Prostitution as a Feminist Issue: Argumentative Essay

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Table of contents

  1. Why is prostitution a feminist issue, and what should feminists say about it?
  2. Conclusion
  3. References

Why is prostitution a feminist issue, and what should feminists say about it?

Prostitution is often referred to as the world’s oldest profession (Dylewski and Prokop, 2018). A long debate stands regarding prostitution amongst feminists and sex work in general. In order to fully understand the issue of prostitution and what feminists should say about it, it is important to understand what we define as prostitution. Prostitution is the act or practice of engaging in promiscuous sexual intercourse, especially for money (Miriam-webster, n.d). The market of prostitution is an issue for feminists as such markets are harmful to women - both as individuals and as a group (Shrage, 2016). The trade-in sex has predominantly involved women being providers and men as consumers. As a result, several feminists argue that the selling of sex harms women due to the stigma related to the work therefore we should challenge the double standards of sexual morality and negative attitudes we have towards sex as a society. It is important to recognize that various feminists’ will view the issue of prostitution differently. I believe as do liberal feminists that we should decriminalize prostitution. Prostitution is a choice that women can make whether or not to engage in similar to other forms of employment. This essay will identify why prostitution is a feminist issue and use different feminist ideologies to address what feminists should say about prostitution. To address the second part of the question, this essay will examine radical, Marxist and liberal feminist perspectives.

Firstly we begin to address why prostitution is a feminist problem some scholars claim the problems with prostitution stem from the nature of the work and its transactional ability. Several women are forced into prostitution by traffickers and pimps or other disadvantaged situations (Kessler, 2005). Some feminists argue that prostitution is problematic due to the inherent nature of sex work, whilst others allege that it stems from contingent features of the social environment in which it is performed (Shrage, 2016). This is highly probable as we live in highly patriarchal societies where women have been exploited in various capacities. Shrage (1989), argues that the sex industry is defined by attitudes and values that are oppressive to women. Due to the existence of patriarchy, prostitution manifests itself in four different ways: subordination, sexual appetite, sexual contact, and our social practices.

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Sexual appetite; Freud uses the term ‘libido’ to refer to the natural instinct and desire for sex. Ericsson (1980) contends that the human sexual appetite is as natural and similar to our craving for food. He argues that by looking at sexuality in the same naturalness as food we realize that it can be obtained in multiple ways if not bought. This natural craving or sexual appetite explains the non-economic demand for prostitution. However, considering the Dani people of New Guinea who observe a 5-year period of sexual abstinence without any problem, this craving Ericsson asserts is merely a cultural phenomenon not biological. Subordination or male domination; is equally prevalent within our society. Prostitution mainly -but not exclusively- caters to the male clientele. Women are the providers of the service and men receivers. This division of labor involving women catering to the needs of men is present in other domains as well.

Sexual contact pollutes women; women are valued more for their lack of experience or purity and innocence in regard to sex. This manifests itself linguistically as sexual interaction with a man involves the description of women being ‘fucked’ ‘banged’ and ‘screwed’. Ann Garry attests that within our culture sex is related to harm done by men onto women, thus treating a woman as a sexual object already portrays her as lesser than fully human. The terminology used to discuss sexual interactions impacts how we identify women therefore, terms such as ‘screwing’ present the prostitutes as mere animals or instruments of satisfaction (Shrage, 1989). The last norm states that our social practices make us who we are; our sexuality is an organizing category. A person that engages in relations with someone of the same gender is homophobic or a woman who engages in sexual activity with multiple partners is either loose or slut. These cultural classifications and our tolerance of them structure the meaning of prostitution within our communities. Shrage, therefore, argues that our tolerance for prostitution and participation in an industry that exploits women; the prostitute's actions and those who participate in it imply they accept the values and beliefs that marginalize women. Ultimately these four are reproduced through prostitution which are the embodiment of patriarchy which explains why prostitution is a feminist issue.

Socially constructed notions of gender and sexuality influence feminists' views towards sex work and prostitution. Lorber (1994), considers the social construction of gender and the masculinity and femininity dichotomy. Various aspects of society such as family, media, and school reinforce gendered notions which support the organization of society. Through this system, male/masculinity is viewed at higher than female/femininity, with the former as dominant and latter as submissive. With this understanding in sexuality, gender places male sexuality as a ‘dominator’ to the female ‘submissive’ (Kessler, 2005). Therefore prostitution is not only problematic due to its patriarchal nature but also its reinforcement of gendered identities. Barry (1995), adds that under patriarchy women are undifferentiated among and from each other; as a result, they are seen as different to men and therefore lesser to men. Mens assertion of dominance includes control of women's bodies and sexuality. As Kessler (2005, p.6) mentions “men assert dominance over women in a hierarchical fashion, which includes control of women's bodies and sexuality. Women, within the gendered organization of sex work and prostitution, are situated as passive under the reign of dominant masculinity. A patriarchal notion of men's unlimited access to female bodies and female sexuality places the sex worker and prostitute in a subordinate position.” Therefore, men purchasing of females is an assertion of their dominance supported by a patriarchal system. Similarly, Satz (1995) argues that “If prostitution is wrong it is because of its effects on how men perceive women and on how women perceive themselves. In our society, prostitution represents women as the sexual servants of men” (Satz, 1995, p.78).

Cultural relativism is a crucial role when addressing prostitution. In the western world specifically, prostitution is thrives in a society that is oppressive to women in nature and flourishes on the ‘general acceptance of principles that marginalize women socially and politically (Shrage, 1989). Therefore prostitution may not be viewed negatively in every society, however, in this context it is. Shrage asserts that prostitution should be determined through our ‘social reality’ not ‘objective reality; meaning, we analyze the effects of prostitution as they are portrayed within our society and how it perpetuates damaging stereotypes that our society believes in and supports (O’Brien, 2015). In this context, prostitution is an issue as it perpetuates the patriarchal beliefs and values that marginalize women which is damaging to all women (Shrage, 1989). Shrage (1989) adds that the problem with prostitution is it is a perfect example that epitomizes other cultural assumptions that legitimate women's subordination.

This first section has identified some of the reasons why prostitution is a feminist problem. Charges four norms of prostitution that embody patriarchy and the gendered nature of prostitution. Female prostitution oppresses women not only because of the impact on those involved but its practice perpetuates the socially hegemonic beliefs which oppress all women in all domains of their lives.

This next section will address what feminists say about prostitution. Radical feminists attest that prostitutes are victims of patriarchy whilst Marxists argue they are victims of capitalism (Kessler, 2005). These two schools of thought portray the power structures that support prostitution, however, I think they provide a one-sided view on prostitution. I believe victimizing prostitutes presents them as passive actors. These theories only include the prostitutes whose claims support either a patriarchal or capitalist cause. I do not disagree completely with the radical and marxists views however I believe there is more to consider.

Radical feminists support the eradication of prostitution as they claim it is a form of oppression against women that stems from the inevitable oppression of women in a patriarchal society (Kessler, 2005). According to radical feminists, patriarchy is the main source of women’s oppression with men as the dominant self and women the submissive other. Due to the unequal status of women in society, radical feminists argue prostitutes are victims of exploitation and abuse; prostitution ought to be abolished (Dworkin, 1987). MacKinnon (1992) a radical feminist alleges that prostitution is a form of gendered violence against women. Women are vulnerable to violence in a patriarchal system and this vulnerability makes women potential victims. Consequently, radical feminists advocate for the eradication of prostitution. As much as I agree with the vulnerability that women face through prostitution, I disagree with its eradication which is where my views differ from radical feminists.

The labeling of women as victims is damaging as it creates this idea of helplessness and presents the prostitutes as passive actors. Not all experiences of prostitution are violent or negative because the reason women engage in prostitution varies. Sunny Carter (1994) for example had a very promising experience with prostitution. After her son's diagnosis of cystic fibrosis, her annual salary was not sufficient to cover the costs to keep her son alive for as long as possible. As a hooker, Carter found it was a useful job that supported her and her son. Therefore we can’t make generalize that all prostitutes have had negative experiences and are victims of prostitution; prostitution is not a homogenous entity. Although critics will argue that her engagement perpetuates patriarchal norms. Despite Carter's engagement being a choice that several women make to be prostitutes radical feminists dismiss these notions proclaiming them as a reflection of internalized sexism and male privilege (Beran, 2012).

Marxist feminists reinforce the role of capitalism in prostitution. Marxist feminists argue that ‘prostitution is the manifestation of the unequal class position of women vis-A-vis men’ (Shrage, 1989, p.354). Marxist theory also supports the notion that the bodies of prostitutes are commodities because their bodies are for sale. In a society of class structures, there will be a ruling class and a laboring class. The ruling class is therefore in a position to exploit the laboring class; additionally, those in the laboring class are often at the bottom of the social order who exchange their labor for a wage (Robinson, 2007). Similar to wage laborers prostitute is dehumanized and their value is measured by their market price and given to the ruling class. additionally, like wage laborers, they are compelled to work by economic pressure (Jaggar, 1994). This theory is applicable to prostitution in that a prostitute's labor is sex work and her body becomes a commodity. The ruling class in this instant could be considered the patriarchy that benefits or profits in the expense of the laborer who is the prostitute. Robinson (2007) mentions that although Marxists feminists account for issues of class, they equate the socio-economic position of the prostitute to that of the waged laborers which bypasses gender issues. In addition, wage labourers are exploited by the ruling class, prostitute are exploited by both the ruling class and the men within the society. This is due to the presence of male prostitutes. Therefore, under Marxists feminists understand all work in a capitalist society is exploitative hence categorizing sex workers with other wage earners. In addition, Friedrich Engels a supporter of Marxist theory, opposed prostitution and viewed it as a practice that dehumanized the women who sold themselves and the men who hired them. Therefore according to Marxist feminists the abolition of prostitution is vital part of ending capitalism.

Financial desperation leads to women being in extreme circumstances such as engaging in prostitution. However, as Karl Marx asserts all wage labor is a form of prostitution in a capitalist society; prostitution is a form of capital exchange that brings dependence. Within prostitution, there is a lot of dependence which brings about subordination.

The Marxist feminist theory differs from the radical feminist theory as it places the prostitutes to being exploited by capitalism rather than being exploited by male dominance and violence (Kessler, 2005). Although Marxist and radical feminist theories are valid explanations of the presence of prostitution, i contend that they are both incomplete in explaining the individual experience of the women involved. Marxist believe it is necessary to abolish prostitution, however, legal prohibition is not the appropriate way. ‘Since all form of prostitution result from an inequality of wealth, such inequality must be eliminated’ (Jaggar, 1994). Therefore, according to Marxist feminist we ought to abandon capitalism since capitalism provides men with power to control the means of production which forces women to sell their bodies.

Some feminists argue prostitution is merely a job like any other, and the prostitute is a wage laborer like any other. However, Carole Pateman (1994), argues that sex work undertaken by prostitutes is different from other jobs as it portrays the inferior social and political status of women. Moreover, prostitution cannot be compared to other forms of waged labor because people's bodies and sexual capacities are an integral part of their identity (Pateman, 1999). The woman working as a prostitute sells her womanhood and therefore sell herself. Pateman (1983) argues that the prostitute does not only sell her labour power but her body itself. Marxist tend to view the labour by sex workers as two separate entities the body and the labour however it cannot be separated from the person. Additionally, capitalist view focuses entirely on the labour from the wage worker however the client is interested in the labour and the body of the worker (Schwarzenbach, 2006). therefore, I agree with Pateman in that prostitution is fundamentally different from wage labour because ‘it violates the intimate relationship between personality and physical embodiment’ (Pateman, 1983).

Lastly, liberal feminists also have a different say regarding prostitution. Liberal feminists argue that prostitution should be decriminalized however, not all liberal feminists agree on the moral status of prostitution. Liberal feminists view prostitution to be a degrading work to women and should not be encouraged but insist on its decriminalization. I do agree that we cannot dictate what is right or wrong onto other people; if someone wants to engage in prostitution that is merely their choice to do so. However, there are certain social implications that arise with its engagement and we should therefore work towards eliminating these negative stigmas and decriminalizing the practice to make it safe for those who wish to engage in it. Other liberal feminists argue there is nothing wrong with prostitution. Some prostitutes may find it liberating and even an entrepreneurial venture. Liberal feminists argue that cultural, political,legal policies and beliefs cause inequality between men and women; therefore, we should advocate for the ability of women to maintain equality and choice in what they want to do. Through decriminalization, the prostitutes will be protected against any vulnerabilities and regulations to prevent any problems of exploitation. Radical feminists challenge this assumption of choice that liberal feminists present. Radical feminist disagree by adding that women are coerced into becoming prostitutes rather than freely choosing it (O’Brien, 2015). Similarly MacKinnon (1991) claims that if prostitution is in fact free as liberal feminists state, then why is one group -the women- who have to make this free choice. Society has made it that women are the sellers and men are the buyers. MacKinnon adds that exploitation stems from dependency between men and women will lead to exploitation; engaging in a contract between two parties will ultimately lead to exploitation. Despite the contract seeming equal, as a result of the dependence that exists between men and women it will lead to exploitation.

Liberal feminists argue prostitution ‘should be treated as an ordinary business transaction, the sale of a service (Jaggar, 1994). I agree with this view, that prostitution can be like any other contract where both parties enter for their own benefit. Through decriminalization, the power will be in the hands of the prostitutes which would eliminate any middle men or pimps that exploit the women. However as Jaggar (1994) mentions one of the problems with the liberal viewpoint is that it assumes that prostitutes enter sex work voluntarily. This may be the case for some but is not for all. In some contexts the economic considerations that motivate an individual to engage in prostitution may be involve some form of coercion. Therefore the contract the prostitutes may sign to would be invalid. In addition despite a person signing onto a contract to sell their sexual service, some scholars argue prostitution cannot be viewed on the same standard as every other service provided on the market. Davidson (2002) argues that one’s sex cannot be commodified because it is inseparable from who they are as a person. When a person sells sex, that person sells their body and themselves.’

Other than decriminalization, other feminists argue for the complete abolition of the practice. The assumption here is that the laborers enter the market out of desperation especially due to poverty. Therefore their participation allows the fortunate to exploit the less fortunate (Shrage, 2016). These feminists argue that sex work is a manifestation of deep social inequalities and injustices within society. Therefore, perhaps sex work is not merely a choice for some but a means to an end for some women tainted by extreme economic coercion. Some scholars say that it is those desperate for money who get into sex work therefore it is not a choice. However, in this regard, all work is therefore not a choice. Being economically coerced into prostitution does not make the practice wrong in my opinion; it is the social presumption that sex work is degrading that makes economic coercion into prostitution wrong. Ericsson (1980) asserts that “a prostitute's limited financial options are not a consequence of the systemic subordination of women by men, but rather the oppressive force of social conditions that offer some individuals no better financial alternative than becoming a prostitute”.

Lars Ericsson (1980), presents ‘sound prostitution’ in which he argues that we ought to view sex to be similar to the need for food and fresh air. Once we acknowledge this then we will no longer oppose commercial sex. He adds that a person's right to sell their sexual services is a right similar to them selling their labor power. Through sound prostitution the prostitute must have legal protection from exploitation from pimps and abusive customers; it must be free of child and teen prostitution; it must be freely chosen by the sex worker; it must be equally available to both sexes; and finally it must be practiced within an environment free from emotional prejudice and stigma (Schwarzenbach, 2006). Ericsson (1980) adds that to improve prostitution we must improve our attitudes toward it. According to Pateman (1983), the main argument against liberal prostitution is that prostitution remains to be morally undesirable regardless of what reforms are made. Pateman argues that Ericsson's sound prostitution fails to acknowledge the patriarchal dimension of society or otherwise what Pateman calls the ‘law of male-sex right’ (Pateman, 1983). The male-sex right being the traditional right possessed by men which guarantees them access to and power over women's bodies (Schwarzenbach, 2006).

Finally as mentioned before prostitution presents itself as a ‘social reality as Shrage (1989) mentioned. Since this social reality is not fixed it allows for positive change towards the matter, therefore following in line with Ericsson's notion of sound prostitution I believe we can achieve a more positive outlook on prostitution. In addition, I believe the next steps require the recognition of prostitution as a legitimate form of work, this would allow for appropriate legislation and health and safety measures to protect the workers. As mentioned by Satz (1995), the negative image from prostitution affects and influences women as a whole. Through the reformation of the industry then perhaps the impact on society would be different. Most criticism of liberal feminists is that they tend to ignore the role of patriarchy within prostitution.

Before sex work can be decriminalized, it must be recognized as work. Without labor rights, sex workers experience a lack of control over their employment and are vulnerable to power structures that subjugate their worth not only as workers but as persons.

However, the problem with liberal viewpoint is it only looks at prostitution as an occupational problem and fails to fully address the moral implications it carries when addresses. But i would argue that at the end of the day prostitution is still a job like no other and as Shrage argued that the social objection is what would drive the negative view we have of prostitution. We should aim to address our social morals and change the negative view we have of prostitution


In conclusion, It is important to note that prostitution as we know it is not a global phenomenon that is rendered undesirable and socially deviant. I have considered the meaning of commercial sex as we know it in modern western cultures. The arguments presented in this essay address prostitution from predominantly western culture.

we see that what feminists say about prostitution is highly dependent on the type of feminists they are. They all agree to the problematic nature of the issue through varying degrees and perspectives and what they say is equally varying. Radical feminists view it to be an issue that perpetuates negative social norms which by engaging in prostitution is damaging to both the women participating and all women in society. To radical feminists there is no choice involved the prostitutes are victims of a patriarchal society. According to Marxist feminists, they say that prostitution is a capitalist problem. All labour is a form of prostitution in a capitalist society; prostitution is a capital exchange that brings about dependence that leads to subordination. Additionally financial desperation leads to women being in extreme circumstances. Lastly, liberal feminists have an equally different say on prostitution. Following a legal perspective, liberal feminism believe that we should view prostitution naturally hence we should have unregulated sex. Women should be empowered to make a choice if they wish to engage in prostitution. We need to work towards legalizing and or regulating prostitution in order to guarantee the safety of those who participate. Decriminalization of prostitution in hopes to achieve ‘sound prostitution’ lead to the reformation of prostitution to achieve safer environments for women. These are only some of the views feminists would have about prostitution and is not limited to those presented in this essay. I strongly agree with the views of liberal feminists in the regulation and decriminalization of prostitution. However

I have considered the meaning of commercial sex in modern Western cultures. Although my arguments are consistent with the decriminalization of prostitution, I conclude from my investigation that feminists have legitimate reasons to politically oppose prostitution in our society. Since the principles which implicitly sustain and organize the sex industry are ones that underlie pernicious gender asymmetries in many domains of our social life, to tolerate a practice that epitomizes these principles is oppressive to women


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