I think we need to have a talk about patriarchy

Tuesday, April 10th, 2012 · 21 Comments »

Yesterday Echidne linked to a story in the New York Times about Spanish brothels. Spanish slave brothels, really, since most of the women in them are trafficked slaves who are being held against their will. The article is enormously upsetting, as is every article about prostitution. I’m going to arrange a few of the quotes to make a point:

First read this bit:

She had expected a job in a hotel. But when Valentina arrived here two months ago from Romania, the man who helped her get here — a man she had considered her boyfriend — made it clear that the job was on the side of the road.

He threatened to beat her and to kill her children if she did not comply. And so she stood near a roundabout recently, her hair in a greasy ponytail, charging $40 for intercourse, $27 for oral sex.

“For me, life is finished,” she said later that evening, tears running down her face. “I will never forget that I have done this.”

Now read this bit:

While the rest of Spain’s economy may be struggling, experts say that prostitution — almost all of it involving the ruthless trafficking of foreign women — is booming, exploding into public view in small towns and big cities. The police recently rescued a 19-year-old Romanian woman from traffickers who had tattooed on her wrist a bar code and the amount she still owed them: more than $2,500.

Okay, got that? Women beaten, threatened, held against their will, crying, bar codes tattooed on their bodies. Now read this:

On a recent evening, one young man from Paris stood in the parking lot of Club Paradise, bragging about his sexual exploits while his friends looked on. The women, he said, did not talk about whether they were being forced to have sex.

“Maybe,” he said. “But I think they are having a good time.”

And the point is…

…deep breath. We need to talk about patriarchy. Seriously. Beyond the rage, beyond the frustration and the desire to smack some misogynist freaks upside the head, I think we need to have some old school feminist discussion here.

What we do not need is to kid ourselves that this stuff happens because people are “squeamish” about sex, and that the solution is for people to get more “comfortable with the whims of whatever sits between [their] legs,” as the misguided writer at Jezebel would have it.

Prostitution is not about being hung up on sex, any more than slavery in the Saharan salt mines was about being hung up on sodium chloride. Prostitution is about the reification of women—which is to say, the conceptual transformation of women into sexual property to be bought and sold. And that reification is the very cornerstone of patriarchy.

I think I feel a massive theory fit coming on. Especially after the past few months, with the conservatives in this country asserting that unmarried women who have sex are public sluts; asserting that men have the right to control, withhold, arbitrate, and demand sex tapes in exchange for women’s access to contraception as part of their own medical insurance; asserting that any woman who has ever had consensual sex is fair game for whatever object the State might want to stick up her vagina and whatever humiliation the State might want to impose.

Filed under: Feminist Theory, Prostitution · Tags:

21 Responses to “I think we need to have a talk about patriarchy”

  1. Adrienne in CA says:

    I think so too, but worry it may be too late. Now that Santorum has been hustled off the stage, I wonder if the War on Women won’t magically fizzle away, and along with it, the faint ripple of awareness that could only be aroused by daily doses of we-hate-ALL-you-bitchez. And we’ll have to go back to talking about trees.

  2. angie says:

    Want your head to explode? Read this defense of prostitution that “isn’t freely entered into” (which I coincidentally just read today via a FB friend’s link).

    My favorite part:

    Yes. Prostitution is often abusive and exploitative. So is the garment industry. So is the chocolate industry.

    Prostitution, garment industry . . . tomato, tomahto.


  3. Miss Clairol says:

    Want your head to explode even more? Slate is promoting child brides as a solution to child prostitution


  4. Miss Clairol says:

    Sorry, that’s the link to the slideshow, this is the article:


  5. angie says:

    @Miss Clairol — That sounds about right — either a married slave or an unmarried slave — that’s the only choices.

    That story you link to reminds me of that documentary “Born into Brothels.” Despite it’s Academy Award win there was a lot of criticism of it (especially by men, of course, and especially in India, of course) because while the film showed the daily reality of children growing up in the brothels of Calcutta’s red light district, the critics claimed (1) the film didn’t really help the children featured in it (although the film acknowledged that despite the filmmaker raising tuition money so the kids could attend the one & only school in Calcutta that would even allow children of sex workers to be enrolled, many ended up going back to their families in the brothels) and (2) the film (allegedly) hurt the unionization of sex workers in India. I remember thinking — “And this is all the film’s fault how, exactly? Never mind that children of sex workers in Calcutta aren’t even allowed to go to school, the only thing these women (and their children) need is a union?

    I gotta say, all these stories (as well as all the defense of how not all prostitution is abusive or exploitative because thousand & thousands of women really, really like it!!!) kind of make me wish some idiot blowhard calling an unwed girl who engages in premarital sex a “slut” was our biggest problem.

    Not of course, that I’m trying to minimize the slut comment — but how the hell do we even start against these mindsets? It’s such a multilayered mountain of god-awfulness. We can (perhaps only temporarily) shame one offender and even (if we’re lucky) put him out of his job, but like a hydra, as soon as you chop off one head, two more grow in its place.

  6. Topper Harley says:

    Liberté, égalité, fraternité*

    *Except for Romanian women suckered into prostitution in Spain.

  7. anna says:

    The Slate piece is by prominent atheist blogger Greta Christina, in response to an anti-prostitution piece from Freethought Blogs, a group of atheist bloggers. The anti-prostitution piece is by Taslima Nasrin, here it is: http://freethoughtblogs.com/taslima/2012/04/11/prostitution/

    Allow me to just observe that the garment industry may be abusive, but poor women making garments when they’d rather not is not inherently evil, unless you’re going to oppose all of capitalism. But if you legalized and regulated prostitution, you’d still have poor women having sex they didn’t want to have because they needed the money. Which is rape.

  8. Violet Socks says:

    I gotta say, all these stories (as well as all the defense of how not all prostitution is abusive or exploitative because thousand & thousands of women really, really like it!!!) kind of make me wish some idiot blowhard calling an unwed girl who engages in premarital sex a “slut” was our biggest problem.

    Not of course, that I’m trying to minimize the slut comment — but how the hell do we even start against these mindsets?

    Maybe by realizing that it’s all of a piece. Which of course you know, but that was sort of my point. Rush Limbaugh being an asshole is perhaps at the opposite end of the spectrum of awfulness from slave brothels, but it really is all of a piece. For a feminist theorist, the contraception “debate” was fascinating partly because it put the basic women-are-sexual-property mechanism right out there in the open. It’s still the underpinning of conservative thought.

  9. anna says:

    Gloria Steinem supports the Nordic Model of ending prostitution by criminalizing the johns and pimps and traffickers, not the prostitutes:


  10. Toonces says:

    Yes, the garment industry, the chocolate industry, agriculture, etc. are often abusive and exploitive, and when people try to do something about these problems, they are not accused of actually being the cause of the oppression or just anti-capitalist prudes, which is the case when it comes to feminists criticizing prostitution, porn, etc.

  11. quixote says:

    “Prostitution is not about being hung up on sex, any more than slavery in the Saharan salt mines was about being hung up on sodium chloride.”

    Perfect. Just bloody perfect.

  12. quixote says:

    As for the false equivalence with garment — or any other non-sex — workers, I don’t remember where I read this (RageAgainstTheManchine? Feminist Law Profs?) but it makes the point clear.

    If it’s just work that we get paid for, like any other work, then there’d be some price at which we’re willing to do it. So, how much extra would your boss have to pay you for you to be okay with him also fucking you in the ass?

    (Well then. And you’ll notice that’s not your reaction if you’re being asked how much pay will get you to do dishes.)

  13. Violet Socks says:

    From that Steinem piece anna linked to @9:

    Again defying that old trope, forever pushed by advocates for the full decriminalization and/or legalization of prostitution, that pretends abolitionists are concerned with some kind of puritan morality and “sin,” Steinem stated: “Prostitution is not inevitable, it is only about unequal distribution of power.”

    That’s right folks. Feminism is about fighting inequality; there is no “moral panic” or fear of sex. In fact, prostitution and trafficking has little to do with female sexuality (aside from that fact that it is perceived and represented as something that exists only for male pleasure) – rather it is about dehumanization. Abolition is about connecting a context of poverty with racism, colonialism, and male power and working from there.

    The liberal pro-prostitution view is founded on a couple of modern myths. One, that prostitution is the “oldest profession,” and that it has always existed everywhere. This is demonstrably untrue; in fact, prostitution is unknown in non-patriarchal civilizations. Second, that prostitution is a normal artifact of human sex drive and that opposition to it is based on some kind of prudish hang-up. Again, demonstrably untrue given the history of human culture.

    Prostitution is, historically, the sexual enslavement of women. It is intricately bound up with the transformation of women into the sex class: resources designated as either private or public property.

  14. anna says:

    “in fact, prostitution is unknown in non-patriarchal civilizations. ”

    Such as? I’d love to have some examples the next time I debate this.

  15. Violet Socks says:

    Examples: Prostitution appears to have been completely absent from Australia before European conquest. Prostitution also seems to have been unknown in the non-patriarchal Indian societies of pre-Columbian North America, though it was definitely present in the patriarchal societies, such as the Aztecs (which illustrates the point). There doesn’t seem to have been any prostitution in Polynesia before the Europeans arrived. Southeast Asia, which is now ironically a world center of sex tourism, was anciently a place with a strong degree of gender equality. Prostitution only seems to have arrived with the Chinese, Europeans, and Arabs. This may have also been true in East Asia (e.g., Korea and Japan), though the transforming Confucian influence arrived there very early in history so it’s hard to say. Isolated pockets of surviving non-patriarchal societies in Asia, such as the Mosuo, strongly reject prostitution and say that it has no place at all in their history or culture. (Ironically, Mosuo villages are now sites of Chinese sex tourism, where Chinese prostitutes dress as Mosuo women.)

  16. Kate says:

    THANK YOU for this post. I’m so glad I found this blog. Everything about the prostitution debate (why, oh why is this up for debate?) is so infuriating. If the overwhelming majority of people in the world being prostituted are female, and they cater to an (almost?) entirely male clientele, how is this not an obvious system based on sexual inequality? And if the remaining non-female prostitutes are young boys, gay men, etc — that is, vulnerable and/or feminized and/or passive; anything but muscly, in-control ‘real’ men — how can any honest observer say this is ANYTHING other than a system of male domination over women?

    And the other thing that really gets me: most people will acknowledge that prostitution is shitty. They sure as hell wouldn’t do it! Those women get diseases, they get abusive-rapist johns, they get raped by johns who don’t think they’re raping them, they’re vulnerable to beatings and murders, they get picked up by the cops and gawd knows what else.
    But instead of looking at all this and wanting to END it, they want to reform it. What’s the great social good that prostitution brings to the world? What makes it worth preserving or reforming? No one’s managed to answer that.

  17. Violet Socks says:

    Hi, Kate, welcome to the lounge.

    What’s the great social good that prostitution brings to the world? What makes it worth preserving or reforming? No one’s managed to answer that.

    I believe it was Sam at genderberg who once made the very striking observation that all these broken lives and broken bodies, all this horror that women and girls experience, is for the sake of what is nothing more than a leisure activity for men. Entertainment.

    It’s not even for something lifesaving, like organ transplants. It’s all for just a few minutes of fun for men.

  18. RKMK says:

    Oh, bless you Violet, I was just having a debate with some very dear friends (one rad-fem type, no less) about prostitution, and I got jumped on for saying that “prostitution is inherently a dangerous and exploitative profession.” These links (your post, and the ones you link to) certainly help bolster my position.

  19. anna says:

    You know, I’ve been thinking about what we can all agree on, whether we want to legalize prostitution (that is, legalize it for the johns) or not. What can I and Margo St. James agree on?

    1. Legalization or at least decriminalization of SELLING sex. Whether you think of prostitutes as victims or entrepreneurs or something in between, no feminist wants to see them arrested.

    2. A strong safety net, so that nobody has to turn to prostitution for money even though they personally would feel horribly violated by it. I think wherever you stand on prostitution, we can all agree there are at least a few women who desperately want out but can’t because they need the money, and this is wrong.

    3. A strong crackdown on child prostitution and women being forced into sex slavery/trafficking.

    What do you think? I’d love to hear some sex-positive voices on these ideas, in particular.

  20. sam says:

    You and Echidne are the only feminist bloggers I’ve seen who posted about the New York Times article from a week ago. Not one space in their link dumps could be spared to mention the

    200,000 to 400,000 women worked in prostitution in Spain…90 percent were trafficked….police officials and advocates say that whatever the number of victims, it is growing.

    Today at Alternet Spain was listed as one of the 5 most sexually liberated countries in the world. Yeah yeah, several hundred thousand girls and women were are currently rape slaves in Spain, but their teen pregnancy rate is low and that (plus Spain’s embrace of porn) is the real issue when assessing a country’s relative sexual freedom.

    Thankfully, political gamechangers in other nations find it easy to ignore the clique of American neoliberalists swirling themselves in a vortex of increasing irrelevance.

  21. Aeryl says:

    Anna, I would be classified as sex positive in most of my viewpoints(classified as radical in others, I suppose) but I agree with everything you suggest. I support legalization over mere decriminalization because I think workers should have the right to organize, and feel that’s the best way to exclude the pimps and ensure the prostitutes are protected.

    I’ve read articles by sex workers that work to create networks to provide healthcare and assist women who want out. For women to attempt do such actions on a mass scale in a black market environment would ensure a bloodbath, IMO.

    But, as Violet points out that is only a bandaid to a bigger problem, which is the viewpoint the treats women’s sexuality as a commodity.