Radical Feminism's Irrational Attack on Prostitution

Radical feminism is the perspective that has done the most to distort our understanding of prostitution, yet it remains quite popular

Radical feminism sees prostitution as the quintessential form of male domination over women – the epitome of women’s subordination, degradation, and victimization (Barry, 1995; Dworkin, 1981; 1997; Jeffreys, 1997; MacKinnon, 1987, 1989). It has been called an essentialist perspective because its sweeping claims apply to all historical time periods, all societies, and all types of prostitution.

In this perspective, prostitution involves not only specific acts of violence but is a form of violence by definition. Violence is depicted as “intrinsic” and “endemic” to prostitution – categorically, universally, and trans-historically. These authors argue that any distinction between forced and voluntary prostitution is a myth, since some coercion is claimed to always be involved, even if the worker is unaware of it.

Radical feminist work on prostitution is not limited to the abstract theorizing found in the writings of Dworkin, MacKinnon, and others. A number of empirical studies take this perspective as well. One book-length study concluded that prostitution is an “abomination” and “brutal oppression” that “must be opposed,” even though the authors’ findings do not justify this indictment (Hoigard and Finstad, 1992: 76, 183, 184). Similarly, a study of street prostitution in five countries proclaims that “prostitution is violence against women” and that “numerous violations of human rights” are “intrinsic” to prostitution (Farley et al., 1998: 406, 421). Some writers attempt to present their work as scientific, while others acknowledge their ideological biases. A Chicago study, for instance, indicates that the “research project was designed within a framework of prostitution as a form of violence against women and not prostitution as a legitimate industry . . . The survey questions and administration were likely biased to some degree by working within this framework and by employing surveyors who had left prostitution” (Raphael and Shapiro, 2004: 132). The interviewers “did not see their own [prior prostitution] experiences as ‘work’ or a choice” (Raphael and Shapiro, 2002: 9). This overarching bias stacks the deck: “When researchers have difficulty understanding rational, not to mention positive, reasons for choosing sex work and find it easier to think of prostitutes as victims, it is understandable that the sex workers [interviewed] will stress their victim status and negative motivations for working” (Vanwesenbeeck, 2001: 259).

Authors who adopt this perspective make claims designed for maximum shock value. Customers are labeled “prostitute users,” “batterers,” and “sexual predators.” Farley declares that “the difference between pimps who terrorize women on the street and pimps in business suits who terrorize women in gentlemen’s clubs is a difference in class only, not a difference in woman hating” (Farley, 2004: 1101). All male customers and managers are motivated by animus: “When men use women in prostitution, they are expressing a pure hatred for the female body” (Dworkin, 1997: 145).

These sweeping claims are not supported by empirical studies

The legal context under which prostitution occurs is important, a context typically ignored in radical feminism. Many of the harms that seem to be associated with prostitution are traceable to its prohibited and penalized status: “It is not sex work per se that promotes oppressive values of capitalist patriarchy but rather the particular cultural and legal production of a marginalized, degraded prostitution that ensures its oppressive characteristics while acting to limit the subversive potential that might attend a decriminalized, culturally legitimized form of sex work” (Zatz, 1997: 291). Under criminalization, prostitution is set apart from “legitimate” work, workers are marginalized and stigmatized, and the police provide little protection. Each of these problems is at least somewhat reduced under conditions where prostitution is legal

Violating the canons of scientific inquiry, the radical feminist literature on prostitution and other types of sex work is filled with “sloppy definitions, unsupported assertions, and outlandish claims” (Rubin, 1993: 36); such writers select the “worst available examples” of sex work and treat them as representative (Rubin, 1984: 301). Anecdotes are generalized and presented as conclusive evidence, sampling is selective, and counterevidence is routinely ignored. Such research cannot help but produce questionable findings and spurious conclusions (Weitzer, 2005a,b). What is needed is an alternative paradigm that is (1) based on sound empirical evidence, (2) incorporates the multiple realities ofworkers and other actors, and (3) encompasses different types of prostitution.

Workers differ in their risk of victimization: Assault, robbery, and rape are occupational hazards for streetwalkers and for those coercively trafficked into prostitution, but are relatively uncommon among off-street workers who have not been recruited by force or fraud.

Full article at http://www.bayswan.org/New_Directions_prost.pdf