Dogmatic and deeply flawed

Sociologist Tim Davies argues against the radical feminist position on prostitution
September 2007

It is good to see Red Pepper addressing the important issue of prostitution and refreshing to have the opportunity to read the views of someone who works as a sex worker who doesn't fit the now dominant stereotype of either a tragic addict forced into selling sex on the streets to feed her habit or a victim of sex trafficking.

Juliet presents a lucid and persuasive case for decriminalisation as a necessary step towards tackling the extrinsic harms associated with some forms of prostitution.

What is wrong with the radical feminist position? First, like all ideologies, it presents a moral position as if it was an objective account of reality. To define prostitution as inherently abusive is to adopt a particular moral position that is arguable but which can't be imposed by fiat.

Second, its conviction that prostitution can be abolished, like slavery before it, flies in the face of historical and cross cultural evidence. Prostitution is so near universal a feature of human societies that the idea it can be eradicated represents an extraordinary triumph of wishful thinking over rational thought.

Third, it presents part of the picture of prostitution as if it were the whole story. As Juliet points out, there is rarely more than a passing mention in radical feminist writing of the existence of male prostitution or of the fact that women too buy sexual services.

Fourth, it distorts reality to bolster its plausibility. Human beings are caricatured as goodies and baddies - in radical feminism all women are good and men, with their insatiable sexual appetites, are bad. However, according to Hilary Kinnel, [a writer on violence against sex workers and national coordinator of the UK Network of Sex Work Projects], 'Clients, far from being a tiny minority of men with abnormal desires and predilections for violence, are a substantial subsection of the male population, with fairly mundane reasons for engaging in commercial sex and rarely violent.'

Fifth, radical feminists either ignore facts that don't fit their preconceptions or distort the evidence to bolster their case. In 1999 the purchase of sexual services was made illegal in Sweden. In the following year the number of street prostitutes was estimated to have fallen by 41 per cent, conclusive proof for radical feminists that the policy should be emulated elsewhere. However, the latest annual audit by the Swedish police on the workings of the legislation (December, 2006) reports that street prostitution is on the rise again and has returned to earlier levels in Stockholm.

Finally, radical feminism presents prostitution as wholly and irredeemably negative in its impact. Yet the idea that prostitution could have beneficial as well as detrimental consequences for society has become something of a sociological commonplace. The web site of the organisation Juliet represents, the International Union of Sex Workers (http://www.iusw.org) lists no fewer than 15 ways in which, it suggests, prostitution is beneficial in society.

It is here perhaps that the most telling weakness of the radical feminist position can be seen. For radical feminists 'prostituted women' are to be pitied, not listened to, unless they are talking exclusively about the horror and degradation of prostitution.

It is time to recognise the radical feminist position on prostitution for what it is: a dogmatic, arrogant and deeply flawed perspective on sex work, which, however well intended, has been unjustifiably influential and unhelpful in holding up a more balanced debate on the best way to reduce the extrinsic harms associated with prostitution.

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