This essay first appeared in Cliterati on April 13th; I have modified it slightly to fit the format of this blog.
Probably the most common stereotype of anti-sex worker feminists is that they’re all misandrists, and on the surface that certainly seems true. But a closer examination of the issue reveals a deeper motivation which more closely resembles an obsessive concern with men at the expense of women. Feminists are willing to deny models income in order to deny lads’ mags to men, and would rather see women in the porn industry unemployed rather than know that men can watch porn videos. “Sex trafficking” fetishists are willing to undermine the entire edifice of civil liberties for both sexes in order to stop men from having access to commercial sex. Anti-sex worker screeds go on and on about “ending men’s demand for sex”, or “teaching men they aren’t entitled to sex”, or “look at the awful things men say about ‘prostituted women’!” Men this, men that, men the other thing; men, men, Men, MEN, MEN! No matter how vociferously prohibitionists insist that their motive is women’s protection or “empowerment”, sex work prohibition has absolutely nothing to do with women: it’s all about the men.
Nearly every Western society has a long tradition of viewing sex as something “dirty” and “demeaning”; the idea of punishment is inextricably bound up with the concept of “correction”, so buried in the misandrist rhetoric spouted by prohibitionists is the notion that if Big Nanny just spanks men hard enough and often enough, they won’t have those dirty thoughts any more. The underlying pretext of punishing men for male sexuality, and restricting them from enjoying same, is not to hurt them but rather to “help” them by making them more like (asexual, idealized) women. To be sure, “fallen” women are to be “helped” as well wherever possible, but when it happens it’s merely a happy byproduct of the campaign to “improve” men; those women who refuse to be “saved” and to dutifully recite the feminist catechism thereafter will be thrown under the bus without the slightest hesitation. While this motive is obvious in most Christian prohibitionism, it’s often less so in the feminist variety; that is not, however, the case in Katha Pollitt’s remarkably-transparent jeremiad in The Nation, whose lede included the feminist shibboleth “male privilege.” But rather than quote from Pollitt’s polemic itself, let’s instead look at Elizabeth Nolan Brown’s excellent criticism of it in Reason:
…Pollitt is upset about what she perceives as widespread leftist support for legalized prostitution. This is, in itself, a strange perception…I am far from alone in noticing a recent surge in anti–sex work passion among progressives. But more problematic/annoying are the reasons Pollitt gives for criminalizing prostitution, reasons which turn on an unsavory belief that restricting liberty is justified if it leads people to better (read: more progressive) views…Giving sex workers more rights…would also mean giving johns less punishment—a point which Pollitt expects women to find scary. Have you thought about the fact that men you know might visit prostitutes, young ladies? “This faceless man could be anyone: your colleague, your boyfriend, your father, your husband…When feminists argue that sex work should be normalized…they accept male privilege they would attack in any other area…Maybe men would be better partners, in bed and out of it, if they couldn’t purchase that fantasy,” Pollitt [writes]…
Despite its “feminist” trappings, Pollitt’s argument rests on the premise that men’s attitudes, ideas and feelings are so important and so central to our society that the state is justified in criminalizing and marginalizing some women and endangering all women in order to shape men in some way. The goal of making them better bed partners for “good” women justifies dispatching thugs to stalk, entrap, humiliate, brutalize, rape, chain, abduct, cage and torture the “bad” women who want no part of this social engineering project; or failing that, at least to starve, ostracize and endanger them via the “progressive” Swedish model. In either case, what the prohibitionist philosophy boils down to is that it’s perfectly acceptable for women to be endangered, harmed or even killed if it keeps some men from thinking Bad Thoughts; whether the aim is to control men or to “improve” them, women must be limited, subjugated or even sacrificed to accomplish the goal. One way or the other, it’s all about making men acceptable to the state and to “good” women, and what happens to “bad” women in the process is neither here nor there.