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. 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,” 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.
 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.