriage. In this respect it has long been a moral view that one should select a mate very carefully. If a woman is attracted to the superficial qualities of a man she may soon discover things about him she does not like. If she is looking for a “trophy” man to show off to the world, or one who can give her status and wealth, then she may be buying trouble later on when her mate’s aggressive, domineering nature reveals itself. Under normal stress, things a woman did not initially notice about her husband can be exaggerated out of proportion in her mind. Ethical analysis is needed in feminist discussions of domination because ethics is a more carefully constructed matrix of ideas which provides a more comprehensive description of reasonable human behavior.

     There are also non-moral influences that must be incorporated into any theory of oppression. Even though two people may on the surface appear to be a good match, the methods by which they communicate can play an important role in how their marriage breaks down or is reaffirmed. While people may think they know how to communicate, many are very poor at it in relationships. If the method of communication is by way of emotional pressure and manipulation, things can get out of hand when pressures from outside the home make a person irritable and testy.55 If emotions get out of hand, and manipulation becomes the basis of communication, a woman can begin to see love’s loss working its way into her life as simple and effective communication is obstructed by deceit. The loss a woman feels for the love and cooperation of her husband should not be transferred unreasonably to prostitution. The presence of prostitution in society can be a contributing factor to love’s loss. But prostitution should not be used as an “out” for marital unhappiness. A man’s need for a prostitute may be only a symptom and not a cause of marital conflict.

      If one is to talk about the functional or moral impropriety of prostitution in relationships then it is appropriate to bring up the issues of good and evil. Thomas Aquinas, who viewed natural law as the source of morality, viewed “right actions” to be those that tend towards the good and away from evil. If love’s delicate balance is at risk, there is certainly a threat of moral degradation of the marriage. Thus, if prostitution intrudes upon love’s delicate relationships, such an intrusion in terms of natural law could be considered an evil. But, as indicated before, the potentially destructive influence of prostitution is minor compared to the many other forces at work in the shaping or testing of a marriage.

     Moral degradation is a slow process. It grows out of practices that people learn while trying to survive and get ahead in the world. When competitions become fierce, some people discover the benefits of reducing those around them to mere objects. Once others are reduced to objects, the morally degraded person feels less pain and guilt in exploiting people. Lying becomes easier and its benefits fruitful. This callous way of looking at the world can also work its way into a marriage and transform it from a relationship based on cooperative love to one of exploitation. Once the marriage has been reduced to a convenience, the husband may seek more exciting experiences outside the home.
Where there is conflict there may be the desire to escape. The search for more exotic places and experiences can arise from conflict or from boredom. One motive married men may have for seeking out a prostitute is to experience exotic sex. In this role, the prostitute can be seen as a married woman’s natural competitor.56 Again, the man’s desire to seek out the exotic in a prostitute-client relationship is only symptomatic of a marriage that has already lost its allure.

      Radicals believe that when equality is achieved between the sexes there will be no prostitution. This is probably true in the sense that if harmony prevailed among all couples, seeking outside sex might not be considered, or would be understood if it did occur. But many moralists have noticed there is not a lot of love in a world that is preoccupied with pleasures and material things. Christian moralists have stressed time and again the importance of love prevailing in a relationship. A loving relationship is far more effective at thwarting oppressive conditions than one that is based on convenience. The presence of prostitution, therefore, only mirrors the immoral nature of the contemporary society.

      From the beginning, radical feminists have shown a weak understanding of the nature of prostitution and of the personal lives of prostitutes themselves. A prostitute is not necessarily a home-wrecker in the way non-prostitute women in extramarital affairs might be considered. The intimate nature of the prostitute-client relationship is much more complex than it first appears. Whether women are affluent call girls or street girls with few resources, clients sometimes find prostitutes’ company comforting and therapeutic. At times, the only thing a client is looking for is simple warmth and human contact, even though he might initially define that need as sex. Time spent with a person who listens can be comforting and emotionally beneficial to one person in the same way that seeking out a professional psychologist might be reassuring to another. The belief that the prostitute-client relationship is always mercenary, cold, and mechanical simply is not always true. Men experienced with prostitutes have sometimes found that showing their humanity and concern for the prostitute sometimes makes the potentially awkward encounter more enjoyable for both.

      A prostitute can therefore be viewed either as a genuine threat to the peace and tranquillity of a loving relationship or conversely as an ally in that relationship, smoothing out unresolved tensions and misunderstandings. This sometimes therapeutic relationship does not threaten the marriage in the same way an extramarital affair does.
As prostitution becomes more highly regarded as a profession, the benefits of prostitution will be more broadly understood and appreciated. Feminists should take more care in forming beliefs about prostitutes. Information and reflection on prostitution, then, has the potential for a humane, affirmative approach to this myth-laden institution.

 

Footnotes

39. Feminist Thought, p. 71.
40. “Radical feminist writings are consciously deemed inseparable from group tactics, rather than as a discrete contribution to an abstract philosophical position.” Imelda Whelehan, Modern Feminist Thought (Washington Square, New York: New York University Press, 1995), p. 73.
41. Ibid., p. 86.
42. “Radicals appear to pride themselves on being notoriously difficult to define, and this is in part an effect of their commitment to denying that one voice can speak for the many.” Modern Feminist Thought, p. 70. Remaining obscure also has the added advantage of wearing down one’s opponents as the logic is intentionally diffuse and difficult to understand. Some radical feminists are difficult to understand because they use specific words inappropriately. The degrading and oppressive nature of rape is not the same as willingly entering into a contract to have sex with someone for money. Theoretically they make a case that it is, but it is a weak one.
43. Modern Feminist Thought, p. 80.
44. Women are also exploiters of other women. Human passions and greeds are not endemic to one sex or the other. If a woman of questionable morality wants something badly enough she is likely to exploit any easy source that can satisfy her desire, whether it is a man or a woman.
45. “Prostitution is not a harmless “private” transaction but a powerful means of creating, reinforcing, and perpetuating the objectification of women through sexuality.” Applications of Feminist Legal Theory to Women’s Lives, p. 242.
46. Alison M. Jaggar in The Philosophy of Sex, p. 270.
47. Applications of Feminist Legal Theory to Women’s Lives, p. 194.
48. Ibid. p. 20. Also, “Genetic or social change may also result from interplay between an organism or a culture on the one hand and the environment on the other.” Mankind Evolving, p. 15. “Culture is, however, an important instrument of adaptation which is vastly more efficient than the biological processes that led to its inception and advancement.” Mankind Evolving, p. 20.
49. Mankind Evolving, p. 15.
50. F. Osborn in Mankind Evolving, p. 13.
51. Ibid., p. 18.
52. Once the word “degrading” is used properly in a moral context it has more meaning and relevance to feminist arguments.
53. Modern Feminist Thought, The home is the crucial site of a woman’s oppression, p. 80.
54. Easily accessible through mainstream publications and by broadcasts where most men would see advertisements for prostitutes.
55. Men also exploit other men in mean and insensitive ways. The competitions can be fierce and underhanded, leaving a man returning to the home sensitized to the slightest annoyance. Emotions that would not ordinarily get out of hand in the home may have been inspired by conflicts with other men in the workplace.
56. The prostitute might be viewed as a married woman’s natural competitor. If conditions in society unfairly thrust some people to the bottom where their only recourse to survive is to sell themselves, then the malefactions of society produce prostitutes who turn out to be extremely successful competitors with married women in gaining the attention and resources of men. The exploitation and greed that cause some types of prostitution is a reflection of a general climate of immorality that prevails in the world, causing people in all walks of life to exploit one another. Some humans simply cannot compete, nor are they perhaps aware of the intensity of civil strife that ultimately determines a person’s rank and occupation in society. Some women will always have a predilection for sexual activity for hire. Those that do so for political and economic reasons will continue to do so until the moral climate of the society improves, granting every citizen a full and fair chance to compete for jobs and educational opportunities. The radical feminist feels threatened by the prostitute for ostensibly political reasons. But the fact remains, the prostitute is willing to do what so many married women may be unable to, and that is perform exotic sex.
57. The concept of personal and social degradation is an extremely complex subject. Degenerative behavior requires closer consideration than it is given here and is better described in a larger writing. While lending some consideration to the radical feminists’ position, in any analysis of social degradation, one must also take into account the degrading effect dividing men against women for the benefit of some political viewpoint. Degradation can be immediate, or a slowly evolving process. It can be viewed as a personal problem, or a social one. For example, on a personal level, a virtuous woman is not degraded by the presence of immoral women. If anything, the circumstance complements the virtuous woman because those around her behave in a less sophisticated way. However, she can be afflicted in a variable way by the presence of immorality in her life, but not degraded. On a social level, it could be said that while the presence of any degrading actions is undesirable, its effects address men and women equally by keeping civilization operating on a lower evolutionary plane.

 
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