I refuse to believe that sociopathy is a good thing for feminism. Yet this is exactly the position we are being told to take on the sex industry.
A recent article about Melissa Gira Grant’s new book, Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work, demands, in its headline, that we put “our feelings aside” and look at prostitution as “a labour issue” — a strange demand to make of human beings when thinking about other human beings…
Since when does feminism promote the idea that one should not have “feelings?” My understanding was that to accuse women of being “too emotional” or of letting their feelings get in the way of rational (man) thought was, er, kind of sexist? Beyond that, the reason one would get involved in the feminist movement would be literally because one cares about other women. We cares about women’s lives, rights, well-being, and, more generally, their ability to live their lives free from oppression and violence and with dignity. To demand that we “put our feelings aside” when thinking about feminism and women’s issues is anti-feminist.
The author of the article, Meaghan O’Connell, says that Gira Grant’s book “examines how our ‘feelings talk’ and theoretical debate can be a distraction from the more immediate labor and human rights issues that sex workers are actually dealing with, and dying from, all the time.”
So I’m confused. The debate around prostitution is to neither be “theoretical” nor about “feelings” — what, in that case, is it about?
Well, I’d argue it’s about a number of different things:
1) Women and women’s lives
2) Human rights
3) Gender equality
4) Systems of power
8) Violence against women
9) Male power
There are a number of other things I or you could likely add to this list, but I believe the things listed above are pretty key to the conversation. And those are all things I have both feelings and beliefs about. As, you know, a feminist, a socialist, and a human being who cares about other human beings.
The refrain “sex work is work” or “sex work is a job like any other” or efforts to frame prostitution as simply a “labour issue” in order to trick normally ethically inclined leftists into thinking they are joining a progressive fight, reads as: “let’s look at this rationally,” which, to me, feels kind of sociopathic. (Oops, just can’t keep those damn feelings at bay…)
First of all, prostitution is not simply a labour issue. Prostitution is part of a system that inflicts violence on women worldwide, perpetuates systems of inequality, and targets marginalized women and girls in particular. Prostitution in Canada exists as it does because of intersections between colonialism, patriarchy, capitalism, and racism. Just a “labour issue?” Really? Maybe you should have a few more “feelings”…
Second, though the left is inclined to jump on board with any cause that professes to be about labour rights because we (rightly) want to support workers, the working class, and the labour movement/unions, arguments that pretend to look at sex work as a “labour issue” are actually looking at it through a capitalist lens — in market terms. As Kasja Ekis Ekman, author of Being and Being Bought: Prostitution, Surrogacy, and the Split Self (a book that is actually based in a Marxist and feminist analysis, yet no American progressive/liberal/feminist journalist seems inclined to cover it) points out: “Sex work lobbyists will try to paint prostitution as though it’s not a gender issue but rather just a ‘buyer’ and a ‘seller.'” People are no longer talking about people — they are talking about “services,” “clients,” and “business.” Anybody out there? Leftists? Bueller?
It’s odd because abolitionists are often told not to base their opinions and advocacy on either “ideology” or “feelings.” While I’d argue that both of those things intersect because we tend to develop ideology based on ethics which are often related to our “feelings” (i.e. our ability or inability to relate to other beings on this earth), I wonder, on what basis should we form our opinions and movements and activism? Maybe we should let computers do feminism for us in order to ensure it’s purely “rational” and not all muddled up with stupid humans and their stupid “feelings?”
Here’s the thing: capitalism doesn’t have feelings. Capitalism prioritizes the needs and wants of the market over the well-being of humans, animals, and the earth. If you want a system based on JUST THE FACTS, MA’AM, look no further than corporate capitalism, which has mastered the art of putting any “feeling” at all aside in favour of profit. Capitalism has taught us well, it seems, forcing us to divorce our ethics and laws from our humanity.
Now, I do understand, of course, that when looking at the issue of prostitution, one’s “feelings” are less important than the reality of what is happening to women who are actually in prostitution. But to argue that we keep our “feelings” out of it or avoid thinking about why prostitution exists strikes me as quite nonsensical. Women are in prostitution because of inequality — we absolutely must include that reality in any conversation about laws, services, and advocacy. To ignore the context for the sex industry is to ignore the reality of the sex industry. We can’t help women and girls who are vulnerable or who end up in the sex industry if we don’t understand why they are there or why they might end up there.
If we do indeed want to look at the “reality” of prostitution, we’re going to have “feelings” about it. Those who don’t are, in fact, the problem. Because you know who doesn’t let “feelings” get in the way of their opinions about prostitution? Johns. Also, people who don’t care about women.
Prostitution is labour. Don’t get me wrong. It is very hard “work.” But it isn’t *just* work and it certainly isn’t *just* a labour issue. Most women don’t want to do sex work. Most women who are in prostitution want out. “Helping” them stay there doesn’t help. Decriminalizing prostitution in order to form mythical unions that will provide mythical “rights” and safety is, well, a myth. There is no such thing as a safe, legal prostitution industry. Women who are prostituted under legalized or decriminalized regimes continue to work illegally, continue to feel stigmatized, continue to be subjected to violence, don’t register to pay taxes (because they hope to leave the industry and don’t wish to be on record as prostitutes), and don’t join unions. The “unions” that do exist for prostitutes are, it seems, run by pimps or “managers” and, therefore, are not “unions” at all.
What women need are options, services, and support. Not to be viewed as inhuman cogs (disturbingly, the cover of Gira Grant’s book presents women’s bodies literally as cogs…). To take feelings, morals, ethics, or ideology out of the conversation is to take our humanity and the humanity of women and girls out of the conversation. It makes us inhuman and it forces us to see others as inhuman. And I want no part of any social movement that demands dehumanization. If you want to take feelings and ideology out of social movements — particularly feminism — then perhaps you’re better suited as a CEO.