Over the last couple of posts I've been using the some of the issues raised in the feminist debate about prostitution to talk about larger concepts (whenever I feel the urge to talk about false dichotomies I feel that I've probably gone too abstract). There's one more idea I want to explore a little more thoroughly and that's the idea of agency. Agency is a very important concept for leftist historians. Anyone who wants to primarily study people whose lives are limited by those with power is going to pay particular attention to the ways people make choices despite the limitations and resist that power.
There are lots of feminists who in some ways agree with my analysis of the limits of free choice in our society. Twisty", for example, has argued that women can't freely choose blow-jobs, rice crackers, small handbags, or high heels. But it seems to me that she's talking about it on an individual level, that no individual woman can experience the choices to do any of those things as free, and if they do they're deluding themselves. To me that's totally reactive.
I generally believe that women make the best decision out of the options they've got. People who choose prostitution, or a tiny hand-bag, have genuine reasons to do so - they're not just deluded by the patriarchy. If a woman makes a decision that makes no sense to me, I don't assume she's horribly anti-feminist, I assume that there are limits on her options that I can't see.
To me, that is agency - making the best decision among a set of limited options.
The next question is how should we use our agency? When is it OK to judge the decisions that other women make? At what stage can we turn to another woman and say 'what you are doing is hurting the feminist cause?' Punk Ass Marc made the case that prostiution crossed that line:
I would still argue that women who choose to be prostitutes hinder feminism’s objectives because their work reinforces the ideas behind sexism and gender discrimination.I'm going to start by saying the idea that some women choose prositution and others don't is extremely odd to me. All women choose prostitution from a limited set of options, and most women have some sort of choice. The desire (often on both sides of the feminist prostitution debate) to make a grand distinction between street prostitutes and escorts troubles me. In particular the argument that it's OK if some women do sell their bodies, because they have no choice, but feminists shouldn't, seems incredibly patronising.
But more importantly, even if I thought individual women selling their bodies reiforced sexism and gender discrimination (and I don't) I don't think that means that we should say that prostitutes are hindering feminist objectives. Modelling, nursing, mothering, writing for women's magazines, cleaning - these are all roles which when women take them up reinforce ideas of our sexist society - that doesn't mean I'm going to judge another woman for deciding that one of those roles is the best for her, at that time. I don't think feminism is about individual sacrifice - I think it is about working together to change the circumstances that we live under.
There are circumstances where I do think feminists owe other women. The first is in the way they treat other women. I think it's very important that we try not to police other women to confirm to the norms set by our sexist and misogynist society (I've written a bit about this.
I also think that you're not a feminist if you abuse the power you have over other women. If you're an employer or a law-maker (to give a couple of examples) you have actual power over people's lives, if you use your power and make other women's lives worse then you're not my sister.
Apart from that I think we need to leave individual decisions to individuals, as what we do individually cannot challenge power structures. We can make our change when we work together - drops of water turn a mill - singly none.
NOTE: I've decided to follow Amp's lead and have some comments feminists and pro-feminists only. It's hopeless to try and explore feminist ideas in a comment thread when you're trying to make room for yourself around anti-feminist commenters who don't agree with basic tennants.
Commenting on this thread is only open to feminists and pro-feminists.