The role of violence in prostitution

This essay will discuss the theories that exist behind this statement and will look beyond the notion that prostitution involves violence to the prostitute herself (which often it does). There are differing views on this statement which usually depend on which philosophical theory is being put forward. Radical feminists as a whole support the view that prostitution is sexual violence for the reasons discussed below.

Radical feminists view prostitution as a form of male dominance and exploitation over women and which reinforces the existing patriarchal order of society. They think that prostitution has a very negative and detrimental effect both on the prostitutes themselves and on the whole of society because stereotypical views of women are reinforced when they are viewed as sexual objects which exist for the amusement and delectation of men.

The main objection to prostitution by feminists is the male dominance angle, whereby the man who buys the woman has sex with her, but it is not an enjoyable experience and she is forced to try and dissociate herself from the man. In this way she is a mere object of pleasure for the man and the sex act is not given on an equal or mutual basis. The woman is thus reduced to a conduit for the man’s gratification. These feminists believe that many clients use the services of a prostitute because they derive satisfaction from the power trip and the control they exercise over the woman during the sex encounter. Catharine MacKinnon thinks that prostitution “isn’t sex only, it’s you do what I say, sex”. [1] 

Prostitution is seen as a product of the patriarchal societal order in which men are superior to women and where the gender inequality is present in all walks of life. Such views consider that prostitution perpetuates the notion that women can be bought and sold like a commodity, providing sexual services for the sole purpose of satisfying men. Feminists are very critical of the patriarchal ideology which has justified prostitution throughout time. This ideology sees prostitution as a necessary evil with men unable to control their desires and so it is necessary for a small number of women to sacrifice their life and be used and abused by men in order that the majority can be protected from rape and abuse. Here prostitution is seen as form of slavery. These feminists argue that in fact prostitution does not reduce the incidents of rape but in fact it leads to a noticeable increase in sexual violence against women by letting men think it is perfectly acceptable to treat a woman as a sexual repository over which they have ultimate control.

In Nevada, the only American state which permits legal brothels, Melissa Farley argues that the state’s high rape rate is directly connected to legal prostitution. [2] Nevada ranks fourth out of the fifty states for sexual assault crimes and its rape rate is higher than the American average. Given that brothels are legal in Nevada one would expect that it would be at the bottom end of the scale in the number of such crimes. Farley argues that legal prostitution creates an environment where women are not humans equal to men and are thus disrespected by men which in turn leads to increased violence against women.

Feminists argue that prostitution is detrimental to society and that when society accepts it, the message is sent that it is irrelevant how the woman feels during sex. Some countries are addressing the undesirability of prostitution and in 1999 Sweden became the first country to make paying for sex a crime although being a prostitute was not criminalised. Other countries including Norway and Iceland followed Sweden’s lead in 1999. These laws reinforce the views of feminists who in their opposition to prostitution also conclude that it is not a practice which can be made safe by reformation and thus they criticise any harm reduction approach. One former Canadian prostitute, Trisha Baptie now campaigns to outlaw the buying of sexual favours and she has said that “Harm reduction? You can’t make prostitution safer; prostitution is violence in itself. It is rape, the money only appeases men’s guilt. [3] In this view although the prostitute is seen to be consenting to sex, her acquiescence is not freely given and the payment just makes the man think that he has not committed rape because the woman has received a financial benefit.

These so called radical feminists see prostitution as a form of violence against women and are adamant that it should be made illegal as in Sweden. These feminists are particularly scathing of another feminist point of view which argues that prostitution should be legalised because it is here to stay. The radical feminists argue that rape and murder have also existed for numerous years and will continue to do so, but no one argues that rape and murder should be made legal. The radical feminists who campaign against the notion of legalising prostitution in order to control and regulate it thereby reducing its harmful effects compare this to the abhorrent notion of legalising domestic violence in order to control and reduce its harmful effects. Just as you cannot legislate to make domestic violence a little bit better the same applies to prostitution. This attitude evolves from their belief that prostitution is sexual violence and should be treated as such whereby it should be eradicated not controlled in their eyes.

Another major objection to prostitution voiced by feminists is that in most cases a woman who enters into prostitution does not do so on the basis of a cold calculated decision because they are forced by a pimp or human trafficking, the latter being an example of enforced prostitution. Even where the decision is seemingly made voluntarily and rationally it often stems from chronic problems earlier in life. Such problems usually revolve around drug addiction, childhood sexual abuse and similar unsavoury circumstances. In other words, the feminist argument views the decision to become a prostitute as spawning and emanating directly from such earlier experiences and circumstances. If the consent is lacking then you end up with compliance at best. Capacity is vital in making an informed decision and according to one study the average age of children when they become prostitutes is twelve at which age they are not of sufficient age to consent to sex. [4] They see such women being driven into prostitution which means that sexual violence they may have experienced in childhood or adolescence is extended through their adult lives through prostitution. Feminists argue that most women enter prostitution against their own volition. Prostitutes are generally made up of women from the lower socio economic classes including poor and uneducated women from the most disadvantaged racial and ethnic minorities MacKinnon 1993. MacKinnon also argues that “In prostitution, women have sex with men thay would never otherwise have sex with. The money thus acts as a form of force, not a measure of consent, It acts like physical force does in rape. [5] 

Some scholars of prostitution maintain that genuine consent in prostitution is not plausible. One has to search at great lengths through academic literature to find many authors who agree that authentic consent is possible or at least likely. [6] 

Trauma research has been criticized for its failure to attend to social attitudes and behaviors which cause trauma. One of Vanwesenbeeck’s (1994) respondents described prostitution as “volunteer slavery,” clearly articulating both the appearance of “choice” and the overwhelming coercion behind that “choice.” The extreme violence suffered by these respondents suggests that we can not view prostitution as a neutral activity or simply as a vocational choice. Instead, prostitution must be understood as sexual violence against women (Kemp, Rawlings, & Green, 1991). The focus of attention is on changing a social system,

which makes prostitution possible.

An alternative view of prostitution emanates from the libertarian pro sex work perspective who oppose the radical feminists view that prostitution amounts to sexual violence whereby the sexual act occurs because of coercion exploitation and domination by men. Pro sex feminists argue that prostitution can be an affirmation by women that they have autonomy over their bodies. As such prostitution is an informed and genuinely free choice. Some prostitutes are high class call girls who are well educated and sophisticated women. They realise that at the upper end of the market there are huge sums of money to be made for seemingly very little effort.

Pro-sex feminists argue that the selling of sexual favours need not be inherently exploitative and that and accordingly deny that it is sexual violence.

Pro sex workers such as Carol Queen argue that the radical feminists who oppose prostitution and view it as sexual violence have failed to take into account the views and opinions of prostitutes themselves, preferring to rely in theory and obsolete experiences. [7] 

Pro sex feminists view the prostitute as being in control and that they in fact control the man as they set the price.

Prostitution is seen by some as sexual violence which brings massive economic rewards for some involved. The sex industry, like any other worldwide enterprise, has numerous sectors based in various locations which are controlled by various managers and is expanding as the law and public opinion allow. [8] 

Whether or not one decides if prostitution is sexual violence depends on your view as to the reasons why women participate in prostitution. If prostitution is viewed as a legal form of rape then undoubtedly you will agree with the proposition. It can also be viewed as a form of emotional violence with prostitutes becoming emotionally battered. The radical feminists gender based view that prostitution is a form of male sexual violence against women does not address the fact that male prostitutes exist

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