Not an Odalisque

Posts Tagged ‘prostitution

Sex Work and the Feminist Frenzy

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I began a post on sex work recently. I thought it was rather good. Then a man was charged with murdering three women who sold sex on the streets of Bradford. Suddenly, everyone was talking about prostitutes. The Prime Minister was saying that we should reconsider legalising prostitution in response to the murders. On Radio 4’s ‘Any Questions’ the members of the panel spoke about the right of consenting adults to do as they will. All of the fallacies I find in my reading about sex work became relevant to an horrific situation. Yes, they were selling sex. More relevantly, they were walking through dangerous parts of Bradford, alone, to undertake work which carries high risks of violence, and they were doing it for £20-£30 a time. I have no doubt that prostitution can be a free choice. These particular sex workers, though, can only have acted from desperation.

From what I can tell, there are two camps of people throwing stones at each other, one claiming that sex work is empowering and fun, calling the other side prudes, and another claiming that sex workers are exploited, and calling the other side naive. It all feels like a fabricated argument to me.

Let’s clear one thing up. No one ever has a ‘free’ choice. We don’t live in a cultural vacuum. When I get dressed today my choice is constrained by cultural expectations of my gender, by what I can afford, by the weather and what is in the laundry basket. Most of us can agree that the cultural expectations which forced women into corsets restricted our freedom. The norms which mean we can’t walk around naked have gained general acceptance, however. Somewhere in the middle, mixed in with high heels and push up bras, is the line between freedom and coercion. Let me know if you can pin down exactly where it is.

In sex work we can see examples of more, and less free choices. Pandora Blake sounds like she has a great time making her spanking porn. Every now and again I come across blogs by escorts living in central London, screening their clients carefully and charging £200 an hour. I read books like ‘Whores and Other Feminists’ full of essays by workers in collectively run San Franscio strip clubs. They, like accountants, lecturers, salesmen and shop assistants may or may not be happy, but their career choices are hardly likely to keep me awake at night. The women who are walking dangerous streets because they need money to feed drug addictions aren’t in the same category. The women sold into sexual slavery aren’t in the same category. They aren’t free.

I support the law which makes it illegal to have sex with a pimped or trafficked woman. I don’t understand how men can participate in the torture of women, through repeated rape, and reward its organisers. However, I know that men do, and that while clients are often aware that they are paying for sex with a coerced woman, very few will even go so far as to report it to the police. Is the law going to be difficult to enforce? Yes. That’s no reason not to legislate, though. Murders still happen, and we’re all agreed on that law. In fact, if no one was going to try to break it, there wouldn’t be much point in criminalising it, would there?

There are sex workers who need help, the addicts, the prisoners, the children. The rest of them, I’m sure, have good days and bad, they make their choices and take their cash. So I should just leave them to it, right? And yet, I am a little uncomfortable about it. When I hear the stories of women selling their bodies—bodies like mine—for £20, I’m insulted by the low price. I have this fantastic body, people tell me they desire it all the time, and you’re selling one just like it for £20?! On the other hand, the stories of women making £200 an hour distress me because people told me that getting straight As, a degree from a good university and an MA from another one would mean that I could get a great job. Well, I’m currently waiting to see if I will be taken on as a temp, but I could make more money than I ever have by selling what every woman has. I object to the fact that so much value is placed in my body, what I am, rather than what I do and who I have become.

Yes, I’m fickle.

I can understand the power and the freedom in choosing to take money for what so many inadequate boyfriends thought they should get for free. Just because I’m a woman, I’m expected to invest a huge amount of time, effort and cash in my appearance. Through sex work I can turn it to profit. I can refuse to conform to society’s model for a good woman, a model which I’ve found constrictive, insulting and puritanical. I can play the system, and a woman will come out on top for once. I read ‘King Kong Theory’ and cheered.

On the other hand, given how much effort I put into altering society’s perception of women, it is annoying to see someone else undoing all my good work, and profiting from it. I try to convince men that I’m more than a sexual object. I spent last Thursday night patiently explaining to an ignorant man that women like sex, too. I’m constantly trying to convince people, through my selfless example, that a woman can be non-monogamous and bisexual without being some sort of hyper-sexualised slut born of their fantasies. Then sex workers come along and play into all the stereotypes because they can profit personally. You think the way you do it can change minds? Look at the perception of prostitutes in this paper.

Sex workers aren’t the only ones doing it. Hell, we all do it, one way or another. Even my butch ex-girlfriend used to flirt with women to get me discounts in dress shops. I put on my red dress and make up when I go dancing, because I think that looking nice will induce more men to dance with me, making for a better night out. Am I pulling together with the sisterhood for the common good? The frumpy middle aged women probably don’t think so, but I don’t care.

Recognising that few feminists can honestly say we’ve never played into objectification for goods, services or self-esteem, perhaps we could stop hounding the sex workers for being the most visible practitioners of it. And perhaps those who are shouting so loudly about the lack of respect feminists show to sex workers could recognise that they are not puritans, but women trying to do what they think is right for themselves and others, including those in actual need of intervention to prevent exploitation. Best of all, we could stop throwing things at each other. Not because we ultimately agree—I’m quite sure we don’t—but because the squabbling doesn’t appear to be helping anyone. Perhaps we could all just shut up about it, and blog about important things instead.

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Written by Not an Odalisque

June 22, 2010 at 10:44 am

Myth Number Five: It Wasn’t Rape.

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I had been planning a light-hearted post about women’s orgasms, but then I read this:
Rape Case Dropped. A woman was denied the right to have her alleged rapists put on trial because she had shared fantasies of group sex on MSN messenger. She intended to have sex with one man, but, she says, when she reached his house she found several more men who forced her to have sex with them. Let me repeat the reason why these men weren’t tried: she had told somebody about her sexual fantasies.

Fantasy is not consent. I used to daydream about accidental explosions during chemistry class, but I wouldn’t have thanked the person who actually made a bomb. In no other area of the law is fantasising about something an agreement to action.

When it comes to rape we don’t think straight. We make excuses for perpetrators, often along the lines of “she was asking for it.” If she really was asking for it, it wouldn’t have been rape, but a surprising proportion of people blame the victim. I did the number-crunching at Amnesty International for this study Amnesty International Study. It shows that almost half of Northern Irish university students believe that a woman is to some degree responsible for being raped if she has behaved in a flirtatious manner and almost a third believe she is if she is wearing ‘sexy or revealing clothing’. One in ten students considers violence acceptable against a girlfriend who nags, flirts with other men or refuses to have sex.

Would a thief be acquitted he said “I only stole the Ferrari because it was so shiny and red”? Would its owner be blamed because he washed and polished it? If I broke into a shop, could I excuse myself by saying that I had seen the advertising and it made me really, really want what was inside? It would be absurd.

In truth, that’s because the analogies don’t make much sense. If I stole a Ferrari, I would then have a Ferrari, with all of the same features as a legitimately purchased one. If you rape someone, it isn’t going to be the same experience as consensual sex. She’s not going to light candles or lick your nipples or whisper how much she wants you in your ear. So I can’t help thinking that, if you’re a rapist, you aren’t actually after those things.

So let’s reassess the ‘temptations’ (fantasy, flirtation, sexy clothes) from another perspective. What sort of a woman has sexual fantasies, wears sexy clothing and flirts? It’s not the good girl.

Our culture distinguishes between two types of women: virgins and whores. It isn’t all that long ago that a woman’s virginity was her most precious possession and her virtue was measured by her chastity. Yes, we’ve had the sexual revolution, but I think the 6.5% conviction rate for rape tells us a lot about the rate of actual change. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I have mentioned to a man that I find both men and women attractive, or that I’ve visited a fetish club, only to find that his eyes have glazed over for a moment and he’s lost to his own thoughts. Soon after he will make a move, or reveal an assumption about the sorts of activities I may be willing to engage in (group sex, for instance) and I will realise that I’ve been put in the bad girl box. Sometimes that’s fun, because it makes me attractive and provides opportunities to play. It isn’t an accurate perception of who I am, though, and that can be a problem.

Bad girls, you see, can’t be raped. A recent study of men who use prostitutes found that a quarter of those questioned thought that the very concept of raping a prostitute or call girl was “ridiculous.” I’m not saying this is a representative sample of the population, but how would you feel if one in four of your clients thought that forcing you to have sex with them wasn’t in any way out of line? Twenty-seven per cent of our interviewees explained that once he pays, the customer is entitled to engage in any act he chooses with the woman he buys. Any act. What a terrifying position to be in.

The prostitute is the most extreme example of the bad girl in popular perception. As such, she is seen as radically different from other women. One interviewee said “the very fact that they’re prepared to do that job where others won’t even if skint, there’s some capability inside them that permits them to do it, to not be disgusted by this, a normal woman would be if she was asked to do it.” Another man concluded, “They must be able to have sex more often because they do it all day. They don’t mind foregoing a lover or romance or a married partner…. They don’t mind going to people’s homes for sex. They don’t mind having sex with anyone.” One interviewee who struggled with the notion that prostitution damages women rationalised it by believing that women in prostitution are, unlike other women, intrinsically indecent and slutty:

“It’s a dirty job in my humble opinion, having sex for money isn’t a decent thing for a human being. I wouldn’t go out on a date or be in a relationship with one of them. I don’t see myself going out with someone who has been paid for sex. I’m an old fashioned person, Roman Catholic. In high school, boys don’t want to go out with slutty girls. Part of my brain is divided – like a wall. I think two different ways about women.”

This last quote brings up an important point. Not only are prostitutes intrinsically different from other women, they are also desirable. Why else does he pay to have sex with them? Presumably because of their supposed difference, their indecency, sluttiness, lack of disgust and discrimination.

So what of women who do not take payment for sex, but share some behaviours with those who do? Women who, say, have a lot of sex with a number of different men, outside long-term loving relationships? Woman go to some lengths to attract men? Those who put on mini-skirts and go out looking for casual sex of a weekend? They, too, fall into the ‘bad girl’ category. Can you rape one of them? The prevalence of terms like ‘date rape’ implies that while you can, this is a lesser form of rape. A girl who spends and evening with a man, drinks alcohol with him and goes to his home has diminished rights.

The logical conclusion of this was reached with the support for Roman Polanski, who gave a thirteen year old alcohol and drugs then raped her. Some of the greatest artists alive today have protested against his arrest. Whoopi Goldberg says it wasn’t ‘rape rape’. Our divisions into categories of rape have come so far that when a man in his forties drugs a child and fucks her up the ass we find a way to argue that it wasn’t really, truly rape.

What do you have to be to be sure that you aren’t going to be laughed at when you report your rape, as one of the victims of John Worboys says was when she went to the police? I think you’d better be a virgin wearing Laura Ashley who was jumped by a stranger late at night. A few witnesses and a couple of broken bones, would help, too.

How did we get to a situation in which behaviours common to most women, such as trying to look attractive and flirting, became signifiers for an identity which apparently invited violence? I think it is due to desire and jealousy. Men like bad girls. We have a communal fantasy, dating back to Eve, of women with insatiable sexual appetites. These women are beautiful, they are seductive and they want you. Who wouldn’t want a woman like that? Men want them, so, to some degree, women try to be them. We style our hair, put on our makeup and choose the sexiest clothes. We learn to give killer blow jobs and to walk in high heels. I do it, too. I do it because although I know I’m brilliant on the basis of my knowledge of Foucault and ability to make a fantastic chocolate trifle, most people are never going to be exposed to these things. Anyone likes women has a chance of falling for my curling tresses and reddened lips. I like the attention, who doesn’t? Not making an effort to be attractive makes a big statement in our society. Who wants to be a hairy-legged lesbian?

While men like bad girls, they wouldn’t want their mother or their wife to be one. Their liking is specifically sexual. The image is seductive because it communicates availability. A woman who is sexually voracious and indiscriminate in her choice of partner will certainly sleep with you. Her dedication to dick frees a man from his inadequacies (he can’t talk to me about Foucault, but that doesn’t matter, he can certainly supply a cock) and from commitment, since she’s not attached to any of his specificities. The fact that her experience and longing imply that she knows how to please a man and is gagging to do so (gagging, in some cases, being far too accurate a word) add to the perfection of the fantasy.

The possibility of rape would shatter the fantasy completely, predicated as it is on sexual availability. For men who cherish this fantasy, then, it is easy to see why there would be little sympathy for allegations of rape if someone isn’t squeaky clean. And the number of men who do wish to preserve it is surprisingly high, in my experience.

What about women? Surely we can see more easily the complexities of the situation? We have all experienced the difficulty of balancing sexual liberation with sexual objectification. In the report I worked on, however, women’s views were similar to men’s, with a high percentage excusing rape in cases involving low cut tops or flirtatious behaviour. So what have women got against the bad girl? I think we fear her. We know men want her. Our boyfriends and husbands desire her, possibly more than they desire us. Men have affairs, they visit prostitutes, and sometimes they hurt their loved ones very much in the process. Who do you want to blame, the man you love or the woman who ‘seduced’ him?

The ‘bad girl’ is competition. I know this because I feel it, too. In a very small way, intermittently, I am envious of those who are better at seducing men than I am. I know that what I actually want is a man who loves me on a deeper level than noticing that I have great legs, but it doesn’t change my reaction. I know that other women feel this, too, because I’ve seen the marketing campaigns for mascara and heard about the national obsession with weight loss from all of my female friends. I notice that there is a whole genre of magazines dedicated to telling you the difficulties of celebrities’ lives and printing pictures of them on bad hair days. We want to be the most attractive, and when we can’t, in some nasty, hidden part of ourselves, we want to see the winners suffer.

What punishment would be more fitting than rape? You want to be a sexual object? Well, there you are then. These are the consequences. It’s the same plot as any number of novels, the good girl gets the guy, the bad girl gets her comeuppance.

There is a flaw. The girl we are talking about is a fantasy, albeit a fantasy that has a profound impact on who we are. Most prostitutes aren’t sexually voracious; many are traumatised, drug-addicted, coerced or just in need of money. Most women playing the bad girl role have a lot more to their characters. Those that don’t must have had good reasons for turning themselves into a male fantasy, reasons which made them crave the approval and attention it brings. My guesses at those reasons would be isolation, loneliness, low self-esteem, self-loathing, even.

I’m not saying that the bad girl role isn’t a fun one to play. I enjoy being bad and I’ve got the outfits to prove it. It’s something I do, though, not something I am. It doesn’t change my right to say “no.”

It doesn’t matter who she is, how she’s acted, or what you’ve done with her before. If she doesn’t want to do it, if she is subjected to force, violence, coercion or manipulation, it is rape. There’s a very simple way to check whether she wants to have sex, you can ask her, and see if she says “yes” or “no.” The criminal justice system in the UK is improving its services to rape victims, albeit too slowly and in spite of judges like Robert Brown. Wider perceptions, however, show that we have difficulty separating fantasy from reality. These are real people, real lives, so get over it.

More Links

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/6982555/Men-cleared-of-rape-after-online-chat-on-group-sex-revealed.html

http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/documents/cons-paying-the-price/

Written by Not an Odalisque

January 25, 2010 at 1:35 pm