Saturday, August 26, 2006


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.


  1. "People who choose prostitution, or a tiny hand-bag, have genuine reasons to do so - they're not just deluded by the patriarchy."

    Well, the two are pretty different! I subscribe to Germaine Greer's theory (from The Whole Woman) that women carry around far too much stuff, so I think tiny handbags are a very feminist way to go. If you've got room for your phone, your keys, your eftpos card and a slender volume of radical feminist haiku, you're good to go. Plus, they're so cute.

    But seriously...I don't think a woman who chooses to become a prostitute is deluded by the patriarchy. No one, presumably, goes into that line of work thinking they're going to end up like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. It's probably fair to say, however, that it's hardly the free choice a lot of people would like to say it is. I just wish there were more options available to women considering prostitution. But in the world we live in, prostitution exists. Prostitutes aren't reinforcing sexism and misogyny - they're just symptomatic of the effects of a sexist, misogynist society. I don't think being a prostitute - or any other occupation symptomatic of patriarchy - is incompatible with being a feminist. I agree with you that the only occupation incompatible with feminism is one that specializes in screwing over other women.

  2. Anonymous1:32 pm

    I do agree that it seems possible for someone to become a feminist as a prostitute. But isn't subjecting yourself to someone who thinks your body is his to rent reinforcing that system?

  3. Anonymous5:25 pm

    But isn't subjecting yourself to someone who thinks your body is his to rent reinforcing that system?

    But isn't that the point of agency. You are not "subjecting yourself" to anything, you are actively making a choice, albeit from a limited variety of possible choices. Besides which, it is poor women who tend to choose prostitution, and feminists, I think, have to seriously consider and reconsider any standpoint which starts from the white middle-class.

  4. "But isn't subjecting yourself to someone who thinks your body is his to rent reinforcing that system?"

    Well, the women didn't create the system. The system was created because some people feel entitled to rent other people's bodies. The only thing that would stop prostitution would be a lack of demand for prostitutes.

  5. On my recent trip to South East Asia I had a rather interesting thought:

    I enjoy the best freedom that money can buy.

    Being university-educated, white, single, young and holding passports to two wealthy countries my choices are limitless in comparison to most of the world. Is it even worth comparing my lot in life to those young girls pearched on some old white pervert's lap at the table behind me in Phnom Penh.

    Am I bad because I turned a blind eye to it rather than giving her my drinking money for the night and saying 'here's the cash he'd give you, go home.' Probably and in so doing I'm just as much of agency of opression, but I'm doing so from a position of power that money rather than gender gives me.