Feminism and Prostitution: Beyond ‘The Happy Hooker’

By Robert Jensen

Published in Nordic Model Now! · October, 2022

[A version of this essay was presented to the “Students for sale: Tools for resistance” conference sponsored by Nordic Model Now!, October 15, 2022, in London. The video is online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kk3Xcuds6X0 , from 1:19:30-1:33:50.]

My first exposure to the idea of prostitution that I recall was Xaviera Hollander’s bestselling book The Happy Hooker: My Own Story, which was published in 1971 when I was 13. Eventually some of the several million copies sold ended up in used bookstores, including one in Fargo, North Dakota, where I regularly rummaged through cheap paperbacks. I was too scared to do more than look at the cover and quickly put it back on the shelf, but the book was part of my cultural training: Boys could look forward to using women that way.

At the time, I couldn’t know that the book’s approach to prostitution—the “empowerment” story that presents a sexually self-assured woman rejecting puritanical judgment and choosing to make a living selling sex—would become dogma not only among liberal and left men but also for a significant segment of the feminist movement. This liberal/left embrace of prostitution would hang on two key claims: it’s just a job, and we should respect women’s choices.

Being a good liberal, I accepted those two claims until I was 30 years old, when I started reading radical feminist writing and meeting radical feminist women. That’s when I stopped using terms like hooker and realized there was little happiness in the sexual-exploitation industries—street prostitution, brothels, massage parlours, pornography, online performance, strip clubs.

In my critique of the empowerment story, I want to suggest ways we can respond to liberal/left rationalizations and keep the focus on patriarchy and other systems of oppression.

‘Sex work’
“Sex work is work,” declare the defenders of the sexual-exploitation industries.

On a superficial level, that is partially accurate. In patriarchal societies, people—mostly female but also male in some cases—can earn money by allowing almost exclusively male sex buyers to use their bodies to attain sexual pleasure.

That is a kind of work. But important questions remain: What else is sex work besides work? What does sex work tell us about our society? Does treating the buying and selling of objectified female bodies for male sexual pleasure as work make it easier to challenge patriarchy?

We’ll come back to these questions but right now, to get us beyond the superficial, I’ll ask some rhetorical questions about the concept of sex work.

Is it possible to imagine any society achieving a meaningful level of justice if people from one sex/gender class are routinely bought and sold for sexual services by people from another sex/gender class? If one class of people are defined as available to be bought and sold for sexual services, is there any way that the class of people doing most of the selling would not be assigned subordinate status to the dominant class that does almost all of the buying? Is justice possible when the most intimate spaces of the bodies of people in one group can be purchased by people in another group?

Same questions, stated differently: If we lived in an egalitarian society with sex/gender justice, would the idea of buying and selling people for sexual services likely emerge at all? If we lived in a society that put the dignity of all people at the centre of its mission, would anyone imagine sex work?

Another formulation: You are constructing a society from scratch, with the power not only to write laws but also to write the stories people tell about themselves, each other, and the larger living world. Would you write stories about how one sex/gender class routinely buys and sells another sex/gender class for sexual pleasure?

Last question: You are speaking with a girl who is considering future vocations. You want her to live in a world with sex/gender justice. She asks you, “What do you think I should be when I grow up?” Do you include prostitute on the list? If she includes that on her list, do you respond in the same way as to other possibilities?

These questions are about the nature of a system and the predictable consequences of the status and power relations among members of different groups within the system. This inquiry is not a judgment about how any individual makes decisions within the existing patriarchal system, but an exercise in imagining the shape of a non-patriarchal system. Such radical analysis does not ignore individuals and their decisions but starts with an honest account of the system within which they live. In patriarchy, the value of some women can be reduced to their ability to service men, which means that any woman potentially can be reduced to that status.

Choice
Liberals emphasize individual choices. Respecting the agency of another person requires us to accept their freely made choices. If a person is not subject to force, fraud, or coercion (a key part of the definition of human trafficking), liberals assume that a person’s choice is free.

Again, at a superficial level this makes sense. But any serious analysis has to go beyond an individual’s choice in a specific moment to consider the conditions under which we make choices. A meaningful discussion of choice must include all the background conditions that affect not only the objective choices she faces but her subjective assessment of those choices.

From research and the testimony of women who have been prostituted, we know that key factors in many women’s decisions to enter the sexual-exploitation industries are childhood sexual assault (which often leads victims to see their value in the world primarily as the ability to provide sexual pleasure for men) and economic hardship (a lack of meaningful employment choices at a liveable wage).

We know how women in the sexual-exploitation industries—not all, but many—routinely dissociate to cope with what they do; in one study of 130 street prostitutes, 68 percent met the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder. We also know that pimps often use coercion and violence to keep women working as prostitutes. In the words of one team that reviewed research from nine countries, prostitution is “multitraumatic” and, not surprisingly, 89 percent of those prostituted said they wanted to leave prostitution but did not have other options.

Are women working under such conditions making a meaningful choice? There is no simple answer. Emphasizing this complexity does not mean we are treating the women like children, or ignoring their agency, or asserting they are dupes with no self-awareness. It is simply recognizing the reality of the world in which we live and they “work,” and at the very least it should give pause to those who want to make glib assertions about choice. There are no doubt women in prostitution who make relatively free choices. But are they representative of most women in the sexual-exploitation industries?

And let’s not forget to analyze men’s choices. Men who choose to buy sex, to act like johns, are considerably freer and don’t face the same constraints that define the lives of most prostituted women. Why do men choose to seek sexual pleasure by buying objectified female bodies (and sometimes objectified male bodies used in the same way)? Why are men so willing to reduce the richness and complexity of sexual experience to the buying of objectified bodies?

Patriarchy
In analyses of the sexual-exploitation industries, all roads lead to patriarchy and the way men are socialized to seek power over women, as well as over other men in many competitive situations.

Patriarchy is the foundational system of oppression in human history, going back several thousand years. But we should not ignore the other oppressive systems, mostly notably white supremacy, first-world power over the developing world, and economic inequality in capitalism, all of which go back several hundred years. In the sexual-exploitation industries, we see all these systems at work, which is hardly surprising given that all of them are based on attempts to naturalize a domination/subordination dynamic. The goal of all these systems is to persuade people that differences in status, wealth, and power are natural and immutable, just the way things are and always will be.

So, it is not surprising that women from the Global South and other economically depressed areas are prostituted in affluent countries. It is not surprising that pornography is the most explicitly racist media genre in the world today. It is not surprising that in a capitalist economy that encourages the commodification of everything, capitalists use new technologies in “innovative” ways to sell objectified female bodies for men’s sexual pleasure.

By now you have figured out that I use the term “sexual-exploitation industries” and the phrase “the buying and selling of objectified female bodies for men’s sexual pleasure” as often as I can. I encourage you to do the same, as one way to fight the liberal rationalizations of oppressive systems of power embedded in “sex work” and “choice.”

To sum up, let’s return to the questions posed earlier.

What else is sex work besides work? It is sexual exploitation.

What does sex work tell us about our society? It tells us that even with the significant legal and cultural changes that feminism has won in the last century, men in patriarchy continue to act as if their sexual pleasure is more important than women’s freedom.

Does treating the buying and selling of objectified female bodies for male sexual pleasure as work make it easier to challenge patriarchy? No, especially when liberal and postmodern feminists join men to treat men’s claims to sexual access to women as more important than women’s freedom.

A defence of the sexual-exploitation industries is possible only if we believe that men have a right to whatever sexual pleasure they want; that women must accept this; and that the choices of individuals within oppressive systems are more important than collective struggles to change those systems.

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Robert Jensen, emeritus professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men and Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity. This essay is based on ideas in those books and Jensen’s other writings, available at https://robertwjensen.org/.
Jensen can be reached at [email protected] To join an email list to receive new articles by Jensen, go to http://www.thirdcoastactivist.org/jensenupdates-info.html. Follow him on Twitter: @jensenrobertw.