Choice Joyce: January 2007

Choice Joyce

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

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Equating Sex with Women's Oppression?

"What is liberation? Feminism past,present and future" by Gail Golden

Excerpt: "Important conversations are currently taking place about a confusing phenomenon regarding a specific group of contemporary women. These conversations relate to some young women today who embrace pornography, prostitution and the sexual objectification of women. Rejecting the feminist struggles of an earlier generation, these young women seek to advance this so called ’post feminist’ agenda. This paper seeks to enter the conversation in an effort to understand and respond to this supposed manifestation of a new kind of women’s liberation. We begin by addressing the question of whether we are actually in a post feminist age."

I found this article quite weak, frankly. It's based on biases about sex and sexuality. For example, it uses terms like "sexual objectification of women", "damaging impact of pornography" "male lust that degrades women and treats them with contempt" without explaining or justifying those terms - which are really just personal feelings not based in evidence. The article offensively portrays women who "join the raunch culture" as selfishly betraying feminism. The problems with the article are captured in this sentence from it: "In psychological terms, however, this post feminist tendency to objectify one's own body has aspects of the phenomenon known as identification with the aggressor."

In my opinion, this talk of "objectifying one's body" simply masks disapproval or distaste for sex, especially casual sex. Many people with healthy, strong sexualities accept that there is a time and place to be a "sexual object" - it's exciting and fun for both men and women. It's a common male fantasy to be a "sex object" to women, after all, and let's face it, women love it too, or they wouldn't enjoy wearing makeup and sexy clothes. This is all normal, and it's a normal part of sex, especially casual sex.

Linking "sexual objectification" with "identification with the aggressor" simply assumes that sex is inherently violent and that men are rapists by nature. That insults men and male sexuality, but it also narrowly defines women's sexuality, because it amounts to a dismissal of the validity of sexual pleasure for women without the presence of "love, respect, tenderness, and dignity."

The author is forced to admit that certain "privileged" women enjoy sex work and are not exploited by it, but this concession undermines her assumptions and conclusions. If even some women - and it's not a tiny minority by any means - can confidently handle being a sex worker, then that means sex work cannot be inherently exploitive. The very existence of such women points the way towards addressing the abuse and coercion that other women often experience within prostitution. In my view, this can be done by decriminalizing sex work, raising the status of women, and abolishing the sexual double standard that says women shouldn't have or enjoy casual sex.

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.