Thinking about sex work

by bjmuirhead

A recent online article by  SA Jones  begins with the observation that

I feel uneasy about sex work. I worry that it objectifies women and compounds our difficulties in carving a place for ourselves as cerebral and corporeal, as full persons. But here’s the thing:  it’s not about me.

The first point I would like to make is that it isn’t about me either. I have never visited or used a prostitute for sex, or anything else, but I have had a few friends and acquaintances who were prostitutes. Moreover, I have no particular moral or political view about prostitution; and why should I when one of the facts of the matter is that people have been engaging in sex for a very long time: casual sex, marital sex, paid sex, incestuous sex, homosexual sex, and so on.

What is at issue isn’t sex, as such, but how the people involved view each other, and for Jones this comes into play with the observation that

when a sex worker is murdered – as happened in St Kilda last week – our outrage is muted

And well may it be, say some, simply because prostitution (sex work) is something which generally is morally condemned from a variety of viewpoints, of which feminism often is one among many—women may have the right to choose what to do with their bodies, but if it involves sex, then it merely falls into a category of ongoing objectification and oppression of women. The theory self-defeats, it seems, because it is a case of having one’s cake and also eating it.

Perhaps I should say now that murder is one of the few acts which I am happy to condemn outright. It doesn’t matter to me what occupation the person has, or their gender. It simply is an outrage, full stop. The question of risk behaviour? Well, merely going out on the town can be seen as a risk behaviour, but of course this isn’t what Jones is worried about, it isn’t what makes her feel uneasy. What makes her uneasy is the notion that women have the right to be prostitutes if they wish, but that this may contribute to their objectification and oppression.

For myself, this is an idea that I always have had difficulty with. The nub of my difficulty is that, as long as we are sexual creatures, and I see no indication that this will change at the moment, men will “sexually objectify” women. Furthermore, women will “sexually objectify” men, and men will “sexually objectify” men and women will “sexually objectify” women, along with every other possible variation. They also will romanticize and fantasize about each other, and so on. The issue, in other words, isn’t about sex and our sexual relations, but about a morality which says that prostitution is unacceptable.

This, of course, is simplistic. What about women who enjoy sex and have it freely with anyone they like? They are called sluts, and more, while men tend to get away without any such moral condemnation—the type of moral condemnation which leaves us relatively unconcerned about the murder of a prostitute. (And what about…all the other aspects of this.)

There’s no doubt that there is a huge moral issue here, and I admit that I would prefer to call it a moral rather than a feminist issue. For me the argument should be that we need to change our moral views about sex and paying for sex, and all the feminist issues seem secondary: if we cannot change our morality, we never will change the culturally structural views we have about women or men. Indeed, it often seems to me that feminism is engaged in a re-enforcing of the objectification of men, all of whom are painted with the same sexual brush in nearly everything I have read. As I said, I never have paid anyone for sex, and when I’ve spoken to sex workers about what they experience, I have been astounded that they could do what they did. (Perhaps the only comment made by a sex worker to me that made sense was that it was no different to faking it with their partner.) I also I have talked to men who have paid for sex, and I found their attitude equally difficult to comprehend; there was an almost determined shallowness in what they said, and an incomprehensible (to me) desire to avoid emotional contact, which a prostitute made easy for them.

There are so many personal aspects to the whole sex worker/prostitute issue that I seriously suspect that there is no general position which can be adopted that will make overall sense, apart from working to change the overall moral position. In this I knowingly align myself with Camille Paglia, and am ready to state that I agree with her that there should, to use her phrase and essay title, be no law in the arena. Nor should there be a huge religious and moral incursion, though this has been present for many centuries in most cultures.

In any event, I believe that there are many different reasons why a man may pay for sex, and not all of them are because all we care about is getting a quick and easy fuck. Often it can be as simple as being touched sexually. I, for example, haven’t had sex since 2007, and I have thought about visiting a prostitute, just to be touched in that way again. (I haven’t done so because I suspect it would be a meaningless touch, however temporarily pleasant.) Nothing to do with thinking women are lesser creatures who are there purely for my use. I know at least two other men who have visited prostitutes for the same reason, and a number of women, older like me, who have taken up dancing just so they could be touched.

None of what I have said means that I encourage or think that rape is morally unimportant. One woman who commented on Jones’ article said:

She (the poster’s daughter) told me once that a woman was raped in the brothel that she worked in. My internal reaction, to my shame, was one of utter bewilderment for a whole gamut of reasons. How could that happen? Don’t they have security? Did it mean that the client just didn’t pay? What IS rape in a brothel? Was she beaten?

I admit that I find this reaction incomprehensible also. A rape is forced often brutal sex. In paid sex, what is going to happen is, usually (if I am to believe the few prostitutes I have known) worked  out before. Anything else surely is rape? Think about it this way, perhaps: if I go to a shop and agree to buy a particular article, then steal a quite different article, surely I am a thief, even if I purchased the original artlcle? —At this stage I should say that I also am completely uncertain of my ground here. I don’t really know anything about sex work, and even though I’ve talked to those friends who were prostitutes, it should be no surprise that their work was not the major topic of our conversation. (Nor, for that matter, did I presume that I could fuck them because of their job. They were just ordinary friendships in which their work and sex played very little part.)

However, putting that much aside on the basis that I really don’t have much of a clue, it seems to me that in many ways paid sex is the only purely consensual sex in which both parties know why they are there and what is going to happen. If this client thinks women are lesser creatures there only for his sexual pleasure, then, really, that is why they are both there. If that same client treats all women that way, (and this seems to be the feminist presupposition) then that is a different kettle of fish, but I won’t comment further on that because I have no clue at all about how to change that, and I suspect that most feminists are equally clueless about this, or matters would have changed already. It is a process, as one philosopher said to me, that may take centuries before there is a deep equality  From where I sit at this moment (and I reserve the right to change my mind sometime today or tomorrow or…) I can only repeat that the issue seems to be to be about morality, more than anything else. If we can imagine morality being taken out of the issue, then we can begin to see how much has to do with a disrespect for women, and how much is merely basic, perhaps grunting, sexuality.