Exploring anarcha-feminism: liberty, morality, and economics in the sex industry
Part three in a series looking at anarchism as it relates to feminism, gender equality, and patriarchy.
Integral to the feminist, particularly anarcha-feminist, outlook is the idea of sexual freedom. In the unpublished Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft made the point strongly that women “had strong sexual desires and that it was degrading and immoral to pretend otherwise.” Victoria Woodhull wrote something similar in 1871, a year before she became the first woman to run for the office of president of the United States;
Yes, I am a Free Lover. I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please, and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere. And I have the further right to demand a free and unrestricted exercise of that right, and it is your duty not only to accord it, but, as a community, to see that I am protected in it. I trust that I am fully understood, for I mean just that, and nothing less!
Free love means the right to love, or to not love, as one sees fit. It is not an unreasonable demand: forcing somebody into sexual bondage is as unjust as forcing them into any other kind of servitude. Hence Emma Goldman’s demand of “freedom for both sexes, freedom of action, freedom in love and freedom in motherhood.”
But what of the sex industry – is free love only free when it is not paid for? Is selling sex something you can do of your own volition, is it analagous to having to sell your labour in order to survive under a capitalist class system, or is it both? These questions arise not just in relation to prostitution, but also in relation to pornography. Both involve the exchange of sex for money, though in quite different ways, and in both cases arguments can be made in various directions as to how and where liberty and equality fit into the equation.
The difference between consent and coercion
Before we go any further, there is a point to be made here about the issue of consent.
Obviously, those who are forced into the sex trade are robbed of their free will. Trafficked sex slaves, for example, are forcibly snatched from their homes and taken far away in order to cater to clients for somebody else’s profit. As with non-sexual slavery, this is unquestionably wrong. Likewise, somebody who was not kidnapped into the business but is not able to leave because of a controlling and abusive pimp is a victim of coercion. There is no doubt that both examples represent oppression and coercion where one cannot even make a pretence of liberty or equality.
But what of those who turn to prostitution because they are forced to do so not by a trafficker or a kidnapper but by desperation and economic need? There is a strong case to be made, and one I happen to agree with, that the decriminalisation of prostitution is necessary in order to protect such people and ensure their basic safety.
The point is well made in a letter to the Independent by Cari Mitchell of the English Collective of Prostitutes;
The article about Ms Lorraine Morris, who faces prosecution for prostitution offences after she called the police to report a violent attack, makes important points but leaves out crucial aspects of what happened (“New laws put prostitutes at risk, claim escort agencies”, 29 December).
First, the attack was serious and could have resulted in severe injury or worse. Two men, one who seemed to have had a sawn-off shotgun up his sleeve, pushed their way into a flat run by the Cloud Nine escort agency, threw petrol about and threatened to torch the premises.
Second, Ms Morris courageously came forward to give police information about the agency; she was told this was needed to prevent another attack, and the men had threatened to torch other premises.
She encouraged other women to report what they saw, after the police assured her that the information would be used only to investigate this serious crime. Yet this information is now being used to prosecute Ms Morris for brothel-keeping.
Third, while the police investigate Ms Morris, the two violent men are still at large and have been heard publicly bragging about the incident. How many more women must suffer before the police arrest these men rather than their victims?
I will return to this issue of how to address prostitution. On the issue of consent, I would argue that those who are driven by economic need to sell themselves on the street are also not taking part in voluntarily transactions. They have been forced into it by their financial situation as readily as sex slaves have been forced into it by armed traffickers. The two situations are analagous and I condemn both. As the International Prostitutes Collective say in their mission statement, “no woman, child or man should be forced by poverty or violence into sex with anyone.”
With that in mind, the next question to ask is whether genuinely voluntary prostitution can or does exist, and how we respond to it.
The right to sell yourself?
It could be argued that, even though it is driven by economic need, prostitution will not go away in an anarchist communist society. After all, all employment is driven by economic need and nobody is advocating a world without jobs and industry. We merely want those who do the work to be in control of it, so why could it not be the same with prostitution?
One person who advocates this worldview is former prostitute and founder of the Prostitute Information Centre Mariska Majoor. As she puts it, “in our eyes it’s a profession, a way of making money; it’s important that we are realistic about this … Prostitution is not bad; it’s only bad if done against one’s will. Most women make this decision themselves.” The World Charter for Prostitutes’ Rights (WCPR) makes a similar distinction between voluntary and forced prostitution, calling for the right of prostitutes to “provide their services under the conditions that are absolutely determined by themselves and no one else” and to pay taxes and receive benefits “on the same basis as other independent contractors and employees.”
Whether or not prostitution can ever be genuinely voluntary is something we cannot know for certain. We do know that it is a profession undertaken out of economic need, but this only puts it on the same level as working for McDonald’s, Ford, or the Civil Service. It may be the case that in an anarchist communist society, lacking poverty-driven desperation, the trade dies out entirely. It may be that it continues, driven by supply and demand. Either way, it is certainly the case that in the present making it illegal won’t make it go away. Whilst working to thwart traffickers and liberate those forced into sex slavery, we must also be advocating the right of those who turned to prostitution “voluntarily” to do their work safely.
The WCPR is essentially reformist, and allows for the physical exploitation of pimps to be replaced by the economic exploitation of legal employment, as demonstrated by talk of “taxes,” “customers,” and “regulat[ing] third parties according to standard business codes.” As Vednita Carter and Evelina Giobbe point out when critiquing the WCPR in Prostitution and Pornography: Philosophical Debate about the Sex Industry, “Pimps are not ‘third party managers.” Indeed, “pretending prostitution is a job like any other job would be laughable if it weren’t so serious.” However, the demands of the International Prostitutes Collective are far more radical and comprehensive;
All sex workers must be decriminalised whether they work on the street or in premises.
Scrap the prostitution laws: they criminalize sex workers, divide us from our families and friends, make us vulnerable to violence, and set us apart from the rest of the community — separate is never equal.
An end to police brutality, corruption, racism and other illegality against sex workers: police who break the law should be prosecuted.
Protection from the police and courts against rape and other violence, whoever is the rapist.
An end to racism and other discrimination within the sex industry.
Sex workers must be recognized as workers with rights like other workers, including the right to pensions, the right to form and join trade unions.
Free/low cost, high quality and flexible childcare for all children regardless of their mothers’ occupation or ‘lifestyle’.
Free, accessible and non-discriminatory health services for all: no mandatory health checks or HIV tests.
The right to legal aid.
Autonomy and self-determination for prostitute women and other sex workers. Sex workers must decide how we want to work: we oppose any form of legalization which gives powers to police, local authorities, pimps, madams or other managers to regulate our wages and working conditions and censor what we demand so that they and those they work for can profit from our work. Workers must decide, not the industry.
Prostitute women must have the right to organize independently from men, including male sex workers.
Sex workers must organize independently from pimps, police and those who are managers in the sex industry. Unions are for workers not for bosses.
Viable economic alternatives to prostitution: no woman, child or man should be forced by poverty into sex with anyone. People who want to leave the sex industry should get the help and resources they need.
Shelters and economic resources for runaway children and adults so they don’t have to beg or work as prostitutes in order to survive. Children must be protected from violence and abuse — they must not be criminalized.
No rehabilitation schemes which force women back into low-paid jobs.
An end to extortionate room rent and other overcharging in red light areas.
The right to freedom of movement within and between countries.
These demands offer a vital blueprint for making sex workers safer and challenging the domination of the pimps, madams, and others who seek to exploit the sexuality of their workers for profit. Whether prostitution is an entirely coercive profession or whether it could thrive under worker self-management in a post-capitalist society.
What, then, of pornography? Is it any different, or do the same arguments apply?
Porn and degredation
In August last year, Jessica Wakeman wrote a blog called “10 things women forget to do during sex.” It caused something of an uproar for due to point number 4. “Offering to let him come on your face will make his friggin’ day. If that’s too porn-y for you, let him come on your chest instead.” This kick-started a debate amongst feminists over attitudes towards porn and sex.
Responding to the idea that facials (or, specifically, heterosexual facials where a man ejaculates on a woman’s face) are humiliating and demeaning, Wakeman wrote that “leaving facials up to the porn stars—actors who are making the facial appear to humiliate the woman—is what keeps it looking demeaning.” In fact, “not every man who wants to give a facial wants it to degrade and humiliate just like it looks onscreen. Many do love and respect their partners, and know, to varying degrees, that porn isn’t real. Likewise, some of those female partners enjoy the act as well.”
There were various rebuttals of this standpoint. Amanda Hess, in Semen facials are like weddings, wrote that Wakeman’s “attempts to recast these acts as “empowering” isn’t so much transgressive as it is convenient.” Because although it “doesn’t mean that enjoying performing or receiving facials means that you hate women, or that you have no self-respect, or that you’re a bad feminist,” we ought to remember that “patriarchy affects a lot of the things that we perform and enjoy on a daily basis.” Amanda Marcotte, on the other hand, took the view that “sex is a wild and woolly thing, and I don’t blame anyone who has integrated sexual shaming into their libido and really gets off on being degraded and shamed.” But those who enjoy such things should ”quit constructing self-serving arguments where you both get to get off on being demeaned while denying that’s what it is.”
The reason that I dwell on this point is that, both as individuals and as a society, it is our attitude to sex that determines our attitude to porn. If we are open and honest about sex and sexual enjoyment, then we will by extension be more open to porn as a concept. Those who are quite sexually repressed, on the other hand, tend to take an extremely negative attitude towards it.
This is not to say, of course, that objecting to porn means you are sexually repressed. Hess, for example, argued that Wakeman’s article offered a “useful trick” by “liberat[ing] the facial from the demeaning clutches of the porn industry” because it “separates her sex life from her personal philosophy.” From this point, she goes on to say that “getting off is very necessary, very much informed by a tradition of male dominance over women, and can be very, very hard to accomplish if you only allow yourself to get off progressively.” The argument is that in both pornography and the dominant cultural attitude towards sex, “the female’s pleasure is derived by successfully pleasing the male—and in the process, allowing herself to be degraded.” This is why they are like weddings; “even though we all know it’s sexist as fuck, weddings—like facial ejaculation—still make some people happy. And feminists deserve to be happy, too. But that doesn’t mean we should forget about the sexist tropes that sometimes inform our happiness (and our sex lives).”
There is merit in this argument, and in the idea that porn can be degrading to women. However, in narrowing their focus this way, mainstream feminists such as Hess make the mistake of judging sex and porn by the very heteronormative standards she is critiquing.
Although it may have started out that way, and the area of it most people are aware of maintains this focus, pornography does not cater exclusively to heterosexual males. Indeed, there is an argument to be made that porn is a useful medium for the expression of queer sexuality. That is, anything beyond the one man, one woman, no props norm. For example, lesbian porn that caters to lesbians is very different from lesbian porn that caters to straight men. Whatever your particular leaning, kink, quirk, or fetish, you can find it there – from gay sex, to heterosexual Bend Over Boyfriends, to BDSM, to coprophilia. With the rise of porn aimed at straight women, it seems that all the gaps in the market have been filled.
Of course, the question can still be raised of whether the industry is degrading to those who work in it. This question is one that even the performers cannot agree on. On the one hand, Michelle Thorne has said that “I have never felt exploited. If anything it’s giving you power over men. … The people in this world who are really being exploited are those women in those countries where they have to cover up all the time and can’t vote or anything. A woman’s sexuality does give her power.” On the other Linda Marschiano, who performed under the name Linda Lovelace, has declared that “When you see the movie Deep Throat, you are watching me being raped.” Her story is an extreme one, in which she was brutalised and forced to perform unspeakable acts against her will.
There may not be a universal answer to the question. As with those who become prostitutes without being trafficked, opinions will remain mixed. What is clear is that cases of genuine exploitation, such as Marschiano’s, need to be tackled and their victims helped. At the same time, banning pornography would achieve nothing except to hand the industry over to those with less scruples, and to allow porn genres such as snuff and rape to climb out of urban legend into reality.
Complete sexual freedom
The only worthwhile answer to this issue seems to be to promote complete sexual freedom. This means not only the right of women, indeed everyone, to engage in any sexual act they wish with whoever they wish as long all involved consensual adults, but also the right to refuse to partake in such acts.
This travels to the heart of the matter not only with regards to pornography and prostitution, but with all matters of sex and sexuality. If somebody does not wish to engage in sex at all, or to have only procreative missionary-position sex, then that is their perrogative. If somebody wishes to be whipped and trampled on by high heels whilst wearing a leather mask and a ball gag that, too, is their perrogative. If somebody wishes to exchange sex for money, either in person or on camera, that should also be their perrogative, as long as by the same token the person who doesn’t want to doesn’t have to.
Given that we are now moving towards a situation where such roles are becoming more gender-neutral, the objectification and degradation of women is becoming easier to challenge. But we can only do thatby engaging in the debates and leading the push towards more sex-positive attitudes rather than building a movement to stan on the sidelines and shout for bans which will do more harm than good in the long run.
If freedom and equality are our goals, as they are within the anarchist movement, then this is the only answer.