DSP position on prostitution, part two

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Aug 26 15:20:10 MDT 2002

3. Defining prostitution

It is incorrect to counter the radical feminists' calls to criminalise
prostitution by asserting that prostitution is just like any other work
women do, or at least an equally valid work choice for women as any
other job, a large proportion of which involve some degree of
objectification of women's bodies and sexuality. It is not.

There is a specific content to prostitution which makes it inherently
and inescapably oppressive of women - both the women directly involved
and women in general. This specific content, which makes it unlike any
other "job", forms the basis for the party's attitude towards it; that
is, it does not assign or encourage its members to commence or continue
prostituting themselves. On the contrary, the party actively discourages
members from engaging in prostitution.

Prostitution is any activity the essence of which is the sale-purchase
of women's bodies for the sexual gratification of another (the words
sexual gratification do not assume that penetrative sex is involved).
There are two elements in this definition which are central to
understanding the nature of prostitution.

The first is the reference to the essential content of the activity;
that is, why it exists. Unless prostitution is defined in these terms,
its inherently oppressive nature can be obscured by other peripheral
activities that are often attached to prostitution, such as the massage
given before the sexual gratification, for example. Such peripheral
activities are used by some feminists to rationalise away the oppression
involved in prostitution by arguing, to use this example, that the
activity is just "another form of massage and not inherently oppressive".

However, the fact that the massage is peripheral to and does not
ameliorate the oppression involved in the prostitution is clear in so
far that if only the massage was for sale, the clientele would be
entirely different since customers at massage parlours are primarily
purchasing the women masseurs for sexual gratification, not for a health

Distinguishing between the peripheral and essential activities involved
in various forms of prostitution also clarifies the difference between
prostitution and the numerous other waged activities in which class
society's commodification of women's bodies and sexuality is used to
"enhance" the basic job description, rather than being the essence of it.

So, for example, the specifically gender oppressive content of topless
bartending can be eradicated through a successful struggle for the women
employees' right to wear the same work clothes as male bartenders
without the essential activity - serving drinks for wages - also
disappearing. Rather than the sexual objectification of the women
employees being the essential content of their job, it is an "add on"
which the employer expects will bring greater profits by attracting a
greater share of drinkers than his/her competitors.

This is not the case with prostitution, which ceases to exist altogether
if the gender oppression involved is eradicated from the activity. The
second core content of this definition of prostitution is that the
purchaser has direct access (even if demarcated in various ways) to the
prostitute's body. That is, prostitution is not merely voyeurism (as in
peep shows), play-acting (as in phone sex) or an image (as in
pornography), even though these activities are generally oppressive of

All activities which involve the commercial use of women's bodies for
others' sexual titillation or gratification are founded in and
perpetuate the oppression of women. However, the range of activities
this "sex industry" encompasses is enormous, as is the range of
relationships individuals can have to it, so it would be extremely
problematic - theoretically and in practice - for the party to take a
position of active discouragement of feminists' and socialists'
participation in them all. For example, the party would not actively
discourage an unemployed comrade from taking a job in a video store or
bookshop that happens to sell pornography, or with a cleaning company
that has contracts to clean brothels.

While the party recognises and campaigns against the many and varied
ways in which women are rendered as sexual objects by the oppressive
gender relations in class society, prostitution lies at the extreme end
of the "sex industry" continuum and warrants the party taking a precise
position on it. This is because a central and specific aspect of the
oppression involved in prostitution is the physical invasion, the
obliteration of self and the loss of ownership of their own bodies that
prostitutes experience in the course of receiving money for sexually
gratifying another.

If we do not take account of the centrality to prostitution of the
customer's ownership, for whatever period of time, of the woman herself,
separated from her emotions, ideas and desires - that is, the
objectification of the woman that is involved in prostitution - then
prostitution is reduced to simply a "service", no more demeaning of a
woman's humanity than any other service women routinely perform for men
as waged work. This "service" perspective denies the reality that each
time a woman is forced (or chooses) to prostitute herself she engages in
the practice of being treated as a thing, as a mere instrument for
someone else's sexual gratification, this must change the way she sees
herself, and the way others see and relate to her.

In this context, pornography and prostitution must be differentiated.
While pornography may be filmed prostitution, pornography itself is not
prostitution in that the purchaser of the pornography is not purchasing
the woman herself but an image of her. The object in this commodity
exchange is the video, magazine,etc.., not the woman performing (or
simulating) sexual acts for the camera. Neither is the film-maker or
magazine producer purchasing a woman's body for their own sexual
gratification; they are purchasing the right to make images of her body
which can be sold for a profit.

The need to combat the idea that buying an image or the printed word for
the purpose of sexual gratification is as oppressive as buying the woman
herself for this purpose is not new; party members had the same debate
with the pro-censorship feminists in the 1970s and '80s. While the
overwhelming majority of pornography reflects and reinforces sexist
ideas about women, and while most women who perform for the production
of pornographic products are engaging in prostitution, this is not
always and necessarily the case. Thus, image and reality must not be
conflated by arguing that pornography is prostitution.

Unlike in prostitution, in other waged work, no matter how demeaning,
exploitative or dangerous, the worker retains ownership of the source of
their labour - their bodies. (The only other relation which is similar
to prostitution in this regard is paid surrogacy.)

Even when the exploitation involved in prostitution is eradicated
through the formation of cooperatives (in which the women keep all of
their earnings), the oppression involved is not. Because prostitution is
premised on women's sexual objectification under capitalism, it involves
a relationship of power (in which the male customer has the power),
irrespective of the specific labour relations involved.

The only way to eradicate the oppression involved in prostitution is to
eradicate prostitution itself.

4. Women's economic dependence on men

The existence of prostitution is underpinned by women's economic
dependence on men, a dependency which is institutionalised in the family
system. The party program state:

The family is not simply a group of adults voluntarily living in a
common household, along with children. It is the primary socio-economic
unit of class society, based on a legal and binding marriage contract
that enables the transmission of private property and the perpetuation
of class divisions from one generation to the next. It is the basic
mechanism through which the exploiter classes abrogate social
responsibility for the economic well-being of those whose labour they
exploit ...

The family system imposes a social division of labour based on the
subjugation of women and their economic dependence on an individual man,
their father or husband. Upon this material foundation, an all pervasive
sexist ideology is fostered by the exploiter class.

In brief, by making women primarily responsible for unpaid domestic
labour and child-rearing, the division of labour institutionalised in
the family system limits their educational and employment opportunities,
thereby relegating them to less secure paid work and lower wages. At the
same time, the family's rendering of women as the sexual and
reproductive property of men (through marriage) is buttressed by an
ideology which legitimises the objectification of women's bodies.

While the development of the working class majority, which having no
property or special rights to pass on to the next generation has no
objective interest in the bourgeois family system, has meant that
marriage has become a "love-sex" relationship in which there is an
element of choice for both people (thus, marriage is not prostitution in
so far as the separation of women's personality, ideas and desires from
her body does not occur to anywhere the same degree in marriage as in
prostitution), the persistent objectification of women's bodies that
accompanies the pro-family ideology is manifest in the persistence of
the idea that women should not have the unqualified right to control
their reproductive capacity and the idea that women's principle role in
the realm of sexuality is to gratify men.

The combination of women's economic vulnerability and their sexual
objectification are the foundations upon which prostitution thrives.
That this form of oppression is gender specific is evident in the fact
that almost all prostitutes are women and almost all customers are men.
Only a tiny proportion of prostitution is lesbian prostitution and the
small proportion of prostitutes who are men more often service male than
female customers.

Millions of women, especially in the Third World, have no other option
than to sell their bodies (or body parts in the organ trade) to obtain
an income sufficient to support themselves and their children.

It has been the recognition of this material basis for prostitution that
has impelled all socialist revolutions to attempt to develop educational
and socially useful work opportunities for women as the key to
eradicating prostitution.

In the imperialist countries, dire poverty (temporary or permanent) or
addiction to expensive illegal drugs also drives women into
prostitution. The concentration of poverty among racially or nationally
oppressed groups and others with lower educational levels and higher
unemployed rates accounts for the higher proportion of women from these
backgrounds engaging in prostitution.

While there are some well-educated women from relatively privileged
social backgrounds who engage in prostitution rather than doing some
other available work this does not change the fact that the very
existence of prostitution is premised and thrives on women's economic
dependence upon men. As such, their personal choice does not alter the
objective oppression involved. And it certainly does not challenge, let
alone undermine, the material conditions that give rise to, or the
sexist ideas that justify, the objectification of women's sexuality.

Further, the arguments being advanced by some feminists that their
decision to engage in prostitution is a positive one because it provides
them with more money and greater economic freedom than other forms of
paid work, or because it allows them more time to study, engage in
political activity or pursue other personal goals, and/or because they
feel less exploited prostituting themselves than working for McDonald's,
for example, are based on an idealist and individualistic outlook which
contradicts the feminist perspective of striving to fully understand and
fight collectively against women's oppression.

While it may temporarily solve an individual woman's financial problems,
engaging in prostitution in no way removes women's economic dependence
on men - neither on the individual customers nor on men as a whole. In
so far as prostitution is an individual solution to a social problem
(the problem of poverty, both absolute poverty and women's poverty
relative to men) it contributes nothing to achieving economic equality
and independence for women.

Socialists and feminists aim to counter individualism and strengthen the
collective struggle against women's oppression by convincing people that
seeking individual solutions is no solution. This includes convincing
activists that making "personal" choices to pursue careers or higher
wages regardless of the impact of these jobs on their ability to
contribute to the struggle against oppression is to capitulate to
bourgeois ideology.

Socialists and feminists fight for economic independence for all women
and to raise the understanding of working-class people, women in
particular, about the origin, nature and manifestations of women's
oppression, and how to overcome it.

The assertion that prostitution is a better choice of work for women
than other options also undermines the feminist movement's struggle to
raise women's expectation that they not be treated as sex objects. It
thereby undermines efforts to bolster women's self-confidence and
preparedness to reject their oppression in all its forms and to actively
involve them in organising against that oppression.

5. Party members and prostitution

The party's active discouragement of members from engaging in
prostitution is not a question of party discipline (as it is for some
jobs, which would bring the party into disrepute or compromise party
security, such as being a police officer or illegal drug dealer). Women
who engage in prostitution may join the party, and members who begin
engaging in prostitution would not be expelled for doing so.

However, in the same framework that the party discourages any activity
which seriously adversely affects members' political self-confidence and
ability to develop as cadre or the party's capacity to achieve its
goals, members engaged in prostitution are encouraged to find other work
which is politically worthwhile - both for the party and for that
member's own development as a revolutionary activist and leader in the
working-class movement.

This applies also to male members engaged in prostitution since the
oppressive social relations which underpin the relationship between an
individual male prostitute and his male client are not altered or
challenged by the fact that they are both men. The political
contradiction for a male party member, who as a socialist is struggling
for the liberation of women, would remain.

While the party does not always and everywhere have the resources to
direct all members' employment, it nevertheless aspires to assign all
members to jobs that are as politically useful as possible. By this we
mean jobs with the best available opportunities to carry out party and
movement building work on the job.

To that end the party encourages individual members to obtain particular
skills, experience and qualifications to facilitate their employment in
targeted sectors and regions, to leave politically useless or
demoralising jobs to work in politically more useful areas, and to carry
out political work on the job under the direction of the party.

In seeking to direct members' to take on politically useful employment,
the party takes into account individuals' need to survive economically
and to maintain their health and safety at work. However, the criteria
for party decisions about what forms of work members are encouraged to
engage in are political, including all factors which affect the party's
capacity to achieve its goals. These criteria do not include individual
members' career aspirations, personal job satisfaction (beyond that
obtained from being politically effective on the job and so long as the
comrade is not experiencing extreme personal stress on the job), or
desire for personal financial comfort.

Because the party aims to strengthen its members' political leadership
of their fellow workers or students it does not encourage members to
separate themselves from the conditions and experiences of their fellow
workers and students. A member's decision to engage in prostitution in
order to "escape" the poverty and/or working life that most students and
working-class people experience undermines that member's ability to lead
students and workers in struggle against those conditions, both
organisationally and by example.

The party's critique of the pursuit of individual "solutions" applies
generally: it discourages party members and the activists they work with
from seeking any individual solution to social problems which will
undermine their ability to contribute to the struggle against the source
of those problems. So, for example, if a regular allowance paid by a
student activists' parents came with strings attached which limited that
student's capacity to be politically active, the party would encourage
her/him to find an alternative source of income.

The politically relevant consideration here is not the amount of money
an activist receives from any particular source, but the consequences
earning it has for their ability to be as fully and effectively
politically active as possible.

There are no exceptions to this attitude. The party's active
discouragement of party members and feminist activists from engaging in
prostitution is premised on them having made a decision to resist their
own oppression and that of their class/gender. Because resisting
oppression involves behaving to the best of your ability in accordance
with the interests of your class/gender, and striving to the best of
your ability to strengthen your own and others' feminist consciousness
and activism, the idealist argument raised by some feminists that, just
as long as you are fully cognisant of the oppression involved and can
thereby "shield" yourself from its effects, then it can't hurt to
prostitute yourself "just for six months", or even "just once" to pay a
bill or debt, completely misses the point.

As Marxists, we do not view human beings as automatons. There are always
choices for self-conscious beings, albeit more limited for some than
others. Many of the choices individuals make have political
consequences; that is, they impact on the balance of forces in class
society. Since a central aspect of oppression is the psychological
enslavement and denigration it involves, an oppressed person's choice to
stop resisting their denigration, even for a short period, is a victory
for the oppressor.

6. Proletarian-socialist morality

Actively discouraging party members from engaging in prostitution is
thus not based on the bourgeois morality which, in order to reinforce
the sexual double standard and buttress the family, decrees that
prostitutes are "bad" women who have abrogated their right to be treated
as complete human beings. The party does not blame the victims of
oppression, but identifies and struggles against the beneficiaries of
oppression and their ideas, and seeks to involve as many of the
oppressed themselves in that struggle.

The party's discouragement of its members from prostituting themselves
flows from our proletarian-socialist morality.

In class society, morality - views about what is and is not acceptable
conduct by individuals in society - reflects and serves class interests.
In capitalist society, the official morality is bourgeois morality
which, while being presented as god-given, timeless and immutable,
serves to protect and extend the power and privileges of the capitalist
class, including to oppress women. It is a key weapon in the
bourgeoisie's ideological arsenal against the working class and oppressed.

Reflecting the contrary class interests it serves, proletarian-socialist
morality teaches workers to suit their conduct to the interests of their
class, to overcome the divisiveness of individualism and competition and
replace them with cooperation and collectivity, thereby strengthening
the struggle against oppression.

As a revolutionary socialist party, the DSP does make moral judgements
about people's conduct, judgements based not on bourgeois morality but
on its political analysis of society. Is their conduct consistent with
the objective interests of the working class? Does it strengthen or
weaken the struggle of our class against oppression?

Combating the official morality of the capitalist class means rejecting
all variations of it, including the individualist and idealist notion
that people can (or should try to) conduct themselves above and beyond
any morality other than some "personal" ethic they feel comfortable
with. This idea lies behind the argument - a favourite among
postmodernist feminists - that individuals have some abstract "right" to
conduct their lives "free" from the judgement of others. It is bourgeois
not only in that it does not challenge the social relations within which
oppression is maintained and perpetuated in capitalist society, but
worse, it operates to obscure the fact that in capitalist society,
because bourgeois morality is often codified in law and enforced by the
state, there cannot be a "neutral" or "personal" morality which exists
above class relations. There is a class content and impact in all
individuals' activity.

In so far as prostitution in no way serves the interests of the working
class as a whole, or working-class women in particular,
proletarian-socialist morality dictates that it is undesirable.

The idea that prostitution should be considered an equally acceptable
choice of work for feminists can lead to the argument that it is equally
acceptable for men, including party members and others who support
women's liberation, to buy sexual "services" from women (includingparty
members and other feminists) whom they presume have chosen to engage in

For any man who supports the struggle for women's liberation, buying the
"services" of a prostitute - directly and consciously engaging in the
oppression of women - is a political contradiction, at odds with the
party's program and strategic line of march. Therefore, just as the
party educates members to discourage them from prostituting themselves,
it also seeks through political persuasion to discourage them from
purchasing the services of prostitutes.

Condoning prostitution as a politically acceptable work choice for
feminist and socialist women, and therefore an acceptable means for
feminist and socialist men to seek sexual gratification, seriously
undermines the tasks of educating working-class men about women's
oppression and its role in class society and developing their active
support for the struggle for women's liberation. It thereby weakens both
the women's liberation and socialist movements.

Prostitution, being based on women's economic dependency and
psychological denigration in class society,

does not serve the interests of women as a whole. It is founded on male
privilege and women's oppression, across class lines.

While the immediate interests of individual men, as members of the
privileged sex, are served by prostitution, because the oppression of
women (including through prostitution) divides and weakens working-class
struggle against bourgeois rule, Marxists strive to educate
working-class men to join the struggle against prostitution as part and
parcel of responding to all forms of oppression.

Finally, for those feminist and/or socialist activists who choose to
engage in prostitution, fundamental contradictions are created which
undermine their ability to be as effective as possible in building the
socialist and/or women's liberation movements.

Within our party, this contradiction is particularly stark because the
party aims to develop the best - the most conscious and most consistent
- leaders of the anti-capitalist struggle. Our members' leadership in
the women's liberation movement, their efforts to propagandise and
campaign against women's oppression, of which the objectification of
women's sexuality is a major part, will not be taken as seriously by
those we are attempting to convince if the leader is herself seen to be
voluntarily selling her body. Attempting to avoid exposure of this
contradiction by concealing, to some degree or another, the fact that
they engage in prostitution, simply entrenches the member's
victimisation by capitalism's sexual double standard.

Social practice determines consciousness and, despite postmodernist
feminists' efforts to convince women that they can define their own
reality, including escaping their oppression as women by refusing to
acknowledge or "feel" it, no matter how well feminists and socialists
believe they are "handling it" psychologically, voluntarily engaging in
prostitution will eventually reduce that woman's self-esteem. Regularly
being treated as a sex object does erode a woman's self-perception a
human being who has the right to respect for their personal feelings and
wants at all times.

Of course, all women in capitalist society are constantly exposed to
ideas and practices which denigrate them and objectify their sexuality.
These assaults on women's self-esteem are far from confined to
prostitutes. However, the degree of impact of these images and treatment
on individual women's sense of self-worth is significantly influenced by
whether or not they accept or resist their treatment as sex objects.

Feminists who choose to subject themselves regularly to treatment as a
sex object have chosen not to resist their own degradation, at least
during "working" hours. It is this willingness not to resist their
oppression, as much as what actually happens to them on the job, which
will undermine their self-esteem.

This erosion of women's sense of self-worth has rightly been condemned
by feminists. Where it impacts on a member of a revolutionary party, a
leader in the struggle against oppression, the cost to the working class
is that much greater. For a socialist to not resist oppression to the
best of their ability is morally unacceptable.


Louis Proyect

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