Friday, February 16, 2007

prostitution as "just another" profession

one of the reasons ive been absent here is that i was spending some time talking and learning about some women's issues. mostly, the other people were from women's groups or specific marginalised groups , working on a day-to-day basis with the issues that are especially pertinent to them.

as usual, when discussing prostitution, the main discourse used by the prostitutes' rights representatives and union members was that prostitution is "just another" profession, like any other.

that point of view troubles me greatly. let me state that i do appreciate the difficulty of finding a balance between viewing certain people as victims and as empowered people with agency. but this particular politics seems to be to be tipping the balance the other way from victimising, and walking into some very dangerous territory.

firstly, every time i've heard prostitutes (i'm dismissing other people's echoing for now) say that, it's been very contextual. it has been when they are talking to NGO workers about how prostitutes are empowered (or should be). the same women sound miserable and utterly dejected when discussing the dangers and injustices in their lives. talk about violence, and they eventually lapse into silence. hardly surprising - what words can describe some experiences? they long to live like other women (ie not in prostitution) when discussing these subjects.

it strikes me that maybe we - the women who have much greater access and standing in society - are taking over their discourse. we are putting in their language the words that we want to use because that language bolsters the politics of the work that we are doing. it's one thing for me to urge a woman to make a declaration of strength and walk back to my safe, privileged environment at the end of my working day. its totally another thing for that woman to make the declaration, live its politics and deal with the flak it generates. there is no time out for her, no support beyond my visit.

so im questioning the statement. has it really naturally evolved from an informed political framework or has it been put there? how come the declaration isnt even consistent within that system?

secondly, i question the justice and accuracy of such a bid. it seems to me to be almost ludicrously theoretical a stance. my parents sure as hell didnt consider prostitution as an option when we were discussing what careers were open to me! it hardly needs to be explained to anyone that life in prostitution is very different from say, in medicine or teaching, if only because of how society regards prostitution, and not because of the nature of the work itself and all its attendant baggage. really, can we say that we have difficult lives too and, with any modicum of truth, draw a parallel with the choices that women in prostitution make? i think its at best nonsensical.

it also makes me ask, what is causing these women to sanction such a comparison? what prompts them to grant it legitimacy by vouchsafing that prostitution is "just another" profession? there's a huge issue of privilege here that must not and cannot be ignored. this is precisely the reason that i use the us-them references.

thirdly, i have reservations about the bid as a strategy. i use the word "bid" repeatedly because i see it as such. it is a bid to be accepted. that seems to me a very self defeating proposition. what it does is to concede superior social standing to the undefined and therefore more powerful (in this context) Other, and ask for handouts of social recognition and respect. if we act as subalterns how will we be treated as equals?

also, as a strategy, to say that this life should be acceptable to every woman as an equally desirable way of life, will only certainly (and understandably?) alienate women in prostitution even amongst the community of women. they will be denied the social grant that they are seeking first from the groups closest to them - from potential allies.

finally, why on earth would you want to normalise that life of violence? why on earth would you want to say that a totally patriarchal symptom is a normal way of life? socialising prostitution isnt going to solve anything - its only going to make existing troubles much worse.

nope. i dont like those politics one bit.



Blogger Krish said...

Very pertinent issue...something that i had been thinking about the last couple of weeks....think i can put in what i think in words...sadly, words do betray me at have done my bid..

10:43 pm  
Blogger annie said...

have been thinking about the profession and related activism for a while myself. your post helped clear some of my muddled attitudes. thanks. will probably sit and write a detailed thing myself, when I have a little more time. thanks :)

1:03 am  
Blogger m. said...

krish: hey. that was very quick a response! glad to have helped.

annie: ah. most welcome. am looking out for your take on things :)

7:43 pm  
Anonymous icarus said...


Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I've always been under the impression that the primary motive underlying the argument of 'prostitution being just another profession' is to secure legitimate status for prostitution. Wouldn't legalising prostitution - thereby providing a redressal mechanism under the law - help in protecting these women from violence?

Coming to your point about "conceding superior social standing to the undefined and therefore more powerful (in this context) Other", is the question involved one of legitimacy or respect?

9:25 am  
Blogger m. said...

icarus: hiya. legalising prostitution as a profession makes sense to me; trying desperately to make it acceptable to society,as "just another" profession doesnt.

the second question i cannot answer with authority - i can't speak for the manner in which women in prostitution regard dominant patriarchal society. if it is respect, that's tragic. since the expressed politics are those tending to rebellion against dominant culture, i'd say...why grant such an authority. self defeating.

9:23 am  

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