The Limits of Applied Third-Wave Feminism: The Case of Prostitution

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As in the discussion in yesterday’s post of mandatory domestic violence prosecution, feminist debate about prostitution shows how respect for women’s autonomy can lead to the condonation of practices that disadvantage women.   For example, advocates for prostitutes’ rights assert that women should have the right to choose their own work and to use their bodies for economic gain.   Feminist opponents of prostitution view it as a form of contemporary slavery created by poverty, economic pressure, prior sexual abuse, domestic violence and the lack of meaningful employment opportunities for women.[1]   These oppponents of prostitution believe that calling prostitution “work” leads to a systematic devaluation of women and girls in society.

Third-wave feminists for the most part ignore or gloss over the social and economic conditions that lead to prostitution.   They view a woman’s decision to engage in prostitution as an economically-savvy way of maximizing her own assets.   Third-wave feminists see prostitution, like nude dancing, as just another way of exploiting women’s exploitation, or in other words, taking advantage of men’s apparent need to sexualize and degrade women.   For third-wave feminists, it is the prostitute, not the john who has the morally (and perhaps economically) superior position in the relationship.   Yet the voices of the third wave are the voices of privileged women who have the time, education and economic ability to write for publication.   As a group, third-wave feminists embrace a “traditional liberal theory, which is committed to autonomy, individualism, and minimal state interference in private choice,”[2] more so than any sustained critique of relations between men and women.   This theoretical weakness arises, in large part, from third-wave methodology itself.   If the hallmark of third-wave feminism is a self-centered privileging of the individual narrative, then gender subordination and social structures, like prostitution, that reinforce that subordination, remain outside the third-wave analysis.

Footnotes follow;  law profs love footnotes.   We can’t help it.

-Bridget Crawford



 [1] Dorchen Leidholdt, Prostitution: A Contemporary Form of Slavery (1998), available at http//www.uri.edu/artsci/wms/hughes.   Leidholdt critiques the distinction between “forced” and “voluntary” prostitution:            

By limiting the pool of people who can be identified as victims while simultaneously protecting large segments of the sex industry, this is the best gift that pimps and traffickers could have received.   This distinction creates a vision of prostitution that is freely chosen’ a vision that can be maintained only by ignoring all of the social conditions that force women and girls into   conditions of sexual exploitation.   The proponents of this distinction are sending the following message: “Don’t pay attention to the poverty, the familial pressure, the incest she survived, the battering by her boyfriend, the lack of employment options available to her.   Just as whether there is a gun pointed at her head or whether she is being overtly deceived.   No gun, no deceit; then no problem.

[2] Jody Freeman, The Feminist Debate Over Prostitution Reform: Prostitutes’ Rights Groups, Radical Feminists and the (Im)Possibility of Consent, 5 Berkeley Women’s L.J. 75,  86 (1989-90).  

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0 Responses to The Limits of Applied Third-Wave Feminism: The Case of Prostitution

  1. neworleansbearcub says:

    Your argument against prostitution can be summed up as follows: The consent given by prostitutes is for various reasons coerced and therefore ineffective; hence it makes sense to prosecute johns as we would anyone else in a coerced sexual encounter. You seem to imply that there are two major forms of coercion in prostitution: economic and criminal. I do not share your view of what constitutes coercion; and I also get a certain hetero-centric worldview from your post [and traditional feminism in general].

    Economic Coercion

    “Feminist opponents of prostitution view it as a form of contemporary slavery created by poverty, economic pressure, …and the lack of meaningful employment opportunities for women.” This argument proves too much. Assume I make $100,000 a year; the only reason I do not make $100,001 dollars a year is because of”economic pressure.” Also, banning prostitution only hurts the impoverished, because it destroys what might be a person’s best employment opportunity.

    Professor Crawford do you think that it is possible to be a feminist and an economic conservative/libertarian? I get the impression that 1st and 2nd wave feminism implicitly accepts a certain [liberal] economic viewpoint. What if the economic viewpoint that forms the foundation of 1st and 2nd wave feminism is shown to be false? I associate 1st and 2nd wave feminism with people who would have been educated during or before the 1970s. The stagflation of the 1970 had a profound impact on economics; traditional liberal [Keynesian] economic theory was crippled during the 70s; and more conservative neo-classical schools of economic thought [monetarism and supply-side] began to flourish. What you see has 3rd wave feminism’s tendency to”ignore or gloss over the social and economic conditions that lead to prostitution,”I see as a response to the resurgence of neo-classical economics.

    Criminal Coercion

    “Feminist opponents of prostitution view it as a form of contemporary slavery created by… prior sexual abuse.” I imagine that people who have been sexually abused are more likely [then the non-abused] to undervalue their bodies and therefore not demand the same level of compensation for sexual services. Having said that, I fail to see how someone would be improved by taking away employment opportunities. Let us say that the average non-abused person would only work as a prostitute for $100,000/yr. but the average sexually-abused person would be willing to work as a prostitute for $25,000/yr. If prostitutes are being paid $25,000/yr. and alternative employment is only available at $20,000/yr. then the non-abused would take the alternative employment and the abused would be prostitutes. We would only be compounding the injury to the abused by denying them the opportunity to earn the additional $5,000 as prostitutes.

    “Feminist opponents of prostitution view it as a form of contemporary slavery created by… domestic violence.” If people are being forced into prostitution due to domestic violence then the answer is fight domestic violence not prostitution. There are people who would freely choose to be prostitutes; it is wrong to deny them a living because others are being coerced into the same profession.

    Hetero-centrism

    “Third-wave feminists see prostitution, like nude dancing, as just another way of exploiting women’s exploitation, or in other words, taking advantage of men’s apparent need to sexualize and degrade women. For third-wave feminists, it is the prostitute, not the john who has the morally (and perhaps economically) superior position in the relationship.”

    As a gay man, am I exploiting or sexually degrading men if I watch gay porn, or a male dancer, or if I buy a male prostitute? 1st and 2nd wave feminism tries to place everything into a gender exploitation paradigm; by abandoning that paradigm 3rd wave feminist are better able to account for alternative sexual orientations.

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