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Rhetorical Politics of Anti-Prostitution Feminism

we must start from the assumption of complicated and diverse experiences

Forum: WMST-L
Date: 05/14/2011

On May 14, 2011, at 9:16 AM, "Scott Hampton." wrote:

So what I am looking to do is collect laws from a variety of jurisdictions (internationally) that either (1) support rape so that they can be exposed and changed or (2) challenge rape (e.g., Sweden's law criminalizing the behavior of "pimps" and "johns" but not the behavior of those being exploited) so that they can be cited as best practice and used as part of a "model code" for other jurisdictions to adopt.

Scott + listmembers,

I feel that it is premature to assume that the "Swedish model" of criminalizing purchasing sexual service but not performing them challenges rape.

Proponents of this model have claimed that it would allow sex workers who have been sexually assaulted to come forward without fear of prosecution, but in reality the underground nature of the work, fueled in part by the criminalization of the transaction, make it difficult for workers to report rape or take effective preventative measures (e.g. "verified customer" system similar to what eBay uses to make transactions safer for its sellers and buyers, for example).

What the law actually challenges is prostitution, not rape. I'm not trying to start a debate over the pros and cons of the Swedish model, but I need to point out that the notion that there is no meaningfuil distinction between rape and prostitution supports rape and rapists because it diminishes the importance of mutual consent.

Emi Koyama

Date: 05/15/2011

On May 15, 2011, at 9:02 AM, Scott Hampton wrote:

Here, I want to clarify what my request was and why I mentioned Sweden's policy as a model. What I am looking for are laws that support or help to dismantle a "rape culture" not just laws about rape per se.

I get that, but 1) it implies a shocking disregard for the welfare of the women who are actually in the sex trade, as if you would gladly sacrifice their safety in the name of combating "rape culture," and 2) I still think that your characterization of the Swedish model as one dismantling the "rape culture" is too simplistic.

The connection I was drawing related to objectification -- (i.e., a rape culture is supported in part by the belief that women are disposable sexual objects. Similarly, prostitution occurs when men believe that women are disposable sexual objects.)

I would grant you that prostitution (or rather, what prostitution unfortunately looks like in the world we live in) reflects the cultural attitudes that dehumanize and objectify women, though I am not so sure that it is any worse than Hollywood or the fashion industry or the institution of marriage (which are being critiqued, but I don't see very many feminists working on abolishing them).

On the other hand, to suggest that women who trade sex for money are always "victims" who are "exploited" by men is another way to dehumanize women, as it presumes women to lack agency and capacity to consent. And isn't the belief that consent doesn't matter (which Swedish model suggests) what supports the rape culture?

In other words: the relationship between rape culture and prostitution, like that between rape culture and marriage, is more complex than you presume, as is the impact of the Swedish model on rape culture. The Swedish model may challenge one aspect of what constitutes the rape culture, but (in a more fundamental level, I think) it reinforces it.

I cited Sweden's approach, because I have yet to find a competing approach that does a better job of acknowledging those connections. For example, in most of the U.S. the behavior of anyone involved in prostitution is criminalized (pimps, johns, and prostitutes). Consequently, they often arrest the people who are being sexually exploited. In the Netherlands, prostitution is decriminalized so that the behavior of pimps and johns is condoned. In contrast to both of these, the Swedish model, by arresting the pimps and johns but not those being prostituted, is the only one that attempts to make clear who is exploiting whom.

In any of these countries, it is a crime to force or coerce someone to engage in prostitution against their will. Of course the enforcement is extremely limited and flawed, even in Sweden, but those who force or coerce someone to engage in prostitution in any of these countries can be prosecuted, even in the Netherlands.

So when you say "sexual exploitation," you are not actually talking about forcing or coercing women to engage in prostitution; clearly, you are starting from the assumption that prostitution is in and of itself "exploitation" and violence against women, despite your earlier statement that you are not equating prostitution with rape. That is not helpful and perpetuates the "rape culture."

Emi Koyama

Date: 05/16/2011

On May 16, 2011, at 6:47 AM, Scott Hampton wrote:

I think we are debating the wrong questions. Nothing pleases batterers, pimps, johns, and other sex offenders more than watching us evaluate women's choices. Personally, I'd rather not collude with that agenda of theirs.

No I am not; *you* are. I take it for granted that women's experiences within prostitution, like those within the institution of marriage, are complicated and diverse, and did not engage in any "debate" over whether women "choose" to be in prostitution or not. You, on the other hand, actually seem to want to inject your own conclusion to this "wrong question."

Likewise, in prostitution, we are asking "Is she making a choice?" "Is it really a job for her?" "Do all prostitutes feel exploited?" And so on. The better questions are: "Why do men want to treat women as sexual toilets and when are we going to insist that they stop doing that?"

By framing the question this way, you are in effect posing and answering the very questions that you call "wrong questions"--and answering them in such ways that diminish women's subjectivity and diversity of experiences and uphold rape culture.

Regardless, these deceptively phrased questions are purely rhetorical and intended to impose pre-arranged conclusions on its readers, rather than an attempt to invite serious dialogues about how we can best defend the rights and dignity of women who work in the sex industry. You seem to be more concerned about defending and promoting your ideological preference.

Emi Koyama * Putting the Emi back in Feminism since 1975.

Date: 05/17/2011

On May 17, 2011, at 5:29 AM, [removed] wrote:

Both Emi Koyama and Ellen Moody have talked about prostitution as though it is a meaningful profession (am I misunderstanding you here?) and they talk about the importance of admitting that women can consent to be prostitutes.

Yes, you are misunderstanding me. Whether prostitution is or is not a meaningful profession is, as Scott would put it, a "wrong question." What matters is that people are engaging it to make ends meet and survive in a neoliberalistic capitalist economy and it does not help their plight in any way whatsoever by treating them as mere "victims" with no agency or subjectivity.

Consent does not equal justice, especially under the neoliberal climate where people are forced to make individual "choices" among severely limited set of options that are available to them. I've been critical of many "consent" based sexual assault prevention workshops because they often ignore the social and cultural context in which consent takes place.

But it is nonetheless important to recognize that there is a clear distinction between enslavement and people making choices among severely limited set of options. If a woman is enslaved, that is if she is forced by someone else to engage in prostitution, she would most likely benefit from our intervening immediately and removing her from that horrific situation (provided, of course, we also provide support and resources needed for her to heal herself and rebuild her life).

On the other hand, if prostitution just happened to be the "least bad" option among those available to her at the time, removing her from the situation would only force her to choose a less desirable option. A better approach in the latter case is to create more and better options for her by providing resources and opportunities, both within and outside of the sex industry.

That many women consent to engage in prostitution does not mean that everything is okay. But it can help us understand what our priorities need to be in order to best advocate for the more vulnerable among us. Feminists need to stop using prostitutes as their ideological pawns and treat them as real people struggling to survive the neoliberal economy like any others.

But isn't the problem with prostitution that consent is very questionable and prostitutes are sometimes routinely assaulted?

Prostitution without consent is assault: it's as simple as that.

Rapists think prostitutes cannot be raped because they are already whores, and feminists who think "prostitutes cannot NOT be raped" reinforce this rapist mentality by diminishing the importance of consent in the sexual transaction. Conflation of consensual prostitution with prostitution without consent (i.e. assault) as if they are one and the same is nothing short of endorsement for rapist mentality.

Please read my (somewhat) recent blog entries:

"End Demand" approach harms women. Here's why.

A response to the "economic coercion" argument that equate prostitution with trafficking and then with slavery

Emi Koyama

Date: 05/17/2011

On May 17, 2011, at 4:52 PM, ERIN GRAHAM wrote:

i think it's pretty insulting as well as inaccurate of Emi to blame feminist abolitionists for violence against women in prostitution. It is a well known fact that the people who are violent against women in prostitution are the men who purchase sex. or the pimps who profit from the sale of sexual access to women's bodies.

I think it's pretty insulting to imply that feminists and women's studies scholars do not have any real impact on the plight of women who live outside of university campuses, and that even bad scholarship cannot possibly lead to any actual harm. Well, feminists are in fact capable of causing major harm in women's lives, especially when they collude with and legitimate religious fundamentalists and the prison industrial complex, as anti-prostitution feminists have.

the Swedish model of law includes comprehensive exit programs for sellers of sex so they can access options that do NOT amount to the choice between the devil and the deep blue sea.

If the "options" provided to the women were truly good, or at least better than being in prostitution, why do we need any law criminalizing prostitution at all? No women would engage in prostitution if the "comprehensive exit programs" actually met the needs of the women better than they can meet them on their own through prostitution. Why can't they simply offer services and resources without labeling them "victims" comparable to rape victims and slaves?

Examples of "end demand" policies and practices in the U.S. that I am familiar with do not include service provisions that are anywhere near "comprehensive," which is why retention rate for these programs are so low: once women satisfy court-mandated programs, many of them go back to the sex trade.

Abolitionists recognize that we need to both interfere with the demand and offer a range of comprehensive supports and opportunities for those who are engaged in prostitution to get out. and we need to work beside those women, and collaborate, rather than proscribe.

If we are serious about providing services and resources, we need to create something that would attract the women without threatening them with imprisonment (and don't believe that Sweden does not persecute prostitutes: there are drug laws, immigration laws, and others that can be used to beat women down and threaten them into compliance).

That said, I have actually collaborated with anti-prostitution feminists who are willing to separate what they think the ideal world would look like (an area we can agree to disagree) and the reality we must recognize and base our strategy on. Too many anti-prostitution feminists, however, seem more invested in their ideology than the women they are theorizing about. (I suspect that many pro-prostitution feminists are no better, though... And yes, I blame them too.)

it sort of seems that Emi is in agreement with the abolitionists whom she also then blames for violence against 'sex workers'--we all recognize that most people sell sexual access to their bodies because of constrained opportunities within this neo-liberal globalized economy and so on--but some of us are not willing to settle for merely making the horrible bearable.

I am arguing that everyone's choices are constrained by economy and other factors, such as poverty, racism, etc., some more than others. Women in prostitution tend to come from those who face disproportionately greater challenges, as are people who work in other areas associated with lower socioeconomic and personal backgrounds.

What we need to address is these economic and other forces that make some of us more vulnerable than others; taking away or attempting to take away their "least bad" choices harms them, rather than helping them. Anti-prostitution feminists need to stop making things worse before they can actually begin doing more than "merely making the horrible bearable."

Emi Koyama * Putting the Emi back in Feminism since 1975.

Date: 05/18/2011

On May 18, 2011, at 6:37 AM, Scott Hampton wrote:

So why did I so strongly urge us to focus on the abusers' agenda?

By defining "the abusers' agenda" to be anything that disagreed with you, you exploited survivors of violence as an excuse to silence dissent without engaging in serious conversations. And you refuse to respond to these criticisms in any serious manner because, according to you, to engage in any such dialogues among feminists is to support "abusers' agenda." How convenient.

This rhetoric positions Scott on the same level as the Pope in his infallibility, but it is also the same tactic male leftist leaders have used when they were accused of sexism, or white feminists have used when they were accused of racism: you are buying into the oppressor's strategy to divide and concur, focus on attacking the real enemy and don't jeopardize the movement.

In short, I was attempting to honor the requests of survivors.

You are cherry-picking survivors' voices that happen to meet with your ideological preferences, reducing the diversity and complexity of women's experiences in prostitution to a single point of view that is conveniently identical to your own.

And since these quotes are cherry-picked in order to "illustrate" Scott's points, I provide the translation below that would explain what he is actually trying to illustrate with them:

"If you keep on exposing the abusers' agenda the way you did so clearly tonight, I want to warn you, you will be punished! But not because you are wrong. If you were wrong, people would just ignore you. It's because you are hitting on some very tender nerves. Abusers will accuse you of being a man-hater, a traitor. And women will find your message scary and painful. But whatever you do, don't stop saying it. They need to hear it, loud and clear. We all do."

Translation: If anyone criticizes Scott, they are abusers, their supporters, or people stupid enough to fall into their trap, because it is survivors who are requesting that Scott promote his own ideologies, and he is just trying to honor them.

"I have been out of "the life" for over five years now. When I was in it, I, like so many others. had convinced myself that it was my choice. Why? Because if I allowed myself to see it any other way, I probably would have killed myself. So don't come to me or my sisters for all the answers. We're just trying to make the best of a terrible situation. We're just trying to survive. Besides, you won't know what prostitution is really all about until you get inside the heads of the people doing it to us."

Translation: If any women who are or have been in prostitution challenge Scott's ideas, it just means they are either brainwashed, or they had to delude themselves in order to survive. Either way, we can just ignore those voices that don't agree with Scott, even if they come from women who have experienced prostitution first-hand.

This passes as feminism these days? I think feminists of all persuasions need to challenge these tactics, regardless of what they think about prostitution and what should be done about it. Even if someone happens to like Scott's conclusions, they should know better than to excuse his rhetorical violence and exploitation.

Emi Koyama * Putting the Emi back in Feminism since 1975.

Date: 05/18/2011

I am going to stop responding to this thread, as requested our moderator (thanks always!). But I'd like to clarify my statement and correct a misquoting of it because at least two people seem to have misread what I had clearly stated.

On Wed, May 18, 2011 at 11:15 AM, [removed] wrote:

You have said that there are feminists who believe that prostitutes cannot be raped and that there are feminists who "collude with and legitimate religious fundamentalists and the prison industrial complex". These seem to me to be quite sweeping claims, especially as it seems to be emerging that, in your view, these bad feminists are "anti-prostitution feminists". It may be my ignorance, but I don't know any anti-prostitution feminists with these views. Who are they exactly? Frankly, I find it hard to believe that they exist.

On May 18, 2011, at 8:20 AM, Katha Pollitt wrote:

I don't think there is a feminist alive who thinks "prostitutes cannot be raped." What would that even mean? This discussion isreally getting kind of extreme.

In the post that both [removed] and Katha are responding to, I wrote:

On May 17, 2011, at 7:58 AM, emi koyama wrote:

Rapists think prostitutes cannot be raped because they are already whores, and feminists who think "prostitutes cannot NOT be raped" reinforce this rapist mentality by diminishing the importance of consent in the sexual transaction. Conflation of consensual prostitution with prostitution without consent (i.e. assault) as if they are one and the same is nothing short of endorsement for rapist mentality.

As you can see, I did not suggest that there are feminists who thinks "prostitutes cannot be raped," as [removed] and Katha seem to think. I wrote that there are feminists who think that "prostitutes cannot NOT be raped," with the second "NOT" capitalized to emphasize that it is not a typo, but an intentional double negative.

When feminists equate prostitution with rape and violence against women, they are in fact suggesting that "prostitutes cannot NOT be raped." This may appear to be the exact opposite of what rapists think, but in fact they both share the same fundamental belief: what women working in prostitution think and feel are irrelevant, because presence or absence of consent is solely deduced from external appearances (i.e. money exchanging hands), not the women's will or agency.

I call this rapist mentality, and yes many anti-prostitution feminists subscribe to this view. If you need a name of such feminist, Scott Hampton comes to my mind, assuming that he can still be considered a feminist.

By the way, thanks Katha for giving me a great quote to post on my publications: "Kind of extreme" - Katha Pollitt, The Nation.

Emi Koyama * Putting the Emi back in Feminism since 1975.