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The Moral Status of the Sex Industry

In the 1970s, Robin Morgan said that ‘pornography is the theory, rape is the practice’. She was an integral part of the Women Against Pornography association, which had set-up an office in New York City, setting up tours to show interested people, even high school students, the places around the city which exploited the bodies of women.

Even back then, the feminist movement did not just entail one voice (after all, how can you capture one voice representing over half the general population). At the same time women such as Robin Morgan were condemning pornography, other women were celebrating it. Sex-positive feminists looked at pornography as an expression of female sexuality and displayed that there is no need for bodily shame. Some feminists became involved in making pornography specifically for women.

The disagreement between feminists on the issue of the presence of women in pornography and in the sex industry more generally came to be called (perhaps almost humorously) ‘the Feminist Sex Wars’.

Legally and morally, the presence of women in pornography and of women sex workers generally has always been a grey area for people concerned with the liberation of women. On the one hand, it can be degrading and serves to gratify men, and it is also estimated that almost 90% of sex workers were at some point sexually abused. On the other hand, it is a legitimate way for women to make money and fully exploit the male gaze for profit rather than conform to its whims for free, as women spent many years doing.

How do feminists, activists and legislators best approach the morality of the sex industry? To what extent ought they protect women from objectification and to what extent should they allow them the freedom to work in a field that they may find empowering and convenient?

There are no easy answers, and I’d love to read about what readers think on this issue. I think, perhaps the best step in trying to find an intelligent, realistic response involves asking ‘what is empowerment?’ and ‘what is liberation?’ Because regardless of the technical details associating with achieving these goals, the quest for empowerment and liberation is what ultimately unites feminists.

Can one be empowered whilst at the same time selling the concept of their body? We can certainly find numerous examples of times when sex work is disempowering. The trafficking of women and children around the world with the aim of serving the sexual desires of men is a humanitarian issue of huge and obviously detrimental impacts. But similarly, there are examples of people voluntarily entering the sex industry and feeling completely disempowered and dirty, as though they were taken advantage of and were told lies about what to expect.

A recent article in The Daily Mail talks about the ‘squalor’ and degradation associated with being a ‘housemate’ in Hugh Hefner’s Playboy mansion. Far from being glamorous and sex-positive, the women who live in the mansion are bounded by extreme rules and regulations and very high expectations.

According to the article, ‘One by one [the Playboy ‘housemates’] have revealed what life was like behind the glittering façade of the Playboy Mansion. According to them, it disguises a grubby world where some girls feel they are no ­better than prostitutes, paid pocket money by an octogenarian obsessive who funds plastic ­surgery to turn them into his physical ideal.’ The women tell stories of awful décor from the 1960s, the presence of animal faeces. They say that Hefner regularly has 15 ‘girlfriends’ who stay in the house, one of whom is ‘number one’ and sleeps in his bed. Beyond this, the women have some fairly shocking anecdotes to share.

‘If we’d been out of town for any reason and missed one of the official “going out” nights [When Hefner liked to parade his girls at nightclubs] he wouldn’t want to give us the allowance. He used it as a weapon.’ Additionally, ‘Everyone had to be on the Mansion grounds by 9pm every night — unless we were out with Hef at a club or a function. People honestly did not believe us when we told them we had a curfew at the wild and crazy Playboy Mansion.’

Jill Ann Spalding said that, ‘If you kept your pyjama bottoms on, that was a sign that you didn’t want to have contact that night.’ According to Spaulding there were 12 girls there on that first night, and only she and another girl declined the offer to have sex with Hefner, who did not use a condom… Although still hoping to make Playboy centrefold, Jill Ann Spaulding was determined to resist becoming intimate with Hefner and quickly discovered the consequences when she returned to his room for another of the sex parties, keeping her pyjama bottoms determinedly on. The other girls soon made it clear that she was expected to take them off… ‘Hef looked absolutely furious, and one of the girls hissed at me that I was disappointing him.’

To focus solely on the negative, however, does not give justice to the complexity in which women in the sex industry are able to think about their job and judge what is right for them. Youtube video, “Every Ho I Know Says So” details how sex workers feel about their industry. One sex worker in the video says that ‘you need to know when I’m at work, I’m empowered and not a victim of patriarchy or perpetuating patriarchal ideals.’ Another suggests that sex workers are particularly adept at overcoming sex-negative discourse that we are socialised to accept.
Some characterise their job as financially necessary and feel that they would not change their profession, regardless of the wishes of others. The work is something that they have teased out intellectually in their own minds and it may be condescending or unfair to immediately reject such reasoning.

Third wave feminism is all about affording women choice. Choice to act in certain ways, choice to pursue any profession and choice to believe in what one wants. But, as our second wave elders remind us, choice can be an illusion if you are socially predetermined to act in certain ways. What we should try to achieve is allowing women to make those choices in the context of challenging our default assumptions that we have been conditioned to have.

A recent article written by an escort gives us a haunting picture of how women feel they need to express their sexuality. The article is about the letters that the escort gets from women who say that they envy her and her line of work, suggesting that they seek her level of empowerment. The article condemns this idea. She writes:

‘Women are still burdened with astounding, disproportionate pressure to be both attractive and sexually willing, so they look for arenas in which to prove themselves as such. I don’t think many of these curious women envision themselves prostituting for years or even a full 12 months. They don’t think about lying to their parents and their friends, or telling their friends and suddenly feeling even more alone. They certainly don’t envision the problems presented by trying to date while working or the necessary efforts they’ll have to take to avoid law enforcement. They can only imagine those candlelit moments over pricey dinners when a well-dressed man slips them an envelope and they know for a moment that they are good enough.’

The important thing is that participating in sex work needs to be because you fully want it, because you enjoy doing it, because it is the best professional option for you. It’s not okay to choose it because, as a ramification of your social conditioning from a patriarchal society, you feel as though you need to earn a sense of sexual legitimacy from men. You need to find it on your own terms.

(Image Credit)

2 thoughts on “The Moral Status of the Sex Industry

  1. Fascinating article. This is definitely one of the big challenges facing feminists, and you present both sides of the debate wonderfully.

    I feel like this problem is almost too big to handle. I’m not sure if pornography is empowering or degrading, so I don’t know whether to support or stop it.

    However, I think there are some issues at the edges of this debate that I can tangibly grasp and take a stance on. For example: sex-trafficking is obviously wrong, and should be stopped; and at the other end of the sex-work debate spectrum, women who *choose* to be sex-workers (whatever their reasons) are not social/moral pariahs and should not be shunned or labeled.

    For now, I only feel competent to take a stance on those issues. The middle is too fraught and grey.

    Great article!

  2. Good piece on a very complex subject! I’m struggling with the ethics too.
    A (male) friend has told me he uses cam sites, which he says provide a useful means of income for women. My immediate reaction was to find this shocking, but I didn’t want to condemn him for it until I’d thought it through. (I’m not in a relationship with him, he’s just a friend.)
    I think the key, as you say, is choice. However, I also think that within the sex industry – which is not well-regulated in employment terms, for obvious reasons – there is a huge potential for exploitation, including human trafficking.
    I’m sure that many sex workers genuinely believe they are liberated and independent. But I’m still not comfortable with the idea that these “liberated” sex workers are supplying, effectively, male-oriented sex. You could argue it’s straightforward commercial supply and demand. But I think there’s a danger that it perpetuates the idea that men’s sexual needs take precedence over women’s – that what a man wants is more important.

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