The traditional religious argument against prostitution is that sex is powerful and important and, if not earth shattering, then potentially society-disrupting. For this reason sexuality must be contained. Handmaids, slaves and family members may or may not be placed in this container, but the containment itself is essential. The self-employed prostitute therefore creates a chink in the moral armour of society and threatens its very existence.
And at the other end of the political spectrum, there is the feminist anti-capitalist definition of prostitution. This exchange of capital for use of the female body exemplifies the capitalist society’s interpretation of relationships between men and women in general. Engels condemned prostitution, but argued in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State that the position of the wife only “differs from the ordinary courtesan in that she does not let out her body on piece-work as a wage worker, but sells it once and for all into slavery”.
Compare these political analyses to the positions of the day. Those against the sex trade simply present one heart-wrenching story after another about the pain this work can cause. And those in favour pen tales of plucky, empowered creatures exploring their sexuality through their 9-5.
And prostitution isn’t seen to be represented by these individuals — it is instead considered to be these experiences. The social meaning is defined as these personal narratives multiplied by the number of prostitutes. The politicised arguments of old are gone, subsumed by an array of personal memoirs.
And into this arena sidled Belle de Jour—aka Dr Brooke Magnanti, cancer specialist.
This slick, attractive, highly educated and uninhibited woman fucked men, enjoyed it, got paid, didn’t care. And, after six years in anonymity, she went public, handing her story to The Sunday Times, posing for a suitably highbrow erotic photoshoot, standing by every word she’d written, and responding, no, she hadn’t been abused as a child, and no, she didn’t regret or feel exploited by her work as a prostitute.
But since an individual’s experience now carries the weight of a truth, this story represented the argument that all prostitutes are middle-class, heroin-free, un-battered and alive. So, predictably, those opposed to the sex trade were obliged to question the authenticity of Belle’s life story. And they did.
Many argued she was a fiction writer, a man, or both, and the Observer described her blog as “badly executed soft porn”. And her responding that “you can’t say I’m not real, and that my experience isn’t real, because here I am” was entirely ignored.
Some on the left posited that she may have emotional problems she isn’t aware of. The Daily Mail opted for salaciously examining her father’s history as a punter, utilising the language of child abuse in speculations about the ‘destruction of her innocence’. Many others launched accusations of irresponsibility, bringing the corpses of prostitutes who’d died with needles in their arms or pimps’ boots in their faces, and laying them at Magnanti’s door.
Thomas Sutcliffe, in The Independent, at least paid attention, but failed to reject this uber personalised assessment process, pondering that his understanding of prostitution had been ‘complicated’ by the fact that Magnanti is educated, middle-class and free from a crack cocaine habit.
In the contemporary discussion of prostitution, the meaning of the sex trade comprises the experience of being a prostitute, the reasons for doing it, the effects it has on you. Consequently, these intensely personal experiences are not considered private—they are instead used as sources in debates about legislation. The Daily Mail finds women destroyed and humiliated by the sex trade; and The Guardian responds with women who got paid less for cleaning hotel rooms. This apolitical and highly individualised train of thought quickly reaches an intellectual dead-end, leaving us no closer to even understanding the widespread opposition to prostitution, never mind assessing the law.
Despite being positioned at opposite ends of the political spectrum, the religious and Marxist interpretations of prostitution share the fundamental characteristic of being political and social: analysing the commodification of sex from within its social context. The meaning of prostitution (as opposed to ‘being a prostitute’) is therefore in what it means for, and says about, society.
The sex trade is widely condemned for the repugnant way in which many of its working-class workers are treated. Magnanti, as an educated and middle-class woman, earned more money, saw punters who were less likely to be violent, and had the back-up of an agency that represented her as a ‘high class’ escort—and this is the same class conflict apparent in every industry in our society. Self-evidently, an industry treating its working-class workers badly is not justification for the abolition of the industry altogether. So it is disingenuous to talk as if this were true of prostitution.
Equally, many women do find themselves ‘emotionally scarred’ by their work as prostitutes. But there are a whole host of actions we can carry out that have painful, humiliating and degrading results for somebody else, and yet we still consider them personal—agreeing that the state has no business legislating for or against them. (Repeatedly cheating on a pregnant girlfriend is an example.) Why is prostitution so terrible that we don’t even have the right to do it to ourselves?
The underlying cause of the widespread distaste for the sex industry is not necessarily fair or right or rational. It may well be mere prudishness; it might be that sex really is sacred; or it could be that we don’t want ‘the market’ anywhere near the things we consider precious. Whatever the truth, the highly individuated arguments—both in favour and against—are not moving this discussion forward.
A real, politicised debate about prostitution is now well overdue, and we could do far worse than starting with a recognition of some basic facts: the causes of prostitution are social, the criminalisation of sex between consenting adults is political, and society is far more than a collection of individuals and their feelings.