Gender inequality and sex work.

I very much liked this piece by Sarah Woolley (killer aside: “I find that garden-variety ‘objectification’ is a herd word used by women who can rarely recall the name of their last waitress”) on objectification and Cambridge jelly wrestling.

She makes a point – “If a person sees a woman arse-deep in jelly and regards her as subhuman because of it, then that shit is on them” – which is similar to something that I’ve been chewing over for a while, and I’m going to expand on what she’s said, because I think we need to hammer this point fully fucking home.

Something I hear ridiculously often is that sex work is problematic because it entrenches gender inequality, specifically because if men live in a society where women sell sex, that means they can’t possibly respect women.

If a lady is wearing a translucent maxi-skirt that’s split to the thigh (always think the ‘short skirt’ shorthand here is so unconvincing and outdated, like one of those crappy line-drawing illustrations in French GCSE textbooks. Who just wears a “short skirt”? Surely you have more to say about it than that?), and some man looks at her, and in his head is like, oh yeah, stupid woman, stupid visible body giving me weird feelings, bleurgh I am a raging inadequate and I hate this stupid woman-shape in front of me for making have those weird feelings and I hate all the stupid woman-shapes, ugh, then, um, the problem here is maybe not the lady, who is just wearing whatever the fuck she wanted because it was a sunny day and there was an ASOS sale last week.

If you’ve ever made the mistake of googling “abortion, objectification” (what I can I say, I’m here to lead you to mistakes. Mistake better, if you will), you’ll find a large number of raging inadequates arguing that “abortion culture leads to a culture of expediency that urges an objectification of women” (not all people who have or need abortions are women, of course. But that is the frame of this whole bullshit discourse), and asking “how do pro-abortion women not see that abortion objectifies them?” (how indeed?). Oh noes! How can the men possibly respect a woman who has had an abortion, or, in fact, women in general, since women can have abortionz!!! Also objectification!! Is a thing!11!

All of these people should be thrown in a river. Let’s move on.

I think we’ve discovered that men who hate women or female-bodied female-assigned at at birth (edited, see comments) people will tend to use any premise to engage in their hating-of-women activities. This may not be news to you. And that if some guy looks at a girl in a mega translucent maxi-dress, or at a person who has had an abortion, and either a) does not respect that specific female-bodied human, because he thinks that that behaviour is not respectable, or, b) does not respect women in general, because women in general might engage in those un-respectable activities, then the answer to this is not that women (or anyone) should stop wearing fashion-forward summer styles, nor that they should stop availing themselves of the necessary medical care appropriate to their needs. The answer is that this guy should stop being a fucking misogynist. Duh.

So when you’re like, “in a society where sex work happens, men can’t respect women, and sex work thus entrenches gender inequality, and therefore we should strive for a society with no sex work” (ha ha I’ve just noticed how this line of thought perfectly encapsulates the adage ‘be the change you want to see in the world’: *wants no more sex work* *ignores all the sex workers*), you are saying that this one form of misogyny (not respecting sex workers because we sell sex; not respecting women in general because some women are sex workers), is inevitable, understandable, and unavoidable, and thus the way we should tackle this form of misogyny is by changing womens’ behaviour (both individually, and as a society), in order to ‘avoid‘ it.

That’s super fucked up.

Women shouldn’t have to “avoid” misogyny, because that is impossible; the way to eradicate misogyny is to kill educate kill misogynists. Don’t come at me with “pragmatism” unless you’re also willing to argue that “ideally, yes, men should respect women who have had abortions. But pragmatically, we don’t live in an ideal world, so maybe we should tackle misogyny right now, as it is, by heavily restricting abortion access”. Maybe you’ve never seen a man know that a woman is a sex worker and nonetheless respect both her, and women in general, in which case you need to consider getting different friends. I’m pretty sure that this can be done (the respecting thing I mean. Got no opinion on your capacity to find new pals), because generally my male friends say things to me like, “hey, I’m making a fucktonne of dhal, would you like to come over and help me eat it?” or “can I borrow that book when you’ve finished it?” or “Christ, ‘the left’ has such a problem with misogyny. How d’you think we can fight that? Maybe by setting fire to the whole idea of ‘the left’?”.

They do not say to me, “hey girl, I thought I was alright at feminism, but now I’ve fully grasped that you sell everything that truly defines your value, and what makes you who you are, I guess I’ve returned to the idea that women are rubbish”.

I agree that sex work, and sex workers, provoke expressions of misogyny that might otherwise be hidden. Well done, people who make this argument! You’ve correctly identified a definitely-existing strand of visible misogyny. As we’ve established, many things ‘provoke’ (read: provide a premise for) misogyny, because we live in a misogynist culture, constantly swarming with dickheads. If you think sex work is unique in that we should “tackle misogyny” by getting rid of the behaviour that ‘provokes’ it, rather than say by getting rid of misogyny itself, you are endorsing and firming up the worldview of people who hate sex working women – and by extension, women in general. You’re saying that misogyny against sex workers is unavoidable, and by implication therefore a little bit understandable.

Once again: that’s super fucked up.


21 thoughts on “Gender inequality and sex work.

  1. Some good points. It sounds like you could benefit from considering that these misogynists you’re talking about are likely to hate everyone including other men. Therefore focussing on their hatred for women and ignoring their general attitude towards humanity might make a women feel singled out. In my experience of meeting hateful people, they have a lot to share round. This is one reason I think feminism is a pretty useless concept; it ignores a broader view of inequality in the world.

    • There’s a difference between acknowledging that there are many different ways of hating other people, and saying that this means that you should ignore some of them. Misogyny needs to be focused on. Hatred of sex workers needs to be focused on. Hatred of people with disabilities needs to be focused on. Racism and homophobia and transphobia and an awful lot of other things need to be focused on. And just because a misogynist may hate other categories as well as women, it doesn’t mean that we should therefore ignore their hatred of women.

      There are many different types of feminism. Good feminisms are intersectional and are very much interested in the different types of inequality in the world, and of taking a broader view. I am disturbed that you think that feminism is “a pretty useless concept”: are you saying that women should not have any rights, and that we shouldn’t even talk about that?

      • I’m saying feminism focusses on one, and inherently excludes the other. This is why people are instantly attacked for raising mens rights issues by people with the belief that they are not important slash don’t exist, years of feminism wrought those beliefs regardless of whether some people calling themselves feminists are actually open minded people. That is why feminism is a useless concept in relation to achieving equality. Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

  2. Brilliant. A couple of things this made me think of (and apologies if other folk have made these points ad nauseum, I haven’t seen them anywhere recently):

    Once upon a time (well, possibly at different but overlapping times), being an actress (yes “tress” not “tor”), a masseuse (a masseuse of non-genital body parts), or an artist’s life model were essentially regarded on the same level as sex work, particularly in the “respectable” classes. My mother was a bit concerned about me doing life modelling at one point (a point 20 years ago but well within the modern era). So maybe we are at a point on a historical timeline that will one day be looked back upon with the same incredulity that we currently look back on those things.

    Also, re abortion – it is often said that the sexual revolution (and to some extent feminism) was brought about by the pill. And that this was not altogether a good time to be a woman because society went from being all “girls and women are the legal property of their menfolk, who own them so don’t touch them unless you are their owner (father or husband) in which case do as you will” to “that’s still true but now there are also a large number of sluts who are no man’s property and they won’t even get pregnant, and if they do they can have an abortion, so they are everyone’s property to be used at will, so do as you will”. In both eras women were firmly told that they should go along with it as the natural order of things (from “different spheres” and “natural masochism” to “don’t be uptight/frigid, baby”, and this was enforced by custom, law and violence.

    So while the pill and freely available abortion gave women a lot more power and control over our bodies, it also opened up (necessitated?) a whole new vista of opportunities for misogyny and abuse. So, I guess we should just shut it all down again, remove access to the pill and abortion to save women from these new forms of misogyny, eh?

    Also, it can’t be stated too often that it hurts all women to have two classes of women: “real”/”good” women and “bad”/”fallen” women. So this needs challenged at every opportunity, but as a structure, not by forcibly attempting to move all the women from the latter category into the former. As long as the latter category exists structurally, all women can be threatened with demotion (or “degradation” if you like, the process of moving someone down a grade).

    I’m just re-stating what you said, really 🙂

  3. The purest and most disturbing example of this that I have ever seen is in an ex – I had on various occasions worked as a stripper, a fact that in itself he seemed fine with. And when he wanted to visit strip clubs, I was naturally okay with it. Until I saw the look on his face, an realized that this is an individual that is going to a sex workers place of work, with the intention of paying them for specific services, with full and utter disgust and hatred.

    I couldn’t understand it – But I have never felt such revulsion from anyone, he hated these women because of what they did, that they where naked, that they where willing to grind around in exchange for money, and the fact that they looked like they where enjoying themselves. And it is one of the few occasions where I’ve felt a man judge me in that manner.

    In a petty revenge when we broke up, I went to work in turn at every strip club he visited, so that he could no longer visit them out of some kind of odd humiliation – and in turn stopped what I really saw as ‘objectification’. Men paying for services, and treating the women politely and respectfully (which is 99.9% of what I experienced) is not objectification, it’s a monetary exchange of services that there is both supply and demand for. Objectification is when the person is literally looking at you like an object, and hating everything about you because of what you, as an object, are doing, without knowing you in the slightest.

    Men who hate women, hate women. Not because women can work in the sex industry. (Since quite a few of these men pay for such services, because, well – they hate women, and women can feel that). Naked boobs don’t make a man think ‘Damnit, those tits mean I need to pull my dick out, oh and yeah, women are beneath me’. The whole cover-up-or-be-raped thing, and the ‘objectification’ arguments are insults both to women, and to men (and the fact that their intelligence is hedged solely on how their dick reacts to things).

    Also: I’m tired of women propagating the whole men-will-hate-you-if-you-do-this bullshit.

    How very rant-y of me…

  4. This is a seriously awesome post. Thank you for saying it! As a guy who tries to hate no one (whatever their gender/occupation whatever) I am tired of the excuses people make for hating. As you say, it shows more about their psychological ‘demons’ than the proposed wrong they’re hating on. Misogyny, Homophobia, Racism…just an excuse to justify ones insecurities. I find many sex workers to be some of the most enlightened and aware humans I’ve ever met and am enriched by my friendship with them.

  5. This puts me in mind of Germaine Greer last night on Question Time. It’s rage enducing when you hear her say ‘victims of sex attacks shouldn’t have anonymity’ and then you realise she’s saying that because she believes we shouldn’t have a environment where survivors aren’t shamed, but attackers are. Then that seems cool.

    But what do we do while society is changing? How do we protect rape victims or sex workers or women experiencing misogyny right now? Because I knew that it was my clients’ fault when they saw me as a series of holes. I knew it wasn’t my fault when I was raped because ‘no one will believe an ex prossie’. I knew I hadn’t really done anything to deserve it when my boyfriend kicked me in the ribs til they broke. BUT IT DIDN’T STOP ANY OF IT HAPPENING.

    Understanding misogyny didn’t pay my rent. It didn’t make it easier to find work beyond sex work because people don’t want to hire disabled teenagers. It didn’t mean I could explain it to the clients when they turned up, especially if they’d been drinking or came in groups.

    I’ve got no issue with sex workers exercising choice in their industry, but just saying ‘men shouldn’t be misogynist and people shouldn’t be nasty to sex workers/women they see as ‘slutty” isn’t really doing it for me. Suggesting you get better friends when your family might disown you for your sex work is pretty dismissive and I’m not sure it helps change misogyny because it’s still me adjusting my behaviour, not them.

    I agree we need to change public perceptions toward sex work to make it socially unacceptable to judge us, but I think it’s more tied to general misogyny, slut shaming, purity myths and respecting all women first.

  6. Damn straight.

    If you think sex work is unique in that we should “tackle misogyny” by getting rid of the behaviour that ‘provokes’ it, rather than say by getting rid of misogyny itself, you are endorsing and firming up the worldview of people who hate sex working women – and by extension, women in general.

    Of course, people also use that victim-blaming approach for women who are raped. And children who are raped. Men who are raped never seem to turn up in such arguments, oddly enough. Possibly because it’s all about how a woman wearing anything other than a sack is clearly signalling that she is willing to be attacked, whether this is in the context of sex work or of rape.

    Did you read that horrendous article by the woman who thinks that sexual assault of children is something we should all stop fussing over, and painting the rapists as the victims?

    • um, actually people use the same argument for men who are raped. When femme gay guys are raped thats a super common argument, that he shouldn’t have been provoking it, whether thats with wearing makeup and particularly feminine clothing or with his being out about his sexuality. This is not ‘us Vs them’ with other survivors! Its us Vs misogyny, sexual violence, which affects all feminine gendered people. And of course us Vs sex worker hatred, which tends to affect all women (cis and trans) and also quite a lot of gay guys.

  7. Brilliant post. (I especially liked that particular line of Sarah’s, too.) Radfems: people who think that no woman is to blame for rape… unless she’s a sex worker, in which case she’s to blame for all of it.

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  9. This is fantastic, a lot of good points about changing MISOGYNISTS’ attitudes, not WOMENS BEHAVIOUR. I think there is a bit of a parralel between this and victim-blaming; in one case women are told to modify their dress and behaviour to avoid rape, in the other we’re told to modify our career choices to avoid misogyny. That attitude also makes ‘sacrifices’ of some women – you must not choose sex work (ie sacrifice your free will) for the greater good of all women. This seems to be a kind of social contract (similarly to the argument of ‘Leviathan’ that the law is a social contract) but it is a one-way contract; you give up your freedom for the good of All Women but they don’t give you anything in return.

    The idea that men cannot respect sex workers is itself predicated on conservative moralist ideology or misogyny, which means the argument is a fallacy as you first must accept the misogyny/conservatism for the argument to work. Anyway, great post.

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  11. I love this, very true and well put. I think where you were asked to edit ‘female bodied’ to ‘female assigned’ was actually wrong, because I guarantee those mysogynists have a problem with trans women the same way they have a problwm with cis women (so, all females regardless of how they were assigned at birth), and I’d be pretty sure they would still show trans guys respect so long as they were reading them as male.
    So I’d say, in the context you wrote it, that what you meant (or whats more accurate?) would be better put “men who hate women will tend to use any premise to engage in their hating-of-women”, since all women (especially all sex workers) have this in common 🙂

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