Prostitution Theory 101
by Yvonne Abraham with Sarah McNaught
Few things have divided feminists as much as the sex industry. Theorists who
agree on a vast swath of issues -- economic equality, affirmative action, even
sexual liberation -- often find themselves bitterly opposed over pornography
Most 19th-century feminists opposed prostitution and considered prostitutes to
be victims of male exploitation. But just as the suffragette and temperance
movements were bound together at the turn of the century, so too were feminist
and contemporary moral objections to prostitution. Women, the argument went,
were repositories of moral virtue, and prostitution tainted their purity: the
sale of sex was, like alcohol, both cause and symptom of the decadence into
which society had sunk.
By the 1960s and '70s, when Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer asserted that
sexual liberation was integral to women's liberation, feminists were reluctant
to oppose prostitution on moral grounds. Traditional morality, Greer argued,
had helped to repress women sexually, had made their needs secondary to men's.
That sexual subordination compounded women's economic and political
Today, some feminists see hooking as a form of sexual slavery; others, as a
route to sexual self-determination. And in between are those who see
prostitution as a form of work that, like it or not, is here to stay.
Radical feminists such as lawyer Catharine MacKinnon and antipornography
theorist Andrea Dworkin oppose sex work in any form. They argue that it
exploits women and reinforces their status as sexual objects, undoing many of
the gains women have made over the past century.
Others detect in this attitude a strain of neo-Victorianism, a condescending
belief that prostitutes don't know what they're doing and need somebody with
more education to protect them. Some women, these dissenters point out,
actually choose the profession.
Feminists who question the antiprostitution radicals also point out that
Dworkin and MacKinnon sometimes sound eerily like their nemeses on the
religious right. Phyllis Schlafly, a rabid family-values crusader, has even
cited Dworkin in her antipornography promotional materials. This kind of thing
has not improved the radicals' image among feminists.
At the other extreme from Dworkin and MacKinnon are sex-radical feminists like
Susie Bright and Pat Califia. They argue that sex work can be a good thing: a
bold form of liberation for women, a way for some to take control of their
lives. The problem there, though, is that the life of a prostitute is often
more Leaving Las Vegas than Pretty Woman (see
Many feminists fall somewhere in between the rad-fem and sex-radical poles.
Wendy Chapkis, professor of sociology and women's studies at the University of
Southern Maine and the author of the Live Sex Acts: Women Performing Erotic
Labor (Routledge, 1997), is one of them. For nine years, Chapkis studied
prostitution in California and the Netherlands, as well as in Britain and
Finland, and conducted interviews with 50 sex workers. Chapkis says she sees
the profession as it is: many of her interviews confirmed much of the ugliness
that radical feminists abhor, as well as the empowerment that sex radicals
"I don't think prostitution is the ultimate in women's liberation," she says.
"But I think it's better understood as work than as inevitably a form of sexual
violence." What prostitutes need, she argues, is not a bunch of goody-goodies
looking down on them, but decent working conditions.
Chapkis believes prostitution should be decriminalized. Just because it can be
lousy work doesn't mean it should be stamped out, she argues. After all, she
says, "there are lots of jobs in which women are underpaid, underappreciated,
and exploited." Criminalizing the profession just exacerbates prostitutes'
problems by isolating them from the law and leaving them vulnerable to abusive
pimps and johns. "In a profession where women traditionally are not treated
well, aren't empowered, and should be able to go to the police for protection
and assistance," she says, "we make the police an extra obstacle, another
In the Netherlands, by contrast, where prostitution is decriminalized, police
and prostitutes are on the same side: hookers speak at police academies to
educate the officers about their work, and Chapkis says the communication pays
off in safer working conditions for the women.
But what of the radical feminists' claim that prostitution is too patriarchal
to be tolerated? Chapkis points out that many things in modern life began as
patriarchal institutions -- marriage, for example. Problems within marriage,
she says, can be addressed without resorting to abolition: these days, marital
property is distributed more fairly, and abused wives have places to go for
help. Even Catharine MacKinnon has found a way to reconcile herself to the idea
of getting married. Why can't prostitution be similarly transformed?
Still, Chapkis isn't so naive as to see prostitution as benign. There are no
easy generalizations about sex workers' lives, she says: "I interviewed street
prostitutes who feel powerful and in control and are making a lot of money, and
I met many high-class call girls who hate their jobs."
Either way, Chapkis is certain that the only option is decriminalization,
which would prevent prostitutes from getting arrested. "I'm as concerned as any
of the abolitionists to deal with the problems of prostitution -- violence,
drug use, poverty," she says. "But you can't solve those problems by further
criminalizing prostitution, driving it further underground. [That makes] it
more difficult for women to access what help there is."
Which is where a lot of prostitutes' organizations stand, too. Tracy Quan,
director of the Prostitutes' Organization of New York (PONY), a support group
of more than 300 sex workers, has been in the movement to decriminalize
prostitution since 1975. "Prostitutes are just a part of the whole mix of
society, whether people like it or not," she says. "Prostitution must be
treated like an industry."
But many workers are careful to distinguish between decriminalization and
legalization, which would create new laws and regulations governing the
industry. That, many sex workers and advocates believe, would only place
additional demands on women whose lives are difficult enough already.
Carmen, a 28-year-old who has been a sex worker for four years, questions the
benefits of legalization, as demonstrated in Nevada. "Under the current
system," she says, "if you are arrested and incarcerated, you are put behind
bars. Legalization would be the same thing. You're being put behind barbed
wire, and it is dictated to you where you can go, when you can go there, and
who you can talk to. That's certainly not enticing to me."
Norma Jean Almodovar of COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), a national
advocacy and assistance organization for sex industry workers, explains that
"those of us who are out-and-out whores want our [fellow workers] to be free."
Quan adds that although some prostitutes find that legal brothels such as those
in Nevada work for them, others choose illegal action because they want to be
"Nevada doesn't encourage hookers to become madams," Quan says. "And, to us,
it is very much an industry just like any other money-making career. We want to
know there is a level of hierarchy where upward mobility is possible."
And many prostitutes are as cynical about the government and the cops as they
are about pimps and johns. "There have been numerous examples of how law
enforcement officials have used laws as a form of extortion," says Almodovar.
" `Blow me for your license' is not the answer."
Sarah McNaught can be reached at email@example.com.