Debbie Cameron takes a critical look at the linguistic framing of current debates on prostitution.
Let’s start with a question. Are you pro-sex or anti-sex?
Maybe you’re thinking: ‘of course I’m not anti-sex, who the hell would be against sex?’
Or maybe you’re thinking: ‘Hang on a minute, aren’t those terms a bit loaded?’
And of course, they are. But that comes with the territory. It’s in the nature of political arguments to be conducted in loaded language. The proverbial ‘battle for hearts and minds’ is always, among other things, a war of words.
‘Pro-sex’ (or ‘sex positive’) and ‘anti-sex’ are shorthand labels for political positions on a set of issues (including pornography and prostitution) which have divided feminists since the 19th century. ‘Anti-sex’ is what the ‘pro-sex’ camp call the people on the other side of the argument: it’s not what the other side call themselves. (Because who the hell would be against sex?)
But the competing terms in a political argument aren’t always straightforward opposites like ‘pro-/anti-sex’. In debates on abortion, the opposing camps are most commonly labelled ‘pro-choice’ (supporting women’s right to choose whether to continue or terminate a pregnancy) and ‘pro-life’ (defending the sanctity of human life and the rights of unborn children). Each side has chosen a label that suits its own argument, and both have been relatively successful in getting others, including the media, to respect their terminological preferences.
There’s more to these preferences than just the words themselves. As the linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff explains, ‘every word is defined relative to a conceptual framework’. For instance,
If you have something like “revolt,” that implies a population that is being ruled unfairly, or assumes it is being ruled unfairly, and that they are throwing off their rulers, which would be considered a good thing.
So when the people in a suburban street complain about the council’s new parking restrictions and the local newspaper reports this under the headline ‘Residents in parking revolt’, that implicitly directs us to judge their action in positive terms, as if they were downtrodden peasants courageously resisting tyranny. If instead the paper had called it a ‘parking squabble’, that would frame the residents’ grievance as trivial and petty.
The power of framing to shape perceptions of an issue is what makes the choice of terms tactically important. Lakoff has written extensively about the way this works in arguments between conservatives and progressives in the USA. One of the cases he examines is the argument about cutting taxes for the wealthy—or as the conservatives who favour this measure put it, offering them ‘tax relief’. Progressives oppose tax cuts, but they also use the term ‘tax relief’, and in Lakoff’s view that’s a tactical mistake. The word ‘relief’ frames paying tax as a painful affliction—a frame that reflects the conservative view and so gives them an advantage in the argument. When the progressives declare themselves ‘against tax relief’, they are accepting rather than challenging the conservative view of tax as an intolerable burden. And when tax is framed as a burden, the politician who offers ‘relief’ will be more popular than the one who doesn’t.
What Lakoff thinks the progressives should do is frame the issue in a different way. Like, ‘paying taxes is paying your dues to your country’. If rich people take pride in their ability to pay the hefty subscriptions charged by exclusive country clubs, they should also be proud to pay for their membership of what so many of them like to call ‘the greatest country on earth’. More generally, he argues that whoever controls the framing of an issue stands a better chance of winning the argument. It’s a mistake to accept terms which have been chosen by your opponents to serve their own interests, and to let them define your position for you.
In the case of abortion feminists haven’t fallen into that trap. But on other issues, especially issues which feminists are divided on, the situation is rather different.
Prostitution/sex work: framing the debate
The current debate on what to do about prostitution (or ‘sex work’—different terms, different frames) is a case in point. On this issue there are two competing arguments which both claim to be progressive. The first is that commercial sex should be legally available in the same way as other personal services: the state should treat the (mainly female) purveyors and the (overwhelmingly male) consumers as equal, autonomous agents, and should not limit their freedom by making the buying or selling of sex a crime. Wanting less state interference and fewer restrictions on free trade is a position typically associated with the political right, but in the case of the sex trade it’s more common on the left. It’s also the position taken by some feminists.
Other feminists, however, view prostitution as a fundamentally exploitative institution which depends on and reproduces inequality between men and women. From that perspective there is nothing ‘progressive’ (or as Jeremy Corbyn recently put it, ‘civilized’), about making it more easily accessible and more socially acceptable. Supporters of this argument do agree with the opposing camp that the state should stop punishing prostitutes. What they favour is the ‘Nordic model’ (so called because it was pioneered in Scandinavia, though it has recently also been adopted in France), in which the law defines purchasing sex as a crime, and it’s the buyer rather than the seller who is penalized.
This second group of feminists has struggled to present itself as ‘progressive’ and to resist being labelled ‘conservative’ by the first group. In Britain last August, a YouGov poll found that the majority of respondents thought ‘consensual sex work’ should be legal—though the overall majority in favour wasn’t large (around 54%), and there was a significant difference between men and women. A clear majority (65%) of men were in favour, with only 15% opposed; most women, by contrast, were either opposed (27%) or undecided (30%), with 43% in favour.
The reasons why people hold the views they do are likely to be multiple and complex; but one relevant consideration may be the way language has been used in this debate. Feminist opponents of prostitution have arguably done the same thing Lakoff criticizes progressives in the US for doing in the argument about tax relief: they’ve accepted terms that favour the other side. In particular, they’ve accepted that what they’re arguing about is most aptly described as the ‘decriminalization’ of prostitution.
One immediate problem with this is that it’s confusing. In reality, both sides want to decriminalize the selling of sex: the point they disagree on is whether buying sex should be legal. Sometimes, campaigners for the Nordic model try to get around this confusion by explaining that what they oppose is ‘full’ decriminalization (meaning, of buyers and sellers alike). How well this works depends on how aware the audience is of the details of the competing legal proposals (for those who are not deeply engaged with the debate, the difference between ‘decriminalization’ and ‘full decriminalization’ is probably obscure). But in any case, there’s a more general issue about the way the term ‘decriminalization’ frames the question being debated.
Whenever there’s a proposal to ‘decriminalize’ something, the implication is that its current status as a crime is arbitrary and unjust. The fact that it has been ‘criminalized’–made into a crime–is either a reflection of conservative social attitudes from which most people have now moved on, or else an expression of the state’s need to control its citizens, especially those it perceives as a threat to the existing order (e.g. youth, the poor, and members of ethnic or sexual minorities). This was the argument that led to the decriminalizing (under certain conditions) of abortion and sex between men in the late 1960s. These were/are said to be ‘victimless crimes’, acts which do not harm others, and which therefore should not be forbidden or punished.
For people on the political left, who pride themselves on their tolerant social attitudes and their resistance to authoritarianism and injustice, the term ‘decriminalization’ works like ‘revolt’ in Lakoff’s example: it frames the proposal in positive terms, as the obviously ‘progressive’ thing to do. Conversely, the label ‘anti-decriminalization’ frames the people it is applied to as the opposite of progressive. The label says nothing about their political motives; it merely suggests that they are standing in the way of change, and so endorsing a right-wing ‘law and order’ agenda. In fact, feminist critics of prostitution reject the traditional conservative case against it (that it flouts the religious/moral norm prohibiting extra-marital sex, and that the women involved in it are ‘dirty’); but they do not believe it is ‘victimless’ or harmless. However, the ‘pro-versus-anti-decriminalization’ frame does nothing to help feminists get that argument across.
Could feminist opponents of prostitution take Lakoff’s advice, and use different terms to put the issue in a different frame? Some campaigners do call themselves ‘abolitionists’, thus placing themselves in the tradition of earlier struggles to abolish slavery. Another possible reframing is suggested by the writer Rae Story, a former prostitute who now describes herself as a ‘sex-industry critical feminist’. Discussing the support recently expressed for decriminalization by the left-wing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Story comments on the paradox of a committed socialist taking this position. The sex industry is run on capitalist principles: the argument for ‘full decriminalization’ is, she says,
in effect an argument for the full industrialisation of prostitution. It opens the way for businesses to be able to leverage their wealth to build large brothels and chains, thus consolidating potential industry profits and hiving them off into smaller and smaller numbers of hands.
This isn’t just wild speculation: the proliferation of mega-brothels run on super-exploitative, neoliberal lines is what has happened in Germany since the sex industry there was decriminalized. Would leftists find the cause so obviously progressive if it were described as ‘the industrialization of prostitution’, or in other terms which activate a ‘neoliberal capitalism’ frame, like ‘deregulation’ and ‘free market’? Would people who associate ‘decriminalization’ with campaigns for social justice feel the same about a campaign for ‘legalized brothels’?
But being labelled ‘anti-decriminalization’ isn’t the only problem for feminist opponents of prostitution. Another problem is the framing of their position as ‘anti-sex’.
From prudes to pearl-clutchers: the rhetoric of ‘anti-sex’
Attitudes to sex are a major dividing line between modern conservative and progressive ideologies. Whereas conservatives see sex as a socially disruptive force which must be regulated and contained, progressives regard it as positive and socially liberating. Because of this, anyone who expresses concern about any kind of sexual behaviour is liable to be described by progressives as ‘anti-sex’, meaning conservative, moralistic, intolerant and prudish.
Feminists of my generation have been hearing this accusation for nearly 50 years—originally it came from anti-feminist men, and now it often comes from younger feminists, who maintain that female sexual agency and pleasure were not part of the second-wave agenda. In reality, these were key questions for the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s. One of the most-read texts produced by the early WLM was Anne Koedt’s ‘The myth of the vaginal orgasm’ (1970): after observing that women had been ‘defined sexually in terms of what pleases men’, Koedt asserted that it was time for them to insist on their own right to sexual pleasure:
We must begin to demand that if certain sexual positions now defined as “standard” are not mutually conducive to orgasm, they no longer be defined as standard.
What Koedt and her contemporaries were against wasn’t sex, it was men dictating the terms for sex. And men dictated the terms just as surely in the ‘progressive’ counter-culture of the 1960s as they did in the most conservative family homes. The terms themselves were different, but men’s entitlement to set them was the same. And feminists had had enough of that.
Unsurprisingly, some men were less than delighted by the prospect of sisters doing it for themselves—defining their own desires, making their own demands, saying no to sex they didn’t want (and in some cases, to heterosex in general). That kind of female agency wasn’t what men had in mind when they talked about sexual ‘liberation’. (An apter word than ‘agency’ might have been ‘availability’.) Calling feminists ‘uptight’, ‘frigid’ or ‘prudes’ was a way of dismissing the challenge feminism posed to traditional, male-centred ideas about sex. Terms like ‘anti-sex’ and ‘pearl-clutching’ do the same job today. The vocabulary has changed, but the framing is the same.
On some issues, feminists have succeeded in changing the frame. 50 years ago, for instance, you could be labelled ‘uptight’ for expressing concern about rape. Today you can disapprove of rape without being labelled ‘anti-sex’, because rape has been reframed as an act of violence rather than sex. But feminist criticisms of prostitution have not had the same impact. On this topic we still hear all the old arguments about men’s sexual needs, and even the claim that if prostituted women did not provide an ‘outlet’, the rest of the female population would be at greater risk of rape. We also hear a newer set of arguments about the ‘empowering’ nature of commercial sex work for women. Feminists who disagree are called ‘whorephobic’, and accused of denying other women agency and choice.
Of course, feminists have contested these arguments and accusations; they haven’t just retreated into silence. But Lakoff would say that engaging in debate with an opponent on their terms, using their preferred language, is a less effective strategy than redefining the issue in your own terms. If you want to change the picture, change the frame.