The mantra “my body, my choice” has a long association with radical feminism. The term has become synonymous with what we perceive to be the feminist view of all things related to human sexuality, and gender relations. Within the feminist movement, even to dialogue with the idea that there may be legitimate restrictions to choice and the unrestrained use of our bodies is the great feminist heresy.
So, to read a book that begins to challenge the view that one has complete license over the body is refreshing, to say the least. Kajsa Ekman, a radical feminist herself, tackles the hotly debated topics of prostitution and surrogacy, arguing that neither “choice” has helped the feminist cause; she is not convinced that either choice is truly free, good, or empowering.
While intellectuals and advocates alike argue that women should be able to use their bodies in anyway they see fit, Ekman objects. The idea that prostitution and surrogacy could be likened to any other contractual relationship is misguided, she argues. Underneath the romanticized narrative of the empowered prostitute and the benevolent surrogate lies the simple truth that these acts exploit and commercialize not only women’s bodies, but their very being.
How prostitution became “work”
In 1999 Sweden made it illegal to buy sexual services, but not to sell them. Pimping and operating a brothel also became illegal. Sweden practically stood alone in its strategy to curb prostitution based on it’s own investigation into the inner workings of the industry and the lived conditions of prostituted people. The Swedish inquiry into prostitution discovered, first hand, that women in the industry were not liberated at all, but on the whole were subject to violence, engaged in high rates of drug use, and had a death rate 40 times the average of the general population. What is more, researchers established a very clear link between legalized prostitution and the trafficking of human persons.
One would think that these findings were confronting enough not to be pushed aside. Strangely, instead of drawing on and learning from the Swedish experiment, countries began to fall like dominoes when it came to the legalization of prostitution. While the raw realities of the prostitution industry were well documented, politicians ignored the facts and were swayed by the fashionable mantra that all choices are equal. From there they made the leap to treating this form of modern day slavery as professional work.
Ekman’s explanation of how this happened is intriguing.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, trade unions became the magic bullet for the problems besetting prostitution. Advocates claimed that these could be remedied by regulation of the “industry”. Talk of worker rights appealed to the Left as it suggested that prostitutes would organize for fair conditions. In practice, Ekman argues, this was a ploy to legitimize prostitution. The term “trade union” was introduced to coax people into thinking of it in terms of work, and to hide the lived realities of prostitutes themselves.
Ekman doesn’t mince words: “It shifts the discussion from being about what prostitution is – inequality between men and women, the fulfillment of men’s sexual demands, and the vulnerability of women who were sexually abused as children (to name just one reason why women are in prostitution) – to a conversation about work, salaries, unemployment benefits, work conditions, union organizing.” (p. 70). We are thus led to believe that, while prostitution is not for the faint-hearted, it is in no way dehumanizing or dangerous.
Her argument is reinforced by the fact that sex workers of the world didn’t actually unite, and neither did their organizations focus on work conditions. Ekman spent two years travelling to meet with representatives from various European organizations. She discovered that what both trade unions for sex workers and prostitute support groups had in common was that membership did not actually comprise prostitutes, yet they all presented themselves as representatives of prostituted people. Ekman gives example after example of how these unions did not engage in industrial disputes, or seek to address the atrocious work conditions that prostitutes are subject to on a daily basis. The violence, the rape, the economic exploitation by their pimps were never on the agenda; instead, the unions, by and large, were made up of researchers, politicians, lobbyists and social workers.
The voice of the prostitute herself is relegated to the sidelines and the real purpose of trade unions for sex work becomes startlingly clear; they have only one real function: to legitimize prostitution as work and ultimately create the image of a strong woman who can separate what she does from who she is.
Ekman tackles the glaring problems associated with the narrative of the “happy hooker” used by prostitution advocates to promote legalization and social legitimacy. Post-modern intellectuals have created a romanticized view of prostitution under the claim that all sex is equal and empowering. The prostitute is a businesswoman and an entrepreneur, never a victim of violence and rape, let alone death! Post-modernity has made the topic of sex taboo in the sense that, since all sexual acts are empowering, all challengers are merely prudish and anti-sex.
“Nothing is said about what prostitution is, why it exists, or how it works. Instead, we have heard a contemporary saga of progress, a romantic tale of how an old, decaying tradition long tried to keep people down and tell them how they should live – until some brave individuals rebelled in order to gain the right to live the way that they wanted, standing up for freedom and sexuality.” (p.80)
A common theme in Ekman’s research is that academics, advocates and politicians alike claim to speak for the prostitute but rarely take the time to acquaint themselves with the stories of a wide range of prostituted women. They claim to present the authentic voice of these women but do not. With all the talk of sexual empowerment and high-class escorts who get paid to have sex, the lived reality of prostitution – based on facts and statistics – is replaced with a glamorized version of the prostitute’s story.
Take, for example, the research of Petra Osttergren. Her work is held up as an exemplar for documenting the experiences of prostituted women. While Osttergren does focus on the experiences of women in the trade, her sources are telling: she interviews twelve women, all because of the positive experiences that they have had. In turn, she relegates any women with negative experiences to the sidelines, silencing her and the statistics confirming that her “work conditions” are not to be revered, let alone envied.
When all notions of victimhood are forgotten, however, so too are the perpetrators. Those who buy sex are excluded from this story, along with the violence that they inflict. Everything becomes defensible within a relativistic narrative; even child prostitution and sexual trafficking become justifiable.
For example, social anthropologist Heather Montgomery comes to some disturbing conclusions based on her observation of children in prostitution in Thailand. She documents their plight in one Thai village where at least 40 of the 65 children under the age of 15 have worked in prostitution. And yet she concludes: “The children that I knew did have ‘a sense of control’ and to deny them this is to deny the skillful way that they used the very small amount of control they do have. The search for victims of child abuse sometimes obscures the acknowledgement of children’s agency.”
While she recounts the effect on these children in the form of bruises, STDs and drug use, she refuses to pass judgment: ‘I do not believe that Western models of psychology can be applied directly to children in other countries and still be useful.” Thus, even children are no longer victims, and the men who prey on them are automatically exempt from their transgressions.
Surrogacy: prostitution’s twin sister?
Like prostitution, the hiring of wombs has become a booming trade in recent years. Although it is currently legal only in the USA, Ukraine and India, many countries (such as Ekman’s native Sweden) are considering whether surrogacy should be legalized. This is partly the motivation for Ekman’s book – she wants to draw out many of the ethically dubious theoretical and practical assumptions that cannot be separated from the act of surrogacy itself.
One might struggle, initially, to see the link between prostitution and surrogacy but Ekman does a good job of highlighting key similarities between the two industries. Essentially, what binds the two together is that in both instances the human person is reduced to a body that can be bought and sold like any other item on the free market. Ekman states:
“[T]oday’s prostitution is not limited to sexuality. It has expanded into other parts of the woman’s body. For thirty years now, we have seen a trade in pregnancy. A reproductive type of prostitution has arisen in which women are inseminated and made pregnant in exchange for money. They are paid to bear children of others and they give away these children shortly after the birth.” (p.121).
The story of surrogacy, she argues, resembles that of the sex worker; pregnancy, too, can be work. As with prostitution, there is little critical reflection on exactly how surrogacy happens, and the consequences of it. Surrogacy, too, is glamorized, in this case within a narrative of benevolence and service; surrogacy becomes progressive and selfless instead of dehumanizing and degrading.
What lies beneath the façade of creating happy families, Ekman argues, is an extremely lucrative industry that trades in the human person – not just women but babies as well. In India thousands of children have been born in this way – in 2006 analysts estimated the value of the Indian surrogacy industry to be around 449 Million USD.
India is a perfect location for (typically) westerners seeking surrogates. Third-world surrogates come at a cheap price for first-world earners; Indian women receive between $2500 and $6500, which could be up to 10 years’ salary for a peasant woman in India. These women are made to stay at clinics throughout the duration of their pregnancy where their every move and mouthful is supervised, and where they are administered painful injections and medicines without much say in the matter.
Another conveniently neglected point is that many of these women are coerced by their husbands or families to become surrogates. This adds yet another layer to the abysmally unjust transaction that is occurring; “free choice” and “consent” can now be bought at a very cheap price. Ultimately, the human person becomes a commodity, and in this case, those who are more economically advantaged are given free reign to exploit those who go without; one person’s desires trump another’s right to be valued by virtue of their dignity as a human person.
Anyone can now have a baby, whether they are childless, infertile, heterosexual or homosexual, old or young. In fact, if one so pleases, she can outsource her bodily hardship for less than the minimum wage, and have her own biological baby without having to go through pregnancy or labour! If pregnancy can be conceived of as just a service, it begs the question, what is the product in this commercial exchange? The product can only be the child, says Ekman. “The woman bears and births, and hands the product over. At the same moment that she gives up the child, she receives payment. Why is this not considered human trafficking?” (p. 147-148)
Rights, needs and human dignity
One of the most perceptive points of this book is that both surrogacy and prostitution — and I dare to say this is true of other moral issues of our time — are legitimized through the claim that they are human rights. It is a man’s right to have access to sex whenever he wants it or claims to need it. It is a right of infertile and gay couples – or even those too busy working to get pregnant — to have children. In truth, human rights derive from basic human needs – in the first place, survival – and not simply from desires, even noble ones such as wanting a child, especially when they infringe the rights of others.
Ekman claims, correctly, that we never have the right to buy another’s very self to satisfy a personal desire. In her straight-talking analysis she spells out exactly what is happening in these two situations: the human person becomes a commodity and is reduced to a mere body, an empty vessel used and disposed of once their own desires have been fulfilled.
As a feminist myself (of a different variety to Ekman, might I add), I found this book an extremely powerful critique of these two industries; the author is rigorous in the empirical data she collects, and she knits it nicely into an easily digestible piece. I did, however, find some of her theoretical considerations not as palatable. Ekman’s work is essentially written through the lens of a Marxist feminism, which tends to make her forget the agency of the human person: their ability to be virtuous and transcend imperfection and injustice, their ability to change and their ability to grow.
This applies also to the faceless perpetrator, whom Ekman never addresses. What is it that contributes to his (or her) downfall? Do they have the capacity to change, and if so how does this change come about?
I am aware that these questions might take another thoroughly researched book to answer, but they are important questions to ask in the context of building a thorough defense of the rights of women, and ultimately a defense of the rights of the human person.
Pauline Cooper-Ioelu is an academic in the area of educational innovation at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. She has an interest in radical histories including trade unionism and feminism.