Feminist discussion of contemporary prostitution has only become more divisive since its kickstart in the 1970s and 1980s. The divide between radical feminists and liberal feminists continues to grow, with both factions funding international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to achieve their motives. While the argumentative bases of radicals and liberals alike have shifted and evolved, there seems to be no hope of reconciliation. The radical position that prostitution, on a theoretical level, perpetuates the oppression of women through reinforcing harmful stereotypes of male supremacy is necessarily at odds with the liberal claim that prostitution is a form of work that can be expressive of female sexuality
While it seems self-evident, liberals, while advocating for the legitimacy of prostitution, in no way support the trafficking and sexual slavery of women and children. Coercing, manipulating, and kidnapping women and children is by no means acceptable to any liberal feminist. It is a morally abhorrent practice that, while technically covered loosely under definitions of prostitution, should not be considered so. Sexual slavery is just that, and nothing more. However, this is not to say that any and every form of coercion transforms prostitution into sexual slavery. Economic coercion, felt normally by all people under a capitalist system, does not make a prostitute a sex slave. If anything, it makes her a worker struggling to survive, just as all workers are.
In these contemporary discussions of prostitution, though, the overwhelming conception of the institution, especially as pushed by radical feminists, is that of western prostitution. Of streetwalkers, brothels, red-light districts, pimps and madams. All too often no consideration is given to the fact that prostitution exists elsewhere in other forms, affected by other cultural factors. It is unfortunate that this comes as no surprise. Feminism, especially second-wave feminism, has a history of silencing and marginalising the work of black and third world feminists. This is done by asserting white, western-focused views as universally applicable, and it may just be the case that this is happening once again with prostitution.
A ready defence against charges of a western world focus is that this is the form that contemporary prostitution takes in the vast majority of the world today. However, a just as ready response to this is that this could be due to the global spread of western values. The focus on western prostitution is reinforced by the statistics given in discussions of this type, which focus on states such as Holland, the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom. The pattern here is quite easy to see. While large volumes of work have been published on the responses to, status of, and opinions concerning prostitution in places such as India, New Guinea, and China, mainstream feminism rarely refers to this. It is because of this western world focus that attention should be shifted to a global discussion of prostitution, and due consideration given to its historical developments in non-western states. Such an analysis considerably weakens the radical position against prostitution, which holds that the practice can never be reformed to a non-oppressive institution.
To begin with, let us examine the historical development of prostitution in India. Ancient texts as early as 300 C.E. offer evidence for the existence of prostitution in this state. While originally there were three classes of prostitutes, the main branch that developed was the Devdasi. Devdasi were primarily entertainers. They were religious figures who were hired by nobility to dance, perform, and, of course, offer sexual services. Throughout most of Indian history, the Devdasi held a position of high social respect and were regarded highly both socially and religiously. The largest changes to this system arose in the 1850s, when the British colonists publicly outlawed the Devdasi system, but tolerated it in certain areas. The Devdasi were confined to zones, usually close to the British troops’ quarters, as they were tolerated mainly to satisfy the sexual urges of the soldiers. Because of this, the Devdasi began to be seen as symbols of colonisation and were despised. This hatred was compounded by the introduction of Christian sexual values, which further skewed the Indian view of prostitution, now denouncing it as immoral. As a result, the redlined prostitutes were despised, with their high social respect and position replaced by one almost outside of society. They were marginalised and stigmatised.
This, though, is not the whole story. The continuation of prostitution, along with its lowered social position was seized as an opportunity by Indian locals of high standing. Those in the upper castes sought to continue the caste system under colonial rule, and prostitution was a perfect opportunity to cement the lower castes in their position. As prostitution caused the social stigmatisation of the women who entered it, only those of the lowest castes could be coerced to subject themselves to this social suicide. In doing so, the women tarnished both their own social position and that of their families, who were unable to earn a respectable position in society. The intergenerational entrance into prostitution that then became necessary for survival transformed into a method of forcing the lowest castes to remain at the bottom.
In ancient Greece, similarly, prostitutes originally held a position of social respect. Like in India, some prostitutes were connected to temple worship and offered sexual services to both priests and travellers. Similarly, those who walked the streets and worked in brothels held considerable respect, though not as high as the religious workers. In their male-dominant society, prostitution offered a position of some independence for women, and it is even reported that some brothels were entirely female operated. While the history of prostitution in Ancient Greece is not well documented, it should come as no surprise that social perceptions of prostitutes in Europe have evolved into what it is today, considering the views of Christianity adopted by the late Roman Empire.
Lastly, contemporary prostitution in Papua New Guinea offers an interesting juxtaposition to western prostitution. There, prostitutes are called ‘passenger women’. Passenger women, like western prostitutes, offer sexual services for money, but pride themselves on not demanding money, but being offered it. In Papua New Guinea the perceptions of males and females are very different from what they are in the west. Men are seen as the naturally beautiful gender and are the objects of desire. Conversely, women are seen as dirty, and for a large part of their history were socially excluded from men, even inhabiting separate houses from their husbands.
Perhaps paradoxically, though, women are meant to be sexually exclusive. Female sexuality is understood purely as a mechanism of the reproductive system, which is less a part of the woman and more a part of the family. This is due to the fact that families in Papua New Guinea largely survive on bridewealths, money, and gifts given to the bride’s family after a marriage. These bridewealths can be a source of great income — and great debt — for New Guinea families. Thus, women must be complicit in this system, or the family may lose a large source of income. It is also because of this system that violence against women often goes unchallenged, with murders and rapes rarely being brought to court in fear of losing bridewealth money. Some women feel extremely slighted by this system, and abandon their families to become passenger women. In this way, passenger women are prostitutes less for the economic gain and more for an expression of their sexual autonomy and for rebellion against the bridewealth system. A woman who becomes a passenger woman willingly ruins her social image and deprives her family of bridewealth income. However, most passenger women are proud of their position, and believe that if anyone is degraded from trading money for sex, it is the man. In their society, the man is meant to have self-discipline, and his beauty is meant to attract women. A man paying for sex in Papua New Guinea implies that the woman seduced him beyond his self-discipline, making him lower himself to the point of paying for sexual services.
What, then, do the cases of India, Greece, and Papua New Guinea mean for our contemporary discussion of prostitution? First and foremost, these cases highlight just how varied both the social status and the cultural views of prostitutes can be. It is almost universal of western prostitutes that they exist on the margins of society and are seen as immoral women. What can be understood from this is that for our western societies, something about sex, especially sex with a variety of partners, somehow dirties a woman. This much is supported by derogatory terms such as ‘slut’ and ‘whore’.
But what about the radical feminist idea that prostitution necessarily perpetuates male supremacy? In the case of Papua New Guinea, the passenger women did indeed tarnish their reputation within a male-dominated society, but they also saw themselves as expressing a sexual autonomy that was forbidden by their culture. Furthermore, this sexual autonomy came at the price of the personal degradation of the men who paid to have sex with them. If passenger women do indeed perpetuate the idea of men’s right to access to women’s bodies, they do so by rebelling against the repressive cultural conception of female sexuality. Passenger women also refuse to be sold to a man in a much more direct sense than radical feminists argue prostitutes sell their bodies. The bridewealth system is far closer to female slavery than its rebellious counterpart, passenger women, are.
Another radical feminist argument rests on the idea that prostitutes experience immense psychological stress, and often develop mental disorders. This, however, was also the case for homosexuals when homosexuality was criminalised. Homosexuals experienced increased rates of suicide and mental illness before the practice came to be widely accepted. Perhaps, then, there is a case to be made concerning the social acceptance of a practice, and the psychological stress and disorders developed by its practitioners. A social acceptance, it should be noted, that was tarnished in many cases by the introduction of western values. And it is these same western values that radical feminists push, all of whom refuse to accept the testimonies of many western prostitutes that suggest the practice can be expressive of sexual autonomy. This silencing implies that radical feminists ascribe importance not only to sex, but sexual purity, which perpetuates the male constructed conception of western female sexuality.
Finally, it must be noted that the wholesale denunciation of prostitution without an actual analysis concerning the practice’s popularity oversimplifies prostitution. In New Guinea, passenger women often engage in sex for money due to their self-proclaimed rebellion and anger at the bridewealth system, a system which is far more objectionable than the acts of passenger women. In India, the practice of prostitution can be seen as a vehicle for the oppression of the lower castes through moral and social condemnation. Why, then, do radical feminists not attempt to address the inequalities caused by the caste system, which purposely perpetuates the social condemnation of prostitution, and therefore women, for political purposes?
In contrast, the liberal position promotes the decriminalisation of prostitution and the elimination of its social stigmas. Doing so would adequately obfuscate the efforts of the higher castes to rely on prostitution to perpetuate the suffering of the lower castes in India. It would also liberate the women of these lower castes from their low social status. Furthermore, the passenger women of New Guinea will have a new level of independence through the practice of prostitution, which would allow them a source of economic income outside of the bridewealth system. In addition, this could possibly result in a greater number of women being capable of not participating in this system, and supporting their family, or themselves, through independent income.
Importantly, the liberal position allows prostitutes to speak for themselves. Unlike the radicals, who have a history of silencing the testimony of prostitutes and asserting western ideals as universal, liberal feminists seek to empower prostitutes through legitimising their practice. While liberals may also be culpable of universalising a western position, the end goal is the liberation and inclusion of women, and not the restriction of sexual practices legitimated by a supposedly universal western authority.