Explore some of the feminist debates on prostitution

Explore some of the feminist debates on prostitution

Question Sheet

1 Critically reflect on the ways in which the central female characters in the

film Moolaadé pose a major challenge to dominant gender relations.

2 Explore some of the feminist debates on prostitution.

3 Discuss how sexual harassment at work place intersects with race, ethnicity,

gender, and sexuality?

4 Discuss how the film Lilya-4-Ever disrupts dominant perceptions of the


5 Investigate the cultural and economic reasons that sustain prostitution in

Thailand despite its illegality.

6 Comment on the social construction of heterosexuality in sport.

7 Discuss how Mexican immigrants cope with some of the significant challenges that they face in the US. 

8 How is compulsory heterosexulity socially constructed in sports?

Answers – The Prostitution question(s): Female Agency, Sexuality, and Work

Discuss the following:

– The “prostitution question”

o The set of discussions and debates on the issue of prostitution

o Politically messy due to lack of consensus on several issues among feminists and

between feminists and prostitutes

o Question: do feminists, rights activists, the state and its instruments, really care about


o This topic illuminates issues that have yet to be resolved by feminist discourse:

 What constitutes women’s victimization

 The construction of their agency

 Women’s right to work regardless of its nature

 The morality around the question of private and public sex

 Exchange of women as objectified commodities

 Women’s sexuality

 The difference among women from the Global South and North.

– Prostitution, the state, and the law

Prostitution and the heteronormative patriarchal state

o Pathologiszes prostitute women’s sexuality as deviant or criminal

 Which needs constant monitoring by the state and its institutions

 Yet, expects them to sexually service the often insatiable masculinity

 Unsatisfactory marriage, membership in armed forces

o Promotes female sex work

 To reinforce its tourism industry (without making it explicit)

 To ensure the survival of women in this unorganized labor sector that lies

outside the “wage or labor legislation”

Prostitution and the Law

o Similar to social conventions, law plays a crucial role in determining gendered identity

o It regards women and prostitute women as two separate categories

o It locates prostitute women outside normative femininity and persecutes them as such

o Seeking justice in the eyes of the law requires women to prove their sexual purity

o So is legal reform necessary to protect prostitutes from crime?

 Some think that the current criminal law is enough to deal with the criminal

aspect of prostitution (kidnapping, intimidation, exploitation of girls/women)

 Seeking justice from law would consolidate a hegemonic and draconian state

 It would become an instrument of control and interferences

 Or it would be simply incapable of looking over such a massive and

organized system of professional sex work.

o And yet there is no getting away from the law or the state

 As it has the power to determine the fate of the prostitutes

 Rights groups as well as sex works across the world seek change through legal

means or through state intervention

 Even if these changes might upset the state itself, the “moral majority”

or the dominant groups in the society

– Abolition versus toleration / legalization / decriminalization of prostitution

– State regulation of prostitution through its strict monitoring and eventual abolition

o Abolitionists’ justification

 Women never choose to enter commercial sex trade

 They are always forced into trading their bodies in exchange for money and

which leads to their exploitation, and physical and psychological humiliation.

 Commercial sex trade is an essentially criminal activity as its survival is based on

 Connection with underworld criminal mafia, pimps, and ruthless brothel

keepers who maximize profits from women’s bodies and the market

 Criminalizing everything and everyone associated with this trade

 i.e. prostitutes, organizers of sex work, traffickers, prostitutes’ clients

 Abolitionists compare trafficking of women and children with slavery

o Tolerationists’ justification

 People have the right to sexual transaction through mutual consent

 Prostitution is a “necessary evil”

 Hypocritical system that punishes the woman and lets go of her male clients

 Change in law: decriminalizing the prostitute and criminalization of her

“associates” (pimps, brothel keepers, etc.). But in practice,

o This is not the case in India

o Criminalizing pimps etc. pushes prostitution underground

 Prostitutes harassed by the law enforcement agencies

o Legalization of prostitution

 Concerned more about greater client satisfaction than prostitutes’ welfare

 State legalizes prostitution and

 Imposing state license, compulsory health checks, paying taxes

 Sex trade performed under the state’s watchful eye.

 Despite this, some see it improving women prostitutes’ condition

o Decriminalization of prostitution

 Liberals: state regulation of sex work cannot solve the prostitution problem

 In fact it undermines prostitutes’ right to work

 Prostitutes alone know what works best for them and should be given their

rights both individual and collective to device a workable system for themselves

– Anti-prostitution versus pro-prostitute activists

o Pro-prostitute activists:

 legal criminalization of prostitution creates more problems for sex workers

 Decriminalization helps women make right choices for themselves

 They challenge police brutality, social hypocrisy and ask for protecting the

vulnerable women prostitutes

 Focus on women’s civil rights to practice their profession

 Inspired by the 1970-80s prostitutes’ rights movement in North America which

has now spread to Southeast Asia and India.

o Anti-prostitute activists:

 Take a human rights approach unraveling women’s exploitation due to

globalization of sex work, war, and natural disasters

 Direct prostitutes away from sex work so that they can be rehabilitated back

into “society” though legal, professional, and economic assistance

– Prostitution and legal reform

o PITA (Prohibition of Immoral Traffic Act)

 Treats prostitutes as criminals or victims that need to be rescued

 At times it means anyone who happens to be in a brothel

 They are indefinitely sent off to “corrective” institutes

 Prostitutes children are taken away from them

 It does not do enough to alleviate the problem

o Need for reform. Following are some suggestions made by various activists:

 Licensing of prostitution, compulsory health checks, stricter controls against

trafficking and forced sex work, decriminalizing sex work, etc.

– Feminist debates on prostitution

– What happened at the conferences?

o Brussels, 1986: International Whores’ Congress

 Attended by prostitutes as well as feminist researchers/activists

 Major milestone for sex workers to use their voice

 Focused on sex workers’ right to get “economic and sexual self-determination

o Rotterdam, 1983: International Feminist Networking against the Traffic in Women:

Organizing against Female Sexual Slavery”

 Attended by international feminist activists /researchers; not prostitutes. Why?

 They said it was a feminist organization

 It was anti-prostitution and was uncomfortable discussing “sexual

slavery with prostitute women”

 Prostitutes, stripper, porn artists, etc. accused them of

 Ignorance of what it means to be in sex trade

 Sidelining women whose lives they were discussing

 Dividing the world into good girls/ bad girls

 Arrogance and moral superiority

 Seeing prostitute women as victims that needed saving

“Postmodern” and “modern” prostitution

– Modern Prostitution

– Postmodern prostitution: centrality to prostitutes assuming “their own subject position and

producing their own political identity”

o Indian feminists don’t see its application in the Global South

“Sex radical” politics

– Liberal politics on sexuality (prostitution, non-heterosexual sex, etc.)

– Identifying prostitution with agency and power

– Views prostitutes as performance artists

Prostitute agency

– Centers on the woman making an independent choice for working in sex trade

– Prostitute as a “willing sex worker”

– Undermines the anti-prostitution logic of prostitutes as “lost” or “dishonored” women

– A shift from sex work as criminal / deviant to sex worker’s independence and right

– Understanding the sex worker as an individual or a social agent with a voice who chooses to

perform a profession, despite the limitations of this choice

– What happens when women are forced into it?

o This is clearly a grey area between coercion and free choice

o Are there circumstances that force us to make choices (e.g. poverty, desertion)

o What about people being forced into child labor

o If coercion is problematized as it undermines people’s rights, then what do we make of

women who choose sex work. Is it not their human right?

o M. Baldwin: “If no means no, yes should mean yes under whatever conditions a woman



– It is difficult to debate on the force/volition binary

– Rather than determining why women do sex work, it is better to focus on “prostitute activism”

– i.e. sex workers’ collective rights to independence (financial, physical) as group members

– it is a better to focus on what they want rather than why they do it

o Calcutta: formation of cooperative ventures by Sex Workers’ collectives

 It has helped them get tenancy rights, legal protection against harassment, gain

privacy for their children (admission to school without having to declare

paternal identification), safe sex,

Prostitute sex and love

– Prostitution is seen as a service provided to satisfy male sexual needs

o This is a “contratarian” argument: sex is a need just like food and fresh air

o It is seen as “natural” to safeguard marriages / monogamous relationships

– Anti-prostitute activists see it as male violence against women

– Liberal feminists: shift the emphasis from male to female sexuality

o Doing commercial sex gives women greater control of their bodies / sexuality than those

in non-commercial sex

 Margo St. James: “Prostitute’s disempowerment in public life and the power she

wields in private, that is in sexual transactions”

o Sex work is an “indifferent sexual service” based only on commercial transaction

o They dominate the exchange by choosing who to provide this service and who to deny

o They can negotiate their terms of sexual transaction

o They disconnect emotions from the physical sex act

o Prostitutes’ understanding of their experience as sex workers varies:

 Some see themselves as “free, fully expressive, in charge”

 They experience pleasure where they are the clients serviced by men

 And they get paid for this pleasure

 Other view themselves as “degraded, used, and manipulated”

o They consider women performing sex in non-commercial relationships too as


o Prostitution’s moral disapproval is to do with non-reproductive sex


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