Is it possible to draw a clean line between forced and free choice prostitution? If not, are radical feminists right to describe prostitution as ‘sexual slavery’?


The idea of prostitution appears in the imagination of many as the ‘most ancient profession’, the one that has always been an integral constituent in the structure of societies. At the same time, having in mind that the social systems are hierarchically organized according to common values of what is good and bad, prostitution has acquired the status of transgression not only from ‘normal’ (traditional) sexual behavior but from the established moral codes as well. Thus, ever present and never spoken about, prostitution founded its existence at the margins of the cities and in the hidden desires of the people. Essential to this existence appears the figure of the woman or in particular, the woman’s body as a source of seduction, pleasure, sin, as the “forbidden fruit” the consumption of which is a great entertainment as long as nobody else understands. Historically prostitution has been considered a female profession. The deeply rooted stereotypes that women’s place is at home, taking care of the children, that they are passive and lack intellectual capacities, further deprived prostitutes from a secure position from which they can claim rights or at least respectful attitude. Such a condition ‘…through a process of othering has produced “the prostitute” as the other of the other: the other within the categorical other, “woman”’ (Bell, 1994:2). However, during the 20th century the history of women changed or rather such appeared. The industrial innovations, the two world wars and the appearance of new philosophical perspectives radically reshaped the way politics and economy were realized, hence opportunities opened for those “others” to appear on the political agenda and to articulate their own views and needs. Through theories on the body, feminists managed to reveal a whole new universe shedding light on how the female body can be used as a site of submission and gaining control over women. They also showed how the body could be symbol of freedom and emancipation. Within these dichotomizing theories the prostitute’s body appears a contested terrain, deeply problematic as it allows for multiple readings all of them standing at opposite ends. In my essay I would try to outline the major reasons why it is not possible a clear line to be drawn between free and forced prostitution. The idea of prostitution is largely formed through prostitute’s body as bearer of cultural tendencies, expression of eroticism and sexual appetite. It appears as a ‘medium of culture’ (Bordo, 1989:13) the same way as ‘sexuality is socially constructed’ (Barry, 1995:54). Secondly, I would try to defend radical feminists’ claims that prostitution is ‘sexual slavery’ in the sense that it is yet another way to reaffirm the unequal distribution of power relations, thus to create an unbreakable relationship between oppressors and oppressed.
Prostitution is no longer simply a moral issue but it spreads over political, economic, cultural and social trajectories. As such it does not have a taboo status anymore and it is further popularized by different visual cultures, for instance pornography that manifest idealized images of the body presenting it as easily accessible. The fact that prostitution has transformed from a local business to a global industry, has taken away the subject matter from the streets and the brothels to the academic and judicial discussion arenas. What is even more significant is our historical time – modernity and its subsequent post-modern period that made it possible for the most marginalized yet central figures - the prostitutes - to express their voices. According to Shannon Bell the result ‘is a politicization of the prostitute body undertaken from its position as experimental body: word-flesh’ (Bell, 1994:3). Thus, in the struggles to determine the position of the prostitute many actors appeared involved, either directly or indirectly, constructing a new discourse – the prostitute discourse. In it all parties stand on completely diverging ends – defending prostitution as a free choice activity or condemning it as a form of sexual slavery equal to rape.
With prostitutes becoming speakers for themselves, the language of prostitution changed. In the 1970s the prostitutes’ right movement prominent in the USA and Western Europe imposed the concept of the sex worker. The sex worker being the new prostitute is meant to embody positive characteristics of appropriateness and decency. Most importantly however, the aim of the pro-sex activists was to change the widely accepted identity of the prostitute as being only a passive body and a nameless object. The sex worker as Kamala Kempadoo explains ‘is not a universal or ahistorical category but is subject to change and redefinition’ (Kempadoo, 1998:7). In this way new symbolic meanings replaced the cynical image of the prostitute – from an amateur to an expert, from an amoral figure that spreads diseases to a person who is in control, from a problem maker to therapist – the sex worker became attributed with professional qualities. The image of sex worker did not signify a completed identity anymore but rather it turned into a marker for social change while sex work - an occupation bringing income. This naturally meant that the whole activity is voluntary and consciously chosen.
On the other side of the debates, the radical feminists sharply oppose these views saying that the new language the sex worker employs is yet another tactic for normalization of prostitution leading to institutionalized oppression of women. For authors such as Carole Pateman the existence of contract between the prostitute and the client does not mean that there is equal and noncompulsory interaction because the real currency is the prostitute’s body. It is a one-sided process in which men make use of traditional power relations that exist in social patriarchal order. She says that prostitution is “part of the exercise of the law of male-sex right, one of the ways in which men are ensured access to women’s bodies’ (Pateman, 1988:194). It is further asserted that prostitution is always structured so that it involves the prostitute’s consent despite whether it is voluntarily done or not. Both contract and sexual act mean consent but the actions behind those may remain hidden. In other words, the prostitute is not like other workers because different powers operate during the exchange of sexual services. They go beyond professional relations reaffirming conventional stereotypes about gender norms. Because an employer is not interested in the body or the self of its employers as such but on the process of production and the final product, while a client has only interest in the consumption of body, which could both be process for and product of desire.
If we make an attempt to go beyond prostitution narratives in search of the metaphysical framework of these debates, we would find why it is impossible to draw a clear line between voluntary and forced prostitution. The body of the prostitute is historically constructed within many opposing meanings that create discourses on their own. These discourses derive from experience and according to Shannon Bell ‘all experience is constituted by discourse. Discourses create objects as well as subjects’ (Bell, 1994:13). The boundary between forced and voluntary prostitution is thus blurred because of the inherent subjectivity of discourses that do not mean one and the same thing for different individuals. The body therefore is a metaphor for culture. It is a text in which the prostitute could be a female figure imagined as a victim of both pimps and clients, while at the same time the position of the sex-worker occupied by either a man or a woman is seen as expression of empowerment and sexual freedom. This perspective of reading the prostitute is a purely post-structuralist one, having its roots in Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction theory in which reading appears a political act since readers interpret from different positions in society and in the world. Consequently, paradoxical binary oppositions follow presenting the prostitute as a whore or Madonna, guilty or innocent, good or bad (woman). In any case, it seems that there is no consensual agreement over the position of the prostitute. The major reason is that the body of the prostitute being a major source of her or his identity does not have a meaning on its own because it is constantly changing and not stable. It is the textuality of the body that attributes meanings, creates discourses and shapes the material existence of the body itself; furthermore it creates sexuality and subsequently gender.

Radical feminists like Catherine MacKinnon claim that sexuality is constructed by patriarchal understandings. ‘To be realistic about sexuality is to see it from the male point of view’ (MacKinnon 1987:59 quoted in Bell 1994:85). Since historically men have been in possession of the right to decide over the fate of “others”, women lack their own sexuality because all the time it has been constructed in compliance with the male standards. Identity on the other hand is largely formed through sexuality, which for a person is a means to develop a sense of belonging in the existing world; it can also be a means for one to start identifying with the dominant discourse in order to fin in it and be “normal”. However, bearing in mind that the prostitute’s sexuality is carved upon her body, so as her identity is, her qualities are estimated in materialistic terms and perceived as an object for use. She becomes the product of the hegemonic culture based on male or phallocentric discourses that present sexualized body as a major ideal. This is why I believe that the radical feminists are right to employ the term “sexual slavery” in the description of prostitution. Sexual slavery is a metaphor that spreads beyond the physical and economic exploitation of human beings to encompass repeated and pervasive model of mental and emotional subordination. With their bodies being widely used in exchange of money, prostitutes become commodities for market exchange; trading objects the good condition of which would bring more profit to the owner who sometimes happens to be the pimp. Along with that racial and gender categories, as well as age, are in operation when the client chooses the body. The majority of clients would prefer a younger body since it is the ideal for sexual maturity and power. It was similar situation two hundred years ago when in the slave trade a young African slave with lighter skin tone would be sold for more money. Race, age, gender are all conditions for discrimination to thrive, reaffirming the existing androcentric prejudices. ‘To the oppressor, sexual differences and racial differences are visible evidence that all women and people of colour, being unlike whites and men, are the “other”, the lesser.’ (Barry 1995:24). That is how the prostitute is created – a submissive object serving men’s sexual desires. She reflects the tastes of the consumers and can be easily replaced.
The world of prostitution is cruel often incorporating many harmful practices such as drugs or weapon trade. This further stabilizes prostitutes’ insecure status and the social stigma imposed on them becomes persistent. The legalization of prostitution would not make them more respected or protected but only more accessible. Along with that the normalization of the language makes prostitution look as an innocent activity accessible for everyone above the age of 18. Sexual exploitation would be just another form of entertainment. By entering on the market, prostitutes will become “economy players” and their bodies would rate according to the current market prices. However, in times of economic crisis, for example, their bodies would become cheaper since factors like unemployment would refrain clients from the use of sexual services or they would be willing to pay less. Then the prostitutes fighting with the competition would be forced to offer bonus services or could get involved in risky intercourses in order to keep their clients. This would make them as vulnerable as before since their bodies are the major source for income. But the negative consequences would be greater in scale since prostitution is a global issue. They would find realization in human trafficking and illegal workers working in legal institutions. With the law entering into force the boundary between forced and voluntary prostitution will be blurred, while the risks for the prostitutes would stay the same. ‘In many cases, for example, prostitution is legally regulated in ways which so heavily penalize independent prostitution that law/ law enforcement effectively operates as a pressure on prostitutes to enter and remain in third party controlled prostitution no matter how exploitative the third party may be.’ (O’Connell Davidson 1998:17). So even if prostitution is legalized, there is no guarantee for the prostitute to enjoy free and secure professional practice since the state gives the third parties legal permission to have the prostitute at their disposal. Besides, the exchange of sex services happens in private and a third party is unlikely to monitor for violation of the contract between the sex worker and the client. Often the third party would not even bother to interfere. Such is the case “where brothel owners allow clients to take prostitutes off the premises for a night or for several days … the prostitute is, in effect, the client’s temporary slave, and can at his whim be forced to submit to any form of sexual use, not just by the client himself, but also by his friends.’ (O’Connell Davidson 1998:35). So these examples demonstrate that sexual slavery will always exist as long as there is demand for the use of sexual services despite whether they are legal or not. Since prostitution is founded on men’s needs and desires, they govern it. So what kind of empowerment is created with the legalization of prostitution? The sex workers’ claims that laws would keep them protected and healthy actually are obscuring the real winners from this bargain – the pimps who over a night would turn into respected businessmen and the state, which will benefit from taxes from the commodification of bodies. Because in the exchange of sexual services power relations are exercised. Cathleen Barry asserts that ‘to locate all of sexual exploitation within the real world, lived experience of patriarchal oppression is to speak about power.’ (Barry, 1995:73). Under power relations she means not exclusively the use of physical force but rather those internal and external factors that make prostitution exploitative. These could be, among others, poverty, substance addiction, traumatic childhood, violence. Legalization of prostitution is also among these factors marking a shift in power relations – power given to new corporate actors who would have legal grounds to exploit even large numbers of bodies.

In conclusion, the numerous opposing discourses place prostitution in seemingly never endless debate over its positive and negative characteristics. The language changes with the appearance of new actors and so prostitution acquires new dimensions. To sell your body becomes a distinctive activity from selling sex services. In reality, however, not only language matters since there is also oppressive silence. This silence belongs to the ones who cannot even articulate the violent environment they live in. It is commodified with threats or deprivation. The discourses that are led in the Western societies do not reflect the ones in the East where living standards are different, creating different experiences and attitudes. So while sexual slavery is present in on a global scale and in the fates of many prostitutes who endure battering or trafficking, the sex worker does not exist even in the vocabulary of many countries, like Bulgaria.

Barry, K. (1995) ‘The Prostitution of Sexuality: The Global Exploitation of Women’, New York University Press
Bell, S. (1994) ‘Reading, Writing, and Rewriting the Prostitute Body’, Indiana University Press
Bordo, S. (2003) ‘Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body’, Barkeley: Unoversity California Press
Jeffreys, S. (2009) ‘The Industrial Vagina’, London: Routledge
Kapur, R. (2005) ‘Erotic Justice’ London: Glasshouse
Kempadoo, K. and Doezema, J. (1998) ‘Global Sex Workers: Rights, Resistance and Redefinition’, New York: Routledge
Nagle, J. (1997) ‘Whores and Other Feminists’, New York and London: Routledge
O’Connel Davidson, J. (1998) ‘Prostitution, Power and Freedom’ Cambridge: Polity
Pateman, C. (1988) ‘The Sexual Contract’, Cambridge: Polity

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