Prostitution and the moral high road to nowhere

I had a fight last night. Not with fist punches and scratching. No. I had a fight where emotions got heated and feelings got hurt. There are many things that elicit this kind of intense debate. The three most common (and rather broadly cited) reasons are religion, politics, and sex. And what we spoke about had elements of all three, prostitution.*

I can’t even remember where the argument began. I think she, let’s call her Nancy, said something about prostitution and I made an off-the-cuff remark about her moralising and victimising prostitutes.

And so the spiral began.

Neither of us sat and truly listened to what the other person was saying. We heard each other. We understood each other. But there was no reconciling our differences on this topic.

We should have stopped there. We should have both backed down and, as the saying goes, agreed to disagree.

But we didn’t.

When I interrupted Nancy with that remark (about her moralising and victimising prostitutes) it is because I am tired of the same arguments being made time and time again. Where women who work as prostitutes are placed in a box that colours them as victims, an argument that fails to acknowledge that for some (possibly even for many) prostitution is not an action of survival but a means of generating wealth.

That is, when considering prostitutes people tend to do so in a moralising and victimising way, which they wouldn’t necessarily do for other jobs. I base my arguments largely on Luise White’s book about prostitution in colonial Nairobi, which is a sterling example of how to move beyond these pitiful discourses to ones that consider what sex workers do. To informed analysis that tries to find that abject zone between constructing prostitutes as only victims and the one which fails to account for the structural and social factors that put them there in the first place.

Now, Nancy did say, many times, that she recognises prostitutes make their own decisions but that they have limited options from which to choose. This is a very Marxian way of thinking — and one I agree with wholeheartedly.

But it does not account for the way in which people (generally speaking) take a moral high ground when talking about prostitutes. There are many professions and jobs that are the product of uneven power relations, ones that exist purely as service to those who have, ones that might be construed as degrading and “not something anyone would choose”, and all of which are related to the structural and social environment in which they are in.

I am sure, off the top of your head, you can find a long list of examples. Jobs such as domestic workers, factory staff and scullers. People who work on the fringes of society, people who are largely invisible to those with more wealth than them, and people whose jobs other people (read: rich people) pity.

I tried to then quantify what it is I was trying to say by moralising, which was so eloquently done by White, by saying that people base their judgements of sex workers on their moral compass of what they think is right and wrong.

But I got the response that this type of moralising happens with all jobs … and then we entered the murky waters of relativity.

I guess what I should have said is that when people consider jobs, they consider some more wrong or less wrong than others, some are more acceptable or less acceptable. There is no definitive right or wrong but when people (both inside and outside academics) contemplate prostitution they tend to place it very far down their moral “wrong” scale. A practice I disagree with.

A practice which I, like White, believe fails to acknowledge the agency and distinct decisions made by women in the working world. Prostitution is work but this work involves sex, which means it doesn’t sit comfortably with most.

White clearly showed how, during colonial times, prostitutes were dutiful daughters and/or shrewd business women. She illustrated how not all types of prostitution can be collapsed into one another: Where some forms of prostitution are only engaged in for short periods of time as casual labour from which to generate small bits of wealth to help families or in a desperate time of crisis. But also how some women engaged in decades of prostitution as a means to generate wealth and accumulate property. During colonial and war times these women were often the wealthiest in their “native” societies often supporting productive labour (such as railway workers) by providing them with accommodation with property they had bought and were now increasing their revenue through rents.

White also shows how prostitutes formed connections and “sisterhoods” with other prostitutes. That they were reluctant to leave property to kin or men but that it was often handed down to younger prostitutes as a way of creating matrilineal lineages, leaving a legacy, and shifting gendered constructions within a largely patriarchal society.

Yes, there are prostitutes who are in destitute situations but there are also teachers and police officers in situations of survival but no one ever places them in the moral-victim-matrix they are so ready to put sex workers and seem fixed on keeping them in.

I have a feeling that with convictions such as these last night won’t be the only fight I have on this topic …

*For the purposes of this article I am discussing adult prostitution where the adult has made a decision to undertake sexual work — I am not discussing trafficking or child prostitution.

Originally published on Africa Interpreted, a blog by Consultancy Africa intelligence, which has since been discontinued.

Image – Masked prostitutes take part in a demonstration to call for the repeal of the solicitation law and penalisation of customers in 2012 at the Pigalle square in Paris, France. (AFP)