For so long feminism has been the place where an old debate exists: liberation versus exploitation. Sexism & misogyny tells us that a woman should be modest, reserved & quiet. In this society, showing off a little skin can get a woman labeled anything from a hooker to slut. In this post, I want to discover the former label and what its implications include. Parlour also featured an insightful piece about prostitution not too long ago.
First of all, modern feminists, generally, have taken a stance of favoring liberation in the liberation versus exploitation debate. Meaning they seem more readily convinced that prostitution, in its many facets, is a form of liberation for a woman’s body instead of exploitation in and of itself. Feminism sees prostitution as bodily autonomy. However, I also think that feminism has done a good job of leaving out the implications of capitalism and racism on prostitution and those who participate in prostitution.
Let’s get this out the way now: sex is the most profitable industry, in the universe, ever. Sex is used to sell everything from music to cologne. Sex is capitalisms biggest export and import. In her book, Black Sexual Politics, Patricia Hill Collins discusses the connection between capitalism and sexual commodity, “making sex highly visible in marketplace commodity relations becomes important to maintaining profitability within the U.S. capitalist economy. The goal is neither to stimulate debate nor to educate, but to sell products.” Therefore, when women’s bodies are used in advertisement as a sales tactic, how can this be liberation?
Prostitution is the most extended and serious form of exploitation of women’s bodies. Being that capitalism is contingent on exploiting the labor of underprivileged communities and race, it makes sense that poor women of color are most affected by this system of sexual oppression. Prostitution is essentially the intersection of race and capitalism.
Prostitution is capitalism’s most visible and hated form of all sexual exploitations. Among other things, prostitutes are seen as dirty, dumb, and unworthy of protection under the law. When capitalism exploits sex, it also exploits those who are most affected by the system of capitalism, non-men of color. However, most of the sex workers we see are black women and transgendered. Both of these groups are stereotyped in society as the only face of prostitution. Then there are those white women who prostitute but they are called “escorts” instead.
Oppressed people are forced into this type of work by poverty and lack of education and then are exploited even further by an abusive “pimp.” This is where the distinction between liberation and exploitation needs to be made. When a “pimp” is marginalizing someone’s bodily autonomy, this person lacks agency and choice of actions because they are being forced to work by an abusive figure in their lives. A sex worker often sees a “pimp” as a father figure or a provider, which is also evidence of the intersection of race as a lot black fathers are absent due to targeting by the “justice” system as well as early death. A “pimp” is a father for many women of color involved in sex work. This is the struggle that more people need to hear about, not just prostitution as liberation. Feminism, as the traditional white ideal that it sometimes is, paints prostitution as liberation for white women, but we never hear of the poor women and people of color who are held captive by this form of exploitation of the body.
It’s important to make the distinction between supporting sex workers and supporting sex work. We need to stop the criminalization of sex workers because these people are victims of brutal beatings by the capitalism, racism, and sexism found in society and sometimes even untreated mental illness. However, prostitution needs to be a system that activists fight against because it is another product of what is wrong in this society. Essentially, feminism and other liberation movements need to support sex workers while fighting against the institution that keeps them oppressed. We need to stop trying to look down on sex workers and start trying to help understand their marginalization and their struggle.
Side note: I never understood why people in popular culture liken themselves to pimps. Pimps are real people who abuse and take advantage of sex workers, why equate yourself to that? Why is Pimp a label of status and glamorization?
People’s hate of prostitutes also extends to people’s hate of those who participate in the sex-sells industry. By this, I mean, video dancers, models who pose for men’s magazines, and womyn who act or model for pornography. This is just a high-class, safer version of prostitution. This is problematic because it furthers this sex-for-sale model, which promotes women’s exploitation, especially women of color, and the idea that in order to be successful you must sacrifice your body. We must educate everyone of their participation in the marginalization and perpetuation of a negative stigma of sex workers. As a society, if we want to end prostitution we must assess poverty, capitalism, racism and sexism and I believe we can do it!