Choice Joyce: Why Prostitution Cannot Be Abolished

Choice Joyce

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

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Why Prostitution Cannot Be Abolished

...and should not be abolished

Choice Joyce

There's a very interesting debate amongst feminists in Canada, and throughout the world. One camp fights for the rights of sex workers to work, organize, and decriminalize prostitution, while the other wants to abolish it completely. The latter camp was 100% in control of a conference I recently attended in Vancouver British Columbia, on violence against women, billed as a “Remember Me” memorial to commemorate the Dec 6, 1989 Montreal Massacre. One of the main themes at the conference was that prostitution is violence against women – it’s always exploitive, dangerous, oppressive, and dehumanizing for women.

Although many of the arguments I heard were thoughtful and sincere, I'm convinced that prostitution is something that cannot be, and should not be, abolished. I don't agree with the abolitionists that you can just change social attitudes en masse by discouraging men from believing they are "entitled" to sex – or by forcing them via criminal law to stop buying sex. I strongly suspect that prostitution is mostly a consequence of biological and psychological gender differences in sexual behaviour and needs, which in turn are reflected in patriarchy. We can only resolve the prostitution problem by ensuring that women have full equality and freedom throughout the world, including sexual autonomy in particular. By “resolve” I don’t mean abolishing prostitution or even necessarily reducing it – I mean making prostitution a safe and respectable occupation for both men and women.

At the conference, the women who wanted to abolish prostitution dismissed the main objections to their position as “myths.” However, I’m not aware of any convincing refutation of these so-called myths, which can be summed up as: Prostitution is inevitable and can't be stopped, because men tend to have stronger sex drives and need more frequent sex and more variety in sexual partners compared to women, and prostitution gives men an outlet. There’s a biological basis to the sexual variety “myth”, since evolution (natural selection) tends to encourage men to spread their seed far and wide to maximize their reproductive potential. Women on the other hand must invest significant resources in pregnancy, so they’re better off finding one man who will stick around and help provide for the children. The implications of men needing sexual variety are that they can more easily separate love from sex, and more easily have sex with women they don't know well, or don't even care about. Women, though, would tend to have a preference for finding the "right" man and being in love with him before having sex with him. The ongoing existence of the double standard seems to support this. When men are promiscuous, it's considered normal, even admirable. But a promiscuous woman is disrespected and called a "slut" and a "whore," or at least pitied because she suffers from “low self-esteem.” This double standard is very strongly entrenched across various cultures and times. Prostitutes are often the ultimate victims of the double standard. They have very low status and no respect, they're considered worthless and disposable, and that's why they're frequently beaten, raped, and killed.

I think there's two basic questions that need to be answered to understand why prostitution occurs and figure out how to stop the abuse of prostitutes. One – why do men buy sex? And two – why do prostitutes have such low status?

Why do men buy sex?

There are obvious gender differences in sexual behaviour and preferences that might help explain why many men resort to buying sex. Whether these differences are biologically or culturally determined, or a mix of both, is hard to say, and ultimately may not matter. But they do exist, they’re difficult to change, and likely impossible to eradicate for much of the population. I heard about an intriguing (but non-scientific) survey recently – apparently the average man thinks about sex 50 times a day, but the average woman only thinks about sex once a day. That’s probably an exaggeration, but there's likely some truth to it. Generally speaking, men seem much more easily and quickly aroused than women. I don't believe that men actually enjoy sex more than women, or even have stronger sex drives necessarily. Instead, it may simply be more work for women to reach a state of desire and arousal. My subjective observation is that women’s interest in sex tends to increase when they like a particular man and his whole personality – not just by seeing any man, or a penis by itself. A gynecologist I know has mockups of male and female “turn-on” machines that he shows to his patients. The man’s machine is small and simple – just an on/off switch. The woman’s machine is a complicated array of levers, switches, bells, and whistles, which take some time to figure out until the machine gradually fires up. The doctor’s patients usually laugh in instant recognition when they see the machines. The point is, if men's sexual urges are closer to the surface and more easily triggered than women's, it could help explain why men need to engage in sex on a more frequent and casual basis than women.

Of course, those turn-on machines may just be playing to cultural stereotypes. Maybe the reason the libido of many women seems more ambiguous and slower to respond, is because women tend to repress their sexual urges. There’s still a lot of cultural stigma around women’s enjoyment of sex, especially casual sex. I believe women could easily learn and adopt an aggressive quick-response pattern for their own sexuality too, if they were motivated and it was socially acceptable. It’s quite possible, in fact, that many women are more promiscuous today compared to previous decades or centuries – but there’s still some shame attached to it, so it’s more hidden.

It's true that many men feel "entitled" to sex and entitled to have access to women. Some say this sense of entitlement embodies a patriarchal attitude that disempowers women and objectifies them. But why shouldn’t everyone feel entitled to sex, and entitled to have access to the gender of their choice? (At least those with high sex drives!) Actually, it’s natural for both men and women to enjoy being a sex object at certain times. It adds to sexual excitement, and is not in the least dehumanizing. Those who abhor the “sexual objectification” of women come dangerously close to negating women’s own sexual agency and autonomy. Because if women are “objectified” by men’s desire, this denies their ability and their right to enjoy the thrill of being desired by men, and the sheer carnal pleasure of consummating that desire. I also wonder if many of those who disapprove of the “sexual objectification” of women cannot relate to it simply because sex is not a high personal priority for them. Allow me to quote a sex therapist friend of mine: “Sexuality is simply like chocolate, where some of us like it better than others, and some of us can't figure out what's so great about it. There’s nothing pathological about that, except that it makes it difficult for those folks to understand many things about sexuality.” (Dr. David Hersh, personal communication, Dec. 2006).

It’s often said by supporters of prostitution that men need prostitutes because they’re lonely or unattractive men who can’t otherwise get a date. Opponents of prostitution tend to say that men who use prostitutes are exploitive and often violent, the worst type of male chauvinist pig, in other words. However, one study of men who visited brothels (Psychologists Marita McCabe and Luke Xantidis, Deakin University, Australia, 2000) showed that 80% of them did so because they have a high sex drive and were feeling “aroused”. The next most common response was the desire for sexual variety. 60% had a regular female partner, while only a third said it was the only way they could get sex. Another study published in the British Medical Journal in 2005 found that most men who pay for sex are just ordinary men – married, divorced, or single – our brothers, fathers, friends, and lovers – who just want some extra sex and excitement on the side, including activities their partner won't do. Interestingly, men who have no other sexual outlet tend to want companionship and emotional intimacy from prostitutes. But the men who make up the bulk of prostitutes’ customers like the convenience of sex without commitment. A reporter who talked to many of these men wrote that the lack of any emotional obligation was cited as one of the most appealing attributes of paying for sex. (Who pays for sex? You'd be surprised, Clare Spurrell, November 7, 2006)

The question is, why can't the two-thirds of men with high sex drives and a need for sexual variety, find ordinary women to have casual sex with by mutual agreement, without money changing hands, and without worrying about emotional entanglements? The answer seems obvious. Most women simply do not want to engage in casual sexual encounters with different men, and that leads men to look for sex from an easier source – a prostitute. But if women were more sexually open and available, and if that was accepted by society without stigma – then maybe men wouldn't need to pay for sex.

Of course, having sex with the person we love is very special, for both men and women. But sex just for fun with friends, acquaintances, even strangers, has its own charms, and should not be denigrated. It's a pleasurable activity that most of us have engaged in occasionally, if not frequently. The trouble with requiring sex to always be "special" is that this expectation becomes a a tool to control people, especially women. Abstinence lectures are primarily directed towards women, and there's even a common assumption that women are somehow "hard-wired" to develop an emotional attachment when they have sex. In reality, however, lifelong monogamy is simply not practiced by the majority of the population, both male and female.

Why do prostitutes have such low status?

The cruelty and disrespect that prostitutes are subjected to doesn't seem to have any rational reason. What's "wrong" with a woman who has sex with many men, whether it's for money or not? Why should she be ashamed? The truth is, there's nothing wrong with it, and she shouldn’t be ashamed. We could look at promiscuous women in a completely different way, if we chose to - first, by dropping the judgmental connotation of the word "promiscuous" — it's a useful word for anyone who gets to enjoy lots of sex with lots of people. Promiscuous women actually wield a lot of power over men. It’s men after all who do most of the pursuing of women and sex, as a rule. Why not admire women’s ability to attract men, to please men, and enjoy sex with men? Why not envy women’s ability to achieve multiple orgasms? Their ability to continue the sexual act until the point of physical exhaustion, unlike men? Why shouldn't men consider it an honour to have sex with a sexually-strong woman who has an appetite for frequent encounters and many men? Why don’t they line up for the privilege of satisfying such a woman, to try and give her as many orgasms as possible? It could be a status symbol for men, and the woman herself could earn a high social status because of her activities. The more men she has sex with, and the more orgasms she has, the higher her status. She could become a sex goddess – almost worthy of worship! With such high status, and men as her supplicants, obviously she is not going to be beaten and raped. She will retain confident control over her situation, and others will protect her too.

But this entire scenario seems so unusual, so outlandish, that it would seem impossible to implement. It leads one to the conclusion that the existing double standard is more than just a social or cultural phenomenon – it must have deep socio-biological roots. I would suggest that prostitutes and promiscuous women are despised because there's a deep conviction that such women cannot be good or responsible mothers (because there's no stable father figure present) and also because men cannot know the paternity of the children those women may bear. The father is unknown and therefore powerless. That threatens men, and the patriarchal power structure, at a very fundamental level.

The male need to control paternity

Let’s return to our patriarchal history for a moment. The key to the origin of patriarchy probably lies in the biological need for people to invest in their own children, rather than someone else’s. In the animal world for instance, animals do not normally look after the offspring of others, unless they’ve been tricked into it. Males will even kill another male’s offspring so the female will be free to mate with them instead. Now, women always know that the children they bear are related to them, but men can never know for sure who their genetic offspring are. This male dilemma doesn’t matter much to women, because women are more interested in finding someone reliable to help provide for their children – and that someone does not have to be the biological father. In fact, female deception in this regard has always been common—it’s been estimated that up to nine percent of children in the world are being raised by men who only think they are the fathers.

In ancient human societies, the obvious and most practical way for men to ensure that they invested only in their own children was to dictate and restrict women’s sexual behaviour. Throughout patriarchal history, society has guaranteed men’s paternity by controlling women’s reproductive capacity. Here’s a list of some common ways this happened, and still happens today in various countries:

• mutilating girl’s genitals to reduce sexual desire and ability later in life
• imposing premarital virginity
• expecting women to be chaste, modest, submissive, and asexual (while men can be adventurous - the classic double standard)
• covering up women with veils and burkas so they won't tempt men
• arranging marriages
• implementing dowry systems (which incidentally, leads to sex selection of boy babies over girl babies)
• requiring absolute fidelity from wives
• punishing female adultery harshly
• committing “honour killings” of women
• raping women to dishonour their families, or mass rape as a weapon of war
• forcing women to marry their rapists
• confining women in their houses and chaperoning them in public
• teaching abstinence-only education
• making contraception hard to access
• making abortion illegal and unsafe
• treating women as chattel, the property of men (with harems the ultimate example)
• keeping women disadvantaged and powerless, by denying them education, preventing them from working outside the home or participating in politics, paying them lower wages, and denying them equality

How does the need to guarantee male paternity relate to prostitution? The double standard ensures that most women remain relatively chaste. But if men look for sexual variety and no-strings-attached sex much more than women do, that results in a shortage of sexually-available women. This helps explain the neat patriarchal division of women into two main classes: Virgin and Whore. The Virgins are men’s mothers, wives, and daughters, the “good” women that men require to bear and raise their children. The Whores are the “bad” women whose role is simply to satisfy the extra-curricular urges of men. Whores are devalued simply because their purpose is not to have children – even if they do have children, the paternity will be highly uncertain, from a man's perspective. The inability of Whores to give men children or guarantee men’s paternity means that Whores have no value to men, and therefore no status and no respect.

Are men jealous of women?

However, the issue of male paternity may not entirely explain the abuse and discrimination levelled at women. After all, many men beat their wives, prefer sons over daughters, and generally discriminate against “good” women in a variety of ways. So let’s talk a bit about “womb envy,” the psychoanalytic opposite of “penis envy.” The term was coined by Karen Horney, a breakaway colleague of Sigmund Freud, who produced a body of work on feminine psychology in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Horney surmised that men have an unconscious envy of women’s ability to give birth. She said that men’s drive to succeed in the outside world and leave a legacy, is simply a compensation for their inability to leave a more direct legacy by bearing and raising children.

Certainly, if men have such an obsessive need to establish paternity, they must feel more than a little resentful at women’s child-bearing capacity. It’s a powerful ability, arguably the most important of any human ability – and only women have it. Not only must men control that capacity to guarantee paternity, but they must also control women – even punish them – for having that power to begin with. We need only look around at the lowly status of women throughout much of the world, and the terrible violence they are regularly subjected to, to realize that womb envy is probably more than a mere hypothesis.

Most domestic abuse and homicides of women by their partners are actually rooted in the man's jealousy or suspicion that his partner is being unfaithful, which reflects male anxiety about paternity. However, crimes against pregnant women tend to support the theory of womb envy. Statistics show that homicide is the leading cause of death for pregnant women, after medical complications. And it is the leading cause of death for both pregnant women and new mothers combined. Motives vary, but mostly come down to men fearing or resenting the intrusion of a baby into their lives. The man may just want to protect his freedom or continue an extra-marital affair, but something else is often at play here. All new mothers know that a new baby takes a lot of time and attention, with husbands and marriages often taking a back seat for awhile. Many men miss being the centre of their wife’s life. Some resent playing second fiddle so much that they resort to murder, or at least abuse. Is a man’s jealousy of his own baby that far removed from jealousy over the creation of that baby in the first place?

Jealousy and resentment of women's child-bearing capacity, as well as fear of their "dangerous" sexual power and potential, may help explain men's abuse of women in general. But again, prostitutes get the shortest end of the stick because they are the most vulnerable. Our society gives men permission to abuse prostitutes and an easy means to do it, simply by removing those women from the protection of the law and rendering them disposable. One could say that prostitutes serve as a proxy for women as a whole because they bear the brunt of men's rage and fear.

Can we change or reduce prostitution?

Given the biological and psychological differences between men and women, I'm skeptical about how much our basic sexual behaviour and attitudes can really change. To some extent, yes – because human beings are remarkably adaptable and intelligent – but it won’t be enough to ever abolish prostitution, perhaps not even to reduce it – assuming we want to do that.

All feminists are rightly concerned about the systemic violence, abuse, and exploitation to which prostitutes are often subjected. But where the abolitionists say that prostitution itself is inherently violent and abusive to women, those who advocate sex workers’ rights claim it’s the working conditions and circumstances that foster the violence and abuse. They say that decriminalizing prostitution, putting various safeguards and supports in place, and educating the public to accept sex work as legitimate work that a woman can choose to do, will mostly alleviate the dangerous aspects of prostitution. For example, they say it would improve the quality of johns, so far fewer of them would be violent. The abolitionists speak often of the “sexual objectification” of women in the sex trade. They label prostitution as rape and a form of male privilege in our violent "rape culture." Abolitionists also dismiss claims that prostitution can ever be a real choice for a woman. They support anti-trafficking laws that make a woman’s consent irrelevant. In response, sex worker advocates say these are moralistic positions that denies women’s agency and sexual autonomy. They say that many women do choose sex work, many enjoy the work (or at least don't mind it) and many can experience increased self-esteem simply because there's men willing to pay to have sex with them. (Let’s also admit that plenty of men would jump at the chance to be paid for sex with women, and would not feel the least degraded by it). But regardless of whether women like working in the sex trade or not, the main reason women choose prostitution and stay in it is money. Sex workers say that prostitution is a feasible, even empowering choice, simply because it allows them to pay their rent and feed their families. In fact, women in prostitution can often earn far more than they could at any other unskilled job.

This divide between abolitionists and sex worker advocates simply underlines the problems within prostitution itself. While many (perhaps even most) women in the sex trade today are not there by choice, and do experience abuse and exploitation, many others have chosen to become sex workers and want to stay in it – or would stay if conditions improved and their safety could be better assured. So how do we protect the rights of the latter without hurting the former, and vice versa?

When it comes down to it, if two consenting adults come to a private agreement to have sex in exchange for money, how can anyone possibly stop that? And why should we stop it? Where is the harm if the woman is in business for herself, earning and keeping the money herself, and setting the terms and conditions of her relations with clients? Why not let these women be, and help them improve their working conditions? Why not empower women to work independently, or with a small peer group of other sex workers? Of course, an independent prostitute may want to pay others to help manage her business and keep her safe, but the key is, they must work for her and she calls the shots, not vice versa. After all, most of the abuse in sex work today occurs in the context of exploitive third parties like pimps and traffickers. The illegality and low status of sex work combine to make it easy for these third parties to mistreat women. But if prostitutes are accorded the same right to decent working conditions as any other worker, and that right was actively enforced through labour laws and demanded by society, then such abuse would decrease significantly.

One might still feel that, ideally, no-one should have to sell sexual services in order to make a living, that women have better options. Although it’s unrealistic to abolish prostitution, perhaps reducing it significantly is still a worthy and achievable goal. It’s been claimed that Sweden's law has done that by criminalizing the purchase – not the sale – of sex. Prostitutes are treated as victims and helped out of prostitution, while their clients are arrested and prosecuted. However, the law has by no means eradicated prostitution. Many people are not discouraged by the law and don't agree with the premise behind it – that prostitution is violence against women. Many men simply go elsewhere or find other ways to access prostitutes. The law has possibly increased the use of the Internet for prostitutes and their clients. And sex workers have been driven underground in order to continue their work and protect their clients, which puts their lives and health more at risk. This means that Sweden can't accurately count the number of prostitutes. So how can we have confidence in its claim of a two-thirds reduction in prostitutes due to the new law? The problem with using law enforcement to reduce prostitution, is that it tends to be too harsh and punitive, often hurting the very people it's supposed to protect.

Criminalization in any form has never worked, and it violates the rights of both sex workers and their clients. But it’s not clear that legalization of prostitution (where the trade is regulated and restricted, as in Nevada and the Netherlands) or outright decriminalization (as in New Zealand recently) are good solutions either. Evidence indicates that legalization may simply increase prostitution, and with it the most dangerous and coercive types of prostitution, because many women are driven underground to escape the regulations. It’s too early to tell how well decriminalization will work, but it might pose similar risks to women’s safety and dignity, at least at first.

Is it fair to women to legalize or decriminalize prostitution when it's still such a reviled profession and the abuse of women is rampant within it? That can amount to a sanction of such abuse. Perhaps we should try to change social attitudes first. But that's probably impossible while prostitution is illegal, since it's the illegality itself that invites much of the stigma, violence, and abuse. Decriminalizing prostitution should, theoretically at least, lead to changed social attitudes and transform the profession into something safe and respectable – but it would probably take decades. So what about the meantime? How do we stem the abuse of women within sex work, especially when we can't guarantee we'll ever reach the point where it becomes safe and respectable for women?

In the end, there are no easy answers to the prostitution problem. To truly get rid of exploitive and abusive forms of sex work– and to reduce sex work in general if that’s what we want to do – we need to raise the status of women to unprecedented levels. The key lies in reducing patriarchal attitudes. Women must have the right to enjoy their own sexuality and control their own reproductive capacity, free from punitive laws, male control, or social judgment. That requires making abortion and contraception legal and easily accessible all over the world, minus the controversy that still surrounds both. It means abolishing the double standard and removing the stigma of casual sex for women, so that men don’t need prostitutes as much. These measures would require major social and political changes, and the most extensive Enlightenment campaign on women’s rights and sexual ethics the world has ever seen. Given the degree of opposition such measures would encounter from society at large, not to mention right-wing and even centrist governments, stamping out the bad aspects of prostitution is a very tall order indeed.


  • At 6:53 PM, Blogger George said…

    This is the most thoughtful, and clearly written, essay on the issue that I have ever read. If only everyone were able, and willing, to think this clearly on a subject, what a happier world we would have.

  • At 10:43 PM, Blogger therapeuter said…

    "I would suggest that prostitutes and promiscuous women are despised because there's a deep conviction that such women cannot be good or responsible mothers (because there's no stable father figure present) and also because men cannot know the paternity of the children those women may bear. The father is unknown and therefore powerless. That threatens men, and the patriarchal power structure, at a very fundamental level."

    I rather like the idea of "sex goddess" and it seems that you have offered a rational explanation for the double standard making the veneration of sex-goddess impossible. But what really happened in those early days of patriarchy could be quite, quite complicated. Have you, by the way, ever heard of Chris Knight's theory in his "Blood Relation: Menstruation and the Origin of Culture", the most enlightening book on the origin of "prostitution" (if you want to call it that) and the "overthrow of matriarchy" and the "establishment of patriarchy" in its stead? (I have a summary here:
    The book might be thick, but you will never regret reading it. Big brain babies, women needing male provision, sham menstruation and sex-strike, the origination of human kinship structure and rituals, matriliny, and, finally, male take-over of female rituals
    and patriliny... The sequence is explained and the explanation is supported by a mass of anthropological data.

  • At 6:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I just want you to know that.. you're going to hell if you keep this up. I'll pray for you.. and for your family-- that Jesus comes into your life. Btw, are you a lesbian?

  • At 10:13 PM, Blogger nicole said…

    I wonder if you have a background in the sex industry because you have the best grasp of what it is and what it isn't. Well thought out arguments with no contridictions, best I've heard in while. I really enjoyed this piece.

  • At 12:04 AM, Blogger coast403 said…

    To anonymous,
    This is a place for feminist expression and critique. There is no please for religious determination and persuasion here. Also, sexuality is irrelevant, especially in regards to this very informative and interesting discussion.

  • At 1:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Joyce, Your article is well written and scientifically sound since it is fully supported by both sociobiolgy theory and extensive empirical evidence including that measured by neuroimaging. It should be noted that the stigma against sex work is some countries, such as Thailand where I reside, is far less than in the us where right wing religious zealots and joined with radical feminists and a control freak paternalistic authoritarian government to wage a war of extermination agains sex workers whose thinking and acting 'outside the box' is perceived as an unforgivable political crime.

  • At 10:09 AM, Blogger Fernzeug said…

    Thanks for this great article. The most accurate insight I have heard on the matter so far. Yes, men and women are different. Modern societies based on monogamy together with its cultural prejudices difficult satisfying our 'different' sexual drives, which are partially of biological heritage. Prostitution can and should not be abolished. It plays an important role in our society! But this does not exclude that we must continue fighting strongly against any kind of women exploitation and abuse, as well as indirectly the poverty, the inequality and illiteracy they usually suffer too. Women who choose this profession should do it consciously and voluntarily after considering other alternatives available.

  • At 12:38 AM, Blogger Sunny Gill said…

    By far the most direct, logical, practical, thoughtful, insightful, intelligent and honest piece of writing I have ever read on this topic. You definitely nailed it!

  • At 12:47 AM, Blogger Sunny Gill said…

    By far the most well written, direct, thoughtful, insightful, intelligent and honest piece of writing I have read on the topic. You definitely nailed it!


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