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Sex and Gender
2005 Third Web Papers
"Because sexuality is a nexus of the relationship between genders, much of the oppression of women is borne by , mediated through, and consulted within sexuality...There have been two strains of feminist thought on the subject. One tendency has criticized the restrictions on women's sexual behavior and denounced the high costs imposed on women for being sexually active. This tradition of feminist sexual thought has called for a sexual liberation that would work for women as well as for men, The second tendency has considered sexual liberalization to be inherently a mere extension of male privilege. This tradition resonates with conservative, anti-sexual discourse." (Rubin, 35-36)
This "anti-sex" feminism that Rubin describes labels the sex industry to be male oriented and controlled, and thus, rendering the female a submissively sexualized object. I agree with Rubin that a woman's sexuality and sexual freedom are intrinsically linked, and therefore, argue that some women who actively participate in a sex industry must be acknowledged as a legitimate construct to contemporary feminism. In this essay I am only referring only to women who willingly participate within this industry, not women, particularly those of third-world nations, who are forced into the commerce through poverty, intimidation, or human trafficking. It is from a completely objective standpoint that I argue while it is women who are commercializing their bodies for the pleasure of men, it is also these women who are reaping the economical benefits while retaining control in self-marketing; and thus, commercialized sex must be considered a new medium for a feminist dialogue concerning female power.
The ideology of "power" within heterosexual gender relations persists throughout the discourse of both feminist scholarship and social representation. Many feminists including Carol Plateman sincerely believe that prostitution is a form of male domination. In her opinion, the fact that men are able to purchase sexual access to a female's body is evidence to the maintenance of their public and private power:
"When women's bodies are on sale as commodities in the capitalist market, the terms of the original contract (which is about men's civil power) cannot be forgiven; the law of male sex-right is publicly affirmed, and men gain public acknowledgement as women's sex masters" (Plateman, p.208)
This statement is not only contradictory to feminist criticisms of capitalist theory; it is also patronising to women and their sexuality. She argues that masculinity and femininity are sexual identities which are only confirmed in sex, and more specifically, heterosexual activity:
"It is then in heterosexual intercourse that men create and maintain their sense of themselves as men and as women's masters" (Platemen, p. 215).
By stating that heterosexual sex is a male prerogative, Plateman is denying the existence of sexual pleasure for women, and therefore, categorizes them as non-sexual beings that are incapable of enjoying the sexual activity. Also, by speaking of prostitution in a capitalist rhetoric where men are the "powerful" consumers and women are the "weak" suppliers, Platemen ignores the theory of supply and demand. Economics teaches us that the greater a product is in demand, the greater power its supplier contains over the consumer market. It is the prostitute who sets the price of the commodity, manipulates the output of its product, and retains control over how their "goods" are to be handled and negotiated. Also, in defining sex workers as strictly female and the customer male, Platemen genders this act in a controversial fashion. Men also have a history of prostitution to both male and female clients; and thus, she denies their sex when claiming that prostitutes are an entirely female gendered occupation. By stating that sex work is a heterosexual act that defines male control, Platemen ignores the power that the female prostitute retains over this exchange, and also dismisses the existence of homosexuality in the sex industry. By refusing women sexual pleasure and male prostitutes' gender identity, Plateman narrows her argument to a representational stereotype that is simply inaccurate.
Since the 1860s, feminists have initiated numerous campaigns against the institution of commercialized sex and prostitutes. However, these protests result in contradictions that negotiate both the sincerity and integrity of these feminist motives. For example, feminist leaders such as Josephine Butler in Britain and Rose Scott in New South Wales argued for the legalization of prostitution because the past laws only served to "punish the women and not the male clients" (Sullivan, p. 255). They maintained that the State was committing an act of violence by profiting off of women's wages while also preventing them from obtaining safer working environments. Yet, on the other hand, many first wave feminists lobbied for harsher laws and penalties for the prostitutes themselves. Believing that if they could abolish protection all together, these protesters worked to protect women from sexual exploitation and limit male sexual power (Sullivan, p.256). However, the only protection these women were offering was for the male clientele and State support. By seeking to define the prostitute as the "other" who is morally deviant and corrupt, these feminists were actually creating a stereotype division that impeded on all women's sexuality.
Anne Summers, an Australian feminist during the 1970s argues:
"The dichotomy between female prostitutes and non-prostitute women is a form of social control of female sexuality which makes the support of prostitutes by other women a matter of self-interest rather than moral imperative. This process of defining women as strictly asexual "good" women and sexually active "bad women" takes away a women's right to be a sexually active and moral person" (Sullivan, p. 259)
Summers believed the only resolution to this social classification was for feminists and "good" women to identify themselves with the "bad" women by claiming allegiance with prostitutes, prisoners, and lesbians. Although I agree with Summers in that this division between moral women and immoral prostitutes must be abolished, it is illogical for heterosexual women to claim lesbianism or for housewives to state they are sex workers in order to achieve this goal. In claiming these fraudulent identities, women are stating that lesbianism and prostitution are socially acceptable only if you believe that you are one. Instead, these feminist leaders should work to educate that all women are sexual beings and therefore entitled to sexual freedom regardless of their occupation or sexual orientation. Whether they wish to reserve their sexuality for only the female sex or sell their bodies for profit, the fact is, every woman contains a right to their own bodies, and any move to take away this freedom is itself an act of politicized anti-feminism.
I have argued that it is indeed plausible for prostitution to be a pleasurable and sometimes an emotionally liberating occupation. However, like all careers, these women experience both highs and lows in dealing with customers, co-workers, and the industry itself. Yet, many people fail to acknowledge this type of work as an actual "job," instead; prostitution is viewed as defining the female worker's complete social identity. Roberta Perkins tries to explain this social mentality in her work Being a Prostitute:
"Prostitution is denied occupational status because it deals primarily with sexual matters out of what is regarded as the proper context, love or marriage, and is therefore seen as perverse, and because it is assumed to be a predominantly female participation, it stands little chance of ever gaining prestige under a patriarchal mode of society. The denial of prostitution as a form of work is the deepest insult of all to most women working as prostitutes" (Perkins, p. 216)
Judging female prostitutes as sexually submissive and dominated is a limiting fictionalized viewpoint; however, to state that these women always perversely enjoy the act of sex with a male client, and therefore are not "working," is equally false. Regardless as to whether or not these women enjoy their profession, prostitution is no less a type of manual labour than factory work or carpentry.
My argument is centred on disproving the popular theory that female prostitution is strictly related to exclusive phallic pleasure where women are made victims to male sexuality. In female heterosexual prostitution, it is possible for women who willingly engage in commercial sex to view themselves as exerting feminine power. Although some feminists view prostitute women as the powerless victims of male sexual demands, and female prostitution as perpetuating this notion of phallic dominance over women, I sincerely argue this type of ideology to be the ultimate form of misogyny. Here, women are classified as asexual beings that hold no control over their sex acts, nor do they possess any feeling for sexual desire. Men who seek sex are identified as sexual predators who desire control over women through heterosexual sex acts. It is plausible for commercial sex to be a complete role reversal where women are in the position of power and men are made subservient to them.
The discourse of feminist politics has dramatically broadened in the past half century. No longer a strictly "women's" movement, contemporary feminism has grown to include studies on all types of gender and sexuality constructions; and thus, feminism is no longer a study of women, but that of various genders. Although I fully support this delineation from pro-women to pro-sexuality, I do believe the image of the heterosexual woman is becoming inadvertently both forgotten and ignored. What began as a campaign to liberate the 1950's housewife is now working against her. Ironically, the new emergence of feminism is increasingly becoming anti-feminist since being "feminine" is no longer a valued image for a modern woman. If being a feminist today still includes a "pro-women" ideology, then it is imperative that we include all types of women and sexualities in our discourse, not just those who are made obvious binary oppositions to men and patriarchal institutions. Regardless of our personal moral and/or religious foundations, we as the new "modern" feminists must learn to critically analyse and deconstruct all categories of women in seeking to expand a feminist dialogue and create a more complete academic study of gender and sexualities.
Perkins, Roberta. "Female Prostitution" in Sex and Sex Workers in Australia.
Perkins, Roberta. Being a Prostitute: Prostitute Women and Prostitute Men. North Sydney, NSW: George Allen and Unwin Publishers Ltd, 1985.
Platemen, Carol. "A Patriarchal Discourse on Sex" in Feminist Studies Review, Vol. XIII, January 1983.
Rubin, Gayle. "Thinking Sex:Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality." in Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. Ed. Vance, Carol. Pandora: London, 1992.
Sullivan, Barbara. "Feminism and Female Prostitution" in Sex and Sex Workers in Australia.
Summers, A. Dammed Whores and God's Police: The Colonization of Women in Australia. Ringwood: Penguin, 1975.
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