Monday, January 21, 2008

Does sex work hurt women?

Actually, yes. And I don't particularly care how many people are going to get mad at me for saying this, but please do give me a couple paragraphs to explain myself.

The argument about whether or not sex work hurts women often boils down to what we believe people are paying for when they pay a sex worker.

Pro sex work arguments often tell us that sex workers are hired by men who can't otherwise get anybody to have sex with them because they are physically unattractive, old, shy, or stuck in horrible marriages. They are supposedly hired because everybody needs and deserves sex. Often, the argument is made, subtly or not so subtly, that if a straight man is denied access to female sexual organs for too long, he will become warped with rage and unrequited yearning until he is transformed into some sort of stranger-rapist. Very occasionally, people tell me that sex workers who allow these warped men to act out their fantasies about violent sex will induce some sort of catharsis or at least satiety that makes the man less likely to go out looking for some woman to haul into an alley.

Here's the problem with that line of thought. First, it's all based on the idea that conventionally unattractive people can't get laid, and that's wrong. All of my conventionally unattractive friends will in fact tell you that that's wrong because they are having lots of sex. More importantly, men don't become rapists due to lack of sex. Men become rapists for a lot of reasons, many of which center around a sociopathic desire to cause extreme pain and humiliation to another human. All of my male friends who can't get laid to save their lives, many of whom are actually very good-looking, are insulted by the idea that they will turn into slobbering rapists any second now, as it implies that they are little more than subhuman monsters held at bay by the occasional willing hole.

I believe that when someone pays a sex worker to sexually service a total stranger regardless of whether or not she hates his guts, this person is paying her to ignore consent and just do whatever he says. This person is paying her to do things she would not normally do under threat of dire financial trouble which may result in homelessness or inability to feed oneself, which in turn could very easily lead to death, or at least a life not much more desirable than death.

It's very difficult to rationalize this as anything other than a variety of rape. I'm not being farfetched here. I'm not saying this to negate the experience of women who have "actually" been raped. I myself have experienced violent rape under explicit threat. I understand that it's different and far worse.

However, rape is nonconsensual sex under threat or heavy coercion, not nonconsensual sex under threat or heavy coercion that the survivor finds particularly traumatizing and meets our societal expectations of what rape is like. Simply put, there are different types of rape and sexual assault, and the scenario which gets most attention in media and mainstream culture is not the only that exists.

I believe that men who regularly see strippers and prostitutes or watch mainstream commercial porn probably don't care much about the right of every woman to only have sex with people because she wants to, and not because she is being threatened with slow starvation and having nowhere to sleep. This is probably because they have absorbed patriarchal lessons about not seeing women as real people instead of things you fuck and/or slap around.

My experience certainly reflects this. It's not just "subtle" things like the number of clients who wanted to "do" me while watching violent porn. It's more obvious and real. See, there are websites (No, I'm not telling you what they are.) which rate prostitutes and list the acts they will commit. These same sites are the ones on which most prostitutes advertise and meet quite a few potential clients. I certainly used them religiously, to great effect. These websites have boards for discussion amongst "hobbyists" as well as a space for women and agencies to advertise, and the topics that came up were often downright scary and very indicative of the way that the men on the site saw all women.

Anybody who has ever argued that prostitution actually lessens violence against women rather than encouraging men to objectify and then victimize us needs to check out the threads which centered around "why pros are better than real women" (because they don't ask you to treat them as well as you would a regular human) and "where you go" (to spy on women in their late teens from your car as you masturbate, which apparently lots of the local guys on that site did on a regular basis). This sort of behavior on the part of the main body of men who see escorts in a given area tells me that not only is sex work highly damaging to the women engaged in it, it's a tool whereby men legitimize seeing women as something less than people. It's something that hurts us all.


Cortney said...

I agree with you totally! I see you are working on a book. I am not sure if you are familiar with her work but Catharine MacKinnon writes brilliantly about the effect that pornography (and to some degree, sex work) has on men and women and sexual dynamics. You might enjoy reading and/or writing about her theories.

slythwolf said...

Somebody just linked me to this post and I wanted to thank you for posting it.