Who is the real enemy in the prostitution debate? A response to one argument against abolition

Earlier this month, rabble.ca published a response from a sex worker named Sarah M. to, not only the abolitionist argument as a whole, but to me in particular. Having written several blog posts, cross-posted to rabble.ca (as F Word blog posts are) on the topic of prostitution which address and challenge arguments for decriminalization and/or legalization, building on or using abolitionist and radical feminist arguments as foundation, the site, with good reason, felt it fair to solicit a response from a sex worker, as many of their regular readers suggested they do.

I do question the recent efforts by some to focus this debate on individuals and on personal attacks. In essence, I am not convinced that this conversation should be specific to me / my work… While I do feel it is more productive to build an argument based on ideas, key issues, law, and of course, the broad spectrum of ways in which the sex industry impacts women, rather than to divert the argument into one focused on individuals, I also feel it necessary to respond to this piece in particular as the author has addressed my writing and arguments specifically.

I should, at this point, make it it very clear that all of my arguments and writing are inspired by the work of other women – radical feminists, exited women, Aboriginal women, and those who work on the front line day after day. The ideas I relay here are not solely my own, but rather they build on the breath of knowledge and theory and activism done, for decades, by my sisters in the struggle. With regard to my response to the piece published by rabble, which I was initially unsure would be useful or necessary, I believe there are enough points made which are either debatable, fallacious, or deserve to be expanded upon, to warrant a response. As such, I am unable to avoid addressing the author specifically, though I will do my best to avoid individualizing the debate to the extent to which the argument becomes lost in personal attacks, assumptions, or critiques.

I do not believe that, for the purposes of discussing this particular issue, it is useful or ethical to attack a progressive news site for publishing writing that some readers do not agree with. I support dissenting views and thoughtful critique, but not efforts to remove certain people or certain ideas from the debate. This is both a complex and difficult issue which has grown to dominate much of feminist discourse and, of course, has a very direct and dangerous impact on the actual, individual lives of women everywhere. Again, I believe this conversation can be had without personalizing the debate and without making assumptions about the interests and backgrounds of those involved in the debate. I am not particularly interested in engaging in arguments about who is more or less oppressed and which women do or do not have the right to speak.

Prostitution is a feminist issue. Prostitution is a women’s issue. Period.

I have never argued that, as the author claims, “anyone who disagrees with [me] must just need to experience more abuse ” nor have I depicted ” survivors as damaged goods, draw[n] caricatures of [their] modes of resistance, or refuse[d] [them] the dignity of defining [their] own experiences of sexual assault.” To argue such things is an abhorrent misrepresentation and is absolutely unproductive, as well as verging on slanderous.

While this particular response was, many ways, much more thoughtful and intelligible than many other attacks or criticisms that have been made on me, my writing, my arguments, and on abolitionists as a whole, the author nonetheless appears to, in places, misrepresent my position and the position of many abolitionists and radical feminists. Very often, within this debate, there are concerted attempts to remove feminists from the left and to paint abolitionists as somehow engaged in oppressive or right-wing tactics in order to further our cause as well as to accuse feminists of actually being the perpetrators of violence themselves. This could not be further from the truth.

Assuming that there have been points made in my writing which require clarification around my and many other feminists’ positions on prostitution, I am happy to clarify and to address some points made by this particular author.

While yes, this is a divide that has existed for decades (though not “always,” as the author claims – rather I would argue that this debate stemmed from the “sex wars” of the 1980s), it has been reinvigorated by Bedford v. Canada, a case which could lead to the decriminalization of not only prostituted* women (which abolitionists advocate for), but also of pimps and johns (to which abolitionists are opposed).

What is new, from my perspective, is a growing desire and solidarity among feminists and among progressive men to end a practice that reinforces, perpetuates, and normalizes female subordination.

Who is the “Sex Work Lobby”?

The first point made by the author addresses my use of the term “sex work lobby,” which the author argues “doesn’t exist” as “sex workers don’t have the government’s ear,” nor, according to her, do they have any collective power. The “sex work lobby,” it should be stated, is not limited to sex workers. The “sex work lobby” includes many people who hold considerable power in our society; such as pimps, johns, and pornographers. These groups also include many women who are not engaged in sex work. Many of those who aim to legitimize and legalize sex work are clients of sex workers as well as those who profit financially from the industry (i.e. pimps). The “sex work lobby” does not refer to specifically to marginalized women, though it does, obviously, include some women who engage in sex work,* and therefore does include the voices of some women who have been marginalized in our society in one way or another (in that some of those who are involved in these lobby groups are members of marginalized groups, such as women, racialized women, and poor women).

Though there are some women and sex workers who are involved in the sex work lobby, it isn’t accurate to describe this work as the work of a marginalized or silenced population. The sex work lobby does not include the voices of exited women nor does it tend to include the voices of survival sex workers and it’s leaders are women and men who have relatively loud and prominent voices in the media. A reference to the “sex work lobby” does not equal a reference to prostituted women as, again, many of these lobbyists are not prostituted women. This isn’t to say that these people do not have a right to engage in debate around this issue, but that to frame these advocacy groups as somehow more deserving of voice than other women’s or feminist groups is erroneous.

As for having “the government’s ear,” in Vancouver at least, many of these lobbyists do indeed have the ears of our local politicians which has and does have an impact on discourse and decisions made at the municipal level.

All that said, a lobby group refers to a group who advocates for or works to influence legislation or government decisions. Seeing as decriminalization/legalization advocates are working to change the law and that the groups who are engaging in this type of advocacy generally describe themselves as either sex work/worker advocacy groups and/or decriminalization advocacy groups, I think that the descriptor of “sex work lobby” is applicable.

The Sex Worker as “Transgressive”

An argument commonly made by women who discovered feminism within the third wave or through post-modernism is that sex work is somehow “transgressive” – that somehow, sex work defies norms and challenges dominant ideology or cultural expectations of women. To frame sex work as “transgressive” presents the act of commodifying one’s sexuality as a radical act. But what is radical about the selling of sex? Isn’t “sex sells” one of the most commonly used defenses for sexist imagery and depictions of women of our time? Isn’t the objectification of the female body the easiest way for men, for advertisers, for corporations, and of course, for mainstream media to profit? Isn’t the simplest way to gain male approval to sexualize our bodies and to appear as though our very being exists for their pleasure and consumption? Haven’t men long used female bodies to profit or to sell products? Capitalist patriarchy is not radical.

Sex work may well be necessary for many, many women. Many women must resort to prostitution in order to survive. There should be no judgement in this circumstance. We live in a world that doesn’t always leave us with many options. Survival is a priority.

Sex work may even be a choice of sorts for some women. If you have a certain level of privilege, there is a great deal of money to be made in the industry. There may even be aspects of this work that some women enjoy on a certain level. But money does not equal freedom and an individual’s ability to profit from a misogynist industry does not equal collective empowerment. In truth, prostitution is a “choice” largely determined by class / poverty.

As such, sex work is not transgressive. It is something that exists because we live within a system that thrives on inequity. Put women in a world where many cannot survive comfortably, where men, at large, hold more social, political, and economic power, where they are taught from day one that the most important thing about them is their sexuality and their ability to attract male attention, and where male pleasure is prioritized over female pleasure and well-being and see what happens.

The Location of the Debate

I agree that the location of this debate should not necessarily be between feminists, meaning that I don’t see how pitting feminists against one another could possibly be productive for the movement.

What has always been clear to abolitionists and to radical feminists is that this is a fight between feminists and the patriarchy.

Prostitution is not something that exists because of women’s power. It exists as the result of a lack of power and a lack of choice. I am as disappointed as the next woman that this debate has caused many of those who identify as feminists to call abolitionists their “enemies” (as well as a host of other, much less pleasant names). I am disappointed that this debate continues not be to centered around the perpetrators of violence – that is, the men. I am disappointed that we continue to blame feminists rather than an exploitative, violent, misogynist system that allows women suffer and die without a second thought.

Yet those who advocate for the decriminalization and legalization of prostitution often claim that it is not men who are their enemies, but rather it is feminists.

I am in complete agreement that we need to re-focus. Abolitionists have done just that; turning the lens onto those who are doing the exploiting and onto those who are profiting from women’s lack of power and lack of real choice. In the end, we are primarily concerned with stopping those who are doing the violence, that is, the men, as well as changing the system within which this kind of exploitation is allowed and encouraged.

Neoliberalism as the Enemy of Feminism

The author points out that which we are all (sadly) aware: “[if] the enemy is neoliberalism, then feminists are losing spectacularly.”

As Rahila Gupta wrote, back in January: “neoliberal values created a space for a bright, brassy and ultimately fake feminism,” going on to say that “if the culture of neoliberalism had something to offer women, it was the idea of agency, of choice freely exercised, free even of patriarchal restraints.”

What neoliberal ideology (that is, the work to privatize everything under the guise of providing more choice and freedom for individuals) has done for feminism is to provide a basis for a kind of individual empowerment which rests on a supposed “freedom” to choose. What the individual woman chooses is, of course, not relevant. That she is making a choice to get breast implants, to get onto a stripper pole, or to, yes, sell sex, is enough to frame this choice as potentially empowering. Gupta elaborates on this idea by referencing a concept discussed by Clare Chambers, called: “the fetishism of choice,” arguing that “if women choose things that disadvantage them and entrench differences, it legitimates inequality because the inequality arises from the choices they make.” Making a choice does not, in and of itself, empower anyone. Particularly when it is made within the constructs of an oppressive framework.

Within the context of neoliberalism, “choice” can work against us. We have convinced ourselves that by choosing to emulate that which has been sketched out for us by oppressive systems of power such as capitalism and patriarchy, we are actually empowered. Inequality, within this context, is overcome by choosing to frame said inequality as empowerment.

While it could be argued, as the originally referenced article does, that “the abstractions of neoliberalism” are less important than it’s practices, I would argue that the two go hand in hand. Attempts at privatization, the destruction of social safety nets, the work to dismantle unions and to defund essential women’s organizations happens because of people. People who believe that the world must function in a certain way and cannot or will not imagine another way. The poor will not rise above the rich by simply making do within the system designed to destroy them and women will not become empowered by pretending their oppression is liberating. “The abstractions” lead to policy, to legislation, and to decisions that affect the real lives of individuals and society as a whole.

What many abolitionists and the left have in common is the desire to change the system so that people have real choices and can live with dignity. This entails affordable housing, health care, education, social safety nets and, of course, a state that does not perpetuate and condone violence against women. To argue that feminists do not believe in and fight for these things is, to put it quite simply, dishonest.

I won’t be erased from the left by those who wish to vilify and make enemies of the feminist movement. The feminist movement nothing if not a progressive movement for collective empowerment.

Ending Prostitution is a Progressive Goal

While many of those who advocate for a model of decriminalization which decriminalizes not only the prostituted, but also the pimps and the johns, appear to enjoy arguing that abolitionists simply want to magically end prostitution in an instant, leaving those who engage in sex work without a means of survival, the argument is much more complex than this.

The argument is for more options and for something better. The desire is for women to be able to survive without having to resort to sex work. The desire is for real choice. That is, as Sarah suggests, “housing, income, physical safety, access to education,” as well as for exiting programs. Prostitution will not instantly disappear with the implementation of the Nordic Model. It will hold men accountable for their actions and will enable us to work towards a more equitable society in the long term.

From the perspective of feminists, pimps and johns do not desire freedom for women. They don’t want women to have alternatives to prostitution because then their orgasms would be a lot harder to come by. It would be pretty inconvenient for men who buy sex from women if those women could actually choose not to give a man a blow job so that she could buy groceries. I have a really hard time believing those men are pro-equality and I have a really hard time believing those men have women’s and society’s best interests in mind. Actually I’m pretty sure it’s their own immediate pleasure they have in mind.

Those men are never going to freely give up their power and donate liberty to women. It isn’t in their best interest. We’re just going to have to take it from them. Which is what the abolitionist argument really boils down to.

No, men don’t have the right to access women’s bodies simply because they have the means; no, they don’t have the right to abuse or rape or murder women. No. Those men must be held accountable. Presenting prostitution as something that men have the right to expect and benefit from will not make men responsible for their sexist behaviour. Instead it legitimizes it.

The Real Enemy

I don’t care how many times radical feminists are accused of being the enemy, are accused of being “in bed with the right” or are accused of imposing on individual freedom. We are women who have witnessed and experienced violence and abuse first-hand and continue to. We are women who believe in a better world and who don’t wish to settle. We are progressive women. We won’t be pushed out of the left so that men can buy sex more easily.

Feminists do not consider themselves to be enemies to anyone but the patriarchy. They want women to be safe and not to be criminalized for having to engage in less-than-ideal work in order to survive. That is to say we also advocate for the decriminalization of prostituted women. But that does not mean we must compromise our goals. That does not mean we shift our focus.

Sarah argues that “if ‘real’ feminists recognized sex worker advocates as feminists, even if we still disagreed about decriminalization, we would be a stronger movement.” And I would add that, to paint feminists as the enemies of women is to provide men with a huge gift. Because they agree. Men who buy sex hate feminists too.

So I’m not going to side with them and I’m not going to do them any favours. We aren’t going to forget who our real enemies are. Women are not our enemies and sex workers are not our enemies. There is no doubt in that. What remains uncertain is why so many continue to avert their eyes when we point to that truth and why the focus is continually shifted back to paint feminists as oppressors. All feminists want to end violence against women. We will not achieve this without forcing the state and forcing men to be accountable to women.

 *Within this article I use the terms “prostituted women” and “sex work/er” interchangeably. The term “prostitution” or “prostituted woman” is used out of respect for the exited women, Aboriginal women, and my feminist allies who use this language in order to draw attention to the exploitation, violence, and unequal power relations that are intrinsic to prostitution. I use the term “sex work” or “sex worker” at times with respect to this debate and in order to advance rather than halt the conversation. Some women, including the author of the article I respond to in this piece, who advocate for decriminalization or legalization prefer the term “sex worker” as it removes the implication that all prostituted women are victims.
Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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  • ned

    There are sex workers out there who are explicitly anti-feminist and pro- gender essentialism, e.g. Maggie McNeill. I can at least respect them for their consistency.

    Interestingly, I watched some documentaries on male prostitutes recently. One of the things they said was that some of their female clients will request them to simulate rape, which pretty much made nonsense of the notion that men joining sex work or pornography in some way weakens the feminist case against the sex industry (newsflash: sexual politics remains firmly in place even in that instance).

    As usual however I still think radical feminism by itself cannot frame an airtight ethical argument against sex work without bringing discussions of sexual morality into the mix and making a critique of sexual liberation and its connections with predatory/egotistical individualistic values more generally. Even though radical feminists did always critique the sexual revolution in the past, folks on the left seem really reluctant to critique it today, which is a pity as there’s lots to be said there.

    • Joy

      Indeed — people seem to be revising history (or, semantically, herstory) as they go.

      Today people seem to believe that before the sexual revolution, there were only a bunch of uptight prudes who only ever had heterosexual penetrative sex, in the dark in the missionary position for the purpose of getting the woman pregnant only.

      In reality, feminists as early as the 1850s had managed to create a women’s liberation movement that, by the turn of the twentieth century, had inspired a backlash similar to the one we’ve seen developing since the late 1970s/early 1980s. Today’s “funfeminism” is very, very similar to the backlash against women’s liberation that had blossomed by the 1920s — lots of women leading lives of availability to men, with lots of ‘sex-positive’ lingo being tossed around.

      Meanwhile, women all along have been having sexual and intimate relationships that didn’t involve penetration, and often didn’t even involve men. Yes, many early feminists (and many women who didn’t even think of or call themselves feminists) were lesbians. Many women all along have been having orgasms, with or without men. (Many seemed to manage without.) The “sexual revolution” of the 1960s was in many ways a huge backwards step for womenkind.

      For a thorough summary, see Sheila Jeffreys’ book The Spinster and Her Enemies. (Even if you think you do not like Sheila Jeffreys.)

      This definitely relates to the idea of ‘prostitution/sex work as transgression.’ Real transgression (eg, women doing things for themselves without the ‘help’ of men) has been snuffed out at every turn, *not* allowed to flourish as prostitution does under patriarchy.

      • Meghan Murphy

        Indeed, Joy. Thanks for your comments and for providing this background. You are so right about the sexual revolution of the 70s being completely unrevolutionary.

    • Komal

      “As usual however I still think radical feminism by itself cannot frame an airtight ethical argument against sex work without bringing discussions of sexual morality into the mix and making a critique of sexual liberation and its connections with predatory/egotistical individualistic values more generally.”

      I could not agree more.

      This was a great article, thanks for writing it. Prostitution harms all women because it reinforces men’s sense of entitlement to women, and their objectification of women. Criminalization is not necessarily the best option (I’m conflicted about what policies I support), but whatever the best policy is, the end result should be the abolition of prostitution.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Interesting, Ned. I’m curious – what was the doc?

    • Meghan Murphy

      My concern with “bringing sexual morality into the mix” is that it doesn’t address the class issues which are intrinsic to the discussion of prostitution. My argument is that, largely, prostitution happens because of class and poverty (as well as male power and privilege) – if we start looking it in terms of morality, where does class fit in?

      • Komal

        One can look both in terms of morality, and also in terms of class and sex. Bringing morality into the picture does not negate any of the insights gained from an analysis that includes socioeconomic class and patriarchy. It’s just that the condemnation of prostitution has can be done on two grounds: a feminist one, and a moral one. It only strengthens the abolitionist case.

  • Thank you for posting this entry. It’s as clear a rebuttal to the funfems as I’ve ever read. Will they listen? Probably not, since they are committed “all in” to the voluntaryist delusion. But it might help sow seeds of doubt. A very powerful piece of writing.

  • Hari B.

    Meghan, you have done a fantastic job of this. I love it all, but especially the parts defining neo-liberalism, and challenging sex-positivity as ‘transgressive’. Heretofore, I have not had the words to draw out my basic gut reaction against the fun-fems for their individualist emphasis, or get beyond “What, are you fucking kidding me, now we’re calling it empowerfully naughty–and therefore ultra-feminist, to embrace selling ourselves within the exact same misogynist paradigm as ever???” hehehe. Having the words will be so useful to me–and I have already quoted you elsewhere and linked to this post.

    Which, you might like hearing, resulted in one response of “This stuff should go viral! Let’s do it” by another womyn as especially pleased as I was with the points on neo-liberalism and transgressivity. We radfems, perhaps especially so in the US, are fighting a terrible tide of internalized misogyny among the ever-popular funfems.

    But the whole post was great.

    Thanks too, to ned and Joy, for your comments. Maybe more later on each…

    • Meghan Murphy

      Thanks Hari.

  • Hari B.

    By the way, Meghan–I appreciated your endnote on the use of words ‘prostitute’, ‘the prostituted’ and ‘sex worker’. On another page I recently made the same comment to a sex worker/feminist on this point–and amazingly, she acknowledged the reality of the victimization of the majority of womyn in prostitution, and her privilege as one of the few individuals doing sex-work by choice while having other options open to her.

  • Bravo! This is a truly informative and concise post (as usual) however, i am disgusted by the slanderous things that the author said about you – misrepresentation is right…

  • This is a brilliant article. Thank you.

    Regarding the above reference to Maggie McNeill:

    Maggie McNeill is an admitted madam. As a woman who was prostituted for ten years I feel very strongly that madams and pimps can’t claim they are “sex workers.” If the owner of a South African diamond mine visited his mine, no one would call him a miner.

    Pimps and madams are usually loud and vicious. They also like to intimidate survivors who speak out. And they are not advocates for the rights of the prostituted — they are using the movement to advertise for business and recruit women.

    This link is a good example of how Maggie McNeill and other madmams tried to intimidate me after I made a comment on Laura Agustin’s website.


    If you scroll down to the comments section, you’ll find this lovely comment by Maggie McNeill:

    Jill Brenneman has talked about what the prohibitionists call “reframing experiences”, i.e. lying and exaggerating to make their stories more horrible. If a number of women have been taught to “reframe” out of the same manual (so to speak), it’s not surprising they sound alike.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Thanks for your comment and for all your work Stella. You are an inspiration. It’s nice how SWOP is so upfront about their perspective on feminists in the comment left on this post you’ve linked to here; that is that we are a bunch of “feminazis.” At least they aren’t disguising their deep hatred for the feminist movement, eh?

    • Ivy

      Ugh…for some unknown reason feministe which I usually like invited her to do a guest post on Roman “sex workers” and how they were SO empowered back then!!!!
      Well the post did not go over well at all and people looked through her blog and suprise suprise! Not only does she think being a prostitute is a wonderful thing for women to do she is gender essentialist with heaping toppings of racism, rape apoligia, transphobia and fat shaming!…yeah great person

      • Ugh, is THAT who she was? I saw that post and was completely horrified! I don’t know enough about Roman culture to know how accurate her delineation was, but judging by the comments there were a lot of factual errors – though i was surprised by how many people in those comments were all on board for all this empowerfulizing horseshit. So shortsighted, it’s unbelievable.

  • Ramona

    What a great article. Thank you, Meghan. Having grown up a leftie in Toronto, I have always, always been immersed in sex worker culture. It’s quite well-represented here. In fact, it has been de rigeur for those on the left to identify with it. I even felt pressured to participate, as a teen, and (being short on cash) did actually consider it. For many years I have been unable to acknowledge or verbalize it, but I have always felt deeply at odds with the messages relayed by this culture.

    Each and every woman is affected by the (rampant) commodification of women’s bodies. I am always astounded at the lack of recognition of this among friends and acquaintances who identify themselves as progressive. The knowledge that girls will continue to be born into a culture that encourages self-objectification at every turn, it just breaks my heart.

    Choosing to view sex as a service or commodity legitimizes the idea that money is an entitlement to sex. This does not set up a healthy dynamic in society. What we have seen so far of neo-liberal capitalism makes it abundantly clear that any available resource can, and will, be hugely exploited. So, if we are going to legitimize viewing sex (read: women’s bodies) as a resource, there is no telling where it will stop. As such, I’m against the prospect of legalization and normalization of the sex trade.

    I think the Nordic model has potential. The frustrating thing is that there is no general consensus on the oppressive nature of the sex industry. There must be a public consensus that women’s bodies are not for sale. In addition, we need to keep up the focus on strengthening our social safety net for women. Decriminalizing the women in sex work is essential to immediate harm reduction. Then, the responsibility must be placed where it is due, on those who insist on renting the bodies of others (predominantly men.) I hope this article is shared far and wide, and I’m holding out hope that efforts such as this brings them some self-awareness.

    • Ramona

      Also, I just wanted to say a word about this article which I read on Rabble some weeks ago (at this URL): http://rabble.ca/columnists/2012/02/crazy-logic-asymmetrical-criminalization-aka-nordic-model-prostitution

      The misrepresentation of feminists found in this (simplistic) article would be laughable if it weren’t so alarming, here are a few things I thought after reading this:
      – Attempts to identify the concept of “sex” with that of “sex work,” and “men’s sexuality” with “buying sex,” are unfortunate. I have seen a lot of this in left-leaning media.
      – Likewise, describing sex work as “women’s sexual expression” is to deny that it is based in a system of economic inequality, and to attempt to say that it is “just sex.” It is not.
      – Feminists are not arguing that “when it comes to sex… men are intrinsically powerful and women are intrinsically powerless.” I have never seen/heard a feminist argue that women are intrinsically anything but human beings who must have equality! The system that supports sex work is based in the actual, real position of disadvantage that women have relative to men. The UN has recently confirmed to us (among other troubling details) that women own a collective 1% of the world’s property, and make up the majority of the world’s service industries. If in doubt, refer to page “ix” of this document: http://www.un.org/womenwatch/directory/statistics_and_indicators_60.htm
      – I have never, ever known feminists to “demonize men’s sexuality.” What feminists argue against is men’s cultural entitlement to access women’s bodies 24/7. In fact, to say that men have some deep-seated need to buy sex, is what is truly sexist here!!

  • DJ McCormack

    Thanks so much for this fantastic example of how to conduct debate and public discourse — which has almost entirely disappeared in modern (north) American life. I especially appreciate your insistence that feminism, especially radical feminism, is part of the left(ist) tradition in politics and it is inaccurate to put the abolitionist argument in the camp of hypocritical, anti-women religious right. On the contrary, men and women on the left who argue that prostitution is a necessary or inevitable industry that should be regulated, unionised and de-stigmatised would not make the same arguments about children’s labour in the mining industry. They would recognize the political economy of the relationship between the (eg. Canadian) mining companies and the peasant populations and natural environment that are exploited for their profits. They would not go on and on about the “personal choices” being made by Bolivian peasants who dig the ore out of the arsenic-infused earth.

  • Hari B.

    ned: “As usual however I still think radical feminism by itself cannot frame an airtight ethical argument against sex work without bringing discussions of sexual morality into the mix and making a critique of sexual liberation and its connections with predatory/egotistical individualistic values more generally.”

    I hope you’ll bear with me, because this is something I’ve thought a lot about, but have never really put to words…a ramble will ensue, perhaps somewhat inchoate.

    I kind of agree with this, ned. As a recovering Catholic who left the Church in my early teens, for a long time I pursued an essentially ‘false trangressivism’ via so-called sexual liberation and other anarchy: I became a rebel. I dismissed morality as nothing more than concepts geared to control people for the sole benefit of the patriarchy, invented solely for the reiteration of oppressive culture. That was a long time ago, with many years of experiences, witnessing others’ experiences personally and on the political scale, thinking about all of it while reading widely on psychology, sociology, anthropology, other. Now my conclusions are different where morality is concerned.

    Even now, to talk about morality seems tricky to me, because for most people, morals come pre-packaged via oppressive religious ideologies (witness the idiotic extremities of the US republican primary candidates, eesh). At some point though, I came to the conclusion that for one thing, humans seem to need morality in some form as one of the organizing factors of a large-forebrained social species with great creative and destructive capacities compared to all other species (mm..specii?). For another, morality being hijacked by religions now seems irrelevant to the necessity and benefit of morality at base: our attention to guidelines that serve our own lives, concurrently attending to life amongst us and the service of life on the whole.

    Now, my morality on one topic or another comes down to the question of “does this serve life?” That is, how does something serve the continuation of life on the whole–life for individuals along with societies as well as the rest of life. There’s some room for flexibility in individual choices, and in a society’s choices, to be sure. Yet there’s only so much room for flexibility, while still remaining within the realm of serving life for all. So, you want to be a millionaire? That relies upon the enslavement, hunger, torture and killing of too many others in the community of life; there is no way around that, given the finite nature of the material universe. You can’t be wealthy without many other people and life forms suffering and dying as both direct and indirect result of the individual’s pursuit of wealth. So, a nation wants to be optimally fed, energized, housed, tech-connected,etc? This doesn’t happen except by stealing the resources of other lands, exploiting people everywhere, toxifying land/water/air, and killing off many other species all the time. And so forth.

    Prostitution (and pornography) can be viewed through the same lens, on various levels. The pimps and johns want their right to the goods of womyn’s bodies, while the prostituted are placed continuously at risk for violence and disease, at least. Whether or not it serves the lives of the pimps/johns, it does not serve the lives of the prostituted in any way–it’s contrary to their survival. Even in the ‘best of circumstances’ of legitimizing prostituion (legal and medical benefits and so forth), prostitution’s founding upon the objectification of womyn and sex itself defines it as existing in opposition to life for various reasons. One of those is the reification of objectification itself; people encouraged to partake of object/object transactions are only encouraged to think of themselves and all transactions in an objectifying way. It can’t help but spill over into the rest of their lives and relationships (with other people as well as with nature on the whole)–thus supporting a host of other ideas and behaviors that are similarly destructive of life.

    To even arrive at legal prostitution (or illegal, for that matter), we have to start from a place of accepting what ned calls “predatory/egotistical individualistic values more generally”–which prove themselves every day to be essentially anti-life. Western culture on the whole (now dominating human societies and life everywhere) is already so firmly founded in those values that I’m almost surprised that prostitution isn’t already legal everywhere–and it’s kind of amusing (in that grim way) to see that this is probably down mainly to the work of religious zealots!

    So, ned, I agree with you on this for the most part. Maybe the only way I differ is in thinking that morality in general should be the focus of discussion, owned outright as morality founded in the service of all life. Sexual morality can’t be separated from the whole, of course, yet should indeed be specifically highlighted in any discussion of prostitution because, well duh. But I’m thinking that a real problem in discussions about prostitution up to this point is the trickiness of issue of sexual morality. Feminists tend not to mention it, keeping the focus on feminism’s general desire to end the oppression of womyn and the entitlement of men (not critiquing, only observing this). The sex-work lobby tends to rely heavily on allegations that abolitionists are wrongly trying to impose patriarchal-religion-based sexual morality upon everyone–and being ‘anti-womyn’ for failing to support individual womyn’s choices.

    Maybe it’s time for radical feminism to own morality outright, just using the word morality rather than sidestepping it, and elaborating on feminism’s essential drive to restore our collective love and promotion of life for all. For me, radical feminism *is* a moral movement, seeking to promote life itself by ending womyn’s oppression–which is certainly destructive of the lives of womyn and children. And which, as I’ve said before, is founded in patriarchy’s core of objectifying everything for purposes of domination and consumption. Patriarchy is an essentially anti-life system at it’s foundation and is harming life for all in every manifestation. Reclaiming what Mary Daly calls ‘biophilia’, maybe it is time for today’s radical feminists to reclaim and further elucidate feminist morality as a movement on behalf of life. Maybe it is time to meet the pro-prostitution cadre head-on in a debate on morality.


  • Hari B.

    ned, to make a last comment on the rest of your paragraph I quoted: “Even though radical feminists did always critique the sexual revolution in the past, folks on the left seem really reluctant to critique it today, which is a pity as there’s lots to be said there. ”

    I agree about the reluctance of the left in general to engage meaningful debate about the sexual revolution. Maybe Meghan’s thoughts/quotes on neoliberalism best explains this. Well, that and the fact that on the ‘further left’ are so many men anarchists who give NO quarter to feminism whatsoever, and continue to play out their male-entitlement in their thinking and activism. Mind-bogglingly retro!

  • Coriolan

    At a human trafficking conference last weekend I said to a woman as we ate lunch with that it was physically destructive for prostituted woman in German brothels to “service” an average 25 men per day. In response, she said I was moralizing and shouldn’t project my opinion about having to fuck 25 strange men each day onto other women who may very well like fucking 25 strange men every day.

    Soon after, another woman defended “2 Girls One Cup” by asking the audience to put aside morality and consider, “Might the women in the film have genuine fecal fetishes they were personally satisfying? Might some women want to drink their own vomit in an act of shock art? Society has no right to censor these women’s art.”

    I don’t think using the word “morality” will get feminists very far while it remains the #1 polite slur of choice by pro-punter people. The word “rights” resonates better with most people.

    • Meghan Murphy

      I agree, Coriolan. The word “morality” is too problematic and is used against feminists too often. I’m afraid I don’t see how it can be helpful….Though I do hear your points, Ned.

      • Komal

        Those examples seem to show how moral concerns and feminist ones go hand in hand. ‘2 Girls One Cup’ and a woman having to be fucked by 25 men per day are both morally wrong and misogynistic. These are not even entirely distinct points: ultimately, morality is based upon people’s flourishing, and feminism is based — to some degree anyway — upon women’s flourishing.

        The feminist who includes morality as part of her opposition to the sex industry will be unaffected by such types of liberal emotional manipulation as: ‘you don’t want to be MORALISTIC now do you??’. If someone asked me that I’d say ‘yes I do actually. I’m fine with being “moralistic”.’

        • MissFit

          It seems that in matters of sexuality, the new mantra now is that ‘everything goes’… No one would pick such a fight with you if you said, for example, that slavery is immoral. No one would really argue with you if you said that eating 25 big mac a day is questionnable and arguably wrong.

          I understand that morality, when it comes to matters of sexuality, is closely tied to religious repression. However, I think the world, in some way, crave for ‘morality’ (or whatever you want to call it)…

          • Meghan Murphy

            But what is it you are arguing is immoral? I mean, when a woman is prostituted, it isn’t about her sexuality…

          • MissFit

            The commodification of female bodies/sexuality could be argued as being immoral (that is one thing feminism fights, for many different reasons). I am just pissed that when questionning prostitution, pornography, or even the epidemy of breast implants, I get called a prude or a moralist. I would not want to reclaim the word ‘prude’ (I would not know how to justify that) but, instead of getting defensive, I would have no problem reclaiming the word ‘moralist’, as in being able to discuss the moral aspect of things. Is sexuality (or what is labelled as ‘sex’) still so taboo that everything has to end with ‘it is all a matter of personal choice, end of discussion’ without being able to actually question these choices (are they furthering one or society’s well-being, are they healthy, etc.)? Morality is concerned with social code of conduct, how one’s actions impact the common good. And I think that while ethic talks to the intellect, morality is more tied to emotions (compassion, empathy, etc.); maybe it explains why its use provoke such a powerful reaction.

            Anyway, we can call it human rights or equality (or feminist morality?) I think we all agree that the commodification of women is wrong.

          • Hari B.

            MissFit–“Morality is concerned with social code of conduct, how one’s actions impact the common good. And I think that while ethic talks to the intellect, morality is more tied to emotions (compassion, empathy, etc.); maybe it explains why its use provoke such a powerful reaction.”

            I like this very much.

          • Meghan Murphy

            Indeed. I think morality, as you point out, is often used in a negative way and implies something that it doesn’t necessarily mean, literally.

          • Hari B.

            To quote MissFit again: “morality is more tied to emotions (compassion, empathy, etc.); maybe it explains why its use provoke such a powerful reaction.”

            This is so very much to the point of the most nitty-gritty human reality that it has struck the deepest chord for me. And coincidentally, I watched the film “Doubt” the other night (about a Catholic nun accusing a priest of pedophilia). Set in the early 1960s–when I was entering Catholic school from within a strict Catholic family–made the film speak terribly loud to me. Criminy, did I ever recognize all those characters!

            Ramble again…

            Anthropology shows us that not all cultures over time were patriarchal, but the ones (all quite similar) dominant worldwide certainly are. No mystery, since patriarchy is the will to subsume everyone/everything, regardless of cost. Moralities in general are about social codes of belief and conduct, always closely tied to societies’ sense of god/the divine–very concerned with who god is and how s/he wants us to ‘be’ as well as ‘behave’. So, moralities are formed with basic human needs/drives in mind: personal identity as well as group identity, family and sexuality as primary source of survival and emotional bonds, power as personal power and power dynamics amongst members. Approval, ritual and taboo (fear) are used to embed culture’s teachings in members so people are enmeshed at all levels of being.

            What it boils down to is that to be safe and fed, worthy of affection, able to engage meaningfully within the group in terms of power/dynamics, and ‘right with god’ requires a ferociously secure attachment to culture’s edicts–or else you might die (or be alone, akin to death for members of social species). Maybe this is why morality is so emotionally loaded for us–it’s truly a matter of life and death.

            And in patriarchy, such an essentially violent/violating framework, it takes a gigantic amount of fear-inducements to gain compliance from members. A kind and amount of fear-inducements that are often traumatic psychically if not also physically. People either comply from a state of total repression (Stockholm Syndrome), or rebel, knowing that something is very wrong with living this way. Either way, we end up excruciatingly reactive to ‘morality’, our only experience with it being patriarchal morality–which is more truly a matter of life and death for us all, than were some other moralities that existed over time.

            Anyway, there it is…this has all been food for thought for me, and I hope my thinking this through here helps further the conversation in some way.

            *just want to note that ‘personal power’ includes personal will to create (“do”) from one’s innate talents, along with a sense of agency in the group–however shaped within culture. Referencing the Latin ‘poder’–to be able.

          • MissFit

            Seen on a forum discussion about sex, and that quote is from a 17 year-old girl:
            ‘Of course sex is somehow painful, but it can also be fun’.

            Is it possible that pornography has a negative impact on the way our young girls view sex or am I just being ‘moralistic’ here?

            Sorry, I know this is out of topic but I had to share this with someone (and my soon to be ex-boyfriend, who clearly does not care a lot about women and girls, continue to say that there is really no problem with porn, except when it involves trafficked or coerced women, THAT he can say is wrong (and he is sure that the porn he watches only involves women who are there by free choice, as he is sure he can make the difference just by looking at the women’s facial expressions…).

          • Hari B.

            MissFit–somehow it seems all too ON topic to me, since the sentiment so inncoently expressed by the 17yr old seems to come straight from the heart of porn culture. Which teaches that fun is gotten via pain, in sex…or that painful sex is fun…that sex is painful fun, necessarily…for womyn. Same kind of gibberish comes out of BDSM as well. For me, no, it’s not moralistic to see this stuff for what it is–because it’s not about protection of a code of conduct that preserves life within a religio-social frame. It’s an instinct to preserve the dignity, health and the very lives of womyn from a culture that hates them, sees them as less than human and therefore as consumable and disposable by those on top. Just like any other non-human thing. That a young womyn can say such things in the early years of her sexual life is to me just so tragic, and frightening.

          • MissFit

            I find that very sad indeed too. It seems that the message that (what I fear is a large number of) young girls get, is that sex is necessarily painful (not surprising with so much gagging, anal and roughness going on in porn (now almost unavoidable), which I don’t think is what many young girls naturally crave for in sex…). I was wondering if I was being moralistic as I dared to use the word ‘negative’ to qualify the impact of porn on women’s sexuality. I am not saying that certain sex acts are by definition ‘wrong’, but since we do not seem to offer any other alternative to porn sex in this society, my reflexions led me to conclude that this was leading to the alienation of female sexuality (and male’s sexuality also, to some extent). And this I dare to say is wrong. The problem is that society is avoiding the whole discussion by fear of appearing ‘moralistic’ (a fear which seems to show mainly when it comes to ‘sex) and by doing so, we are letting down a generation of young girls who certainly feels the need to talk about those issues in terms of what is good/bad for them and how society affects their choices. In fact, what we are doing by this is letting porn culture decide what a girl is ‘morally’ expected to do, i.e. sexually serving men. We can not escape ‘morality’ in a sense…

            This speaks deeply to me as I have a baby daughter of my own; will she listen to her old mother feminist wisdom (hem hem) or follow the trend of what this patriarchal capitalist society portray as ‘cool’? My own mother has no clue about what is going on on the net right now; we never had a computer when I grew up and she is not really techno herself… The advance of technology is creating a generation gap, and with sex classes abolished in schools (forget my dreams of a mandatory feminism course in high school), it seems that these girls are on their own navigating through all this. But hey, we wouldn’t want to appear moralistic, don’t we?

          • Komal

            Wonderful. This is exactly it: “Is sexuality (or what is labelled as ‘sex’) still so taboo that everything has to end with ‘it is all a matter of personal choice, end of discussion’ without being able to actually question these choices (are they furthering one or society’s well-being, are they healthy, etc.)?” Well-being and health are key here.

            This liberal idea that it’s never okay to judge people’s ‘personal’ choices is wrong, and also anti-feminist in a way, since it tries to separate the private from the public, or the personal from the political. The personal is political, and the personal is also in a way public, though not in a way that involves no respect for individuality or privacy. People are interconnected, and people’s ‘personal’ choices impact others as well, including in this case the impact of individual prostitutes’ behaviour on other women.

            I think liberalism has its origins in a certain ontology of the human being, where humans are seen as rational actors who make deliberate choices based on their goals. This neglects the emotional and social aspect of being a human being. Perhaps this is what MissFit was getting at with her emotional/intellectual distinction. It’s more a difference in how we understand human nature, than a difference in what faculties we use to arrive at our respective conclusions (so it’s not that the moralist is more emotional and the liberal more rational, but just that we have different conceptions of the human being and of harm).

          • MissFit

            Yep. ‘The personal is political’. Back to basics!

            And I love this quote from Ned: if the left doesn’t start talking about sexual morality, the right (Roger Scruton, Theodore Dalrymple, Wendy Shalit, etc.) absolutely will.

            We need to speak up for an alternative between religious sexual morality (glorification of female virginity and anti-contraception/abortion views) and the libertarian one (there should be no boudaries to sexuality a.k.a women should do whatever their male partner wants).

          • ned

            Here are a bunch of articles folks here might find relevant.

            (MASSIVE, MASSIVE trigger warning for the eroticization of misogyny, racism and human indignity — do not read these articles if these things disturb you and/or if you are concerned about such things warping your own sexuality)

            “A young African-American woman walked onstage, led by a white man holding a leash attached to a collar around her neck. “As he spoke, he yanked up her dress to display her shaved genitals, and he then turned her around,” writes anthropologist Margot Weiss. “Still holding her dress above her waist, he smacked her ass so hard she pitched forward; the leash attached to the collar around her neck stopped her fall.”

            Then the bidding began.

            This scene from a BDSM “slave auction” — before a predominantly white audience – makes for one of the most viscerally challenging passages in “Techniques of Pleasure,” Weiss’ book-length investigation of San Francisco’s kink community, although there are other examples, ranging from father-daughter incest to Nazi guard-prisoner scenarios.”

            “… she further questions S/M’s “outlaw” status by painting a portrait of a social network built on capitalism and consumerism: Just consider the rainbow’s array of classes (on everything from spanking to rope bondage) and fetish toys (from handcuffs to latex vacuum beds) that practitioners can, and are to some degree expected to, invest in. BDSM is not as transgressive as most assume, says Weiss.”

            “When I start to think of the number of times I have been cajoled, pressured, or forced into sex that I did not want when I came into “the BDSM community”, I can’t actually count them. And I never came out about it before, not publicly, for a variety of reasons- I blamed myself for not negotiating enough, or clearly, or for not sticking to my guns, or I didn’t want to be seen as being a drama queen or kicking up a fuss. … That makes me really angry, because I realized I didn’t feel traumatized because it happened so bloody often that it was just a fact of being a submissive female. WTF, right?”
            http://magazine.goodvibes.com/2011/07/12/i-never-called-it-rape-addressing-abuse-in-bdsm-communities/ (see comments threads here — lots of victim-blaming going on as per usual)

            “At the same time, she realized that such abuse was prevalent: “It started to look more like a systemic issue,” she says. As Stryker wrote last year in an essay for Good Vibrations magazine, ” I have yet to meet a female submissive who hasn’t had some sort of sexual assault happen to her.””

            “According to Stryker, ignoring safe words, torturing women submissives with “toys,” and raping them is de rigueur around the dungeon, but nobody in the scene will admit it or cop to it. When a member of the ‘community’ does speak out, she is ignored or accused of being a whiner. Or of being drunk. A cloak of secrecy envelops our enlightened fetishists, which fetishists, I might add, are constantly defending their corny lifestyle as liberating, empowerful, and awesome.”

            After reading the above sources, can anybody here honestly say that a reclaiming of sexual morality from a feminist, soft communitarian and broader ethical perspective isn’t LONG overdue?

            And here for me is the bottom line: if the left doesn’t start talking about sexual morality, the right (Roger Scruton, Theodore Dalrymple, Wendy Shalit, etc.) absolutely will. So if you don’t want the right to be dominating the discourse on morality, let’s start talking about these things in ways that go beyond shallow notions of consent. Let’s have a discussion about how we can have sex in ways that are actually beneficial for our health, our character and level of empathy, and for the wider social collective. And if we do this, it’ll be much easier to sustain a cultural critique of sex work as well, and for such a critique to be effective.

            The commodification of sex is inherently exploitative and subject to a thousand perverting factors such that notions of a sex industry that is egalitarian on a large scale or promotes egalitarian values are a delusional fantasy. We need to make it very clear why this is the case.

          • Komal

            “So if you don’t want the right to be dominating the discourse on morality, let’s start talking about these things in ways that go beyond shallow notions of consent.”

            I know it’s probably annoying that I’m just quoting people and saying that I agree, but honestly, this is beyond brilliant. Feminists and people on ‘the Left’ (by which I mean people with egalitarian values) definitely need to start talking about sexual morality, because sexual morality matters, and many on the Left realize this, though they do not want to say it because of an irrational fear and hatred of all things religious.

            I do not consider myself to be on the Left (I also find these labels not particularly useful, and think we should move beyond them already), but I am an egalitarian, and the Left happens to value egalitarianism and oppose patriarchy and heteronormativity, thus gaining my sympathy much more than traditional conservatives. I would love to see people who have figured out that it’s good to be gay and that gender roles are oppressive, also emphasize that empathy and emotional sensitivity are better than egoism and objectification, that temperance is better than seeking immediate gratification all the time, and that men paying women (or indeed anyone paying anyone) to masturbate into them and/or be violent toward them is neither healthy nor consistent with respect for people’s dignity and flourishing. None of this detracts from the feminist case — it only strengthens it. After all, wouldn’t the goals of feminism be more likely to be realized if, for example, empathy was encouraged in everyone? And emotional warmth, rather than coldness, alienation, contempt, etc.? I see an ethics of virtue and equality as natural allies, which have been pitted against each other by those whose lack of imagination makes them unable to think of any conception of virtue other than that of the traditional conservative or religious fundamentalist.

          • ned

            One other additional point of interest:

            Some time back, kink.com acquired the historical SF armory and is now making pornography depicting sexual torture there. Apparently the surrounding community in SF protested to the Planning Commissioner, but to no avail.

            See one man’s testimonial against kink.com here:

            More here:

            A battered women’s shelter near the SF armory has moved out of that neighborhood because of the kink.com purchase.

            This is radical individualism for you, and far from promoting in “freedom for all”, it exerts its own tyranny and coercion, the tyranny of compulsory moral relativism and cultural degradation, and the tyranny of insensitivity to the concerns of the wider community. In this hyperindividualistic worldview, narcissistic sensation-seeking will always trump mindfulness of wider social issues and empathy for the suffering of others.

          • Komal

            Yes! I agree 😀

      • Uh, how can you talk about people’s actions without talking about morality? That doesn’t really make sense.

        • Meghan Murphy

          I’m not saying people don’t have morals. I’m uncomfortable using the term within a conversation around prostitution because is implies “good” and “bad” and because it if often associated with religious morality. I worry that it will cloud the debate.

          • Whether you like it or not, you are evaluating systems of actions. I don’t know what you want it to transmute into, but that’s what you’re doing.

          • Meghan Murphy

            I think you’re picking a fight with the wrong folk, Francois. Please feel free to bring forth your arguments around prostitution and morality. Ned has a great analysis of this. I’m just saying I don’t feel uncomfortable bring morality into my analysis of prostitution because I’m worried it will obscure the debate. I don’t personally feeI equipped or comfortable making an argument based on morals. I don’t don’t dictate whether or not you do.

          • I think you are confused… I am not picking a fight with anyone, I just find
            what you say rather strange. Nevertheless, I will yield because this is your blog.

          • Meghan Murphy

            Ok, perhaps I misinterpreted your comments. I think that bringing morality into the conversation has the potential to end up sounding like we are judging women who are prostituted. Which I am uncomfortable with.

          • Hari B.

            Meghan: “Ned has a great analysis of this. ”

            I’m sure it’s quite possible that you have chosen not to comment at all on my post–and I could live with that. But I’m confused, and wondering if you got names mixed up. Were you meaning to reference my post on morality?

            Not that ned made no good points wrt morality–it was her comments that prompted my ramble. Can you clarify?

          • Meghan Murphy

            No, I mean that Ned had gone into her understanding of morality as part of this conversation in other places in this blog. I was just leaving it open to Ned to elaborate if she wishes and acknowledging that she has done so in other places.

    • Komal

      It’s actually not women fucking 25 men each day: it’s women getting fucked by 25 men each day, which is an important difference.

      The word ‘morality’ was being used in that case against the feminists. I think your example actually helps the point Ned and I are making, as it shows that the fear of ‘moralizing’ is used to silence people who have genuine concern for people’s health and happiness, and to remove from the equation things like people’s flourishing. Feminists tend to make moral assumptions anyway, but for some reason many of them (especially liberals and libertarians) shy away from saying so explicitly.

    • Ramona

      I always find it hilarious that “Hey! It’s Art!” is actually considered a reasonable defence for anything. Just try that one in art college, I guarantee you will fail outright. Any consideration of a work of art must contain critique, and absolutely every artist must expect critique and provide reasonable defence. Art is not sacred, far from it. It does not exist in a vacuum. Works of art are routinely omitted from certain arenas because of their content. As an art student myself, I was slammed for making art that relied on a kind of shock value, and I gained a great deal from it. Saying that “society has no right to censor these women’s art” is a sneaky way of sidestepping critique by invoking the spectre of religious moralism. In my opinion, an artist has no intrinsic right to impose art that violates its audience emotionally and psychologically without being held to task for it. We have the right to say “no” to being made a captive audience.

      That said, you can’t scientifically prove a feeling of violation. Which is why pornographers can keep on pulling this “censorship” rabbit out of their collective hat any time anybody offers ANY critique of porn. It’s just maddening.

      I do agree that morality is a very loaded concept. I really do like Hari’s description of a kind of “does this serve life?” value system, which happens to be something that guides me as well. Along with the bits about rejecting “object/object transactions” and ned’s “predatory/egotistical individualistic values.” Maybe the term “morality” is antiquated and should be left behind. Personally, I prefer to draw attention to mental and emotional well-being, personhood, autonomy, respect, and as Coriolan has said, rights.

      A word of thanks, I’m new to this forum and it’s quite wonderful to see this type of discussion happening.

      • Meghan Murphy

        I prefer ethical over morality. If we ask the question “is is ethical” I think that could mean, from a feminist perspective, does it promote equality…When Komal says “a woman having to be fucked by 25 men per day are both morally wrong and misogynistic.”, I mean, yes, I suppose that’s true but to me it makes more sense to say that this is ethically wrong and misogynistic and, in the end, being misogynistic is unethical, so is it necessary to say both? Perhaps yes, for clarity’s sake? I’m undecided. I tend to equate morals with religious morals and I have an aversion, admittedly, to most things “religious.”

        • Hari B.

          Meghan: “I tend to equate morals with religious morals and I have an aversion, admittedly, to most things “religious.” ”

          Morality is definitely a loaded word and I hear the resistance to intentionally engaging on moral turf.

          Maybe at least, feminists can develop responses to morality arguments posed by detractors. First, the morality argument is a cheap shot used to prompt an opponent to question herself. In Coriolan’s example, there’s nothing ‘moralizing’ about noting health impact on womyn servicing 25 or more men a day. It’s an observation of measurable fact. But the pro-prostitution gang doesn’t want that examined, so they toss in the diversion of ‘your inappropriate moralizing’. Oh snap! Now the focus is on what a problem YOU are for imposing your *personal *‘good/bad labels’ upon sex-workers’ *personal choices*, and no longer on the measurable damage done to prostituted womyn. And now, the conversation is about the personal, instead of on the greater social good—when we all know that laws are necessary for the greater good, and that however much we might value individuality, societies can’t function as a collection of disparate individuals all doing their own thing without regard for anyone else.

          Also, the words ‘misogyny’ and ‘ethics’ are too conceptual to be persuasive for many. You can say “it’s misogynistic to allow womyn to be fucked 25 times a day on average”–but what does that mean in real life? How does it express hatred for womyn in measurable terms?

          It means many things that need to be mentioned, for those words to speak to anyone: sex at that frequency with so many different partners, is hard on womyn’s physical health in various ways (that I won’t detail here, but should be detailed in response to ‘some womyn LIKE being fucked that often’). Prostitution enslaves womyn to sex work psychologically, also skipping details here, but which could be mentioned in terms of impact on the prostituted and society generally. Also, womyn become financially dependent upon sex work–an effective obstacle to seeking training/opportunity for work more fulfilling/less dangerous to them–and so forth. There is much to be said about the real impact on the prostituted, the pimps/johns, and society at large. We need talking points that dismantle the morality slam and keep conversation focussed on the realities; we need practical, real life information to back up the more intellectualized shorthand of ‘ethics’ and ‘misogyny’.

          Meghan, I thought you did a good job in your post of doing just that—bringing the discussion to real life matters. You usually do. Your post, though, was more of a discussion-about-the-discussion, right? It was necessary as such, and wonderfully well-done. What I’m referencing above are the times we are discussing prostitution with its supporters—such as Corolian’s example. And also, I’m talking generally about the morality I mentioned. Not that we should engage with others on morality as such (unless we want to), but we should keep focused on what the moral aspects are, in real life. That is, focused on the real ways that prostitution is misogynist by causing harm to womyn and others, and on what we want to see in our collective lives instead, that promotes life. If that makes sense.

          • Meghan Murphy

            Exactly, Hari. I think you’ve described exactly what the issue is / could potentially be with bringing morality into this particular debate. And yes, you are, right, this particular post was specifically a response to a response to me.

            As Ramona notes, “As ending misogyny and promoting social equality for women are the main goals here” and as you say, Hari, in terms of building a clear argument that can’t easily be derailed, when we start bringing morality in, the likely response would be something along the lines of “YOU are for imposing your *personal *‘good/bad labels’ upon sex-workers’ *personal choices*” rather than, as you say, “the measurable damage done to prostituted womyn.”

            I am, of course, not only concerned with the way prostitution impacts prostituted women, though of course, this is a primary concern, but also with the way in which it impacts women and women’s equality as a whole.

            Regardless of what we might think or what “morals” and “ethics” actually describes, we are speaking to the public at large and trying to make a clear argument that is understandable by the public, yes? In which case I would argue that, for those purposes, it’s best to use language that won’t confuse things. “Ethics” seems to be a less loaded word than “morality.” Again, in the end, I think that our primary goal is to end misogyny / patriarchy and promote equality.

          • Meghan Murphy

            I wonder if it’s also worth noting that, MacKinnon addressed morality within her work on the antipornography civil rights ordinance because pornography laws were regulated within obscenity laws. She challenged obscenity laws on the basis that they were founded in morality and that morality describes: “good and evil, virtues and vices.” She also believed that feminism should approaches pornography from a political standpoint not a moral one and that obscenity is about morality, whereas pornography is “a political practice.” I think maybe she’s already addressed, more articulately, what I and others are trying to argue here, around prostitution.

          • Komal

            Yes, I’ve read some of that, though I need to immerse myself in it a bit more. MacKinnon seems to be setting up a false opposition between a critique of porn based on feminism and a critique of porn based on the idea that watching porn is not virtuous (or is ‘vicious’, as in, instantiating vice). The two are distinct reasons, but they are also potentially coexisting reasons, in the sense that a person could rationally hold both and oppose porn on both grounds.

          • ned

            I agree with MacKinnon that pornography laws probably shouldn’t be based on moral or ethical philosophy and I’m very sympathetic to the civil rights approach she takes. However, there is no reason why a *cultural critique* of pornography and sex work should not bring in moral and ethical philosophy, both feminist and egalitarian ethics and ethics based on other value systems such as communitarianism and virtue-based systems.

          • Hari B.

            ned–I agree with this. There is room for development of feminist ethics or morals, and critique of porn, prostitution and other matters from within that frame–while at the same time pursuing laws from a more civil rights approach.

        • Ramona

          As ending misogyny and promoting social equality for women are the main goals here, I do agree that ethics are better brought into the discussion than morality. I also agree that in the context of the subject of prostitution/sex work, morality is subjective and has the potential to cloud the debate.

          • Hari B.

            I don’t know that use of the word ‘ethics’ is any better than ‘morals’. I’m not arguing in favor of using ‘morals’–it’s more about arguing agaist the use of either one (even though I see my own position as a feminist as a moral one in being biophilic). I’m kind of getting tired of misogyny, too. We need more down to earth terms to describe the facts that patriarchy is an anti-life system with no real moral or ethical foundation, that particularly hurts and kills womyn in service of men’s privilege and gain. And we need more down-to-earth words too, to talk about supporting womyn’s safety and full human respect, and creating a culture that generally promotes life for all.

          • Meghan Murphy

            I think misogyny is useful. Or, at very least, patriarchy….I see misogyny as the manifestation or patriarchy, of course.

          • Hari B.

            I agree that misogyny is useful–not to mention being all too real! What I want are other ways to talk about it, because it becomes a cliche, losing its power in discussions. Also, I think because it’s not English based (for us English speakers), it’s not as clear to all as it might be. One feminist I appreciate does use misogyny at times–but tends to state more plainly how various events/political matters/social trends demonstrate how “men hate us” or how “patriarchy is about exploiting, harming and killing womyn”.

          • Hari B.

            Isn’t ethics also subjective? By the way, I just searched ethics, and found that in the different places it was defined, it was associated with morality, and with right/wrong behavior ideas. One place indicated that ethics was a ‘civil code of conduct’ as opposed to a religious one.

            Not intending to be argumentative–again, it’s more about choosing language that is both specific enough and down-to-earth enough for conversation with anyone. In any event–ethics are as subjective as morality since ‘good/bad’ is so open to value laden definition.

            Can anyone tell me what it means in practice to use the word ethics, in their own view? What you are talking about more specifically? Marv brought up equality–or reiterated Meghan’s use of that word. Is this what you would see as the basis of an ethical code–equality for all?

        • Komal

          This is a great question. I would propose that the difference, in this context, comes down to a difference between ethical positions based on egalitarianism, and those based on other values. Prostitution can be argued against from a feminist (and therefore egalitarian) perspective, since it challenges equality between men and women and usually involves exploitation/violence/etc. But when I talked about ‘morality’ above I meant those moral positions not just based on egalitarianism, but on such things as good character, which includes temperance, empathy and so on.

          We do not necessarily have to frame this issue in terms of ‘ethics vs. morality’, but perhaps could frame it in terms of what our values and principles are? I would say egalitarianism and communitarianism for me, as well as human flourishing. I think more than one of those can be used to argue against the sex industry — so my case is not anti-feminist or even non-feminist, it’s just more than feminist, I guess :P.

      • Komal

        ‘Saying that “society has no right to censor these women’s art” is a sneaky way of sidestepping critique by invoking the spectre of religious moralism.’

        Yes, precisely. This is what I was trying to say earlier!

        For me the words ‘morality’ and ‘ethics’ are pretty much interchangeable, although I do recognize that they are used differently by a lot of people. Although I — and other ‘virtue ethicists’ — do distinguish between directly harming others vs. just showing/having bad character, nevertheless they ultimately have the same ethical and meta-ethical foundation. The foundation is not religious (it is virtue ethical, this link might help: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-virtue/), but even if it was, I do not think it’s a good idea to treat all things ‘religious’ like they’re contaminating. There needs to be some justification behind why religious morality is being dismissed — for me, it comes down to the lack of evidence for a lot of claims (e.g. that the Quran is ‘God’s word’, etc.), as well for the fact that religious moral strictures actually go against my moral philosophy, e.g. by promoting homophobia. I totally get and sympathize with the intuitive aversion to anything that sounds religiously moralistic, I just think that it could be helpful if people like us (who are not religious in any traditional sense) offered a reason for why we reject most religious moralities. For me that reason is my respect for egalitarianism, especially on matters of gender (not because I value egalitarianism between men and women more than other kinds, just that religious morality tends to be more threatening to gender egalitarianism than any other kind, e.g. you will often see economically Leftist Christians, but rarely ones so socially progressive that they will oppose heteronormativity).

  • marv wheale

    I also suggest not using the term “morality” because of its historical baggage, connection to patriarchal religions and male liberal secularism. Why can’t we simply use “does this serve equality?” as the fundamental standard for measuring personal and institutional conduct? By equality, naturally I include sexual, sex orientation, class, race, ability, species, ecological, etc… “Does this serve life?” or rights? is great too but they are a little abstract for me. Whereas “equality” concretizes what it means (at least in part) to be a human being. If equality really is the gauge of all things I don’t understand why we need other archaic and outmoded idioms. On the other hand I wouldn’t object to people using morality and ethics language if it was always referenced to equality.

    • Meghan Murphy

      I agree, Marv, I think “serve equality” includes an awful lot and is the most clear way of describing / understanding our goals. I think the conversation around morality is an interesting and perhaps useful one to have but, again, I don’t feel comfortable or particularly inclined to bring it in to a conversation around abolition that is meant to speak to the public as well as those who have a more advanced understanding of radical feminist thought….

      • marv wheale

        Yes, we are striving to create a new reality on the planet that has never existed beforehand. We need terminology that suits our purposes. The old expressions obscure our perceptions.

        Sorry for consuming so much of your time. This is my final comment on this subject.

        • Meghan Murphy

          You aren’t taking up too much of my time, Marv. I very much appreciate your contributions and comments.

    • Komal

      “Why can’t we simply use “does this serve equality?” as the fundamental standard for measuring personal and institutional conduct?”

      Because there are many of us who value things besides equality. The question ‘does this serve equality?’ is very important, but I would also add such questions as: ‘does this help people to realize their potential?’, ‘does this lead to greater peace, happiness and health?’ and ‘does this involve a respect for the truth?’.

      • Meghan Murphy

        Well, yes, we value things besides equality, but within the context of feminism I think what we are talking about is equality… The other things we value are, perhaps, more personal than political – not to say that they necessarily have to be separated, but in talking about a political movement, and the goals of the feminist movement, I think “equality” is what best describes these goals. What do you think?

        • Komal

          Hmmm, interesting. I can’t really separate my ethics in general from my political position, as the latter are based on the former.

          I understand the limitations of bringing up virtue in public discussions on public issues. It may not be feasible, I don’t know (don’t have much experience with activism on this issue). But in the very least, I was referring to the philosophical case against the sex industry, and my reason for opposing the sex industry.

  • Ramona

    Excuse the sloppy writing, it just goes to show, don’t try to really communicate when you’re in a rush, heh. What I meant to say was that yes, both ethics and morals are subjective in the context of the sex work/prostitution debate.

    I’m hardly an expert, but I’ll attempt the following. It’s true that ethics and morals are closely related, I understand that the distinction is that ethics refers to the actual philosophical underpinnings of morality. Morality itself is most commonly associated with religious ideas of right and wrong, whereas ethics can be used to describe any number of value systems in a broader variety of situations. For example, in the nursing profession, you would sooner hear discussion of “nursing ethics” than “nursing morals.” You get the sense of ethics as a system that can evolve and take into account new information.

    I think “does this serve equality” is a very good starting point.

    When the topic of ethics arises here, I think of consequentialism, i.e. deriving ethics from observations of the actual results of actions in real life, and so the goodness of an action is determined by the goodness of the result.
    Basically this is where I form the basis for the following:

    – Objectification overwhelmingly harms women physically and cognitively/emotionally/psychologically, whether they are the ones being actively objectified, or passive viewers of its results. This is not a secret, nor is it a mystery to the general public. As we on this comment thread well know, there is a ridiculous amount of material out there to back this up. (Never mind the personal experience of, for example, every single woman I have ever known.) Because it harms women, I am against objectification.

    – The sex industry (porn, sex work, etc.) bases its existence on sexual objectification. Therefore, I oppose the sex industry because it harms women, again, whether their involvement is active or passive, and indeed whether they are part of the sex industry or not.

    So, far from using a complex or vindictive moral or ethical system to determine my opposition to the sex industry, it’s been rather a boiled-frog-syndrome experience for me (and I’m sure many of us) of evidence piling up that drives one to certain conclusions.

    In a way, the “morality slam” is a bit like the art/censorship slam; it’s really very transparent, but it does cut to the quick of our own insecurities around our thoughts and feelings.

    Komal, I think you’ve provided a good description of the reasons for religious morality having fallen out of favour. I would think homophobia to be the main reason that we on the left would discard it.

  • marv wheale

    I am only inserting myself back into the discussion because no one seems to be bothered by my presence and the traffic is light. Thank you for that gratuity Meghan. I don’t take it for granted.

    People as a social group cannot realize “their potential”, “peace, happiness and health” without equality as the foundation of societal life. Social equality is the keystone on which truth and love are built. No enmity intended Komal, but the political position of equality should be the ground for defining ethics (your term) not the reverse. Any “philosophical case against the sex industry” has to flow out of an equality standpoint otherwise it will stem from social hierarchy (inequality). The privileged will determine what is true while the disenfranchised will be excluded from the defining task, which is what we now have. Some flourish while others flounder.

    In reality, almost all publicly received moral philosophies throughout history have been male constructed: Plato, Aristotle, Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Confuscious, the Hindu Sages, Mohammad, Kant, Descartes, Marx, Ghandi and Martin Luther King to offer a sample. I know there are gender exceptions but they still don’t disprove the rule. These men had some valuable things to say about how we should live and even about equality. Yet they didn’t advocate radical feminist equality which is vastly more inclusive and structurally just; and therefore more truthful. These male gurus for example, generally saw prostitution as a sin of the flesh, an impurity, not a hate crime against women. Class divisions were considered natural, not social exploitation. Animals existed for human use, not having inherent worth (rad-fem is at least less conflicted about nonhuman and human animal equality than male philosophy is). Secular humanists don’t fare much better. For them adult pornstitution is very emancipating.

    Rad-fem embraces the preferential option for all oppressed groups and individuals as its organizing principle for building an equal society. It’s theory is based on blood and guts experience and is activist oriented as opposed to detached thinking. We have never seen anything like this. It is a real epiphany of beauty, grandeur, truth and social justice – a light to the world. Male philosophies and practices for the most part have given us elitism instead, with charity and chastity or sexual liberty as antidotes to misery. Rad-fem is a revolutionary movement that requires unorthodox conceptualizations rather than clinging to what is familiar and to male traditions. I only know these things because these remarkable feminists have been my mentors, counting the ones on this enriching blog.

    • Hari B.

      Thanks for that, marv–nicely done. I much agree with you, Meghan and others who have cited equality as a foundation for feminist ethics and action. With Komal, I have other ideals to which I aspire and would see available to all–but those, as you point out, might flow out of equality. So might some other personal ideals in great variety, all having potential for realization but only from a foundation of equality. So–I acknowledge that those other ideals of mine (very similar w/Komal’s description) are personal, and can’t righteously be imposed on anyone else. Equality imposes its own limits, but only equally upon all; apart from natural limitations, people in an equality-based culture are free to have a variety of other aspirations and a reasonable degree of freedom to pursue them.

      Ramona–I also appreciate your comments above in more fully defining working differences between ethics and morals. It hardly matters how I might see my idea of morality as applied to feminism, if the words get in the way. I appreciate your statement of “ethics as a system that can evolve and take into account new information.” In usage, that does very much distinguish ethics from morals, since morals tend to be understood as absolute and unchanging–but life is not like that. The standpoint of equality seems well-able to cover somewhat differing ethical considerations in different situations, professions, etc.

      I also agree that it’s important to keep consequences in mind. This is my broad intention with a morality that centers the promotion of life for all of life–that we have to be aware of consequences for all, in any choice personal or social/political. I’m a little leery of the way you describe consequentialism, however, because your words prompted my jump to “the end justifies the means”. That could just be semantics, however–it is difficult to make words adequately express intentions. Which is one reason I so greatly value these conversations!

      • Ramona

        Thanks Hari. I myself am leery of an explicitly “end justifies the means” approach to anything, so I think I’m using consequentialism in a less literal sense as an approach to ethics that most resembles a process I go through mentally. More than anything what I wanted to illustrate is that we are not plucking ideological or moral theories out of thin air, or out of a pre-existing religion-style value system, when we speak about the sex industry. I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, I think, goodness is the absence of harm and the presence of equality as a starting point for further human development. I think I’ll leave the discussion now, thanks for hearing me out, and I hope it continues to be productive for everybody. 🙂

    • Komal

      “People as a social group cannot realize “their potential”, “peace, happiness and health” without equality as the foundation of societal life.”

      Yes, I realize this Marv. But mere equality does not guarantee people realizing their potential, or having peace, happiness and health. It is a necessarily but not sufficient condition.

      “the political position of equality should be the ground for defining ethics”

      Why? I see no reason why I should accept this. In fact, it does not even make much sense. My political positions are based on my ethics, since ethics is more basic and fundamental. How do you justify your valuing of equality? How do you justify that equality is better than, say, hierarchy (or the kind of hierarchy you’re opposed to)? What is the reason you support radical feminism? Whatever your answers to those question, that will be your ethical philosophy.

      The fact that male thinkers and spiritual teachers have been androcentric or even outright misogynistic, does not show that anything I have said about morality, virtue or the sex industry is false. A person having an ethical philosophy (which everyone has, including you, including all the radfems of the world) does not compel them to agree with everything previous male thinkers have said, or to limit themselves to their approach.

      I don’t know what you keep calling ‘male philosophy’, but it seems to be unrelated to what I was saying. I was suggesting that if one’s philosophy includes egalitarianism as a moral goal, but also includes other moral goals (I listed a few: peace, happiness, flourishing, the development of good character), then a case can be made against prostitution which encompasses but is not limited to an egalitarianism-based radical feminist critique. You seem to be giving some general (very inaccurate) history of Western philosophy in response. Please address my points, Marv, if your comment is directed toward me.

  • marv wheale

    I am regretful that I don’t have the time to respond to invitations promptly. Hari B. you are extremely skillful at recognizing the value of each persons insight, integrating ideas and articulating a new synthesis. You are a very collective and perceptive thinker.

    Komal I don’t think we need to have other goals or aspirations beside equality love. By this I mean deep communion with others with no hierarchical divisions. Equality love is not a philosophy or theory in the usual sense. It eclipses, surpasses and fulfills all theories and ways of knowing and living. I don’t know exactly how to explain it since we only have glimpses of it. But if it ever was completely realized in social life we would experience unprecedented joy and peace within and without. Everything else we value
    would emanate from it. Our whole evolutionary trajectory would shift in a way we can’t imagine under the present conditions of inequality hate.

    The truth of equality love is concealed by conventional social/cultural mindsets and by the darkness of oppression. Those who are dispossessed with raised consciousness are more disposed than others to see the all encompassing importance of equality love. For us to know its splendour we have to be in solidarity with the shaken (among other things). This is why social activism and self-care (we are downtrodden too) are essential to knowing life’s significance. At the present time what we know about equality love is infinitely exceeded by what we don’t know of its abounding potential. A flock of blackbirds flying in harmony is an apt metaphor though.

    I sense that I am taking up to much space in this dialogue so I would prefer to disengage for now. I am being too repetitious anyway. Words in themselves are so inadequate for communication. So often what we feel and know are beyond language.

    • Hari B.

      marv–first, thanks very much for your words of appreciation for my contributions here…I needed that more than usual today!

      Otherwise, your words deeply resonated for me, echoing the core of my own beliefs. As you concluded: “So often what we feel and know are beyond language.” Yes–and still, you did a good job of using language to share with us the essence of your desire for the transformation of the human world.

      This kind of talk–about the world we would see created, by dismantling patriarchy–is so important to this work. Words like equality, ethics and love are not enough by themselves, but they do serve to fuel visions of a different world than patriarchy. So easy to get lost in the struggle itself, and lose sight of the world we seek to create; that struggle can be so disheartening without exchanges like this which bring the heart of feminism to the fore. So–thanks to all for your thoughtful and inspiring words.

  • pisaquari

    Well said Meghan.

    MEN have made these two feminist positions mutually exclusive–MEN<<<this is the point we (abolitionists and sex worker rights-ists) don't seem to agree on. The sex workers' rights-ists believe men's commercial access to female bodies under rape culture and patriarchy is feasible. Apparently, no amount of rape, dv, trafficking, torture, poverty, single motherhood, desperation stats/studies/documentaries/books/anecdotes are going to convince them otherwise. To top THAT off, women's pursuit of freedom from bodily violation is to be entrusted with those *beacons*(!) of women's liberation: police, judges, lawyers, medical professionals. (I'm sorry, I meant: privileged MEN.) And because women are soo good and successful at getting perpetrators convicted anyways we'll just have droves of "sex workers" regaling the justice system with their truths to finally settle the score onthe world's oldest pro-oppression.

    Well, slap me silly and call me naive ";)" but-hahahahahahaha—-NO

  • Leah

    Thank you for this piece! Your work keeps me sane.