Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Sex Work as a Means of Resistance for Women

Marriage in our society is a patriarchal construction that gives unequal economic power to men and puts women in a position where they are often economically dependent on their husbands, especially after having children. Our society promotes the nuclear family as the cornerstone of our nation, using heterosexual marriage as a means to ascribe gender roles to both men and women. When a woman deviates from these gender roles society punishes her both informally by casting her as a social pariah, and formally by punishing women single head of households by withholding affordable childcare, universal healthcare, and welfare policies that criminalize women of little economic means for being mothers. In some cases, adult, sex work in the United States can be seen as a form of resistance to traditional marriage values and patriarchy. Through this type of work a woman may be able to economically survive without dependence on a husband or the state that serve to control her body and subordinate her spirit. By making prostitution illegal and blocking sex workers from having civil rights, protection and respect, prostitution is made a male dominated, predatory industry that is oppressive to many women, while serving the dominant class at the same time.

In the Berkeley Women’s Law Journal, the definition of sex work is, “…the practice of selling, explicitly and contractually, the private performance of specified acts of a sexual nature ... the sale must involve a contract specifying the items of exchange.... The prostitution contract includes both implicit and explicit agreement regarding access to the body ... of the seller in a private setting.” (Duarte,2003). This narrow definition is used to illustrate the mutual adult consent that is necessary to constitute the sex worker/client relationship. In addition to that definition I find that it would be reckless to omit the fact that socio-economic statuses, country of origin, as well as race/ethnicity affect the delineation between choice and victimization. A woman who is engaging in prostitution because it is her only means of economic survival is not given the option of choice. Women in developing countries, especially those recovering from colonialism and are further plunged into chaos by neo-colonialism, may have little choice when it comes to career choices or means of survival. Global Capitalization has made this much worse, as well as the feminization of poverty that is occurring around the world, regardless of ethnicity. This narrow definition shows sex work to be another form of service work; however, housekeepers, cooks, food servers, nannies, massage therapists, manicurists, etc do not make nearly the same money, nor take nearly the same risks as sex workers. I also cannot speak for male sex workers, as men do not inhabit the same matrix of domination that puts women in a position to be economically dependent on a man within marriage.

Prostitution wasn’t always considered profane to the civilized world. In fact, there is evidence that it was seen as sacred. “Sacred Whore temples flourished in ancient India, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, the Americas and Asia. The word ‘whore’ was a title, used in much the way our work ‘reverend’ is employed today…Whore-priestesses were revered because they taught ‘a combination of mother –love, tenderness, comfort, mystical enlightenment and sex.’”(Muscio, 90-91). Sacred prostitution was respected and whores were considered very valuable members of society. Later, when patriarchal religions began to govern the people, these sacred temples were plundered, the priestesses murdered and the teachings destroyed. The woman’s body was no more a doorway to enlightenment and self knowledge but instead a dangerous commodity that needed to be controlled. Even today, in 2009, women are stigmatized for exhibiting a sexuality that illustrates agency over their own bodies, as well as stigmatized for not allowing themselves to be sexually objectified in a subordinate position that services the desires of heterosexual men, and reaffirms a construction of masculinity that puts men in the position of controlling women’s bodies.

In the article, Class in America, by Gregory Mantsios, he writes, “People do not choose to be poor or working class; instead, they are limited and confined by the opportunities afforded or denied them by a social and economic system. The class structure in the United States is a function of its economic system: capitalism, a system that is based on private rather than public ownership and control of commercial enterprises.” (Mantsios,193). If this is true that private ownership and control of commercial enterprises is what makes up our system of capitalism, then by preventing women ownership of their own bodies and the ability to use their own bodies as an economic resource and commercial enterprise is indeed denying women participation in capitalism and restricting the entrance of autonomous women into the “American Dream.” It seems when any woman in this country seeks to take agency over her own body, the peanut gallery always deafens us with accusations of immorality that could be likened to, “Burn the witch!”

In the article, Sex and Race, by William Chafe, he writes, “In 1898 Charlotte Perkins Gilman argued in Women and Economics that the root of women’s subjection was their economic dependency on men….In fact, the issue of women not controlling their own money has long been one of the most painful and humiliating indexes of inequality between the sexes…”(Chafe, 664). I would like to reiterate that not allowing women control of their own bodies is equally, if not more, humiliating and painful. Since this society only promotes sex within marriage as normal, women who do not conform to this role are ostracized from society in many ways. As sex workers, women are criminalized and therefore are denied the fundamental right to control their own body or economic autonomy. Furthermore, stigmatizing sex work is also an example of using values and attitudes to reinforce the power of the dominant class by creating moral arguments that serve to distract the rest of us from the real immorality of imperialism and neo-colonialism(Alexander, 3); and thereby causing opposition within the dominated groups. (rcg671). The dominant group also maintains control by defining good and bad sex and women’s roles regarding sex, reproduction, and sexuality. Some women engaging in sex work are opposing and reclaiming those definitions for themselves and therefore defining their own existences and identities while maintaining economic independence from men or the state

Works Cited
Alexander, M. Jacqui. Pedagogies of Crossing. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2005. Print.
Chafe, William. "Sex and Race: The anthology of social control." Race, class, and gender in the United States an integrated study. New York: Worth, 2007. 659-72. Print.
Duarte, Susana (2003). PROSTITUTION POLICY: REVOLUTIONIZING PRACTICE THROUGH A GENDERED PERSPECTIVE by Lenore Kuo. Review of Berkeley Women's Law Journal, 18, 308. retrieved from GenderWatch (GW) database. (Document ID: 507748691).
Frye, Marilyn. "Opression." Race, class, and gender in the United States an integrated study. New York: Worth, 2007. 154-58. Print.
Johnson, Allan G. "Patriarchy." Race, class, and gender in the United States an integrated study. New York: Worth, 2007. 158-67. Print.
Mantsios, Gregory. "Class In America-2006." Race, class, and gender in the United States an integrated study. New York: Worth, 2007. 182-95. Print.
Muscio, Inga. Cunt a declaration of independence. Seattle: Seal, 1998. Print.


Anishinaabekwe said...

I am so glad you posted! It has been awhile. Its in alignment with what I have been reading and thinking about marriage. I never want to get married, ever, because it is a patriarchal construction. I thought I would share this quote with you...

"I still think it's important for people to have a sharp, ongoing critique of marriage in patriarchal society -- because once you marry within a society that remains patriarchal, no matter how alternative you want to be within your unit, there is still a culture outside you that will impose many, many values on you whether you want them to or not." - Bell Hooks

Tara said...

You blogged! And it's exactly what I've been waiting for! Thank you!

Sloth Womyn said...

Thanks so much for reading,I respect you both so much, and thanks for the quote, Anishinaabekwe. I love Bell Hooks. This one I have been writing and rewriting for a year because I wanted it to be water tight. I like to sum it up this way:

Marriage: getting free labor out of women since the beginning of patriarchy.

Sequoia Redd said...

This is just excellent. Thank you so much for posting it.

JNgaio said...

That was a fantastic article and really has got me thinking. Thankyou for that.

Sloth Womyn said...

Holy shit! your art, Jngaio, your art!

JNgaio said...

Haha! I'm going to assume that's a positive reaction and thank you!