Why reproductive rights and prostitution are not the same thing: A response to one decriminalization argument

I received a link to this blog post just hours ago via a feminist listserv; a listserv that has, just like much of the feminist community elsewhere has, experienced A LOT of heated debate around prostitution, sex work, abolition, and decriminalization.

The author claims to desire a ‘genuine’ answer to some specific questions she puts to abolitionists and, implies, by the title of the post: Choosing Our Battles: Why the feminist movement needs to stop arguing and support the decriminalisation of sex work, that what she truly desires is to end the infighting and to do what’s best for women, which of course, is really what we all want….That said, the post, and even the title of the post hints at something different than a desire for genuine discourse. Not only does it suggest that decriminalization is the only possible avenue for the feminist movement to take in terms of finding a solution to prostitution and male exploitation of women, but the questions she asks seem to, once again (I say once again because this is, unfortunately, such a common thing coming from arguments against abolition and for decriminalization), display a complete lack of research, an unwillingness to listen to and understand what abolitionists argue and fight for, and the imposition of a word, ‘prohibitionist,’ that shows, again, a complete lack of understanding in terms of the arguments that are being made. When we begin a conversation which pretends to desire authenticity and immediately misrepresent and misunderstand the other side of the argument, is it difficult to take seriously that intent.

This means that two out of three of the questions the author claims to pose genuinely, are actually unanswerable by abolitionists:

2) How, in practical terms, does prohibition work towards the goal of abolition

3) Where has prohibition been an effective tool for changing social conditions or altering social practices?

Prohibition is the practice of prohibiting the manufacture, transportation, import, export, sale, and consumption of alcohol and alcoholic beverages. Women are not alcoholic beverages. They are not products to be bought, sold, manufactured, or traded, though I suppose this perspective is telling in terms of those who might like to use this term; perhaps they do indeed believe women to be consumable ‘products’ that should be bought and sold freely?

Abolition refers to a desire to put a stop to something, a practice. It first was used in terms of the movement to end slavery and the slave trade. It is now used by feminists to refer to a movement to end prostitution and the trafficking of women. Feminists who fight for abolition believe that prostitution is a form of exploitation and is an example of male privilege and power. Can you see the similarities here? I feel like if we were asking ‘genuine’ questions we would get the terminology right.

The author goes on to ask: Who should be criminalised? Sex workers, johns, madames, members of the kink community, bachelor parties, bar/club owners? Again, to me, this question shows something sincere, that is a sincere lack of research, a genuine intention to not hear what women are saying. Abolitionists do not argue for the criminalization of sex workers. They argue for the complete decriminalization of prostituted women and the criminalization of the pimps and johns. Simple as that. For those who are sincerely interested in hearing the actual arguments from actual feminists and abolitionists, I’ve linked to some references here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. There is a lot more information out there, including here on our website and on EVE’s website, as well as many, many more resources I haven’t included here

The abolitionist argument has never been about ‘cracking down’ on women who work in the sex work industry but rather has been about ending male privilege, male violence, and the exploitation and abuse of women and women’s bodies. It is about pointing out that, in a truly egalitarian society there is no ‘deal’ in which men are allowed access to women’s bodies simply because they have the cash and women need the cash. In a truly egalitarian society we would not believe that men have this right or that men somehow need to use women’s bodies lest they become violent or rape (which is an argument commonly used to support prostitution).

For decades, feminists have repeated over and over that criminalising abortion will not stop abortions.’  How can the continuing criminalization by sexist, right wing men of access to abortion for women – whose lives are on the line, either in botched procedures or birthing – be compared to attempts by feminist women to impede sexist men’s entitlement to the bodies of women whose lives are also on the line?  Reproductive rights provide women with control over their lives and bodies.  As the author points out, ‘Women die when abortion is not accessible.’  Women should get to choose whether or not they have to give birth.  Whether or not they want to raise children. They ought to get to make those decisions; not men.  But women also die at the hands of pimps, johns, brothel owners and traffickers.  Abolitionists have no desire to criminalize the prostituted: they desire a world where sexist men can no longer buy sexual violence against women, where male privilege doesn’t mean that women are put in the position of having to sell their bodies to men.  The only valid comparison is that the criminalization of abortions by men hurts women and the tolerance of men’s demand for prostitution hurts women.  Abolition and abortion rights both demand freedom for women from a patriarchal society which locks women into the roles of tools for sexual use of men.

In response to this post, and this author’s supposedly genuine desire for a sincere conversation, I suggest we begin with a) research, b) the correct use of terms with which we describe the abolitionist movement, and c) actually listening to people when they talk. When right off the bat your argument begins with an assumption that abolitionists argue for the criminalization of prostitutes and continuously calls the movement ‘prohibitionist’, all it shows is a lack of interest in conversation, in sincerity, in women’s voices, and in the truth.

Try again.

 

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 The Spectator, UnHerd, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, 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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