I know I have dealt with this topic before, but it keeps turning up, unresolved and unresolvable, in new guises, so I keep worrying it (and vice versa) like a problem tooth. It is our inability to distinguish between root causes and superficial symptoms, so that we think we are resolving the former when in fact we are just scratching around at the latter: putting a band aid on a cancer.
Too many problems that we try to resolve at a superficial level are about some form of deep societal malaise – things we really wish would go away, things we really hate to look at – so it’s not surprising that we don’t have the moral stamina to get down to the nitty-gritty and figure out how to change ourselves and our minds in significant ways.
Two such problems, involving the ancient triangulation of language, gender, and power– how we use language to hide the depth and breadth of power differences between the genders — have been in the news a lot. I’ve talked about one before, sexual harassment in universities and other prestigious institutions. The other is the topic of an interesting article in the May 8 New York Times Magazine. By Emily Bazelon, it asks what we should do about prostitution: continue to keep it criminalized, or decriminalize it?
As Bazelon notes, this argument has polarized feminists for a couple of generations. Prostitution is mainly women’s work, so determining how the culture feels about and acts on it is a feminist concern. Some feel that criminalizing sex work makes its practitioners even more despised and vulnerable than they already are; others feel that by decriminalizing sex work, our legal system encourages women to take up an occupation with no dignity, one fraught with danger.
Underlying the inability of feminism (or anything else) to come to a single and rational position on sex work is our deep ambivalence toward sexuality in toto, and in particular female sexuality. Hence there are “sex-negative” feminists who feel that overt sexual expression necessarily demeans women; and “sex-positive” feminists who understand liberation as including the right to enjoy the full sexual expression for everyone without penalties.
One reason we cannot arrive at a good resolution to this dispute lies in Bazelon’s, and almost everyone else’s, unwillingness to confront our deep repugnance of human, and especially female, sexuality. Thinking about sex work forces us to confront both universal, and female, sexuality head-on, and we are unable to do so because almost everyone who talks about the “problem” of sex work sees it as somehow not honorable or virtuous: it’s either outright bad or not-so-good. But it isn’t prostitution per se that strikes us as not-so-good. It’s human, and especially female, sexuality itself, which shames and terrifies us with its potency.
It may seem odd that I have lumped together two issues tht may seem disparate: sex work and sexual harassment. But the two coincide because “experts” are trying to “resolve” the latter in a similar way, and the latter’s real problems stem from the same depths that we cannot and will not discuss: the need of this and probably every human society, to protect male privilege. Prostitution and harassment are symptoms of the same disease, and only by curing that disease (which we can’t and don’t want to cure) can we alleviate its symptoms.
After all the hullabaloo at Berkeley about the “epidemic” of harassment, what has the administration done to cure it? What administrators always do to “fix” an intractable and embarrassing problem: form a committee. The best committee is composed of prestigious and powerful professors and administrators: it looks like we’re really serious. The committee is given its charge: cure the disease. In the fullness of time – a year or maybe two – they will return with a weighty tome identifying the problem, expressing everyone’s outrage and discussing its deleterious effects on “campus life,” and offering a neat set of solutions: rules, trainings, discipline and punishment. The administrators will accept the report with thanks. There will be a press conference at which the president or the chancellor will tell the media that they expect that things will be very different from now on, because “we” have found a way to solve that problem that is, thankfully, no longer a problem or at least no longer “our” problem. And the waters will close over it….once again.
Creating the committee is the act of genius. The purpose of such committees is to slow everything to a crawl or, better yet, a stop. The committee, to accomplish its task, needs to be of a good size – say, fifteen members. That is to make sure that it will spend a lot of time talking and arguing and presenting drafts and arguing and listening to “experts” and arguing and arguing. At the very least, the process can drag on for a year – in academia, two, because professors are particularly fond of arguing. And they are very good at it. Then, after a year or two, when the findings of the committee are at last presented, everybody is preoccupied with something else, and nobody really notices that the committee has said nothing new, and the solutions will not make any difference, because the deeper problem goes unrecognized and untouched, as it must. Sexual harassment must remain an option for the powerful males of any prestigious institution, because it is a visual, physical representation of men’s power and their institution’s prestige. It is not an accidental excrescence, easily shorn off; it is the thing itself.
As with institutionally condoned sexual harassment, the vilification of prostitution is understandable only in terms of male power and the expression of male sexual needs. The two “problems” go back to one source, though that source works differently for each. Both are about male power and the way it is manifested: through male sexual control of women – control of the right to make use of women’s sexuality, and denial of women’s right to control their own sexuality and their own bodies. This is the glue that keeps human civilization together, and we abandon it at our peril, having nothing better with which to replace it. So our institutions (the law in the case of prostitution, the university, the church, the military, and so forth in the case of harassment) must be careful not to disturb male privilege in this, its most visible form.
In the case of prostitution (I am avoiding “sex work” because I see it as a euphemism, and the use of euphemisms only points up the unacceptability of a concept), male privilege may in fact mask an even deeper source of distress: men’s fears of their own sexuality, as realized by their shame at having to go to the despised other for relief from their sexual neediness. To have to acknowledge that need is to admit one’s own ultimate inferiority and helplessness – unmanliness, even womanliness – intolerable! So that which reminds men of that need must be hidden away, denied, and vilified. And the more the need arises, the more ferocious the suppression of the other that arouses it must be. Criminalization is the simple solution. Even criminalization of the buyer has its functions: it allows “innocent” men who are not caught up in the dragnet the ability to project their weakness onto those unlucky males who are, and – this once, anyway – to escape their anguish at needing them.
Criminalization punishes women twice: first, by encouraging men’s loathing and disgust at those so punished; and secondly, by the fear and lack of protection that women must endure. But, one way or another, it protects men.
But – you might ask – what about marriage? Marriage makes honest work of female sexuality and legitimizes males’ use of it. And if we view marriage as OK, then surely the problem of male privilege and the shame of male sexual dependence on women are not real, or not crucial. Right?
Not really. The purpose of marriage, at least until very recently, is really the control of female sexuality by men. When a woman marries, her husband owns her sexuality, and if she has sex outside of marriage, savage punishment rightly awaits her. He, of course, is free to do so because – whatever the Church claims to say – his sexuality is not owned by his wife but remains his own. True, the deep shame is still there, but mitigated by assurances that he’s doing the right thing. Hence marriage is never criminalized as prostitution is, even though both are based on men’s distress at needing something from those they need to keep in an inferior position.
But the criminalization of prostitution is rooted in a paradox even deeper than this. It’s illogical at its core. What is prostitution but the sale of an essential commodity? A prostitute, really, is doing the same socially essential work as a Realtor or a grocer. It would be absurd to criminalize them – we can’t even imagine it.
Well, yes, we sort of can. There is an old joke that goes as follows:
An anthropologist hears of a distant island with a curious way of life. On it, sexual behavior is perfectly OK and not stigmatized, while anything having to do with food is shameful and disgusting. He is intrigued and gets a grant to go there and study the natives.
When he arrives, he finds everything just as he has heard. People are fornicating openly everywhere, and talking about what they are doing without euphemisms. But he finds it hard to figure out how the natives feed themselves: his questions are met with blushes or expressions of indignation; food stores are hidden and you have to know where to look; and when you go into one, you hope you don’t run into anyone you know.
Then one day the anthropologist sees on the street a young woman. And she – he has been there long enough to find this shocking – is actually openly eating a slice of bread! He is astonished, and can’t resist going up to her and asking her about it.
Oh, she tells him, she’s a modern woman. She isn’t bound by those ancient stigmas. She is a free spirit, she can do whatever she wants, wherever she wants. She can eat, yes, eat, in public.
“How wonderful!” he replies. “But that’s just a dry, boring slice of bread. Wouldn’t you rather have it with a dab of butter or jam?”
She draws back in horror. “Just a minute, mister,” she says. “What kind of girl do you think I am?”
So we can, if barely, envision another way of being human, at least in a joke. (And in the joke the interaction is still “sexualized” according to Western conventions: the male propositions the female; she has to play coy.) But we are not likely to solve either the problem of sexual harassment or the conflict over prostitution until we can fully confront the source of the difficulties we have in dealing with them. And because that source is very deep and very essential, indeed existential, that is not likely to happen soon. This is the problem that we have to solve and can never solve: “we” meaning not men, not this society, not society in general, but Homo sapiens.