Cozy Bedfellows: Prostitution Abolitionists and Anti-Abortionists
Feminists who want to abolish prostitution act offended when they get compared to the Christian Right, and may go to great lengths to dispute the parallels. For example, abolitionist Meghan Murphy laments (briefly) that prostitution abolitionists have been paired with the Christian Right in her article: “Why does the left want prostitution to be ‘a job like any other’?” and tries to address the issue here from the perspective of reproductive rights: “Why Reproductive Rights and Prostitution Are Not the Same Thing.” However, she fails to recognize the common ideologies that led her movement to shack up with fundamentalist Christians in the first place.
The link between religious conservatism and the movement to abolish sex work is rooted in antipathy to free sexual expression and autonomy, especially for women who dare to have sex in ways that offend moral sensibilities (sex for pleasure in the case of the Christian Right, and sex for money in the case of abolitionists). The belief that women need to be protected not only from others but from themselves gives abolitionist feminists the self-appointed right to speak for sex workers and to “rescue” them, in the same way that anti-abortionists have appointed themselves to rescue women from the “dangers” of abortion by criminalizing it and promoting abstinence until marriage.
I wrote a blog in 2007 that linked the prostitution and abortion debates as follows.
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 against 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.
Both the abolitionist movement and the anti-choice movement cast women as victims, often unwitting victims who think they’ve independently chosen to do sex work or have an abortion, but are actually seriously deluded or naïve—they don’t realize they’re under the coercive sway of patriarchy, capitalism, men, or the “culture of death.” Or maybe they’re just too poverty-stricken or drug-addicted to do anything but be a passive victim because they have “no choice.”
Abolitionists reinforce the victimhood of sex workers by calling them “prostituted women” while anti-abortionists do the same with “post-abortive women.” Those who truly choose abortion or sex work are thought to be rare exceptions to the rule of victimhood—women who insist on having an abortion are seen as unnatural and immoral by anti-abortionists, while abolitionists consider such sex workers to be privileged and elitist—or worse, as former sex worker Kerry Porth attests: “I have never experienced more judgement than what I hear from the prohibitionists. The fact that I don’t identify as a victim seems to transform me into some kind of demon in their eyes. I am hurt by and tired of hearing individuals like myself described as ‘prostituted women’ or ‘bought and sold’. I engaged in thousands of individual sex work transactions and not once did ownership of my body change hands.” (Personal communication)
Abolitionists only listen to the relatively small number of former survival sex workers who misinterpret the violence and abuse they suffered as caused by prostitution itself rather than its stigma and criminalization. These women now preach about the dangers of prostitution and advocate abolition to prevent other women from entering the trade. But how is that different from the women of “Silent No More” who had a bad experience with abortion and now preach about the dangers of abortion and advocate criminalizing it to prevent other women from having one? Like anti-abortionists, prostitution abolitionists purport to speak for all women regardless of differing experiences, but that wipes away the diversity of women’s opinions and experiences and reduces them to mere puppets of an ideology.
Many abolitionists downplay harm reduction as a temporary bandaid solution until prostitution can be abolished, and some don’t even believe in it at all because they feel it somehow validates prostitution. But how is that different than discredited conservative beliefs that giving addicts clean needles encourages drug abuse and criminality, that teaching kids about contraception leads to promiscuity and disease, and that legalizing abortion spawns a “culture of death” and an epidemic of abortion? (It doesn’t, just like legalizing sex work doesn’t increase it). The practical effect of giving short shrift to harm reduction is to leave survival sex workers vulnerable to abuse and violence without the benefit of proven measures to enhance safe working conditions. Women must not be left to work in an unsafe environment until we defeat patriarchy in some future utopia.
A striking hallmark of abolitionist ideology that is absent from the Christian Right is a general disparagement and even loathing for men. Abolitionists like Murphy see prostitution as a product of patriarchy and inequality, “male power and privilege,” and the insatiable “male demand for women’s bodies” that creates a market where women are “bought and sold.” Male clients of sex workers are painted as evil and violent predators, as if they are a different species than the men we all know and appreciate in our personal lives. They are not, of course. In the words of former sex worker Kerry Porth: “When people ask me what my clients were like, I usually tell them to think about their Dad.” Many men report that they respect and value sex workers and frequently develop emotional attachments to them. The vast majority of male clients are not violent, and most sex is of the “vanilla” sort. Also, the idea that men don’t “need” to buy sex is patently false. A significant number of male buyers are elderly, disabled, unattractive, lonely, socially awkward, etc., and just want a chance to enjoy female companionship. If only women in the same situations had equal opportunities to buy sex from men! But abolitionists are intent on depriving large numbers of people from any chance to enjoy sexual intimacy and human contact. We all need intimacy and sex, and if we are unable to get it from a normal relationship for whatever reason, we should be free to purchase it.
At every opportunity, abolitionists promote the “Nordic Model,” which criminalizes the purchase of sex (to target men), while decriminalizing the sale of sex (to rescue women). This is despite the fact that abolitionists see transactional sex as wrong, and bad for women. How is this different from anti-choicers who believe abortion is murder (and bad for women), but don’t want to criminalize women – only the “abortionists”? The underlying reason is that both abolitionists and anti-abortionists see women as not responsible for their choices and situations, as if they are children that need direction and protection from the state – a deeply paternalizing and insulting stance. Further, the wish to criminalize “abortionists” is no different than the wish to criminalize “pimps.” In reality, the latter are often the people that make a sex worker’s job possible, easier, and safer. Just as women need doctors, nurses, and counselors to help them obtain a safe abortion, sex workers need employers, drivers, and assistants in order to work safely.
In Murphy's article from last August (in response to a sex worker ally who made some comparisons between the abortion and sex work issues: “Why Reproductive Rights and Prostitution Are Not the Same Thing”), she says:
“Reproductive rights provide women with control over their lives and bodies. Women should get to choose whether or not they have to give birth. Whether or not they want to raise children. They get to make those decisions. Not men. Abolitionists don't desire to criminalize women. They desire a world where women don't need to sell their bodies to men. They want to end violence against women and they want to end rape. As the author points out, 'Women die when abortion is not accessible.' They also die at the hands of pimps and johns. The criminalization of abortions hurts women, prostitution hurts women.”
Desiring a world where women don’t need to “sell their bodies to men” is no different than desiring a world where women don’t need to “kill their babies.” It’s paternalistic and removes women’s agency. Further, it’s not that “The criminalization of abortions hurts women, prostitution hurts women.” It’s that the criminalization of abortion hurts women in the same way that the criminalization of sex work hurts women. Because it’s not sex work itself that is inherently harmful, it’s criminalization. Sex work may be considered immoral, but that’s still no reason to criminalize it, just like it’s no reason to criminalize abortion. Women die when abortion is illegal, and they also die when sex work is illegal.
In the same article, Murphy says:
“Arguing for women's right to access abortions and, therefore, hopefully, die less, is not in any way the same as arguing that women should not be subjected to violence at the hands of men and arguing that women don't exist as things which can be bought and sold and as things that exist to provide pleasure for men.”Actually, arguing for women’s right to access abortion so they can die less, is no different than arguing that women have the right to work legally and safely in sex work so that they can die less. Claiming that the sex industry treats women as things that can be bought and sold to provide pleasure to men, is no different than claiming that the “abortion industry” is out to make a profit by exploiting and coercing women into abortions, or committing genocide against non-white babies.
“How can the continuing criminalization by sexist, right wing men of access to abortion for women … be compared to attempts by feminist women to impede sexist men’s entitlement to the bodies of women whose lives are also on the line?”But many women’s groups are explicitly anti-choice (REAL Women, Concerned Women of America, Feminists for Life, etc.), and the rank and file of the anti-choice movement is filled with women. Anti-choice women and radical feminist abolitionists are the same in that they are both self-appointed policers of female sexuality on behalf of the patriarchy. They’re both trying to rescue women or keep them in line in order to preserve their sexuality and purity for love and marriage, or to keep it safe from all that “male demand” that sullies and devalues women.
Prostitution abolitionists and anti-abortionists share the same delusion that prostitution and abortion can be abolished through the use of criminal laws, even though this goes against all evidence and common sense. Both sex work and abortion have been around for thousands of years, and countless women have resorted to both for thousands of years, regardless of the laws or risks to their lives. Today, sex work is a multi-billion (or trillion?) dollar industry with millions of workers in every part of the globe regardless of legality, while 43 million abortions occur in the world every year - half of them in countries where it's illegal. Not only is it impossible to abolish such universal human behaviours, it is dangerous and unjust to criminalize them in any way because it always hurts women the most, especially the most marginalized.
The role of the criminal law is to prevent and punish crimes like rape, sexual abuse, violence, and coercion. Although those crimes certainly do occur in the context of sex work, abortion, and sexuality, they are not intrinsic to them. Sex does not victimize women. Women do not need to be protected from their own sexuality, or from male sexuality. They are perfectly able to make their own choices, to pursue sex or abstain, to sell sexual services or just have sex for fun, to be promiscuous or monogamous, to be lesbian or heterosexual or anything inbetween, to have children or be childfree, to go through pregnancy or have an abortion. Prostitution abolitionists and anti-abortionists do not get to decide any of that for them, and the criminal law should stay completely out of it.