A write up on the satirical website, The Onion, titled “The Pros and Cons of Legalizing Prostitution” presents a telling picture. The piece is meant to be funny but inadvertently demonstrates the true problems with the debate around the legalization of the sex trade.
While the list names “global advocacy” groups with progressive-sounding words in their names such as “health” and “human rights” among supporters of legalization, it consigns anonymity to the very vocal survivor leaders, anti-violence organizations, sex industry scholars, and women’s rights organizations who oppose the full legalization of the sex trade. Opponents who are said to be concerned with things like “morality” and “ethics” are simply described as “many.” (Many what? Many random people with no knowledge of the issue?)
What I found most interesting was the first bullet point on the “con” side of their article: “Sex is wrong.” Unlike the rest of the talking points on the list which are entirely factitious, the argument that opposition to the sex industry is rooted in prudish concerns about sex being a bad, wrong thing is a trope commonly used by sex trade advocates. Sex industry advocates don’t think it’s a joke.
While no one seriously argues that prostitution should be legalized in order to open up “bold frontiers for Yelp reviews,” as listed in the “pro” column, many sex industry advocates and so-called feminists do collude with sexist, capitalist men by arguing that abolitionists simply think sex is wrong. You see, according to pro-sex trade mythology, feminists who question the sex industry are joining forces with religious figures and conservatives. What those who engage in these accusations conveniently forget to mention is that in supporting an exploitative industry that relies on the ever–younger bodies of overwhelmingly women and girls, they themselves are supporting patriarchy and capitalism personified.
Moving beyond The Onion, what is truly being said when we accuse feminists of being anti-sex? This tactic is, of course, intended to delegitimize, smear, and silence debate. But there’s more. If you know anything about gendered socialization, you know that a main component of the socialization of women and girls is sexualization. Patriarchy teaches us what female sexuality should look like and that we are supposed to enthusiastically ascribe to expectations that cater to male desire instead of our own.
Girls and women are socialized to make our bodies sexually pleasing and available and to believe that success in this will empower us. Consent to patriarchy’s terms and conditions is at the core of our expectations as women. So when sex trade advocates and sympathetic media accuse survivor activists and other feminists of being “anti-sex” for criticizing the sex industry and male entitlement, they know they are attacking that which we’ve learned it means to be a woman under patriarchy.
When people hear the words “sex industry” they tend to focus more on the “sex” part than on the “industry” part of the equation. When we think of the word “sex,” we think of words like pleasure, passion, desire, lust, intimacy. When we think of the word “industry” we are instead talking about commerce, transactions, monetary ties, economic dependencies, and markets. It is no wonder that people choose to focus on the former rather than the latter. With books titles like Policing Pleasure and Love for Sale and articles arguing feminism should look to “sex work” for lessons on empowerment, you would think that what’s at stake was authentic, freely shared sexual desire; not an economic system.
In a time when discourse is dominated by liberal feminism, “sex positivism” and empowerment rhetoric, who would want to talk about exploitative systems, commodification, objectification, and dehumanization? Well, survivors and survivor-led organizations do. They speak, and speak, and speak, and speak, and speak, and speak, and speak, and speak, and speak about why we must stop believing the fantasy that the sex industry is simply about sexy fun sex and why we ought to address the commercial commodification and the intrinsic disempowerment that an exploitative system brings. Why even mention them? And why allow them to speak as experts beyond their personal circumstances and let them have a fair shot at explaining their position?
Jessica Megarry explains the type of feminism that is acceptable in the internet age as such: “Fun feminism,” as she describes it, “is palatable to a male audience, does not require women to engage in the often painful process of self-reflection integral to consciousness raising, and contains little, if any, political conceptualization of structural male dominance.”
To question the exploitation and the hypersexualization of women that caters to heterosexual male fantasies is to subject oneself to being tarred as someone more concerned with moralizing and “religious proselytizing” than with liberation and empowerment. It is a strange turn of events that is indicative of the co-opting of what has always been a transformative and revolutionary movement. Those in power have always demanded we toe the party line with a smile on our face or simply keep quiet, but now feminists have joined in on the act.
Women do not exist outside of a patriarchal culture. So when we see oversexualized bodies of girls and women everywhere, it sends us a message that this is our role, that this is what female sexuality looks like, and that we must endorse it in order to be seen as empowered, liberated women.
To argue against sexualization is not to say women do not have agency. We can be agentic, empowered people – even very privileged people — yet simultaneously understand and acknowledge that we too are vulnerable to internalized patriarchal messages and self-objectification. If that were not the case, things like cosmetic surgery and girl on girl bullying wouldn’t exist. Our understanding of female sexuality is conditioned by the dominant systems of power in our society: capitalism and patriarchy. In order for this system to survive and thrive, it teaches us to understand agency and empowerment in a way that serves its purposes.
Women are sexualized as children, when protesting, when kidnapped, when reading the news, when shopping for medical supplies, when considering organ donation, and when buying hearing aids. We are even taught to see our bodies as sexualized when sick with cancer. Brutal violence and abuse is sexualized and played up as a game and violence against us is deemed “beautiful”. Women are sexualized even in death. In short, sexualization and objectification are at the core of our cultural conception of womanhood. So to accuse a woman of being “anti-sex” is to essentially threaten her with (further) marginalization and annihilation of our worth in the eyes of a patriarchal culture. It is to threaten us with invisibility and irrelevancy in society because so much of our value depends on our sexual availability.
This has never been a debate about the intrinsic value of sex, of course. As Ariel Levy points out, our obsession with paid, commercial sex is “a testament to what’s missing from our understandings of human sexuality with all its complexity and power. If we were to acknowledge that sexuality is personal and unique, it would become unwieldy. Making it something quantifiable makes it easier to sell and to market.” Rather, this has always been about the intersection of patriarchy and capitalism that has created an oppressive two-tier system that normalizes the idea that sex is pleasure for men and labour for women. People critical of the sex industry have always known this.
It is time that we call out the misogynist nature of these attacks that are meant to symbolically vanish feminists from discourse and remind women and girls that our place is either as sex currency or as non-actors. After all, if women are not allowed to object to a system that relies on the objectification of female bodies without having our libidos and actual worth questioned, what are women here for?
Raquel Rosario Sanchez is an activist and advocate from the Dominican Republic. Her efforts center around violence against women and girls, anti-human trafficking efforts, and death penalty abolition. Her research focuses on the construction of masculinities in the demand side of the sex industry. She is pursuing a Master’s Degree in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies in Oregon.