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Panel Talk given by Joy to The London Anarchist Forum ‘Sex Work From An Anarchist Perspective’ meeting at the London Anarchist Book Fair 2009 on Saturday 24 October 2009

You know, I hope Noam Chomsky [1] is wrong when he says that if you want to marginalise a view you put it on right at the end of the day, when everyone is tired, no-one wants to listen any more, and people are getting up to get cups of tea [2]. I’m going to read three quotes. One’s going to be quite long, so please bear with me; the second will be just one paragraph; and the third will be a one-liner. All quotes are from the same book, which is about gender justice.

When you ask the question ‘What is good sex?’ you are also asking, I suggest, [‘I’ in this case being John Stoltenberg [3]] a question that is profoundly political, because its answer requires an inquiry into structures of power disparity between people – political structures based primarily on gender and also on race, money, and age. Is sex perceived to be good ultimately with reference to those categories? – for instance, does a man perceive sex to be good because he experiences it as enhancing his hold on the status of his gender; through the act of fucking, for instance, does he feel politically empowered, sensorially attached to his membership in a superior sex caste; does he therefore perceive fucking per se as good sex? Or is sex good to the extent that it transcends power inequities – to the extent that sex between two individuals mitigates the power disparity that they bring with them from the social context? In theory, two people might approach a particular sexual encounter either as a ritual celebration of the social power differences between people in general and between them in particular or as a personal act of repudiating all such power inequities. Someone whose sexuality has become committed to celebrating the political status quo would consider sex good to the extent that its scenario achieves actual and lasting physical sensations of power inequity – through dominance, coercion, force…and so forth. But someone who chose actively to resist the political status quo would consider sex good to the extent that it empowers both partners equally – and to the extent that they succeed together in keeping their intimacy untainted by the cultural context of sexualized inequality. The political question is tough, but it’s important to remember that it is a political question, and that ‘What is good sex?’ is a question about the relationship between the social structure and the particular sex act.

So-called sexual liberation has not provided a conceptual vocabulary that is very useful for discerning whatever is good about good sex either philosophically or politically. There is a lot of mindless jargon in the air (‘”sex positive” is good; “sex negative” is bad.’ ‘Prosex – any kind of sex – is good; antisex is very bad’) combined with a kind of sexual-orientation chauvinism (‘All gay sex is good; no gay sex is bad’ or, as the case may be, ‘All straight sex is good; no straight sex is bad’) that results in a near-total obfuscation of the actual values in particular sexual encounters. In the so-called sexual-liberationist frame of reference, the question ‘What is good sex?’ gets answered pretty quantitatively – in terms of erections, orifices, ejaculations, orgasms, horniness, hotness – and in terms of how far the anatomical experience can be removed from any context of social meaning. In the sexual-liberationist frame of reference, any other notion of good sex is caricatured as ‘goody-goody,’ ‘correct,’ ‘puritan,’ ‘vanilla.’ This frame of reference is derived from the belief that laws, parents, the church and the state, and women in general were all forces of repression keeping men from having as many outlets as they pleased for their so-called sexual tension. But today there is no way to ask the question ‘What is good sex?’ merely in terms of sexual-liberationist rhetoric. Today the question must be asked looking at a social structure that is essentially male supremacist and looking at the function of sexual behaviour in that structure – at how sexual action in private can reflect and keep intact larger social structures of dominance and submission, at how hatred of ‘the other’ can be sexualized until it no longer feels like hate because it feels so much like sex. And there is no way anymore that anyone can answer the question ‘What is good sex?’ without in some sense expressing either a reactionary or a revolutionary political position – an opinion, a point of view, about the male supremacy of the social order: whether it should stay the same . . . or whether it should not.

That was the first quote and, as I said, the longest. The next is just one paragraph. It begins the section headed, What Is The Relationship Between Good Sex and Commercial Representations of Sex?

Explicit representations of sex in commercial films and videos reflect and influence what many men imagine and perceive to be ‘good sex.’ Seen on the screen, the sex in sex films epitomizes the kind of sex, and the values in that sex, that men as a class (or at least as a consumer market) aspire to. To view sex acts through the medium and technology of film or video is therefore like looking through a window at what millions and millions of men believe is the best sex there is: sex that purports to be good – or ‘great,’ as the case may be.

The third and final extract about gender justice is, as promised, a one-liner:

The core of one’s being must love justice more than manhood.

Stoltenberg uses the word “manhood” here because these are all quotes from his book, Refusing to Be a Man. By that, Stoltenberg was not refusing to be male – because he is male, so that would be absurd. No, what he was refusing to be was a Man with a capital M, as in the case of “being the Man there,” always having to be in control and on top in our dominator society; and Stoltenberg is repudiating that.

Well, that’s my three quotes from Stoltenberg. Now I just want to comment on Steve Ash’s keynote speech where he said that sex work is “necessary” and will still be “necessary” in an anarchist society. Now, when I heard the talk was about sex I thought, oh good that’s sounds great, we can discuss the works of Shere Hite [4] – excellent! But then I realised it was about sex WORK. Well, I’m disappointed in that – I thought anarchists wanted to get RID of work. And money? I thought anarchists wanted to get rid of MONEY, too. Furthermore, if prostitution were to continue in an anarchist society, then women would also become entitled to sexual servicing, which would make the anarchism proposed by Steve some kind of ‘equal rights’ anarchism where, after the revolution, women become empowered to abuse and oppress others in the way we are abused and oppressed now. That’s not what I thought anarchism was. What I want is gender justice anarchism, not equal rights anarchism. The radical feminist Andrea Dworkin wisely said there are as many sexualities as there are people [5], but are there as many anarchisms as there are anarchists? Thank you. I’ll end there and turn it over to questions from the floor.


[1] Noam Chomsky is a philosopher and anarchist.

[2] The book fair had begun at 10am that day. Joy was the sixth and final speaker in the panel at the last meeting (which had begun late and was held in a stuffy and crowded room). By now, it was almost 6pm.

[3] John Stoltenberg is a long-time radical feminist activist against sexual violence and philosopher of gender. He is the author of Refusing to Be a Man: Essays on Sex and Justice (rev. ed. UCL Press, 2000), The End of Manhood: Parables on Sex and Selfhood (rev. ed. UCL Press, 2000), and What Makes Pornography Sexy? (Milkweed Editions, 1994), as well as numerous articles and essays in anthologies. In addition to speaking and writing, John works professionally in publishing in New York City, where he has been Managing Editor of five national magazines and served as editorial and creative consultant to many other publications. For Men Can Stop Rape [6], he conceived and creative directs the ‘My strength is not for hurting’ media campaign [7].

[4] See, for example, Hite, Shere The New Hite Report. The Revolutionary Report on Female Sexuality Updated (2000)

[5] As quoted in Stoltenberg, John Living With Andrea (1994) “I especially remember where Andrea writes that “‘man’ and ‘woman’ are fictions, caricatures, cultural constructs” and that “we are . . . a multisexed species.” As I described it 15 years later in my own first book, “that liberating recognition saved my life.””


[7] This paragraph about John Stoltenberg is taken from the Contributors section of Stark, Christine and Whisnant, Rebecca (eds) Not For Sale: Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography (2004)

This leaflet was written for the “Sex Work from an Anarchist Perspective” discussion at the Anarchist Bookfair last weekend.

As radical feminists we feel that there are fundamental flaws and dishonesties to today’s workshop on prostitution*. The organisers of this meeting will tell us that this is not a gendered issue, because in theory women have the right to be sexually serviced too. We will be told that the sex industry doesn’t exist because of male demand, and that there is equivalent demand for/industrial scale of, adult men servicing women. We will be told that, unlike other industries, in the sex industry, demand is rarely met through the coercion of extreme poverty, deception, or more direct violent control.

We will be told that we should not look at women as a class, that instead we have to concentrate on ‘individual women’ in their ‘unique situation’, but the ‘free’ prostitute we will be asked to consider does not exist. She really really wants to be a prostitute (in spite of how dangerous it currently is) and she came to this choice free of poverty, addiction, a history of abuse, violent coercion, manipulation or social pressure. Who is she? Where is she? What remote island was she raised on free from patriarchal pressure (because we would dearly love to move there)? Also, how is she, and the handful of her elite sisters and brothers engaging in ‘free’ prostitution, going to be able to meet demand when men feel entitled to order up a prostitute the same way they order up a takeaway pizza?

It will be denied that the normalisation and expansion of the sex industry affects the social status of all women and girls, and reinforces male dominance and male entitlement; apparently this is an “empty generalisation” compared to our putative ‘free’ prostitute. Saying this is not a gendered issue because women have the right to be sexually serviced too is like claiming anti-vagrancy laws don’t discriminate against the poor because millionaires aren’t allowed to sleep under bridges either.

We maintain that there is a physical and psychological reality to sex, that women’s bodies are not insensate lumps of meat and the vagina/anus is not a passive open hole. There is a physical and psychological reality to being penetrated multiple times a day when you are not aroused; without poverty, without more direct coercion, what would motivate any woman or man to do this?

Some sex industry apologists feel that ‘sex work’ will be necessary in an anarchist society, that if “some men can’t get laid” they have the right to be sexually serviced – so much for women’s ‘sexual freedom’, this is in essence about ensuring men get sexually serviced. Sexual pleasure is an inalienable human right, unless you are the person doing the sexual servicing, at which point it becomes just ‘work’, and having to service all the men who ‘can’t get laid’ is no big deal, physically or psychologically.

If all men have a right to be sexually serviced, and serviced the way they want, when they want, by who they want, someone somewhere will then have to lose the right to say no. What will happen, in our future anarchist society, when not enough women freely choose to be ‘free’ prostitutes? Will some new way be found to manipulate women into it? Will it become an obligation all women have to fulfil, like taking your turn cleaning the toilets? How will this ‘obligation’ be enforced?

The tired old argument about ‘needing’ prostitution to protect (other) women from rape is a gross insult to all the men who manage not to be rapists, even when they ‘can’t get laid’, and is a fundamental misunderstanding of what rape is. Men do not commit rape because they can’t control themselves, it is not a crime of sexual excess, it is a crime of power, of domination and control. Even if rape did occur because men just couldn’t hold it in any longer, how is it going to work in a system of ‘free’ prostitution, with its inevitable long waiting lists given the inevitable scarcity of those wishing to be ‘free’ prostitutes?

Arguments about prostitution being driven underground are just more tacit acknowledgement that this is about men’s right to be sexually serviced, if the men using prostitutes really cared about their welfare, there wouldn’t be any coerced prostitution in the first place. This is also tacit acknowledgement that ‘free’ prostitution will never meet demand as it currently stands.

Saying that the best we can offer poor women is a ‘safe’ way to be sexually assaulted for money is saying that female poverty and male sexual violence is inevitable, and that the world will never change in any significant way. It is also a veiled threat against all women: give us (men) what we want, or we’ll take it anyway and worse.

The ‘anarchism’ on display here is nothing more than a desire to give male supremacism free reign, from men who are not prepared to give up any power.

* We are using the term prostitution rather than ‘sex work’, because the term ‘sex work’ is a deliberate obfuscation which covers up the exploitation inherent in the sex industry (consider the term ‘juvenile sex worker’ used to describe child victims of commercial sexual exploitation). It obscures the lived experience of those directly engaged in transactional sex, it obscures power relations between workers and bosses. Pimps, pornographers, brothel keepers, escort agency managers, telephone sex line operators, those working behind the till in sex shops and sperm donors all call them selves ‘sex workers’.