Following up on my last post, I realized a concept that’s probably worth some expansion. I’ve posted a little bit before on sex work and sex workers’ rights, but not much on thoughts that are at the core of that issue. And thinking about objectification, including the note I made that assessing the relative “value” of a person – essentially, assigning her a price tag – is objectifying, regardless of the criteria for judgment. The clarifying point was that we have to assume that we’re speaking outside of any discussion of the value of the work that she does, since the nature of living in any kind of economic structure means that we have to have some sort of system for assigning exactly that kind of price tag.
Anti-prostitution radical feminists will argue that paying for the use of another person’s body is objectification, and that using one’s own sexuality in this way part of the same objectifying system*. I also regularly see the argument made by radfem women that “sex-positive” feminists (choosing the most polite and least aggressive possible out of the terms I’ve seen used) are always saying that sex work is a job just like any other. Though I’ve never actually heard the argument itself (only the dismissive and fed-up references to it from those who oppose the position), it brings home a point: if sex work, in and of itself, is not a “job like any other” in which an individual is being paid for her actions, then it has to be because somehow sexuality itself is different, especially for women. Unlike other actions, services, jobs, sex work reaches to the core of one’s being to a point where one is no longer merely being paid a wage for a job. By engaging in this work, a woman is, in fact, selling her very self. The language we use to talk about sex work (and the metaphorical extensions of sex-work related words) emphasizes this point – by charging a fee to have sex with someone, a woman has sold her body and herself. Linguistically speaking, there’s a metonymy there – the “part” (sexuality) has come to substitute for the whole woman.
That’s objectification, and it’s objectification in the narrow, limited, sex-specific sense of the word – the definition of a woman’s self has been reduced to her sexuality, her value has become inextricably attached to her sex. On the other hand, it’s perfectly acceptable – laudable, even – for me to charge for the use of my brain, or for me to be “valued” for my intelligence. That wouldn’t be considered being “used”, it wouldn’t be thought of as “selling myself”. Paradoxically, that’s like saying that my brain is less valuable, less connected to what I am as a person – it can be partitioned off, the use of it essentially “rented” by my employers, and I can joyfully and proudly accept payment for it while I continue to use my brain outside of the workplace to also attract potentially desirable mates. “Selling” my brain doesn’t take anything from me, doesn’t make me less whole, doesn’t make me damaged goods, and yet somehow, selling my body in a sexual manner (because, of course, if I were selling the use of my body for work in a factory, we again would not be having this conversation) would. If my sexuality is not the sum total of my humanity, if it is not even the primary source of my “value”, then this attitude towards sex work is nonsensical.
Sex work, as it exists in the world today, is not “work like any other”. It would be delusional to argue that it is. But nothing in the work itself makes it so – what makes it different is misogyny, objectification and the reduction of women to mere sexuality. If we’re going to have a conversation about revolutionizing social attitudes towards women, women’s bodies, sexuality and sex work (which we need to do if we’re going to get anywhere near the root causes of violence and the rates of violence faced by sex workers), we can’t do it while we’re still equating sexuality with self. We can’t do it while we’re objectifying.
*Of course, the more intelligent, misogynistic, right-wing Christians will use essentially the same argument – that they are merely trying to protect these poor women from the consequences of their own bad decisions. Both angles of opposition are casting themselves in the knight-in-shining-armour role in the fantasy of victimized women who need rescuing (see also the rather brilliantly worded challenge by Ren Ev to seriously examine the concept of agency).
(Random note: This is my 100th post on this blog. That is meaningless, of course, except in the context that should I now be canceled, I would be eligible to go into syndication and continue making money for the corporate machine.)