DSP Position on Prostitution part one

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Aug 26 15:19:02 MDT 2002

The DSP's Position on Prostitution

The Activist - Volume 10, Number 13, November 2000

[The general line of this resolution was adopted by the DSP National
Committee on June 14, 1999. It has been edited by the Political
Committee in the light of the discussion at the June 1999 DSP National
Committee plenum.]


At the National Union of Students' Fem X conference in September 1998
and the NOWSA conference in July 1999, the issue of prostitution became
a focus of debate. That debate reflected a discussion occurring amongst
feminist activists on all campuses around Australia, and one around
which there is a growing body of feminist literature (see, for example,
Prostitution, Power and Freedom by Julia O'Connell Davidson, Polity
Press, 1999).

The debate about what line feminists should take on prostitution is not
new. However, it is occurring today within a feminist movement that,
after two decades of neo-liberal attacks on women's liberation activism
and ideas, is theoretically and organisationally very weak.

Reflecting the dominance of bourgeois ideas about women's oppression and
liberation in the "movement" today, the debate about prostitution has
been largely reduced to one between "radical feminism" and
postmodernism. In particular, the strong influence of postmodernism on
feminism generally, combined with the desire of many feminists to
counter the conservative backlash by reasserting that women can be fully
sexual beings, means that the discussion is in large part proceeding on
the basis of assumptions and arguments which attempt to redefine the
oppressive relations involved in prostitution as potentially or actually

Because a major sphere of our tendency's women's liberation work is on
campuses, the DSP needs to intervene in this debate with a clear
materialist analysis of prostitution. The purpose of this policy
statement is to assist this intervention by presenting the party's
perspective on the main issues being raised in the debate.

Our assessment of the neo-liberal backlash and its impact on feminist
theory and activism, and our analysis of the origins and nature of
women's oppression and how to build a movement to fight it, are
presented in various reports and documents adopted in recent years. The
purpose and content of this resolution is not to go over that ground
again, but to address the specific issue of prostitution.

The resolution does not attempt to address other activities which are
oppressive of women (women includes transgendered women) and based on
the commodification of sexuality and women's bodies (many of which fall
into the popularly understood category of "sex work"), for example,
phone sex, pornography, topless bartending and modelling. Expanding our
definition of prostitution to include all such oppressive relations
would lead to the incorrect conclusion that the party takes (or should
take) the same attitude to all of these other activities as it does to
prostitution, or that it takes the same attitude to prostitution as it
does to each of these other activities.

However, the fact that this resolution deals only with the party's
attitude towards prostitution does not mean that it necessarily
approaches these other activities differently. For example, just because
we do not define topless bartending as prostitution does not mean that
topless bartending is not oppressive and a product of society's
objectification of women's bodies. Nor does it mean that the party would
not actively discourage its members and other feminists from doing this
work. It would, in so far as it judges that voluntarily doing this work
would have an adverse impact on the woman's ability to be an effective
women's liberation and working-class movement leader and, in the case of
our members, would hinder the party's ability to carry out its
perspectives as effectively as possible.

In sum, there are a whole range of activities in this society that are
premised on the commodification of women's bodies which the party
discourages involvement of its members through political education, but
does not consider prostitution per se.

In this resolution, we have consciously used the term prostitution,
rather than "sex work". This has been done to promote members'
understanding of the party's analysis of this activity as not merely
"work like any other work". It thereby challenges the main basis upon
which many feminists are attempting to redefine prostitution as
non-oppressive under certain circumstances (or at least no more
oppressive than most of the work women do), and also points to the
idealism inherent in the more general notion that you can change
objective reality by changing what you call it.

The party constantly strives for greater, not less, clarity in its
understanding of class society and how best to struggle to overthrow it
and there is no need to amend this terminology in our programmatic
documents; in fact to do so without also including extensive
qualifications based on the analysis presented in this resolution would
exacerbate the confusion and compromise the party's ability to develop
Marxist cadre.

Nevertheless, the origins of the term sex work do lie in efforts to
counter the bourgeois moral judgements of prostitutes as "bad" or
"dirty" women, and the term was coined in the context of prostitutes'
efforts to organise for better conditions, decriminalisation,etc..

Because it is not possible to change either material reality or dominant
ideas simply by changing the labels given to particular social
practices, this strategy has not worked. On the contrary, it appears to
be facilitating the acceptance of and recruitment to prostitution of a
new generation of feminists. However, in so far as the new language has
been adopted by most feminist activists with the intent of countering
bourgeois morality in relation to women and sexuality, it does have a
contradictory contentand party members need to approach it tactically.
It makes no sense to always use the word prostitute rather than sex
worker in party propaganda if that cuts the party off from getting a
hearing for the real battle of ideas - that is, to convince all
activists that the degradation attached to the word prostitute by
bourgeois morality is not wrong (the activity is degrading of women),
but is hypocritical and not motivated by a perspective of liberating
women from that degradation.

Therefore, in the party's propaganda and movement interventions members
should use whatever terminology will best advance the struggle to win
other feminist activists to this overall goal.

1. For the decriminalisation of prostitution

Radical feminists at the Fem X conference argued a perspective on
prostitution which has been advanced by many feminists since the birth
of patriarchy theory in the 1960s. That is, that prostitution is a
manifestation and consequence of the oppression of all women in
"patriarchal" society, a social system which gives men power to control
women's bodies for their own interests.

Prostitution, they argue, because it is a universal form of domination
and disempowerment of women by men, not only renders all prostitutes -
inevitably and always - victims of all men, but in fact renders all
women victims because prostitution reflects and reinforces the unequal
power in all sexual relations between women and men in patriarchal
society. Being the most complete form of women's ownership and
oppression by men, prostitution should therefore be criminalised; that
is, all men who use prostitutes should be charged with a criminal offence.

This call on the capitalist state to "protect" all women by punishing
men who purchase sex follows the same illogic that leads many radical
feminists to advocate the censorship of pornography. Banning
prostitution, it is argued, both reduces the opportunities for
exploitation of the women directly involved and reduces the impact on
all other women, whose sexual objectification is reinforced by the
existence of prostitution.

As well, it is argued, punishment of the men who use prostitutes and/or
profit from prostitution sends a moral message to society that the use
and abuse of women as sexual objects is not acceptable.

The radical feminist approach to prostitution, while being motivated by
feminist rather than misogynist ideas, mirrors and reinforces bourgeois
morality about women and sex.

The argument that the law should be used to "protect" women from the
supposedly innate, and socially sanctioned, aggressive and oppressive
sexual desires of men (sexual relations between women are said to be
non-oppressive because women are supposedly innately nurturing and
egalitarian), is little different from the religious right's view of
women as the "weaker" sex who are sexually passive and must not be
dragged down from their pedestal of purity into the mire of sexual
relations (other than within a heterosexual, monogamous marriage).

Both perspectives reduce women and their sexuality to the passive
victims of biological (male) and social (godless) forces. Both are,
therefore, in effect if not intent in the case of radical feminism, an
attack on the idea which the women's liberation movement has struggled
to generalise that women are independent, self-directed human beings who
are capable of making informed choices and acting on them.

Both perspectives also accept and perpetuate the bourgeois idea that the
capitalist state is a neutral arbiter of social relations which stands
above gender oppression and can be used by the oppressed to protect
themselves against the oppressors.

While the state is an important arena of struggle for the women's
liberation movement - the struggle for reforms is the path to building
the mass movement necessary to overthrow capitalism, the source of
women's oppression - reforms won from the state are always partial and
temporary and can be defended and extended only when the struggle is
conducted within the perspective that the capitalist state exists to
uphold capitalist social relations and must therefore be defeated, not
used, by the oppressed at every stage in their struggle.

The party argues against the criminalisation of prostitution, and in
support of the self-organisation of prostitutes to campaign for better
health care and work safety.

Even if prostitutes themselves are not criminalised, criminalising the
customers forces prostitution "underground", thereby impelling
prostitutes into even more dangerous and oppressive situations -- in
relation to their customers, pimps and the state itself, which is up to
its neck in the "protection" racket created by criminalisation.

While under a workers' state, profiting from prostitution (as opposed to
prostitution itself) would be illegal (as would all exploitation of
labour), the idea that in capitalist society the pimps and brothel
owners (rather than the prostitutes themselves) would be defined and
treated as the criminals in prostitution is utopian. It is the
prostitutes, the powerless in this relationship, who will bear the brunt
of the enforcement of any anti-prostitution laws by a state which has no
interest in protecting them, but does operate in the interests of the

It is for these reasons that the DSP program states specifically that:
"All laws victimising prostitutes should be repealed".

The party's opposition to criminalisation is not the same as support for
prostitution, just as its opposition to the censorship of sexist
pornography does not mean it supports sexist pornography. Rather, the
party supports decriminalisation because it is a step along the path
towards the repeal of all laws which penalise prostitutes in any way.

Concretely, the party supports campaigns for reform of anti-prostitution
laws, in particular to remove them from the state and territory criminal
codes. However, unlike the patriarchy theorists' demands for law reform,
our support for such campaigns is not an end in itself - Marxists do not
see decriminalisation as the "final solution" to the oppression of
prostitutes -- but is aimed at developing the movement in a more
revolutionary direction through engaging the oppressed in collective
struggle against the state, thereby raising their confidence,
expectations and skills in struggle.

2. Prostitution is oppressive

In making the case against the criminalisation of prostitution, however,
many feminists are bending the stick too far in the opposite direction
by putting an argument which reduces prostitution to "a job" much like
any other job, which should not be approached by feminists any
differently from other waged work/exploitation involving women. (It is
in this context that "sex work" is advocated as a more accurate term
than prostitution.)

This argument, often advanced by feminist activists who are engaged in
prostitution to pay their way through university and/or save money while
they are studying, reflects the profound influence of the neo-liberal
promotion of individualism on feminism during the 1980s and '90s.
Specifically, it is a product of postmodernism's influence on feminism,
with its emphases on differences between women, subjective definitions
of oppression and individual ("do it yourself") solutions to oppression.

Advocates of this perspective argue that prostitution is a real choice
for women who are sexually "liberated" enough to "handle it"
psychologically. Implicit in this argument is the notion that each
woman's feminism can be measured in terms of her personal "liberation"
from the shackles of the bourgeois notion of romantic love: women who
cannot "handle" commodified sexual relations are not "real" feminists.

The party does not take a position of approval or disapproval on any
specific types of sexual relations or activities which are not a
commodity exchange (that is, which do not involve the payment of money).
As the party program states: "The party stands for complete
non-interference of the state and society in sexual matters, so long as
nobody is injured or coerced". What it advocates for society as a whole
on this question applies equally within the party.

The party's position against prostitution is thus not an anti-sex one,
or one based on bourgeois sexual morality. Rather, it is based on the
fact that prostitution arose and is maintained, not as an expression of
women's sexuality, but as a consequence of their economic dependence on
men. That is, prostitution is not about sex, it is about economic power
and women's lack of it vis-a-vis men.

Frederick Engels, in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the
State, described prostitution as the "shadow" of monogamous marriage. He

With the rise of the inequality of property ... waged labour appears
sporadically side by side with slave labour, and at the same time, as
its necessary correlate, the professional prostitution of free women
side by side with the forced surrender of female slaves. Thus the
heritage which group marriage has bequeathed to civilisation is double
edged ... contradictory: here monogamy, there hetaerism [multiple sexual
relationships] with its most extreme form prostitution. Hetaerism is as
much a social institution as any other; it continues the old sexual
freedom--to the advantage of the men.

Further, Engels wrote:

Monogamy arose from the concentration of larger wealth in the hands of a
single individual - a man - and from the need to bequeath this wealth to
the children of that man and no other. For this purpose the monogamy of
the woman was required, not that of the man, so this monogamy of the
woman did not in any way interfere with open or concealed polygamy of
the man... In the modern world monogamy and prostitution are indeed
opposites, but inseparable opposites, poles of the same order of society.

The idea that being able to "handle" being a prostitute is a measure of
a woman's liberation from bourgeois sexual morality not only obfuscates
the real nature of prostitution - which, rather than having anything to
do with sexual liberation, reflects the other side of the sexist coin
with regard to female sexuality - it also serves to silence those
feminists who disagree that engaging in prostitution is a measure of
one's personal liberation.

There is no doubt that some of the feminists engaged in prostitution do
not feel oppressed by the work. Many even argue that it is an empowering
experience, both economically in that it provides an hourly wage not
generally available to women, and psychologically in that it is an
activity within which women can alledgedly have power over men whose
"innate weakness" is their sexual "need", which can only be met by the
prostitute (the classic example of this supposed inversion of power in
gender relations is the domatrix-customer relationship).

This subjective assessment is totally inadequate for an understanding of
the objective nature and impact of prostitution on all prostitutes, and
women in general. It is putting the cart before the horse to try to
explain prostitution by generalising from some individuals' personal
experience of prostitution (those who do not feel oppressed by it),
rather than beginning from the institutionalised nature of prostitution
as a relation based on the unequal economic and social power of men and
women in order to develop an analysis of its impact on individual women.

Oppression is an objective social relation in which one group of people
is systematically denied access to economic, cultural and/or political
opportunities that are available to another group, regardless of whether
or not they perceive this as an unequal relation. The vast majority of
workers today, for example, undoubtedly do not feel oppressed by the
capitalist class. However, this does not mean that they are not
oppressed by capital, i.e., are systematically denied economic and
cultural opportunities and benefits that are available only to the
owners of capital.

The idea that the oppressive character in prostitution is lessened or
eradicated by being able to work for "feminist" employers who will allow
the women they employ to decide which sexual services they will provide
is an attempt to define out of existence the exploitation involved in

Regardless of their gender and regardless of their personal ideas, an
employer is an exploiter of their employees' labour. To suggest that
brothel owners who happen to be women and who say they are feminists
have a more equalrelation to their employees than other employers is
thoroughly idealist and obfuscates the objectively contrary interests

Likewise, servicing only women clients does not render the prostitution
relationship non-oppressive. While the individual power relation between
a woman prostitute and her lesbian customer is not directly determined
by gender oppression, the fact that that individual relation is founded
on social relations which oppress women and objectify their sexuality
means that lesbian prostitution is no less oppressive than heterosexual

It is also argued that the legalisation of prostitution in many states
makes it safer than previously, at least when it is engaged in in legal
venues. The existence of many more prostitutes' collectives today is
said to also provide greater protection.

While it can be argued that the self-organisation of prostitutes has
made some progress in reducing the degree of exploitation of some
prostitutes, such gains do not ameliorate the oppression that
underwrites prostitution. This is why, while the party does support
prostitutes' self-organisation to decriminalise this activity and
improve conditions for prostitutes, it does so with the aim, not of
making prostitution a more palatable or rewarding "choice" for women,
but of raising the self-confidence, political understanding and
organisational skills of the women involved in prostitution such that
they become activists in the revolutionary movement that will eradicate
women's oppression altogether.

The argument that the legalisation of prostitution has increased women's
options is also largely fallacy. Any progress towards the
decriminalisation of prostitution is a step forward for women as the
victims in prostitution. However, the legalisation of brothels in some
areas has not liberated sexuality in those areas, or anywhere else, nor
has it de-stigmatised prostitution, or disconnected it from organised crime.

While some prostitutes may be less exposed to physical danger from
customers when brothels are legal, and while being located with other
workers in a legal brothel can enable more opportunities for the
prostitutes' self-organisation, legalisation of prostitution is a
double-edged sword.

First, it forces prostitutes into working for brothel owners. Not only
does this enforce the payment of a proportion of their earnings to a
boss, the threat of being forced back onto the streets for not agreeing
to all working conditions in the brothel makes the women very
vulnerable, physically and economically. (The advent of legal brothels
in some states resulted in a boom in "condom-free" brothels in which
prostitutes were compelled to provide unsafe sexual services if they
wanted the "protection" of being legal.)

Secondly, those women who refuse or are unable to work for a brothel and
continue working illegally on the streets are more vulnerable than ever
- to the state, street pimps and customers.

Rather than legally sanctioning the control and regulation of
prostitution by capitalists, all laws which penalise any prostitutes
should be abolished.

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