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March 18, 2008

The Old Tired Ethics of Prostitution

So we really really tried to avoid talking about the whole Eliot Spitzer scandal. It seems like no one can shut up about it (especially in New York, where we are) so we can't avoid the topic any longer.

I honestly don't care what Ol' Spitzy does in his private time, but I suppose the issue for me is that he's been proven to be such a hypocrite on the subject of prostitution. But I don't really want to talk about him. So instead of just criticizing Spitzer or ogling photos of "Kristen", like so many others are doing, I'd rather talk about prostitution itself.

The Evil Slut Clique has always been interested in sex worker's rights activism, so of course we're going to be curious what kind of impact this news story can have on a grander scale than the governor's resignation. Instead of viewing this whole 'scandal' as reason to criticize Spitzer, I'd rather people take this opportunity to address the reasons why prostitution should not be illegal in the first place!

There's a lot of buzz about this on the Desiree Alliance's Bound, Not Gagged blog, so if you're interested in getting sex workers' take on the subject check it out. (The Desiree Alliance is also holding a conference of sex workers and sex worker activists this summer called Pulling Back The Sheets: Sex, Work, and Social Justice.) We came across a really great entry on their site that puts my personal opinion into words better than I could have:

Excerpts from their Sex Workers Blow Spitzer a Farewell Kiss:

"...[sex work is] a part of our society, of every society, and we need to take this opportunity to stop with the value judgments and start coming up with policies that respect the human dignity of all people, sex workers and all workers. ” says Dylan Wolfe of SWANK (Sex Workers Action New York).

...“Hopefully Mr. Spitzer’s unfortunate public decline will send a message to all like him who pass laws that endanger the safety of sex workers while indulging in the service themselves,” Sarah Bleviss of SWOP [Sex Workers Outreach Project] said, “Sex workers clearly provide them a very valuable service; it’s time for lawmakers to return the favor.”

...Incoming Governor Paterson and other law-makers need to create policies that actually reflect the realities of their own lives and those of their constituents, including sex workers, rather than the harmful legislation of morality, whereby private matters become public scandals.

In Spitzer's True Folly (guardian.co.uk), Elizabeth Pisani suggests that a "governor who pays for sex should know to mold social policies on reality, not morality":

People who believe his assault on prostitution was counterproductive have been feeling pretty smug, too. But the collective gloating obscures an important truth: policies based on morality, not reality, don't work.

... If Spitzer wanted to dedicate some of his apparently endless stock of moral outrage to prostitution, he would have done better to crusade for health and safety regulations in the sex trade than for abolition. He, of all people, knows that the industry can work perfectly well for people on both the provider and the consumer side. So why didn't he?

For many years now, social policy in the US has been moulded by morality. (Interestingly, commercial policy hasn't. It's illegal for one adult to pay another for sex, but perfectly legal for two adults to be paid to have sex with one another by a third person, who will film the encounter and then sell it as pornography to other adults.)

Morality, which is hard to define let alone to measure, is not a good basis for public policy. Science is a good basis for public policy. Economics, even. But not morality. Look at sex education in the US. The Bush administration promotes abstinence. No information about condoms, nothing about safe sex. The result of this cross-your-legs-and-think-of-God approach, according to official figures released this week, is that a quarter of teenage girls in the US have a sexually transmitted infection. How moral is that?

We could find you endless links to articles and blogs on the subject, such as A Call Girl's View of the Spitzer Affair (NY Times), but instead we'd like to go back to our theme for March, Women's History Month, by talking a little bit about the recent history of the relationship between feminism and prostitution.

There was and still is a divide among feminists about issues like prostitution and pornography, and some feminists feel that sex work is inherently exploiting and objectifying, at least in our current society. There has also been a lot of focus in the women's movement on issues of violence in sex work and on forced prostitution in the international sex trade.

Obviously it's a complex issue, and there are many legitimate concerns about prostitution, especially in its current illegal and risky state. But since one of the most important aspects of the women's movement has always been giving women the opportunity to speak up and share the reality of their lives in their own voices, we thought that right now we'd focus on what sex workers themselves have said about what they would like to see happen.

This is from an Atlanta organization called HIRE (Hooking Is Real Employment), which was founded by Dolores French and was a sister group to a California organization founded in the early 70s called COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics). This excerpt (taken from the book Dear Sisters) is a little long, but we think it's worth it to see the arguments put forward by someone who considers herself both a sex worker and a feminist, and also to think about the fact that this was written decades ago and it doesn't seem like we've all made that much progress on these issues.
If we agree that prostitutes should be free to pursue their work, there are two ways by which this may be done-legalization and decriminalization. By legalizing prostitution, government agencies maintain strict control and, typically, over-regulate. Our taxes would pay for yet another and unnecessary bureaucracy. If the brothels of Nevada are any indication of how the state is "helping" prostitutes by imposing twelve-hour work shifts (14-18 hour shifts are common), by forbidding a woman's right to refusal and restricting those areas that prostitutes may frequent, then we do not need or want this kind of "help". In effect, the government and the brothel-owners become the pimp in exploiting the prostitute.

If we decriminalize prostitution, then all criminal statutes regarding prostitution would be repealed from state law. All laws preventing child prostitution and those laws prohibiting the forcing of people to become prostitutes would remain. Enforcement of health inspections could be administered by the health department as is done for the restaurant business. All aspects of the prostitution business would be removed from the Police Department.

Decriminalization maximizes the possibility for women to act as independent contractors and to form businesses or cooperatives among themselves. Hooking is Real Employment.

Many feminists consider prostitutes to be traitors to the women's movement. Prostitutes are singled out as the worst perpetrators of the subjugation of women. The scorn and self-righteous hypocrisy of feminists around the issue of prostitution betrays a "buying into" of the traditional male supremacist cultural values of good women-bad women-madonna-whore. Males in power may continue to maintain control over women as long as the fear of certain groups of women is perpetuated by women themselves. Lesbians and women of color should understand these "divide and conquer" tactics. To be strong, we must fight together, but not against each other.

Prostitutes do not perpetuate the male power system any more than do secretaries or factory workers. When prostitutes are scorned and viewed as a group apart from the rest of women, this additional division of the movement limits the potential strength of women united. It is time for prostitutes to claim their rightful place in the women's movement. We are calling for your support. To be a feminist and a prostitute is not a contradiction in terms: prostitutes are strong, independent women who are struggling to govern their own bodies. Hooking is Real Employment.

Groups like HIRE and COYOTE are not a thing of the past. We've already mentioned the Desiree Alliance (and SWANK and SWOP)... another great resource is the Prostitutes Education Network, which has tons of links to sex workers group around the world as well as resources and information on health issues, politics, legislation, and other issues affecting sex workers. They also have a bookstore and a cafepress store--we've got our eye on some Sluts Unite mugs for our future offices.

We almost don't even want to return to the Spitzer thing now, but while we're on the subject of sex work, we think it's interesting that people seem to be really obsessed with why Spitzer had sex with "Kristen". I've found a lot of 'interesting' theories on why men go to prostitutes.

In Why Men Do Stupid Things: The Psychological Appeal of Prostitutes (alternet.org), Michael Bader suggests that men go to prostitutes because they struggle with "conflicts about guilt and responsibility".

...the appeal lies in the fact that, after payment is made, the woman is experienced as completely devoted to the man -- to his pleasure, his satisfaction, his care, his happiness. The man doesn't have to please a prostitute, doesn't have to make her happy, doesn't have to worry about her emotional needs or demands. He can give or take without the burden of reciprocity. He can be entirely selfish. He can be especially aggressive or especially passive, and not only is the woman not upset, she acts aroused. He is not responsible for her in any way. She is entirely focused on him. He is the center of the world.

...Such men feel psychically weighed down by the belief that they're supposed to take care of women, that they have an obligation to make women happy, to please them. Such beliefs are often exaggerated and based on a belief and perception that women are high-maintenance, helpless, or disposed to be unhappy and dissatisfied. These beliefs are formed in childhood and are reinforced by our culture. They are often false, but they can inhibit such men in their sexual relationships. In real relationships, they feel that there is always a hidden quid pro quo, that they can't get much unless they give a lot, that they have to pay a high price for getting what they need.

I'm not quite sure how to feel about this, because the article sort of implies prostitution is something inherently bad and that men's pull towards it is likely caused by some psychological defect.

I think it's a normal, biological urge for men want to have sex with pretty young girls who will let them do anything they want. Is it selfish that they follow through on those urges? Probably. If they've promised to be faithful to another person, then yes it's very selfish and wrong. I don't necessarily think monogomy is right for everyone... but if you do promise to be faithful to someone else, then you better keep that promise. However, monogomy doesn't seem to be the real issue.

Bader's theory supposes that the men who cheat on their significant others with prostitutes are at the same time selfish and "guilty and worried about the effect of [his most selfish] desires on his partner". (Of course, he's not too guilty or worried about the fact that he's cheating on his partner?)

To me, I think the compulsion to go to a prostitute (if it is indeed a compulsion) could be quickly remedied by some open and honest communication about sex. Maybe these men are caught up in the Madonna-Whore complex or are unable to fathom the idea that their girlfriends or wives might actually be willing to do the things they secretly desire (namely, allow for some "selfishness" in the bedroom on occasion).

Louanne Cole Weston, PhD also considers this in Why Do Men Like Eliot Spitzer Seek Out Prostitution? (webmd.com):

Some men seek out prostitution because they do not wish to end their marriage for all sorts of reasons, but they are still looking to have sex that stimulates them. The sexual style of their wife no longer or never did match their own. Some are avoiding a wife at home who can only have sex while drunk. Some are hoping to get oral sex that feels more than obligatory - or any at all! And, it could be that he simply didn't think he could reveal what he truly wanted sexually at home - or if he did, that he'd get it there. Or if he did, how he'd handle her ridicule, rejection or disgust.

... It takes courage and tenacity to keep on having sex with the same partner and finding a way to make it fulfilling - but that assumes that it was ever there in the first place.

She gives other reasons why rich and powerful men engage in "risky sex" with prostitutes (e.g., thinking they're "above the law", wanting the adrenaline rush, trying to relive their youth with a younger woman, etc.) however I think it really does often come down to not being able to have the kind of sex they'd have with a prostitute with their wives.

In Sex Lessons From Eliot Spitzer (mensnewsdaily.com), Marc H. Rudov looks at the issue from another angle:

Why Eliot Spitzer saw infidelity as his only solution to sexual gratification is anyone's guess. Perhaps his wife no longer satisfied him. Perhaps, like many men, Spitzer suffered from the Madonna-whore complex, where a man is unable to view his post-childbirth wife as a sexual being. Actually, I don't know or care why he chose to stray. In my view, if any aspect of one's marriage breaks down, he should fix it. If that becomes impossible, he should end the marriage, not betray it. But, if a man sees cheating as his only option, his style of pursuing sexual conquests implies much about his view of himself, of women, and of sex.

...[men who don't believe that women are as - or even more - sexual than men] were raised with immature, idealized, glorified views of women...

Such men find highly sexual women threatening and won't get involved with or marry them. Instead, they will marry sexually bland, virgin-like women perfect as controllable moms and wives while pursuing hot extramarital sex. This behavior is a sign of deep insecurity.

Again, nothing that couldn't be solved by a little conversation about sex with your significant other. Here at Evil Slutopia, we're all about the 'highly sexual women'. It seems like such a foreign concept to not feel comfortable discussing sex with the people with whom we have sex, because we not only do that... we discuss it with random strangers. While there's obviously things that some of us won't try, I like to think that we're pretty openminded. It might sound anti-feminist to say things about "pleasing your man", but the truth is... I take great pleasure from pleasing my man.

If he was looking for some "selfish", non-reciprocal, all-about-him sex (as Bader suggested some men are) I'd be more than happy to provide that on occasion. In this case "non-reciprocal" doesn't imply that he won't ever reciprocate (that is, give into one of my fantasies at a later point in time) but just that reciprocation would not need to be instantaneous or during that particular sex session. We've already written about bondage and BDSM - you can submit to someone one day and be in charge the next. That's the beauty of the illusion.

So I guess my advice to people is to stop being so uptight? Heh. Of course, I've gotten way off course... Before I stop, I wanted to go back a few topics once more (ping! pong!) and address again that I really think prostitution should be legalized or decriminalized (I haven't quite decided which I think would be the better solution, as I'm not completely clear on the total ramifications of each... but I do know that it shouldn't be a crime.)

I hope that we can all learn from Eliot Spiter's "mistake", that prostitution is a part of our society and our economy. It has been around since biblical times and isn't going away, no matter how many laws you pass or how aggressively you enforce those laws. These laws may even be somewhat well-intentioned, but they don't actually do anything to help women who are involved in sex work (voluntarily or otherwise). They only serve to make these women even less safe.

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