Choice Joyce: Linking the prostitution and abortion debates

Choice Joyce

Essays from a pro-choice feminist liberal skeptic infidel activist (and animal lover)

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Linking the prostitution and abortion debates

What is the difference between these two arguments?

1) Prostitution is always violence against women. It's physically dangerous, it victimizes them, robs them of their sexuality, and inflicts lasting psychological harm. Women never truly choose prostitution; they are forced into it by men, poverty, desperation, etc. We must give women better options by abolishing prostitution and helping them out of it.

2) Abortion is always violence agaist women. It's physically dangerous, it victimizes them, robs them of their motherhood role, and inflicts lasting psychological harm. Women never truly choose abortion; they are forced into it by men, poverty, desperation, etc. We must give women better options by banning abortion and helping them keep their babies.

Of course, no analogy is perfect; that's the nature of analogies. For example, the above anti-choice argument is actually a sophistry the "pro-lifers" use to mask their fetus focus, and the prostitution-abolitionist position may be a bit simplistic. The bottom line however, is the issue of choice - abolitionists don't recognize the agency of women's choice in sex work, just like anti-choicers don't really recognize it in abortion. Or when they do, they label the woman as callous and immoral, or at least "a fallen woman" - which I suspect may also be how some abolitionists see a willing prostitute.

Some might protest that a better analogy would be to link forced prostitution with forced abortion. But the issue of force is analogous to abortion only in the case of women forced into prostitution (or forced out of it for that matter), or forced to have an abortion or a baby. The real issue is that women should not be forced to do anything; they should have a free choice. That includes deciding whether to have a baby or abortion, and whether to sell sexual services or do some other job.

It's not different people making these arguments, by the way. Abolitionist feminists are politically aligned with conservative Christians on the prostitution issue. (See this article for example: "Why the Faith Trade Is Interested in the Sex Trade".) Both arguments perpetuate the sexual double standard for women, and both deny women's agency and sexual autonomy. There's even a "Feminists for Life" group that spends most of their time blaming men for abortion, the same way that abolitionists blame men for prostitution.

The common element in the abortion debate and the prostitution debate, as well as the gay rights debate, is sexuality. Many people feel a strong need to control other people's sexuality, particularly when it's not confined to the sacred marriage bed and procreation. Anything outside that is "illicit sex." Abortion is seen as proof of illicit sex, prostitution IS illicit sex, and gay sex is - well, an abomination. While gays have achieved a measure of respect and tolerance in our society, that's likely because they're men, for whom casual sex is more socially acceptable to begin with (there are fewer lesbians than gay men, and lesbians are arguably more marginalized). Prostitutes and women who have abortions, on the other hand, violate the natural order of things because they are not having sex to have babies, which is women's redeeming purpose in life according to right-wingers. Therefore, both are stigmatized and made to feel ashamed.

This highlights the critical link between contraception and legal abortion and the necessary destigmatization of sex work (and female promiscuity in general). One of the most obvious reasons men buy sex is because there's not enough women willing to have no-strings-attached sex. But contraception and legal abortion give women true sexual freedom for the first time in history - that is, the freedom to engage in sex for fun without consequences. Why aren't more women taking better advantage of it? Let's stop buying into the double standard - it's a form of anti-feminist, anti-humanist social repression that lies at the root of both the prostitution-abolition position and the anti-choice position on abortion.


  • At 6:21 AM, Anonymous Jo said…

    Great post, thanks.

    I have always been pro-choice and pro legalisation/regulation of prostitution. However recently I have this nagging feeling that I could be 'wrong'. It started when I read about how Japanese women are reluctant to use the pill, yet fine with abortion and condoms. The reason is because they feel it is a form of men dominating their bodies, upsetting the beauty of the female form, controlling it to be infertile so that men may have sex more freely. Ordinarily my repsonse to this would be to point out that women choose to take the pill and are controlling their own bodies for the sake of their own sexual liberation. But now I'm wondering, have I been programmed to think this way? When I imagine what I would do if I got pregnant (I am 20 years old) my automatic 'plan' has always been to have a termination. But why? Why is it so ridiculous and irresponsible now for a woman to HAVE a baby if she gets pregnant? Why is it more acceptable to my friends and family is I have an abortion than if I have a baby? Has the whole area of women's fertility been denaturalised? Even turned into a horror story? Similarly, with prostitution, I always thought "women can choose to do what they want with their own bodies. And that is that." But then I got to thinking about sex as a subject. The argument that women should be able to have sex with someone they're not attracted to if they want their money, and men should be allowed to have sex with a women they know is not enjoying the experience relies on sex being seen as an insignificant act. No different from any other service you might pay someone for. For example, a haircut. So why is it then that rape is taken so seriously? Surely it should follow that, if sex is just another service, forcing someone to have sex isn't different to forcing someone to cut your hair against their will. Some might say the difference is that rape is violent. OK, so you force someone to cut your hair, then you punch them in the face. It still would not be taken as seriously as if you raped the person. So if we then decide that sex isn't just another form of interaction, no more significant than handshake, that it is a league of it's own, then how can we accept that anyone, ever, have sex with someone they are not attracted to? Should it not be a human right that no one has sex for any reason but for the intrinsic value of the act, i.e. pleasure, intimacy, babies, etc..

    These are strange words for me to write because, as I said, I'm definitely a liberal, I'm not a prude, I'm all for progression and I'm not a fan of tradition. But I can't help but identify with some of the arguments I explained above. I don't know where I stand exactly on these issues anymore, somewhere in between I guess. But I do think that it is important to openly explore the 'other sides' arguments, otherwise you may be missing something.

    OK very long comment, I enjoyed your article anyway, definitely has me thinking again.

  • At 1:27 PM, Blogger choice joyce said…

    Thanks for your thoughtful post Jo. I think the issue is that sex is different things to different people at different times and circumstances. Sometimes it can be "special" and intimate with the one we love, other times it can be casual and just for fun, or money. I think that if anyone feels strongly that sex should solely be for "pleasure, intimacy, babies" then they should probably not be a sex worker. That's not to say that many sex workers don't enjoy their work, at least some of the time, or at least don't mind it. Certainly there's an emotional component to it that would be absent in many other jobs. But what about, for example, actors simulating a sex scene or romantic scene in a movie - they're faking intimacy and romance for money, so is that wrong and against human rights? I think many sex workers see what they do as performance, and there's nothing wrong with that. Many sex workers also see their work as therapeutic too, offering sexual intimacy and teaching sexual skills to those who can greatly benefit from it. How is that different than a sex therapist or masseuse or physiotherapist or even personal trainer who also use their hands and bodies to provide physical services to clients? I don't think any sex worker sees sex as "insignificant" by the way - the very fact that people are willing to pay for it or do it for money makes it very significant! Why should sex be off-limits as a service, when it's really an essential service that people need, but many are unable to get except by paying for it? For example, there's a lot of older lonely women out there who might like the opportunity to buy sex from men, but there's very few male sex workers catering to women. If sex work and female sexuality were both more respected, we could empower women as clients. I don't think the answer is ever to try and restrict or repress consensual sexual behaviour, and whether it's for money or not is actually irrelevant and none of our business. People decide to have sex for all kinds of reasons and motives, some of which may not be healthy or fair for 1 or both parties, but society should not interfere (unless coercion enters the picture, then it's a crime).

    Our society invests a lot emotionally into the idea of sex, but I don't think it's helpful to use rape to illustrate a conflict between sex work making sex "insignificant" while rape is treated so seriously. Rape is not sex anyway, it's about violence and control. But our society adds a lot of unfair shame and stigma and the sexual double standard to rape, which makes it much harder for women to deal with. Eg, I've heard men say that "rape is the worst thing that can happen to a woman" but I strongly disagree. I'd rather be raped than be paralyzed or lose an arm, for example! In a way, rape has become exaggerated in seriousness because of the social shame/stigma around it and it's association with sex, and the idea that women's virginity/sexuality is all she has to trade on, so if that is violated, then she's "nothing." Women absorb those messages, making the trauma of rape much worse than being punched in the face. I'm reminded of the book "After Silence" where the author (Nancy Venable Raine) describes her rape experience - the worst part for her was not being raped, but the fear of being killed, and afterwards the shame and silencing she felt.

  • At 6:42 PM, Anonymous Jo said…

    Now you mention it, I agree about the rape issue, the general attitude towards it certainly has swung too far the other way like you said. I suppose the root of the problem of rape/prostitution/sexual morality (if there is such a thing) is the fact that we cannot gauge it. Like you said, it means different things to different people in different times and places. It's impossible to place a value on. So from that point of view, I suppose it is up to the individual to gauge what it means to them and work from there.

    I certainly dislike sex being thought of in any kind of sinful/dirty/immoral way.

    How you described sex work is very persuasive. A sexologist who gives practical classes, a call-girl who enjoys her work. But I can't help but think of interview I've seen with prostitutes in China saying how nervous and uncomfortable they feel at being touched, but that they must do it to pay for an operation or to support their children. This is surely an unacceptable prostitution? This is surely money working coercively?

    So I suppose I switch back and fourth. First I think of the amazing empowerment of women, the brilliance of sex and how there is no reason why it shouldn't be utilised in every way so that everyone may benefit. But then I feel like this is a glorification or glamorization, undermining what many real women report of prostituting themselves which is that it is a bit of a soul deadening experience.

    But like you said, these people should not be sex workers, so maybe the true issue is simply of women's poverty, and if that were to be alleviated then only those who genuinely want to have sex for money would have to.

    This would be an ideal. The problem with not taking prostitution seriously or being too 'pro' might be that it makes prostitution an acceptable place to go for women who don't want to do it but are so poor they must. It isn't. But for those who want to got there, under no forceful influences, then I can't see a problem with that.

    Thanks for your reply, it helped me to re-evaluate my perspective :)

  • At 8:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    As someone who is anti-abortion, I do not deny the woman's agency. I simply believe that the child deserves to be protected. In any action that we consider criminal, it would be foolish, at best, to deny the agency of the criminal.

    Robbing banks is a choice. Raping women is a choice. And murdering a child is a choice. There would be no sense in outlawing activity if it were involuntary.

    There is only one reason I oppose abortion. And that is to protect the child. I believe the child's life is more important than anyone's ability to make a choice of convenience. Pro-abortionists do not address this. They just make up labels like "anti-choice." Seriously, what is meant by the label. If taken literally, it would mean denying the ability of someone to make any choices whatsoever. But that is not what they are referring to (though they may be happy to make the implication.) They are simply using "choice" as a codeword for abortion.

  • At 8:15 AM, Blogger choice joyce said…

    Pvblivs: Well, I believe the woman's life is far more important than any fetus or embryo. And that it should be a crime to force women to have babies (or abortions) they don't want. Rather than criminalizing abortion, maybe we should criminalize those "crisis pregnancy centres" that lie to women and pressure them out of having abortions!

    The meaning of the term anti-choice is obvious and always has been. It means you are against the woman being able to make her own decision about her pregnancy. That IS denying her agency.

    You can't compare abortion to other crimes. Crimes like murder, robbery, rape etc. are comparatively rare and only a small number of people engage in them. They also have victims. In contrast, most women will have an abortion, or would have one if they faced an unwanted pregnancy. There is no victim because fetuses are not people.

    Abortion is an intrinsic human activity that only women do, so it's discriminatory to ban or restrict it, as well as counterproductive and dangerous. The closest comparison to banning abortion is banning alcohol, as during Prohibition. When you ban something that the majority of the population engages in, it sends it underground, turns ordinary people into criminals, fuels organized crime and disrespect for the law, and injures and kills people. That's why abortion is legal today. It is also a huge blessing and benefit to women.


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