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To progress pay gap we must critically discuss prostitution

We'll keep treading water on the pay gap until we critically discuss prostitution

There is a question I always want to ask those who advocate for full prostitution decriminalisation, while they are also vocal critics of both epidemic sexual harrassment, and the gender pay gap. The question is: How do you propose your goal of sexual equality can be achieved – including economic equality – so long as one sex has access to an industry in which they can buy and sell the other?

There are several main misconceptions that often underpin the doublethink involved with being able to promote the legitimisation of prostitution, while advocating that the gender pay gap should close. The first, of course, is that the issues are unrelated. The second is that the decriminalisation of pimps and punters is progressive legislation in the best interests of women, and the third is that if most women are in prostitution because of poverty, closing the pay gap will fix the poverty. These misconceptions are a massive handbrake on feminism overall, and a big part of its whitewashing to boot.

First of all, the issue of prostitution and the issue of the pay gap are not separable. As author Debra Meyerson writes, “It's not the ceiling that's holding women back, it's the whole structure of the organisations in which we work: the foundation, the beams, the walls, the very air.” Andrea Dworkin elaborates on this in her book Right Wing Women: “Feminists know that if women are paid equal wages for equal work, women will gain sexual as well as economic independence. But feminists have refused to face the fact that in a woman-hating social system, women will never be paid equal wages.” Many of those who patiently campaign for pay gap closure sector by sector, industry by industry, still ignore what women's subordination is based on in the first place – and so also even ignore that the pay gap and workplace sexual harrassment are intwined.

“Men in all their institutions of power are sustained by the sex labor and sexual subordination of women,” Dworkin writes. “The sex labor of women must be maintained; and systematic low wages for sex-neutral work effectively force women to sell sex to survive. The economic system that pays women lower wages than it pays men actually punishes women for working outside marriage or prostitution, since women work hard for low wages and still must sell sex. The economic system that punishes women for working outside the bedroom by paying low wages contributes significantly to women's perception that the sexual serving of men is a necessary part of any woman's life: or how else could she live? Feminists appear to think that equal pay for equal work is a simple reform, whereas it no reform at all; it is revolution. Feminists have refused to face the fact that equal pay for equal work is impossible as long as men rule women, and right-wing women have refused to forget it.”

In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf illustrates one form of “punishment” or backlash Dworkin refers to. “For every feminist action there is an equal and opposite beauty myth reaction,” Wolf writes. “In the 1980s it was evident that as women became more and more important, beauty too became more important. The closer women came to power, the more physical self-consciousness and sacrifice are asked of them.” Put another way: “the higher women climbed during this period up the rungs of professional hierarchies, the harder the beauty myth has worked to undermine each step.” The “beauty myth” or what Wolf calls a bombardment of “beauty pornography” constitutes another way women are “forced to sell sex” – and Wolf shows how this is a double bind. Women are punished for compliance – blamed, for instance, for provoking sexual harrassment – while also being punished for non-compliance, where the beauty myth has become a professional standard.

Wolf quotes feminist economist Marilyn Waring to explain the forcefulness of this backlash: “men won’t easily give up a system in which half the world’s population works for next to nothing”. When Waring wrote her book Counting for Nothing, she found that women do by far the lion’s share of the world’s work overall. She began by conducting a global comparison of the kinds of work that are considered genuinely economically productive and valuable, and that are therefore materially rewarded; and the kinds of work not valued, unpaid, and barely considered “work”. The overriding trend is that the work that’s not paid is the work that women do. There’s no other “theme”: it’s not that by being educators or care workers for instance, women keep winding up in the wrong place. The more women enter a particular sector or industry, the lower the average payrate drops: it is not our work that is undervalued. It is us.

“For thousands of years,” writes Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi, “society has imprisoned women within the four walls of the home and entrusted her with the function of serving the family... free of charge except for her food, her clothes, and a roof over her head.” This is a system that, indeed, men will not easily relinquish. And it is not only because of free labour, but because the global industrial complex that commodifies women – including through marriage and prostitution – is one of the biggest worldwide. Publishers like Bauer Media that pump what Wolf calls “beauty pornography” through publications like Cosmopolitan do not only do so through cosmetics advertising – they do so because they are pornographers invested in the sex trade.

Prostitution is a highly profitable industry for pornographers and pimps, as Siddharth Kara explains in his book Sex Trafficking. “Drug trafficking generates greater dollar revenues, but trafficked women are more profitable. Unlike a drug, a human female can be used by the customer again and again.” Kara writes. “Only 4.2 percent of the world’s slaves are trafficked sex slaves, but they generate 39.1 percent of slaveholders’ profits. To benchmark the astounding profits generated by the exploiters of sex slaves, one need look no further than the fact that the global weighted average net profit margin of almost 70 percent makes it one of the most profitable enterprises in the world. By comparison, Google’s net profit margin in 2006 was 29.0 percent, and it is one of the most profitable companies in the United States.”

For anyone who still believes that I am casting too wide a net by linking the pay gap to the global trade in women, consider the second misconception that underlies simultaneous pay gap criticism and sex trade promotion. It is the idea that the full decriminalisation of prostitution – meaning the decriminalisation of pimps and punters as well as women – is in women's interests. Yet the decriminalisation of pimps and punters is what these men themselves seek: it clearly creates conditions favourable to the expansion of the sex trade. Anywhere the sex trade is expanding, it is being promoted, demand is increasing, women are under more pressure to enter the trade, men are becoming more sexually entitled, stereotypes more common and pronounced, the objectification of women is normalised, and the underlying causes of pay inequity are more deeply entrenched.

The third misconception mentioned was that ending prostitution means ending poverty. Yet as Kat Banyard writes in Pimp State, poverty of course plays a primary role in women's entry into prostitution, but “blindly asserting that poverty is the singular cause of the prostitution trade fails to acknowledge that men's poverty has not begot a global demand from women to pay them for sex acts, [and] that without men's demand there would be no trade at all”. It also ignores “the highly specific abuses that so commonly characterise women's entry.” So according to feminists, it is possible to see things the other way around: that industries like prostitution and marriage are major drivers of women's poverty, rather than poverty being a cause of prostitution.

By the same token, rather than expecting women to wait for the pay gap to close before we are relieved of the pressure to be prostituted – perhaps it is global institutions and industries like marriage and prostitution that promote male sexual entitlement, cement women's role as sexual servants and perpetuate the barriers women have to fight to gain access, opportunity and recognition for what Dworkin calls “sex-neutral work”. It is also no coincidence that Sweden and Iceland, countries New Zealand feminists valorise for their high gender equality rankings, have criminalised the pimping and hire of women for sex abuse. Scandinavian feminists have put prostitution survivors first, in their moves for social change: and both survivors and the women's movement at large have benefited.

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