NPN’s Jendi Reiter reviews an essay by D.A. Clarke, “Prostitution for everyone: Feminism, globalisation, and the sex industry”. This essay is published in Christine Stark & Rebecca Whisnant, eds., Not for Sale: Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography (North Melbourne, Australia: Spinifex Press, 2004, pp. 149-205).
This is the fourth in a series of reviews of the essays in this book. For earlier reviews, please see our Anti-Pornographers Bookshelf.
In this essay, Clarke, a British writer and software engineer, traces how porn and prostitution are connected to economic oppression. She takes aim at liberals who provide political cover for the sex industry by making it seem liberating and transgressive, when they’re really enabling the most heartless forms of consumer capitalism.
Clarke argues that sex work is a form of sweatshop labor, but one that goes unchallenged by otherwise progressive men (and some women). “Men who would not be caught dead wearing Reeboks or Nikes, or drinking Starbucks coffee, can still kid themselves into thinking Larry Flynt is some kind of People’s Hero.” (p.156) The economic forces that draw women into prostitution and pornography are the same ones that perpetuate sweatshop labor generally: the “union-busting” policies at most of America’s dominant corporations, and the worldwide race to the bottom as companies seek to outsource their jobs to countries where labor is cheapest and workers’ rights are weak. (p.157)
As with other forms of sweatshop labor, very little of the money from porn and prostitution actually reaches the women who perform:
The international sex trade in women’s and children’s bodies, as a marketable commodity for the sexual entertainment of adult men, is a staggeringly large money machine. In the US alone, demi-respectable pornography alone is a multi-billion dollar industry; the global reach and ‘cash flow’ of the sex industry is hard to measure, since much of its business occurs ‘off the books’, conducted by extralegal operators with or without the connivance of government officials. But we know enough to be sure that it is very big business indeed. And we know that very, very few of its line workers ever escape from grinding poverty. The relationship of capital to labour in the sex industry is classically Dickensian, and we are not–as a culture–unaware of this. (p.156)To call prostitution “the oldest profession” obscures the fact that most of these women have none of the benefits we associate with professional-level jobs. Sex workers have no social status, no health care, heightened risk for STDs and addictions, and little protection against sexual harassment and violence. (p.156)
International sex trafficking has exploded as the global economy has become more interconnected. Television and online media from wealthy countries tantalize poor women in the developing world, making them more vulnerable to get-rich-quick schemes offered by men who entrap them into the sex trade. Meanwhile, cheap airfares and the Internet make it easy for men to act out their fantasies of purchasing a more submissive, exotic woman than they can find at home. Clarke contends that harsh neoliberal market reforms, such as the austerity measures that the IMF and World Bank often impose as conditions on foreign aid, have created a global winner-take-all society, destroying village economies and pushing women into porn and prostitution. (pp.176-77)
Whatever one thinks of Clarke’s economic analysis (unrestricted loans to developing countries create their own set of problems), it’s hard to ignore the similarities between common pro-porn arguments and the ideology of the unrestrained marketplace. Neoliberalism’s key article of faith is that the marketplace is the ideal paradigm for all human interactions, and that it will produce fair and free outcomes if only we don’t regulate it in any way. (p.165) There is no room in this philosophy for noneconomic values such as kindness, human dignity, responsibility to the community, civil rights other than the right to property, or equality among social groups. Similarly, porn advocates behave as if the moral issues begin and end with women’s individual choices: as long as she’s being paid to be gang-raped, beaten, forced to drink urine, and so on, the rest of us are off the hook. Pro-porn leftists need to realize they are acting as shills for an ideology that reduces human beings to commodities or consumers, the same belief that they oppose in other contexts. (p. 169)
Though we know, culturally, by experience or osmosis, that women and children are prostituted most commonly through violence, through poverty, through deprivation or betrayal, Western liberalism has pretended for decades that more prostitution and pornography only mean more freedom, openness, and…Democracy. The fact that real democracy plays very little part in the day-to-day experiences of the average prostitute, does not seem to register. The ideological fanaticism with which the neoliberal theorist ignores all negative effects of the ‘freeing’ of markets is not unlike the resolute effort with which the traditional sex-liberal theorist has ignored the negative effects of the so-called ‘sexual revolution’. (p.169)The new reality television shows, along with old standbys like the Howard Stern show, provide many opportunities for women to choose humiliation in exchange for money or fame–e.g. taking off her clothes and eating dog food off the floor. “Neoliberal dogma will say that any woman who expresses disgust at the men who enacted and enjoyed this ritual of humiliation is actually an anti-feminist: she is denying the agency and choice exercised by this ‘liberated’ female, the ‘good sport’ who is ‘tough enough to take it’ and needs no sympathy or interference from well-meaning nannies. Just as, of course, the poor are quite capable of pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps and need no insulting assistance from the smothering hands of Big Government.” (p.170)
The Left’s resistance to moral judgments about sexual behavior helps big business continue to silence questions about the endless cycle of craving and dissatisfaction that a consumerist economy demands. Feminists and progressives should:
…ask not (as the Market dictates), ‘How shall we satisfy every desire?’ but rather ‘Is it necessary to satisfy every desire? Is it even possible?’ ‘Are all desires justified?’ and ‘What are the implications of insatiable desire?’… The question of the legitimacy of desires, and whether the fulfillment of desire is the same thing as ‘freedom’, is at the heart of a feminist critique of pornography and prostitution. Traditionally the defence of such predatory sexual manifestations as sadomasochism and the consumption of pornography and prostitutes has been on the grounds that all desire is ipso facto legitimate, and therefore the suppression (or even critique) of desire is ipso facto illegitimate and oppressive. This unconditional defence of desire and appetite is free-market ideology at its finest. (p. 188)Though Clarke does not spell out this point, one might also add that militant sexual relativism reflects our loss of faith in community and self-government. We’ve bought into the neoliberal equation that individual consumer choices are always more trustworthy than collective solutions reached by citizens reasoning together. The government is perceived as an alien force, while the marketplace is taken for the true expression of the people’s will. Unfortunately, Clarke does not own up to the ways her own Marxist-socialist ideology has historically undermined the mediating institutions, such as the family and religion, that helped protect individuals from the totalitarian ambitions of big business and big government alike.
In an addendum to this essay, written after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in 2004, Clarke draws a convincing connection between pornography and the US soldiers’ abuse of Iraqi prisoners. (p.196) The Abu Ghraib photos displayed many of the conventions of so-called “documentary pornography,” a popular genre of porn that purports to display real rape, incest, physical abuse, and other degradation. All porn offers the fantasy of violating someone’s privacy, but documentary porn gratifies the additional desire to see real people humiliated or in pain, and thereby to feel powerful at their expense in a way that mere imagination cannot provide. (p.199) Common sense would dictate that the soldiers not create photographic evidence of their own misdeeds, but Clarke speculates that our porn-accepting culture made this action seem perfectly normal:
The taste for porn pretending to be a documentary of rape or torture, combined with the underlying taste for an inferred real humiliation or pain involved in acting out the pretended rape, humiliation or torture, lead logically to a taste for documentation of unambiguously real rape, humiliation or torture. Or, alternatively, it is the same taste being indulged with varying degrees of impunity. The Abu Ghraib pictures are pornography made in a culture of total impunity. (p.199)Similarly, the frat-house grins of the soldiers in the Abu Ghraib photos resemble the well-known ritual of male bonding through porn, dirty jokes, and bragging about their sexual prowess, “in which a woman is the prop or target for a ritual among men,” as if she were a shared meal. (p.200) Group violence against a lower-status man, especially a racial or sexual minority, can have the same effect. These fantasies of racist and sexist dominance are a major theme in porn (e.g. “See Asian Sluts Get What They Deserve”). Like porn, state-sanctioned torture is used to keep a subordinate class in a state of fear. Clarke laments “the overarching, stunning hypocrisy of the world’s largest pornography-exporting nation acting so dreadfully shocked when its line troops treat POWs in the same ways that its prison guards and stronger inmates treat weaker men, and that its pornography and prostitution industry treats women, every single day.” (p.205)
Coming tomorrow: Our review of Adriene Sere, “Sex and feminism: Who is being silenced?”