Where are the ‘Feminists’?

A woman is being publicly bullied, insulted and robbed of both her possessions and her dignity. I guess the National Organization for Women haven’t been watching the news for a couple of months.

In their May 1st bi-weekly newsletter, sent out with Kim Gandy’s Below the Belt column, there was absolutely no mention of Deborah Jeane Palfrey, her case, nor the blatant misogyny illustrated by the latest high-profile sex scandal.

While NOW president Kim Gandy did touch on an equally important issue with her critique of the recent Supreme Court ruling that imposes new abortion restrictions, NOW and other women’s advocacy groups are still failing to recognize the indivisible link between prohibiting a woman’s right to engage in consensual sex and limiting a woman’s right to access safe and legal abortions and birth control.

Gandy characterizes Gonzalez v. Carhart as: “…insulting paternalism and a profound distrust of this country’s women, families, and medical professionals.” Exactly the same can be said of the laws that prohibit prostitution and the various policies associated with the enforcement of such laws, including foreign policies that endanger the health and safety of women around the globe in the name of morality.

It’s not just NOW who have missed the boat on this one. While several feminist sites have posted articles off of the wire, there’s little commentary or critique if the situation within the feminist arena. Those who have commented have been quick to respond to Tobias’ unusual comment about his current use of a service that employs “Central Americans,” and the uber-misogynist statement about not being able to remember any of the girls that he saw because ordering an escort is “like ordering a pizza.” Naturally, I’d expect feminists to address these statements, but they’re really missing the forest for the trees by viewing this through the lens that commercial sex is inherently bad for women.

Feminists in the UK managed to at least explore a question that hints upon recognition of the human element of the women working in the biz:

“What’s significant about this story, as it was with the Ipswich murders, is the reference to the women involved as prostitutes or call-girls, rather than as women. Does the use of a distinct nomenclature to define the selling of one’s body for sex somehow lessen the significance of female exploitation and use by men? No, it doesn’t, and the media should begin to demonstrate this through their reporting.”

It’s unfortunate that feminists continue to run in circles around this jaundiced platform that a pre-negotiated agreement for sex automatically signals ‘exploitation.’ Feminists don’t seem to be concerned about the exploitation that occurs when women lose their jobs based on their sexual history.

Even more infuriating is that not only feminists but many other progressives are screaming about this being a Republican scandal. At least some out there have the common sense to know that Palfrey’s list likely contains just as many blue politicians as red. Feminists can hardly spare time debating which party is worse than the other- there are real issues that feminists need to find common-ground on in the midst of this scandal.

Yes, those who use their influence to attack reproductive justice by restricting prostitution, abortion, birth control and STD prevention resources- are hypocrites and deserve to resign in shame from their positions of power. Their crime however, is not in negotiating a payment in exchange for sex or entertainment. The difference between legal sex and illicit sex is that with the latter, clear boundaries are negotiated up front in the form of dollars and hours. Do feminists really want to limit a woman’s right to negotiate and enforce boundaries?

Regardless of the who’s-who list and the shameful resignations, the fact remains that the ‘bad girls’ burn in the flames of the prostitution witch-hunts while feminists and other women look on with indifference and occasionally with contempt. Religious and patriarchal definitions of acceptable female sexual behavior still run deep- even within the women’s movement. If feminists cannot identify sex workers’ rights as a legitimate element of choice, then they are just as hypocritical as Tobias and they are equally responsible for the systematic oppression of some women based on their sexual choices.

Those who are truly being ‘used by men’ are Palfrey and the women she employed- not by the men who used their services, but by the men who operate under-cover schemes, blackmail, lie and bully them into fighting against each other in civil and criminal suits.

This ought to be a call for feminists to wake up and smell the divide-and-conquer.

– Karly Kirchner

28 Responses

  1. I do happen to believe in legalization of prostituion along the model in Nevada and the Netherlands.

    But I do it on libertarian grounds–not feminist.

    The right to use one’s body to make money , such as stripping and prostitution, is a right women have as persons–and they are able to do it because they are female–but it has nothing to do with achieving equality with men, and efforts to combat misogyny in what remains a patriarchial society.

    As long as women understand what they are doing when making money in this way–and are doing it as a free choice–it is fine. And it is fine so long as it is understood it is a male exploitation fantasy and desire that is being used to make this money.

    Although often romanticized– most sex workers are exploited and abused. Since most of it is illegal, there is virtually no government protection. And , anyone who has any familiarity with this scene knows, despite the male myth of the happy hooker, this remains a distinct minority in the profession.

    I do personallyknow a couple of girls, who have college degrees,and have their heads together, who did go into high class escort service. And I am pretty sure they would agree with my analysis. They know they are playing on male exploitaion–and frankly find it amusing.

    But, most prostituties are not in that boat. They do not have real choices. And they are exploited– physically, emotionally an spirtiutally by their Johns, Pimps, and society as a whole.

    ~Becky

  2. Palfrey is a pimp. As a feminist I abhore what she does – she is making money by selling women.

    Yeah, I can feel sorry for her, I would bet a very large amount of money that there is a considerable amount of sexual abuse in her past.

    But just the fact that she is a woman doesn’t mean feminists need to defend her actions! That’s ridiculous. If that ever was the case, those days are long gone.

    Prostitution hurts everyone involved. I wish Ms. Palfrey peace in fighting her denials and demons. But mostly I wish to see criminal charges for the johns who had the arrogance to order women up by phone, use them as objects, and are now scrambling to hide. Each and every one of those johns needs to spend some time in jail.

  3. Becky, you write: “Although often romanticized– most sex workers are exploited and abused. Since most of it is illegal, there is virtually no government protection. And , anyone who has any familiarity with this scene knows, despite the male myth of the happy hooker, this remains a distinct minority in the profession.”

    You point out an important fact – because it is illegal, there is virtually no government protection. This is true. However, it is also true that since it is illegal, researching the issue is very tricky. This means that no one can really say whether or not the “happy hooker is a distinct minority.”

    I am very familiar with the “scene.” The workers I know are not victims. I am not saying that everyone in the industry is happy to be there. I know that the media tends to portray prostitutes as primairly drug-addicted, desperate, streetwalkers. Does this mean that most prostitutes fit this description? No. What it does mean is that most people will associate the image when thinking of prostitutes.

    I think legalizing the profession will open up many more possibilities in terms of actually helping the people who need it – further, it will enable more accurate research to happen that will make inroads in solving problems associated with the industry.

    As Carlin says “why is it illegal to charge for something that you can legally give away for free?” (or something like that)

  4. It is vital that the notion of feminism is expanded to include sex workers. Feminism is incomplete without sex workers.

    This quote by Adrienne Rich is a perfect example “If we conceive of feminism as more than a frivolous label, if we conceive of it as an ethics, a methodology, a more complex way of thinking about, thus more responsibly acting upon, the conditions of human life, we need a self-knowledge which can only develop through a steady, passionate attention to *all* female experience.”

    The key is to get rid of stigmas, of heteronormativity…..as expounded upon by Jill Nagel from “Whores and other Feminist”

    “A central problem for feminists of all stripes, including feminist whores, is opposing the nonconsensual treatment of women as only sexual bodies while simultaneously challenging the cultural hierarchies that devalue and stigmatize sexual bodies.

  5. Swampass–my only point is there is certainly no hypocricy in feminists not taking a pro-prostitution view. It would be entirely inconsistent to do so. I can not justify it in my mind on feminist grounds.

    But, since that does not totally define my set of beliefs I do favor the legalization of prostitution within the parameters mentioned. But I do this on libertarian grounds–the right of women to do as they please–but that is a human right they have which is not gender specific.

    And in that stance, so long as they understand they are exploiting a misogyonistic societal exploitation fantasy and male desire, I have no problem with it.

    But it is in no way a feminist issue.

    ~Becky

  6. The problem with prostitution is not that it is illegal. The problem is that men are buying women and using them as human toilets. They will do that whether it is illegal or legal.

    The abuse and humiliation cause most prostitutes to use drugs of some kind. If you are seriously in or near prostitution you KNOW that most prostitutes use drugs. At least be honest here.

    Prostituted women suffer high incidents of physical abuse, hospital visits, and long-term psychologicial trauma. They often feel guilty that they enjoyed much of the sex and it takes years to reconcile the fact that it is possible to have physical pleasure even while being expoited.

    If you are going to talk about the issue of prostitution, please stop trying to describe some disneyland version of it. This isn’t a high school debate here. People are being hurt. Thousands of women are having sex with men they detest for money tonight. Honor their pain. Grow up and stop trying to gloss over the brutal reality.

  7. “It is vital that the notion of feminism is expanded to include sex workers. Feminism is incomplete without sex workers.”

    That’s just not possible. Feminism is about human dignity. Prostitution is about abuse and exploitation.

    Prostitution is not a feminist act. Sorry. Yes we can work with prosituted women. Yes we can work hard to rpovide alternatives and most importantly drug and psychological treatment.

    But it would be beyond ironic, verging on schizophrenic for feminism to embrace prostitution.

    You forget that many of us are very very familiar with prostitution. We know what actually goes on in both legal and illegal prostitution. Rose colored glasses don’t cover up the long term trauma and pain. Nicely laundered language doesn’t get rid of the memories.

    No, feminism’s role is to shed light on the realities of prostitution, not to be an advocate for more pain and exploitation of women.

  8. Oh really?

    And is this based on your personal experiences with prostitution? Or is it just the propaganda that you read during a Women’s Studies class?

    There are SOME very real problems for people who engage in prostitution. Nobody here is denying that. But that is not the full story.

    You would like to over-simplify something that is complex and has many different layers. Feminists should stop wasting their time trying to ‘save’ women from consensual sexual negotiations and wake up!

    Those who are the most vulnerable to problems are being over-looked when you make such generalizations about a community of people that YOU HAVE NO EXPERIENCE WITH.

    It’s a sad case of crying ‘Wolf!’

    Stop with the generalizations and start asking some real questions.

    Can a woman’s fundamental right to choose be protected if it is illegal to negotiate the terms by which she will have sex?

  9. 🙂 Well, I’ve just spent the last few hours on the phone dealing with real prostitutes having real issues in the real world. Meanwhile you’ve been posting on the web. What’s a self-respecting prostitute doing sitting around on the computer at midnight on a Friday, anyway?🙂

    I think prostitution is anything BUT simple. I think it is astonishingly complex and layered.

    At the bottom of it all is the transaction. Is it for love or money? Do I get to be myself or do I have to pretend to be someone else? Do I get to do things for my pleasure or only for yours? Will you say supportive and loving things to me or will you call me a slut and slap me too hard?

    Most of these thoughts are NOT negotiated and articulated. They are played out action by action. Eventually it gets to a point where you are not being treated right. So what do you do? Stop and give him his money back? No likely. Look at your watch and decide you can put up with it for 15 more minutes? Probably. Tell yourself you are helping him process his hard day (life, week, boss, wife who doesn’t understand him, blah blah blah). Sometimes.

    That is the point where you break – where you dissociate from what is happening to your body and your spirit. Too many of those experiences and you wake up one day to find you can’t get through the day without some drugs. And then you are in the pit.

    None of this has to do with feminism or legalization or destigmaization. This has to do with the deal you made when you took the money from this person. Prostitution takes your power away from you at the moment you take the money. You know what I am saying is true.

  10. Okay, I think I’m beginning to see where you’re coming from.

    It is your assumption that if you are a sex worker and make an arrangement to meet with somebody for sex that you have no power to set boundaries within the context of the meeting itself.

    You could not be more wrong.

    Would that mean that if you go on a date and agree to have sex that you have no right to say yes to vaginal and no to anal sex? Or that if you are married that you can only have sex the way that your husband wants to and you have no right to set boundaries in the marital bed?

    Negotiating boundaries- in the context of ANY sexual relationship if a nuanced and complex skill. I think you and I agree about that. Your assumption that sex workers don’t have that skill is so far off. In fact, many sex workers have mastered those skills and could be useful in helping women acquire those skills.

    Clients don’t want to pay somebody who doesn’t want them. Quite the opposite. Most are seeking validation and support and for that reason are often very attentive to our interests and needs.

    It is so sad that you can only view male sexuality as domination. What’s with the reference to slapping? I’ve never, ever been slapped by a client. I have actually had a few who asked me to slap them.

    Why are you so convinced that sex workers and feminists are not allies? We are the most natural allies. For feminists to reject sex workers is playing into the divide-and-conquer tactics that have undermined women’s rights for centuries.

    Feminism is NOT about dictating what womwn choose, it’s about ensuring that women have the rights, information and ability to choose- regardless of the individual’s choice.

    These posts have been very sad and only echo my initial question- Where are the Feminists?

  11. BTW- in response to your question about why a prostitute is at home blogging on a Friday night-

    I prefer to work days. I don’t like to be out too late and plus, working past 10pm sometimes means that you’re dealing with men who are intoxicated, especially on weekends.

    That is one example of why, as an independent sex worker, I have agency and control over my business.

  12. Assuming that all you say is true — you’ve never been slapped, your negotiated boundaries have never been crossed, every john is a perfect gentleman, why it’s just like a grown up prom date — is it your opinion that your experience of prostitution is the common experience? Cause it ain’t.

  13. You say “Clients don’t want to pay somebody who doesn’t want them.” Wow. That is so completely wrong. A LOT of prostitution is about exactly that. Maybe in your rarified atmosphere you don’t run into it. How lovely for you. Not so lovely for the women being pushed around and called whores and sluts while some guy acts out a rape fantasy.

  14. By the way, I think prostitutes and feminists have a lot of issues they can work on together while they try to change each other’s minds.🙂

    Reproductive rights
    Services for women who want out of prostitution
    anti-violence work
    immigrants rights
    anti-trafficking work
    and more!

  15. No, I know that there are as many different experiences as there are different kinds of sex workers.

    When women experience abuse in their marriages, do we push to make marriage illegal? No, because presumably, the women is functioning within the confines that society has drawn for her in terms of monogamy, wifehood, etc. Prohibition of prostitution is about controlling promiscuous women who society disapproves of.

    Domestic violence shelters, job training, education, housing assistance grants- these are all tactics that have helped women escape abusive relationships. Sex workers in abusive situations need all of those same services.

    But we do not have to make marriage illegal in order to help the women who do experience violence and we do not have to make prostitution illegal to assist women who experience violence.

    The prohibition is, in fact, increasing women’s exposure to violence from law enforcement.

    Check out the Revolving Door report that was done with street-based workers in NYC: http://sexworkersproject.org/publications/RevolvingDoor.html

  16. Good to know we can agree that there are prostitutes who are suffering tonight. Who are NOT have sex positive experiences in their workplace. They are having severe mental and emotional breakdowns. There are many more of them than then are strong indepenent women who would stop and give the john his money back if he violated her boundaries.

    Let’s work to get those women out and get them the help they need and deserve to heal their broken spirits and bodies. Then we can talk about legalizing it for the 12 of you who are left. 🙂

    Happy dreams my fellow beings. Peace. Out.

  17. Sorry – I agree. We need to get the people who hate what they do out of this business… It would be better for everyone involved – better for the rest of us who enjoy what we do, better for the abused people who don’t, better for the clients who will get better service.

    Actually, the only ones who it wouldn’t be good for are the people who profit off the workers – the pimps, and the “concerned” people who make a living from fighting/healing us, sensational media, etc.

    There are more than 12 of us on this board alone (but notice that I am not making the mistake of saying this blog represents all sex workers).

    You need to stop generalizing your personal experience to everyone. I am lactose intolerant, but do I tell everyone else they need to stop drinking milk?

    How about we talk about legalizing it NOW. This way, all the people you are trying to help can openly come to you without fear of persecution. All the people that dont need your help can go on to enrich and enhance the profession by forming unions or professional organizations or at least be able to openly seek answers to our questions (which, whether or not your myopic mind is capable of grasping, are not all related to abuse and drugs).

  18. “By the way, I think prostitutes and feminists have a lot of issues they can work on together while they try to change each other’s minds.”

    Sorry- I agree with you. It’s unfortunate that supporting a woman’s right to consent to any kind of sex that she wants is not on your list.

    BTW- We’re not trying to change your mind, we’re in a struggle for our human rights. Your opinion hardly matters in the grand scheme of these issues. We don’t care what you think of us, we care about changing the laws that breed discrimination against us.

    What do you do? Are you struggling for a right to be treated with the most basic dignity of a human, or do you just cruise the web and harass others who are involved in that struggle?

  19. […] listening to actual sex workers remains an […]

  20. You are struggling for human rights? By encouraging women to sell themselves? By calling degredation and exploitation “sex work”? That’s how you are struggling for human rights?

    It’s illogical at the core.

  21. We are absolutely struggling for human rights. Calling them degradation and exploitation only names some issues to be resolved. Sex worker rights activists are advocating for the following human and labor rights to reduce or eliminate degradation and exploitation.

    AS a member of IUSW, International Union of Sex Workers, SWOP East closely follow their political goals.

    * Decriminalization of all aspects of sex work involving consenting adults.

    * The right to form and join professional associations or unions.

    * The right to work on the same basis as other independent contractors and employers and to receive the same benefits as other self-employed or contracted workers.

    * No taxation without such rights and representation.

    * Zero tolerance of coercion, violence, sexual abuse, child labor, rape and racism.

    * Legal support for sex workers who want to sue those who exploit their labor.

    * The right to travel across national boundaries and obtain work permits wherever we live.

    * Clean and safe places to work.

    * The right to choose whether to work on our own or co-operatively with other sex workers.

    * The absolute right to say no.

    * Access to health clinics where we do not feel stigmatized.

    * Re-training programs for sex workers who want to leave the industry.

    * An end to social attitudes which stigmatize those who are or have been sex workers.

    * Zero tolerance for child sexual tourism

  22. Very smart to include child sexual exploitation in there. At least we can agree on something.

    Why you want to subject other women to prostitution remains completely unfathonable to me. Prostitution isn’t a drag because it’s illegal. It’s a drag because of the power imbalance when one person buys another person for sexual gratification. That’s not going to change if it’s decriminalized! Men aren’t going to stop doing the things they do to prostitutes (some of which is horrific) just because it’s decriminalized. In fact, they will feel emboldened once they have the weight of law on their side.

    Decriminalization and legalization would just lead to even MORE horrors for women. Fortunately there is zero chance of that happening.

    Not to mention that the whole country would be awash in prostitution advertisements. You really want the whole country to look like vegas? You really want to see prostitution advertising everywhere? I take it you don’t have children.

  23. Annaj – is it also a power imbalance when one person buys another person to clean thier house? How about to bring food in a ridiculous outfit? Is it a power imbalance to tip a cabbie?

    You dont know what men “do to prostitutes.” Or what the prostitutes do to men.

    You hear about horrific instances of abuse because they are horrific. You don’t hear about the guy who arrives, has sex, and leaves peacefully because it is mundane. You also dont hear about the prostitute who gets paid to abuse the client. Or maybe you do but dont want to think about the power dynamic there.

    Horrible men will not stop doing horrible things. Period. You will not hear about all the boring, mundane aspects of sex work. This is because no one but the sex workers themselves profit off it. The sensational media cant sell it, the radical feminists cant use it to get funding, and it is too boring to get anyone outside of the industry interested.

    Advertising can be regulated – just look at tobacco and alcohol. However, I dont see the difference between Vegas and the rest of the country – our whole capitalistic system makes everything and advertisement – it is all ugly, but that is a different conversation.

  24. Dear Daddy Mention,

    I know all about the boring mundane aspects of prostitution. All about the other parts too.

    O.K., I think I am starting to understand. You are the pimp, right? Well, you don’t call it that I’m sure. You are the philospher/ poet/artist/pleasure seeker who understands the whole socialist/capitalist paradigm and can go on about it for hours.

    And you are so supportive to the women in their quest to expres their true sexualtiy no matter how the traditionalists try to keep them down. In fact, you totally support their right to go suck strange men off for a few bucks to prove how rad they really are. You yourself, of course, don’t go suck anyone off. No, you probably do the “marketing’ if you contribute anything at all.

    Pimps come in all flavors. Male and female, long hair short hair, lots of tatoos, geeky glasses, hip, rad, nerd, he-man, blah blah blah.

    I’m just guessing here that you from the San Francisco Bay Area, or Seattle. Occasionally we see your types in Vegas/Kansas City, but usually pimps from those areas don’t have time to chat on the internet, they are awash in fresh young thangs.

    So yeah, you aren’t that special, just another pimp, willing to live off the backs of women. I can’t take you too seriously. Your problem is that your women are too smart to put up with you for very long, so you will have a short life in this biz and will have to turn to drug dealing soon, if you haven’t already.

    Loser.

  25. Hi Blair,

    You couldnt be more wrong about me. I am not a pimp or any variation of that. I have friends who are escorts and dominatrixes and other workers in the sex industry – these incredibly talented and intelligent people are the reason I am interested in this debate.

    I am a published author and an experienced social science researcher. I work at a large, Research I university.

    I do not live in SF, Seattle or Vegas/Kansas City (as if those two cities represent a single reigon). What my location has to do with this is beyond me.

    I am interested in this movement and believe there needs to me some better research to inform participants on both sides of this debate.

    So, other than trying to debase my arguments by making innacurate assumptions about me, I’d be interested in what you think about the main points I made:

    What is the difference (besides legality) between prostitution and other service-related work?

    What do you think of the idea that people who are not personally involved in the sex industry tend to have the negative images portrayed by a sensationalistic media?

  26. Isn’t it charming that whenever a real, live sex worker attempts to defend herself and her profession from slander and just-so assumptions, the usual gallery of antiporn radfems show up to offer more distortions and slander??

    And isn’t it even more charming that when a man shows up to defend that woman’s right to defend herself, he is automatically derided and smeared as a “pimp” and a rapist?

    I especially am so amused that the likes of Blair and AnnaJ (who has used other venues to smear and distort the views of sex worker advocates like skybabe) can assume that they know more about sex workers than sex workers do themselves…and thusly, give themselves the right to dictate their personal lives and practices.

    It’s one thing to point out the worst abuses that can be found in sex work…but what can you say about comments like these:

    That’s just not possible. Feminism is about human dignity. Prostitution is about abuse and exploitation.

    Prostitution is not a feminist act. Sorry. Yes we can work with prosituted women. Yes we can work hard to rpovide alternatives and most importantly drug and psychological treatment.

    But it would be beyond ironic, verging on schizophrenic for feminism to embrace prostitution. — sorry

    So much for the human dignity of accepting the right of women to make choices for herself…especially those choices that don’t match certain ideological boundaries.

    And, to Blair: so nice that you know so much about us men that you can make such bold claims about Daddy Wisdom. Too bad that most of it is just a figment of your mind, and totally divorced from reality.

    The only abuse and exploitation I see here is from those who abuse sex workers who speak out for themselves….and who exploit genuine stories of abuse to promote a separatist, male-baiting, sex-hating agenda that parrots the worst of the Christian Right.

    Anthony

  27. If a woman “chooses” to hit herself on the head with a hammer, should we just shrug and say it’s her “choice”, or do we try to help the person stop hurting herself?

    There is nothing feminist about telling women to go hurt themselves, destroy their lives, and devestate their families.

    Sounds to me like someone is speaking tough love to these few women who claim to “choose” prostitution and these prostitutes don’t like to hear it. They want to live in a make believe world.
    It probably helps them cope.

  28. […] occurring in many labor markets… pledges that prevent us from giving away condoms… the divide-and-conquer tactics that keep feminists busy fighting against women so that the anti-choice forces can focus on […]

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