College Quarterly
Summer 2004 - Volume 7 Number 3
Reviews The Idea of Prostitution
Shiela Jeffreys
North Melbourne, Australia: Spinifex Press, 1997

Reviewed by Diane Meaghan, Ph.D.

In a relatively early attempt to problematize the long-accepted concept of "deviant behaviour," law professor John Hagan explained that people whose interests, employment and leisure activities fall outside commonly accepted social norms ("nuts and sluts") need to be analyzed from a disinterested, social scientific viewpoint if they are to understood and, if necessary, subjected to public policies aimed at prevention, treatment and punishment should the deviant behaviour in question rise (or fall) to the level of crime. The Disreputable Pleasures: Crime and Deviance in Canada (1977) was therefore something of an advance over previous attempts to come to grips with issues varying from people who posed imminent threats to persons and property ("gangsters and hoods") at one end of the spectrum to illicit drug-users, prostitutes and johns, compulsive gamblers and others involved in what are sometimes called "victimless crimes" and addictions at the other. Hagan's contribution was well intentioned. His message, in part, was that "the severity of penal response to deviance in Canada could be reduced without a substantial risk of increasing the level of crime." He also expressed hope that "we can learn to live with much of the deviance we experience in Canada, while at the same time making our society more humane, and probably more efficient."

In the generation since Hagan's text helped set new priorities for students in programs as varied as law enforcement and social service, things have changed. The development of feminist approaches to sociology and social psychology, for instance, has moved beyond Hagan's "liberal" plea for tolerance and into the exploration of political priorities, research strategies and theoretical issues. They have re-framed the "problem" in a way that goes further than the mere encouragement of more "humane" solutions.

An example of the kind of debate now taking place can be found in Shiela Jeffrey's The Idea of Prostitution. There is much to commend this text that continues and extends the sex debates of the past four decades among feminists. Understanding prostitution to result from violence, she cites the work of other radical feminists such Jill Radford (femicide), Diane Russell (rape in marriage), and Florence Rush (incest). Perhaps the most impressive aspects of Jeffreys' arguments surface when she spars with traditional sociologists who view prostitution in the context of deviant behaviour and sexologists and sex therapists, such as Masters and Johnson and Alex Comfort, who construct theories and practices of normal heterosexual sexuality which replicate using "prostituted women" to eroticize the subordination of woman and serve the sexual interests of ruling class men. One example cited from Comfort's The Joy of Sex, lifted from the practices of prostitution, and the pages of pornography is the suggestion that wives are sexually responsible for their husband's "joy" and ought to learn "whore" tricks and wear leather and latex costumes.

Ever faithful to a radical feminist perspective, Jeffreys states that prostitution constitutes a continuum of male sexual violence towards women and children. Much of her theoretical underpinnings rely of the impressive scholarly work of Catharine MacKinnon, who maintains that sexuality is politically constructed and therefore all (hetero)sexual relations are "adulterated by male supremacist values"; no clear distinction therefore can be made between "good and normal sex" and all (hetero)sexual relations but, oddly, no gay and lesbian relations are connected with violence. With reference to the work of Evelina Giobbe, ex-prostitute and founder of Women Hurt in Systems of Prostitution Engaged in Revolt (WHISPER), Jeffreys advances the argument that prostitution is "buying the right to rape" and that "prostitution, traditional marriage and heterosexual coitus are predicated on ownership and unconditional sexual access to a woman's body."

Liberal and socialist feminists are chided for not viewing prostitution as violence against women rather than sex because they fear being labelled with the slur of anti-sex prudes that has plagued feminists. Prostitute agency and the right to prostitute as taken up by Gail Peterson and Laurie Bell are dismissed under the rubric of human rights, since a woman's decision to prostitute is nullified by the ultimate right to human dignity. In The Tyranny of Work James Reinhart discusses at length the lack of dignity in most jobs which workers perform. Arguing that minimum wage work in a factory or as a waitress does not necessarily add dignity to a woman's life is a favourite counter argument put forth by prostitutes such as Margo St. James, founder of a California prostitutes' rights organization Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics (COYOTE). It is such assertions that have caused rifts between prostitutes and feminists over the past few decades, the claim by prostitutes that feminists refuse to listen to them, and attempts to rectify such feminist faux pas through the organization of the 1988 Canadian conference entitled "Good Girls, Bad Girls: Prostitutes and Feminists Speak Together." The fact that feminism is predicated on an understanding that all women have the right to prostitute and the shift through prostitutes' rights discourse of the 1980s that removed the "whore stigma" and replaced it with the notion of skilled work, should not lead to being dismissed by Jeffreys for buying into market capitalism. Unfortunately, there is little room for prostitute agency in her paradigm of prostitution that socially constructs men's domination out of women's subordination. Prostitutes and socialist feminists who support the notion of prostitution as a "choice", a form of work and as part of a struggle to end legal discrimination and police harassment are dismissed as exhibiting false consciousness and failing to provide an explanation of women's oppression based in patriarchy

"The real cause of prostitution in general is men's demand"; a notion that is posed in contrast to numerous studies which identify poverty, the low status of women and limited access to resources and power as salient factors which lead women to prostitute. Short shrift is given in Jeffrey's discourse to the extensive problems faced by women, including lack of educational opportunities, equivalent pay and remuneration, cultural and religious constrictions and the crushing burden for most women of being financially and socially responsible for herself and her children. Although decrying the fact that men as clients are rarely mentioned in the work of non-radical feminists, Jeffrey's work is devoid of such empirical research and reverts to unsavoury stereotypes of men as unable to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable sexual behaviour and engaging in verbal harassment (phone sex) and visual harassment (stripping) as well as "sexual degradation, sadism and violence against women" as legitimate and pleasurable forms of entertainment. A utopian world without prostitution is envisioned by Jeffreys without acknowledgment that "pro-prostitute feminists" frequently support prostitutes while campaigning to improve working conditions and disparaging the need for the institution of prostitution.

The problematic of the theoretical foundations which have plagued this genre of feminist thought not only conflate prostitution among consenting adults with child sexual abuse, marriage with prostitution, and coitus with violence, but extend such arguments in an intellectual exercise of "vanguard, vanguard, whose got the (feminist) vanguard" to the point of instilling a "cringe" response in even a committed feminist audience. Credulity is strained with Jeffreys' routine inclusion of all forms of sex with violence and all forms of violence and abuse towards women by men linked with a definition of sexual violence, including rape, battery, sexual harassment, pornography and the sexual abuse of children. Failing to distinguish between "routine everyday prostitution" and forced and coercive sex in prostitution, and dismissing notions of "choice" and "consent" as part of the prostitute's unawareness, her "false consciousness" and her inability to name the harm in her experiences which she will recognize at a later time provides a field day for critics who search for such condescending and "over-the-top" notions in arguing against the acceptance of feminist ideology.

It should not be surprising that Jeffreys' radical feminist perspective concentrates on street prostitution, which numerous studies have documented to have the youngest and most inexperienced prostitutes soliciting under the most dangerous circumstances, while remaining silent about the social construction of prostitution among women who work in escort services and brothels in the Western world. Given that no distinction can be made between forced and free prostitution, it is not surprising that Jeffreys' text ends with a discussion concerning Kathleen Barry's notion of female sexual slavery and the Third World trafficking of women. To equate all experiences of prostitutes with sex tourism in Thailand, the trafficking of women on the Burma border and the prostitution of girls in India is to miss the point of the third-wave feminism that emphasizes differences among women, particularly those based on class, race and ethnicity, giving rise to different "standpoints" that are recognized among feminists. If the women's movement has provided food for thought, its strength continues to lie in the idea of dismantling grand, monolithic theories which rely on a single set of values that circumscribed women's behaviour, which characterized both the first and second wave of the women's movement. Feminism has staked out the intellectual perspective that emancipation for women must proceed from a view of women as freely autonomous people with the right to choose, even if those choices do not subscribe to a lifestyle thought desirable by white, middle-class, Western feminists.


Diane Meaghan holds a Ph.D. in Women's Studies from the University of Toronto. Her approximately 80 publications in periodicals and texts are concerned with issues of restructuring postsecondary education and international sex trade work. The latter topic garnered her a prestigious Social Science and Humanities Research Council grant in 2001. Currently, she is serving on the external research committee for the Status of Women Canada, the Mayor's Status of Women Committee for the City of Toronto, and is feminist advisor for the National Film Board and faculty representative for the Board of Governors of Seneca College. She can be reached at (416) 491-5050, ext. 6178 or diane.meaghan@senecac.on.ca.

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