Monday, October 2, 2017

Is Catherine MacKinnon "over the top" about prostitution?

Recently in class we considered some of the work of radical feminist, Catherine MacKinnon. I had come across MacKinnon before, and like many people, I initially regarded her views as 'over the top.' Why on earth, I used to think, do we need Catherine MacKinnon to give talks at Universities explaining why prostitution, for example, is wrong? We know that already and, certainly, in the Western World, no one these days would seriously try to defend prostitution as a way of life (in public at least), any more than they would seek to defend rape or paedophilia.

How wrong I was. With a quick bit of research, I discovered that former Playboy model, Kendra Wilkinson, had, in TMZ news in 2014, publicly called on the United States to legalize prostitution on the grounds that the sex is consensual. On foot of this, TMZ news undertook a poll of its readers on legalizing prostitution. The New York Daily News also carried an article in 2012 arguing that prostitution is a choice and legalization would help eliminate abuse of non-adult prostitutes and poor women. In 2013, Ole Martin Moen, Research Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Oslo presented a scholarly critique in the Journal of Medical Ethics which maintained that "prostitution is no more harmful than a long line of occupations that we commonly accept without hesitation."

Time, then, to stand with Catherine MacKinnon. Whatever anyone thinks of her, the stark reality is that the vast majority of people who work as prostitutes are women - an estimated 90% in most countries. If, therefore, prostitution is a choice, and is as harmless as ethical scholars like Ole Martin Moen submit, then why aren't more men doing it?

Catherine MacKinnon has the answer. It is because prostitution is widely recognised as a form of sexual exploitation that violates fundamental human rights. It is because specialist international studies (e.g. Farley 2003) shows that most prostitutes suffer severe violence, including sexual assault and rape – often on a repeat basis. It is because in Europe, for instance, at least 1 in 7 prostitutes are victims of trafficking. It is because a large proportion (68%) of prostitutes suffer from PTSD, with a level of severity comparable to that experienced by Vietnam War veterans, as well as psychological dissociation (Farley, 2003). It is also because, for most women, prostitution is entered into as a last resort and is such a negative experience that they would prefer to escape it if they could (Farley 2003).

Given these findings, only a fool or a fraud could seriously argue that legalisation would help eliminate abuse of non-adults and women. But then again, how do we answer the Kendra Wilkinsons of this world who believe that prostitution should be seen as a consensual activity? Yet again, the bulk of the evidence supports the Catherine MacKinnon position. Case after case and independent study after independent study (Orr 2001, Farley 2003, Brennan 2004) reveals that most sex workers enter the industry as a survival strategy.

In short, rather than consenting, it seems that the bulk of women are forced to prostitute themselves out of desperation. Hence, it is difficult to disagree with the Catherine McKinnon view that "the money coerces the consent, rather than guaranteeing it". It therefore genuinely does represent, as she argues, a practice, by-in-large, of "serial rape."

MacKinnon has attracted an abundance of criticism for her radical feminist stances on issues like prostitution. Yet the more I look around, and the more I research the subject, the more I realise that voiceless and exploited women and prostitutes really need people like her. They need her and people to persistently challenge the public defenders of the 'money for sex industry'. They need people like her to remind us how much prostitution reduces women to merchandise to be bought, sold and abused. Therefore, legalising it would reinforce their oppression by male-dominated societies and present a clear affront to the concept of gender equality. So, if viewing prostitution as a symbol of the disempowerment of women in a patriarchal society now makes me 'over the top', then I’ll take it.


B. Williams said...

Great post, Aoife. I think a large criticism of the criminalization of prostitution is that it pushes the practice underground. Obviously, criminalizing prostitutes themselves is problematic because, as you said, many women who engage in the practice are survivors of abuse or have been pushed to their absolute economic limit. However, even criminalizing johns leads to secrecy that breeds even more danger for vulnerable women.

I think the strongest argument for legalizing prostitution is to shine some sunlight on the industry, give it some semblance of regulation, and to protect women who are involved in the practice right now. At the same time, it could be taxed and maybe the proceeds could be directed towards programs that tackle the root problems leading women to enter the profession... or even to aid women who are looking to leave it.

As an idealist, I wish that we lived in a society where women had the economic opportunities so that only those who truly desired to practice sex work became involved in the industry. However, the practical side of me says that prostitution has been around and will be around for a long time, and will always involve (to some extent) vulnerable and exploited populations... therefore society is better off recognizing that fact and protecting sex workers the way that workers in other industries are protected.

That being said, I think there is some disingenuousness among many who espouse legalizing prostitution from a sex-positive or "women's empowerment" standpoint. Kendra Wilkinson had a solidly middle-class upbringing in San Diego, worked as a dental assistant and a model before living in the Playboy mansion, and is also a white woman. Her experiences with sex work are vastly different from those women who undertake the practice out of desperation or necessity, or those from different ethnic or class backgrounds. I think it's impossible to legitimately advocate for the legalization of prostitution without recognizing the wide range of experiences for sex workers and recognizing that the problems with the sex industry are real/pervasive and will not be corrected solely by market forces or garden-variety labor protections.

Your post reminded me of some interesting resources on the issue:

A New York Times discussion from multiple viewpoints:

A firsthand account from a sex worker on the podcast Death, Sex and Money:

Joterias! said...

Aoife, thank you for writing this insightful post. Personally, I’m on the fence on whether prostitution should be legalized. On the one hand, I agree with MacKinnon that while most individuals experience economic pressure to take certain jobs, it is primarily women who feel economically pressured to enter sex work. On the other hand, I dislike laws that curtail individual agency by criminalizing what individuals chose do with their own bodies, provided they are not harming others. And I’m not sure there is a middle ground between these two opposites, at least one that MacKinnon’s theoretical framework would allow for. Still, I think we need to be pragmatic about how we grapple with sex work.

First, we should de-stigmatize prostitution. Sex workers should not be shamed for their line of work nor be criminally sanctioned. This would help bring sex workers out of the shadows and not drive the prostitution market further underground. Further, we need to stop conflating prostitution and human trafficking, even if there is occasional overlap. I doubt, after all, that the plight of victims who are brought to this country to be sex slaves mirrors the predicaments sugar-babies face when they seek buyers online. Also, creating a climate where sex workers can come out from the shadows would allow us to gather nuanced data on the prevalence and forms of prostitution across different groups. For example, it would be beneficial to know if prostitution is more prevalent among transwomen relative to cis women. This data would allow social workers and organizations to tailor social programs to meet the needs of diverse clients who want to stop doing sex work.

Moreover, we need to critically examine how prostitution is criminalized, and which forms of prostitution are policed more heavily. Somehow I think our generation finds it more acceptable to police and prosecute streetwalkers than sugar-babies, which probably promotes disproportionate criminalization of prostitution among poor communities, and communities of color. So while MacKinnon made prostitution a subject worthy of intellectual inquiry, it’s time to provide more nuanced analysis and gather more data.

Suzanne Connell said...

Great post Aoife!

I found your insight into the complexities concerning the topic of prostitution to be comprehensive and thought provoking. I was particularly moved by your reference to McKinnon, where she tackles the sticky topic of consent in prostitution; "money coerces the consent rather than guaranteeing it". This reminded me of a case, R v Linekar, from the English Court of Appeals I studied whilst examining the definition of common law rape last year. This was a case decided in 1995 and it concerned a man who approached a prostitute and agreed to pay £25 to have intercourse with her. However, he had no intention of paying said £25 and subsequently made off without paying. When the appellant prostitute claimed this constituted rape, as she wouldn't have consented had there been no consideration, the Court of Appeals held that this fraud didn't constitute rape as she had consented to sleep with his physical body and his non-payment didn't undermine the consent.

This case really highlighted to me the blindness of the judiciary to what is often the real motivation behind consent in prostitution; money, out of necessity. And although McKinnon's summation of prostitution as 'serial rape' is a bitter concept to grapple with, it most likely is the reality if money really does coerce consent to prostitution in the vast majority of instances. Which would mean that in the case of Linekar, money coercing consent but not actually being delivered would be rape in the eyes of McKinnon, and the fact that this seminal case on the definition of consent at common law says otherwise may be cause for concern.