This post is a little rough around the edges- basically a long Facebook comment I made after attending an International Women’s Day event. So forgive any errors and oversights. I will write a ‘proper’ post about this at a later stage
Tonight I (just barely) attended a panel discussion with Sabrinna Valisce, Prof. Sheila Jeffreys and Dr Pala Molisa about whether prostitution is compatible with women’s liberation. Meagan Tyler convened and officially launched the new Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia report on the Nordic Model (NM)
It was great, even though I was super anxious and failed at circulating the room/networking afterwards but I was furiously scribbling during the panelists’ contributions and making all sorts of connections. I chickened out asking questions or making comments so I’m going to put it to the group.
I was thinking about why the legislative elements of the NM are taken up more rapidly than the substantial welfare measures and programs that support women’s exiting prostitution. The most obvious answer is that it’s more costly and difficult to implement. But I’ve noticed that both radical feminists and those that seek to discredit them concentrate on the deterring and/or punitive effect of legislation and public education- partly because it seems the most obvious vehicle for behavioural and attitudinal change and partly because of justified anger against men. Sabrinna Valisce, an exited women did mention, the importance of alleviating poverty but this was not focused on. My intuition is that some feminists sideline economic issues because they risk being collapsed into ‘prostitution as work’ narratives or some form of economic reductionism or as a kind of symptom of the obvious antagonisms between radical feminism and the left in countries like Australia (I’m not sure what it’s like elsewhere).
This makes me think we need to find a novel way of engaging radical feminists with questions of distributive justice that proceed from a particularly feminist set of assumptions and aims. I don’t think talking about the wage gap is comprehensive enough especially in the context of the neoliberal curtailing of the welfare state. There has been some talk in leftist circles in Australia about the impact of the Fair Work Commission’s decision to cut penalty rates in low-payed jobs that overwhelmingly employ women and there are ongoing efforts to increase the wages of ‘feminised’ industries like child care but this doesn’t really speak to what’s going on in prostitution or the ongoing impact of its harms
My first thought was my own situation. I support myself on a Disability Support Pension (DSP). I have ongoing mental illness originating in trauma from domestic violence and sexual abuse. For a long time I felt a lot of shame receiving my pension and struggling to function in everyday life. It was a huge struggle to even attend this panel discussion. But I’ve recently come to conceive of my disability pension was a form of reparations (however meager) for the effects of patriarchal violence. I know of other women, survivors of prostitution and child sexual abuse who rely on payments for the same reason. I think there’s a case for feminists (if not policy makers) to think about the function of the welfare state in this way. As an intervention to compensate women for the devastating effects and failures women encounter in their dealings with patriarchal institutions, including the family. Particularly because there’s such a relationship between the main sex/affective structures of society. The family, a hierarchical, exploitative institution that is economically and socially incentivised by the state, is a key site of sexual abuse and physical violence and there’s clearly evidence of a movement of women, but particularly young girls from this environment to prostitution. Economic opportunities also play a role, but are even more attractive if you are unskilled and/or have difficulties functioning. But there’s such a likelihood that if you don’t already have a mental health issue stemming from trauma when you enter prostitution, you’ll probably leave with one. In states like Victoria where brothel prostitution is legalised the state has an even more instrumental role and responsibility to women in the industry as they profit directly. Obviously framing things in this way would be a temporary step, with abolition and more profound economic transformation being the goals but maybe we can look at women and girls in prostitution, as victims of trauma needing some recompense.
I wonder a lot about how we can make economic justice issues important to radical feminists who sometimes see issues like pornography, prostitution and transgenderism as abstracted from the rest of the political economy I don’t know. What do you think?