As the discussion grows around prostitution law in Canada, New Zealand, Germany, and other nations, a common defense of the sex industry keeps coming up – the idea that laws against prostitution tell women what they can and can’t do with their own bodies, making them paternalistic and anti-feminist. According to these supporters of the sex industry, prostitution is a choice a woman makes; legislating against it (even indirectly, through bans on the purchase of sex) is just another example of patriarchal control over women’s sexuality and a denial of their bodily autonomy. As one commenter put it on a recent blog post of mine, “There is nothing feminist about telling women what kind of sex they should or shouldn’t have. Nothing.”
This question about the interplay between free choice and regulation is a valuable one to have. Unfortunately, almost completely absent from the discussion is a second question: Does prostitution itself tell women what they can and can’t do with their own bodies? How do the demands on behavior made by the sex industry itself compare to the demands on behavior made by legal sanctions against that industry? Supporters of decriminalization are passionate about the impact sex buyer laws might have on women’s sexual freedom – but do they care much at all about the impact of what they’re fighting to decriminalize?
Before I go deeper, I want to make clear that I’m basing this look on the idea of prostitution as a service, which is by no means the only way people understand it. I myself don’t think we should see the sex that takes place in prostitution as a service. But since the people who talk about the sex industry in terms of free choice and bodily autonomy are most likely going to frame it that way, I’m not going to argue the point. Instead, I’m going to argue that the sex-as-service model is incompatible with the idea that we shouldn’t tell women what they can and can’t do with their own bodies.
So, from the start: If sex is a service, then it’s a service purchased like any other: A customer makes a request and offers compensation in return. You ask a plumber to unclog your toilet, and you give him reason to unclog it by offering twenty bucks an hour. You ask a French teacher to help you learn the language, and the French teacher agrees because you’ve offered to pay an enrollment fee in her class. No matter what the service is, every transaction boils down to the simple logic of I want you to do this, and I’m going to provide you with enough of something else that you have reason to oblige.
Without one of those two parts, there’s no transaction anymore. Requesting a service without offering compensation is asking for a favor or making a demand, and compensation by itself is a gift if no request comes attached. Obviously, a client demanding free sex from a woman in prostitution would be rape, and a man giving her money without requesting sex is no longer a client. So for prostitution to be prostitution, we have to have these two features: A man’s request and a man’s compensation.
This notion of a “request” is important. In almost any transaction, the person initiating the purchase of the service is the one who frames the exchange. When you go to hire that plumber, he doesn’t turn around and say, “You know, I see your toilet is clogged, but I’d rather fix this leaky faucet.” Your French teacher doesn’t get to decide the day’s lesson will be on the Baltic languages whether her class likes it or not. Professionals in the service industry might provide advice to customers or guide them from a position of authority, but they’ll never provide a service that doesn’t at least meet some need or desire on the part of the customer. If they did, the customer wouldn’t pay (why would he?) and the transaction would be over.
This doesn’t mean that the service provider’s desires are irrelevant – only that they don’t, by themselves, determine the transaction. For example, I’ve spent years working as an appraiser of rare and antique books, something I absolutely adore. I don’t think I ever appraised a book I didn’t want to appraise, and I went out of my way many times to grow appraisal jobs and guide them towards the best samples I could find. Between poring over old classics and digging up obscure treasures, it was a job I very nearly would have done for free. But it was still the customer’s desire, not mine, that determined what, how, and when I performed my labor. Or, to put it another way, while I said that I may never have appraised a book I didn’t want to appraise, I know for damn sure I never appraised a book the customer didn’t want appraised. How could I? If they didn’t want it, they wouldn’t have been my customer!
Of course, prostitution isn’t comparable to bookselling, even for the people who say it’s a job like any other. But the larger point stands: We’ve all worked a job we didn’t desire, and we all have desires for jobs that don’t and possibly can’t exist. But no one has worked a job their employer didn’t desire be done. In any service industry, it’s the person fronting the bill – he or she who requests the service – that determines what the service will be.
A lot of this seems like boring theoretical busy work, and it very well might be. But the implications for prostitution are enormous. Because prostitution is a service, and because men are overwhelmingly the ones requesting that service, it’s reasonable to assume based on the previous paragraphs that men are the ones who define what prostitution is and how it plays out in the global marketplace. Considering that prostitution involves a physical act, that means that prostitution is an industry in which men tell women what they can and can’t do with their bodies.
Just like a plumber is never going to leave your toilet overflowing while he redesigns your bathtub, and your French teacher is never going to start lecturing in Estonian, a woman in prostitution is never going to perform a sex act that doesn’t align with the desire of a male client. That’s not the same as saying she’ll never have any desire of her own for that sex act (although it’s worth asking if a meaningful proportion do). It just means that her desire isn’t the reason that sex act is being performed. Because I’m stuck at my parents’ house this weekend and their Internet is too slow for most of my video games, I decided to take the time and make a chart showing the intersection of male and female desire in the sex industry:
If a sex act is desired by both the male client and the woman in prostitution, then of course it’s likely to happen. And by the same token, there’s very little chance of two people performing a sex act if both find it unappealing. After that, though, the pattern diverges. If a woman in prostitution actually enjoys a sex act, but her male client doesn’t, his refusal to pay outweighs her desire. But sex acts desired by men and not by women are performed in prostitution all the time, whether through the grudging acceptance of the woman or through unambiguous sexual coercion. Even with a generous estimate, it’s likely that hundreds of women endure unwanted sex acts in prostitution for every man who does the same – or, to put it another way, male desire is literally hundreds of time more influential than female desire when it comes to what sex acts occur in prostitution.
This asymmetry exists everywhere in prostitution, not just in the actual sex. A quick search online for brothels and escort agencies comes back with a range of mannerisms, clothing, and presentation choices that could charitably be described as, well… narrow. Beyond a few specialty schoolgirl outfits, nurse ensembles, and one punk-themed “sex dungeon,” the vast majority of women on display are thin, white, wearing heavy makeup, and displayed in some form of lingerie. (The women who aren’t white are specifically marketed as submissive Asians, “fiery” Latinas, and even more explicit racial epithets for Afrikan women.) Exactly as you’d expect, the vast majority of aesthetic choices made in prostitution align with what men generally find arousing.
Of course, it’s theoretically possible that every single woman in these brothel and escort advertisements has an authentic desire to dress like a schoolgirl or in lingerie (although, again, it’s absurd to actually think that). Regardless, that’s not a reasonable explanation for why those styles are so commonly seen. Many women have an authentic desire to wear jeans and t-shirts. Others wear overalls, sweaters with pictures of woodland creatures, ballroom gowns, or knit scarves. But those are rarely, if ever, seen in prostitution – and, if they are, they would only be seen by men who specified that they had those precise interests. Just like in any other industry, women in prostitution have financial incentive to privilege male interest over any personal desires they may or may not have.
Reading blogs and articles by women in prostitution – including those who explicitly support the industry – you can see this male control extending even further into things like speech patterns, mannerisms, the way a woman laughs, the way she walks, and even their basic identity. I just read a post from a woman who was busy trying to find a more “sensual” name after a few clients told her they didn’t like her real one. Another said she asks men beforehand whether or not they want her to smile, because both “too much” and “too little” smiling can be a turn-off depending on their preferences. Read that again: A woman has to alter how much she smiles, while being penetrated, based on what a man requests. And this is the industry that liberals defend in the name of bodily autonomy?
Prostitution, as a practice, just is men telling women what they can and can’t do with their bodies. It’s men telling women how to use their bodies, how to move their bodies, how to dress their bodies. What men tell women do with their bodies is the primal guide for how prostitution functions; if we stopped, prostitution couldn’t function. Like all markets, supply responds to demand and the customer is always right. The problem is that the customer wants a fuckable object, not a human being.
Real freedom – not just for women, but for any human being – is incompatible with an industry where rent and food money depends on fulfilling the demands of a stranger. And while all workers suffer under capitalism, we at least tend to see factory work as an expression of control, not liberation. A coal miner isn’t free just because no one tells him he can’t mine coal. The minimum wage shelf-stockers at Walmart don’t have real bodily autonomy just because no one said they can’t take instructions from their boss. It’s a mystery to me, then, why suddenly the legalization of prostitution is seen as a win for women’s freedom, when the result is just a larger set of demands put on their bodies.
Now, I understand the twinge of indignation when some people hear talk about abolishing prostitution. And I understand why “Let women do whatever they want to with their bodies” is an appealing slogan. But if you really aspire to that goal, let me ask: Does that include the woman putting on a miniskirt because she knows she’ll make more than if she wears the jeans she finds more comfortable? Does that include the woman wincing through painful, unpleasant, or just plain boring sex because the alternative is homelessness? Does that include the woman alternating between faking and holding back smiles while a stranger penetrates her? Don’t those women deserve the right to do what they want to with their bodies, and not what the men they depend on for survival want to see done? You may not like that the law sets limits on what a woman can choose to do, but remember: It’s not the law that told her to change her very name for the sake of a man’s erection.