The idea of patriarchy

This article originally appeared in T&S Issue 38, Winter 1998/99.

A new book by Sheila Jeffreys, The Idea of Prostitution, poses the fundamental question: what makes it possible for men to conceive of buying women for sex? Liz Kelly found it a thought-provoking read.

Prostitution has always been an issue about which feminists have disagreed, and Sheila Jeffreys’s new book The Idea of Prostitution will undoubtedly spark further debate. Both in tone and content this is a more measured approach from a woman who has tended to evoke strong responses — both pro and con. But I suspect that many of the women who have chosen to locate themselves in opposition to Sheila will not notice this. Who women are — and are perceived to be — is all too often more important than what they actually say. This ‘you can’t win’ attitude has limited the possibility of respectful dialogue within feminism. I often wonder these days if there is any possibility of remembering that our original goal of women’s liberation is far from gained, and that there are strong points of connection, as well as disagreement, between us.

Don’t misunderstand me, Sheila Jeffreys is uncompromising in locating prostitution as a form of violence against women, but she explores alternative viewpoints with thoughtfulness and precision, and her biting wit makes only the occasional (welcome) appearance.

The title provides the core theme of the book, what makes the idea — and therefore the practice — of prostitution possible. It is not ‘the oldest profession’ (what a misnomer that has always been), not a reality that has, and therefore will, always be with us.

An ‘idea of prostitution’ needs to exist in the heads of individual men to enable them to conceive of buying women for sex. (p3)

The explanation offered for the origins of prostitution draws on Gerda Lerner’s much under rated book The Creation of Patriarchy, in which she suggests that prostitution follows the development of slave holding. Slave owners began renting out ‘surplus’ women for sex, and both harems and brothels stem from the large numbers of captive women available to successful rulers and chiefs. I find this far more convincing than what Sheila Jeffreys terms the ‘myth of origin’ explanation — that prostitution’s roots are in systems of sacred and temple offerings (of women and girls) to the gods and goddesses of ancient times. Many writers have used this interpretation of pre history to bolster an argument that all that is wrong with prostitution is the stigma and low status which attaches to women and children involved in it; and that these things were different at one time. But were they? We know that the priests and religious leaders had sexual access to these women, but can we really be certain that they occupied positions of respect?

The language we use

As with all the best radical feminist analysis, the issue of what language we should use is a key theme. Following discussion with activists in the Philippines, the term ‘prostituted woman’ is recommended, as both a way of moving away from suggestions that prostitution could be some kind of core identity, and to make explicit that this is something which is done to women. Customers are called ‘johns’, since this is a term invented by women to describe customers

and is nicely contemptuous. It implies that the men who use women in prostitution are generic males, indistinguishable from one another. (p3)

Whilst ‘john’ has a wide reach in English speaking cultures, I’d like to know if it has become a universal term, or whether women who speak languages other than English have similarly sardonic collective terms for male customers.

The terms ‘sex work’ and ‘sex worker’ are rejected, through a complex argument which is summarised later. But ‘the sex industry’ and ‘sexual exploitation’ are both used, and considerable stress is placed on the global industrialisation of its now myriad forms.

Perhaps the most controversial discussion of language is the proposal that we limit the reach of ‘sexual violence’ to that which ‘refers to, is experienced as, or affects the sexuality of, either the man who is abusing or the woman who is abused’. As I understand it the intention here is to distinguish between violence that could come within the frame of ‘hate crime’ to oppressed groups, and that which is specifically sexual, and therefore particular to women’s oppression. I think I would use ‘gender violence’ for former category. But even so I am not sure the distinction is so easy to draw. How can we know when particular abusive acts affect the sexuality of men or women?

One of the most interesting questions is one I have been thinking about for several years now — whether we too readily abandoned the word ‘victim’. The logic of Sheila Jeffreys’s argument here bothers me slightly, since she suggests that it is through the adoption of the term ‘survivor’ that room has been created for the accusation of ‘victimhood feminism’. It seems to me rather the reverse — that those who make this accusation have no contact with the literature or services which use the word survivor. Despite this, however, I too am drawn to rehabilitating the word victim for a limited range of meanings; naming what has been done to women and children. Toby Summer, who was herself abused in prostitution, comments that the hardest thing for women in the sex industry to do is confront the extent to which they have been hurt: ‘One cannot be hurt and not be a victim to the perpetrator’ (p150).

Here we go again

One of the most consistent elements in Sheila Jeffreys’s work is her reflections on the history of sexual politics in nineteenth and twentieth century western ideas. The first two chapters outline the ways prostitution was an issue for second wave feminists, and the approach of sexologists to the sex industry.

She reminds us of a lengthy, passionate and successful campaign by feminists against prostitution and trafficking in the first half of this century. Even though the language in which these activists spoke is not easy to reconcile with the sophistication we are used to at the end of the century, they were clear that the basic problem lay in male demand.

Then, as now, one of the key divides between women was whether they focused on ‘forced’ prostitution or all prostitution. The emphasis in international lobbying and policy at the turn of the century was on forced prostitution, trafficking, through the revealingly named ‘white slave traffic’. The League of Nations conducted two investigations into trafficking, but did not use force in their definition. They discovered large numbers of European women were trafficked into Central and South America and to parts of North Africa. Many of the women knew the purpose of their journey but, in their view, this still counted as trafficking since they were recruited. The presence of brothels in the receiving countries was understood to enable and fuel the trade in women. The second study was focused on the ‘east’, and had to negotiate complex questions of tradition and custom such as child marriage and the devadasi system (so called ‘temple prostitution’) in India. The findings of this enquiry concentrated on the traffic between Asian countries and movement of women from Russia into parts of China. It was only the feminists (again then as now) who were prepared to question cultural traditions.

Two international conventions were signed in 1902 and 1910, before attention shifted to war. A third convention was passed in 1921 which attempted to introduce a range of protections for women and girls who might be trafficked through employment agencies, and migration. The 1933 fourth convention covered trafficking even where there was apparent consent, but only where this involved prostitution ‘in another country’.

Sheila Jeffreys argues convincingly that many of the feminists lobbying around international law were, in fact, abolitionists. The progressively more radical conventions were strategic stages in building international awareness and opposition to all prostitution. Their ultimate goal was a fifth convention which would outlaw organising and facilitating prostitution. The second world war intervened, but a version was passed in 1949; this convention, however, never attained the number of signatories which previous ones had (only 67, and countries known for supporting conventions on women’s rights — such as Australia, Sweden, the Netherlands and the UK have not signed).

Some of the activist feminists of this period had sophisticated understandings of the ways in which opposition to prostitution could translate into policies which punished women, through for example repatriation of trafficked women. Some were also convinced that efforts should not be put into ‘rehabilitation’ but rather prevention, and a 1943 report from the League of Nations argued strongly for a targeting of male demand. This is not the only story of feminist action Sheila Jeffreys presents, however, and she charts the failure of the focus by some groups on equal moral standards, the ways in which this position conflated the behaviour of men and women, and ended up taking issue with ‘promiscuity’.

Sexology to the rescue

At the end of the 1940s, strong international conventions led some countries to take action, such as closing licensed brothels. The rehabilitation of prostitution in terms of public discourse, according to Sheila Jeffreys, came through sexology. All the founding fathers of sexology saw prostitution as not only a legitimate ‘sexual outlet’, but also as an important resource in understanding ‘good sex’. It is here that we find the specious argument rehearsed that men’s access to prostitution is a ‘safety valve’, which reduces rape and sexual assault; conveniently ignoring the extent to which prostituted women are raped by customers and pimps alike, not to mention differentially targeted by misogynist sex murderers.

The content of Alex Comfort’s Joy of Sex is especially revealing, since here prostituted women are defined as ‘professionals’ — women who know how to give men what they want. The next logical step in this manual for heterosexuality is to encourage all women to behave more like ‘happy hookers’. Sheila Jeffreys asks the pertinent question whether it is this ‘idea’ about prostitution which lies at the heart of sex therapy. The critical difference being that rather than pay a woman to enable men to have ‘good sex’, the woman ‘surrogate’ in sex therapy must be a volunteer (presumably in part because the payment in this transaction goes to the sex therapists). Comfort notes revealingly in More Joy of Sex that volunteers are preferable because ‘Hookers are clued, experienced and sometimes turned on, but the scene is wrong, and a lot of them, by motivation and by experience, are basically hostile to the opposite sex’! (quoted p45 6) The development of the sex industry since has merely deepened this ‘idea’; that the kind of disengaged, performative sex which men seek in prostitution, is the model for ‘good sex’. And some feminists and lesbians have bought into this, defining freedom as behaving in the ways that men have done.

Challenging stigma

The beginnings of the prostitutes’ rights movement in the mid 1970s follows both the ‘sexual revolution’ and the Women’s Liberation Movement. At the outset feminist groups did not defend prostitution, other than as an economic necessity; rather what they addressed were the ways prostituted women were subjected to unjust laws and corrupt police, and stigmatised more widely, including by feminists. These were powerful arguments and struck a chord with many activists. But there was a fly in the ointment for some of us — since we saw prostitution as a patriarchal institution.

Sheila Jeffreys charts the development of the prostitutes’ rights movement over the last three decades, and notes the points at which their agenda and a radical feminist analysis came into tension. The most recent development is the emergence of groups working on prostitution, staffed by ex prostituted women, who work from a radical feminist perspective. The most vocal and organised are WHISPER (see T&S 26) and SAGE in the USA, but there is now at least one similar group — EXIT — in the UK.

From work to choice and identity

The notion that prostitution should be understood as a kind of work like any other emerged in the 1970s, but gathered speed in the 1980s. Relocating prostitution from vice/crime into employment, would according to this logic remove the stigma, and enable the development of safer working conditions. Sheila Jeffreys is willing to concede that prostitution is a kind of work, but not that it should not be legitimised, nor that it is just one of a range of forms of paid employment. The chapter on this topic takes us through a number of themes: what kind of work is prostitution; does it involve dignity; what kind of contract is involved; are there links with slavery; how the specific embodied nature of prostitution makes it different to other kinds of paid work.

It is hard to imagine another form of work that is similar, in which the sign of a social group’s inferior status is the centre and meaning of the ‘work’…. in which workers are required to receive the contempt appropriate to an inferior position in the political hierarchy to the extent of possible brutal death. (p195)

This is not to say that prostitution does not require particular kinds of skills, but in the vast majority of sexual encounters for money men are not interested in ‘social skills’. The skills women need, and develop, are survival skills, and they are markedly different from those needed in most employment. Julia O’Connell Davidson’s ethnographic study of one prostituted woman is referred to in this chapter, and the author’s profound challenge to social theory, in terms of how prostitution can be understood, quoted; in prostitution a woman becomes ‘a person who is not a person, a slave who is not a slave and a wage worker who is not a wage worker’ (quoted p183).

The argument that prostitution is a rational choice has developed more recently. Choice here seems to be understood as something which occurs in the present moment, or immediate past, rather than in the context of life history and the wider reality of women’s inequality. Sheila Jeffreys opts for the term ‘decision’ to recognise the fact that some women do have room to act (p155), but notes that this does not imply, or presume that there were positive and viable alternatives to their action.

When thinking about ‘choice’ we need to ask how many women would choose the sex industry in preference to being a lawyer or doctor? And how many of us involved in raising children would view prostitution as an equivalent option to other forms of paid employment?

In the 1990’s a further twist has been added; prostitution is now defined as a form of sexual practice, and even a ‘sexual orientation’, especially within ‘queer theory’. The fact that this is not reflected in women’s accounts of how they understand, and manage, prostitution, has not prevented countless academics including prostitution in their lists of sexual variations. But as Sheila Jeffreys points out, the fact that money changes hands and that it has little if anything to do with how women understand their sexual lives, undermines such careless conflations.

The word ‘agency’ has become as irritating to me in the late 1990s as ‘desire’ was in the late 1980s, Sheila Jeffreys sums up the problem succinctly, as ‘… a concern to discover women’s agency even in the most apparently unlikely situations’ (p128). She is at pains to point out that women are not passive victims without the ability to act; that feminism exists is testimony to this. But at the same time there exists an ‘array of forces which exact conformity’ (p160) and that women’s decision making is often ‘…an anguished agency much constrained by circumstance’ (p156). Considerable use is made in this discussion of Carole Pateman’s detailed and subtle critique of the notions of choice and consent within liberal democratic theory. What I was left thinking at this point is why do so many post modern feminists see agency and choice more powerfully in women’s adaptation to their oppression than in the history and continuity of feminist resistance to oppression? By what feat of upside down logic is it possible to accuse those of us who have chosen to be activists, who use our ‘agency’ to challenge men’s behaviour, of constructing women as victims?

Prostitution as male sexual violence

In this chapter Sheila makes the point powerfully that prostitution should be included on the continuum of violence against women, and rightly takes me to task for not doing so in Surviving Sexual Violence. She notes the particular difficulties of naming prostitution as violence against women, since unlike other forms it has not been hidden, ignored and minimised but rather defined as something different. This makes it especially troublesome for women to name their own experience, since the payment of money in some way justifies, and legitimises, the behaviour. Thus, unlike other forms of violence against women, there is little public discourse which encourages or enables women to find different meanings for their experiences.

This argument leads in interesting directions, since there are two levels of violence to be accounted for here; that within the practice of prostitution itself which is defined as ‘commercialised sexual violence’, and the events which women themselves define as violence — the rapes and physical assaults, which Sheila Jeffreys calls ‘unpaid violence’. But even here, as Patricia Holmes’s and Val King’s piece in this issue illustrates, the abuse women can name is talked about as banal and routine; the multiple victimisations which women in prostitution report are terrifying in their extensiveness.

A number of parallels are drawn here. The temporary ownership which men buy in prostitution is compared with the longer term ownership of marriage, both of which have served to legitimise abuse. And in terms of sexual harassment at work, what women have fought to make unacceptable in most employment — being seen and treated as a sex object — is the basis of the sex industry.

The job of stripping is precisely that of being a sex object so that men can ejaculate. To distinguish between what parts of the job are sexual harassment that is paid for and therefore not harassment, and what parts are unacceptable and outside the job description, requires a belief that there can be a real difference. (p265)

An important point in this section of the book is that the increasing sexualisation of women and culture more broadly, through the growth of the sex industry, undermines attempts by women to desexualise other areas of employment.

An increasing research literature, and the experience of feminist support projects, documents the consequences of prostitution for women, and the coping strategies women use to ‘manage’ their work. That these echo those of survivors of other forms of sexual violence, supports the contention that there are harms ‘intrinsic to prostitution’. The descriptions later in the book of the extent of trafficking in, from and to developing countries, and the conditions in which millions of women are prostituted makes the harms on a global scale evident.

Different for boys?

A powerful section of the book is where Sheila Jeffreys pays careful attention to homosexual prostitution, and the argument that both this and gay porn ought to be treated differently. At first I thought she was going to argue that gender relations meant that ‘it was different for boys’. But rather than take this easy route, she has found research on, and accounts by, boys and young men which have potent connections with those of girls and women. Whilst recognising that these perspectives are still marginal in the literature she notes:

Critical research into the experience of prostituted men and boys from a feminist anti violence perspective will provide the basis of a radical challenge to gay male sexual exploitation in theory and in practice. Such research will explore the experience of the young, the poor, the racially oppressed, the sexually abused, who are used and damaged through the exercise of the privileges of bourgeois gay male customers, and provide fuel for a politics of resistance. (p127)

I am heartily sick of the ways in which gay men invoke a form of ‘special pleading’, and deeply disappointed in the ways many feminists and left/liberals collude with them. The fact that one has been oppressed does not confer rights to behave badly, or justify behaviour which is deemed problematic for other groups. One legacy of this muddled thinking is the way in which everyone in the sexual abuse field falls over themselves to state that most sexual abusers are not gay. In some instances this is a confusion about ‘paedophilia’, but in others it is a dangerous form of ‘political correctness’, since the consequence is a refusal to recognise that some gay men do indeed abuse children. This has had tragic consequences for large numbers of children, since people chose not to blow the whistle on abusive men, because the response might be seen as homophobic.

The language of human rights

Whilst recognising the limitations of ‘rights’ as a framework, Sheila Jeffreys also credits how activists have used it in a strategic way; to place women’s concerns on the international agenda as mainstream, rather than marginal issues. In the process the notion of human rights has been extended from a focus on the public sphere and the state to encompass the private. The thinking and advocacy which has taken place in order to get violence against women recognised as a human rights violations has — as with most feminist activism — challenged the foundations of how human rights are understood, requiring a re definition of the foundational terms such as ‘dignity’, ‘respect’ and ‘integrity’.

International argument is currently focused on the right of women to prostitute through making distinctions between forced and free prostitution, between trafficking and prostitution. But would there be such extensive trafficking in women if prostitution did not exist? The forced/free distinction ends up legitimising the ‘choice’ many women in impoverished countries make; to acquiesce to being sold in order to be able to send money to their starving rural families. As in rape law the word ‘force’ sets up high levels of proof, which cannot accommodate the many and complex forms of coercion which make the notions of ‘choice’ and ‘consent’ so problematic in women’s lives.

A new convention has been developed by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (see Donna Hughes in this issue) based on a radical feminist analysis. It approaches the issue from the standpoint of seeking to abolish men’s abuse of women in prostitution, whilst at the same time decriminalising abused women. Penalising the john has not been an element in previous conventions

What I still want to know

Whilst I appreciated the critical approach to the ways in which so called ‘temple’ prostitution has been discussed in terms of history, there are still important questions which need to be addressed today. How do we make sense of the traditions of ‘sacred’ prostitution, which continue to my knowledge in some Asian and African countries (and are now often referred to as ‘fetish’ or ‘ritual’ prostitution)? What are the connections between religion and prostitution? It is revealing here that most modern day cults have versions of ‘sacred’ prostitution, in that the male cult leader has sexual access to all the women, and in some cases to girls and children. Is the ‘idea’ of prostitution a keystone in the development of both historical and modern forms of patriarchy? We need more exploration of why, and how, cultures of legitimised prostitution emerge, and persist; and what the similarities and differences are between them and prostitution which is not legitimised.

I also want to know if there are more complex and effective ways we can connect the realities of the North and South, developed and developing countries — since the issues seem so clear in the latter and so muddied in the former. In countries where poverty is a reality for the majority of the population, and trafficking extensive, the notion of choice has so little currency that connections to women’s collective subordination are stark and obvious. The structural, material inequalities which serve to entrap women and girls simply cannot be avoided. Whereas in the west we have become preoccupied with individuals, and a focus on women’s ‘agency’. But both structure and agency are at work in both contexts, and the agency we need to focus on is that of men the world over who believe in the idea of prostitution, who see nothing wrong in the notion that you can hire a woman or child’s body for sexual use.


Liz Kelly Surviving Sexual Violence (Polity, 1988)

Gerda Lerner The Creation of Patriarchy (Oxford University Press, 1987)

Carol Pateman The Sexual Contract (Polity Press, 1988)

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