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     News: U.S. Feminists Split Over Berkeley Prostitution Measure

    Sexual PoliticsBy Kai Ma , November 1, 2004 01:49 PM
    Reporting by the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism
    North Gate News Online

    BERKELEY -- Measure Q, the Berkeley ballot initiative that will ask voters on Tuesday to make the crime of prostitution the lowest police priority, is raising larger questions among feminists around the nation about whether the world's oldest profession represents a form of oppression or is instead a hallmark of female empowerment and independence.

    Many feminist theorists interviewed recently are sharply divided over the Berkeley measure and the challenge it presents to the definition of feminism itself. All were aware of the initiative, however, and eager to debate its implications.

    "There is no one form of feminism although the overarching campaign is to promote the safety and status of women in our society," said Wendy Chapkis, professor of women's studies and sociology at the University of Southern Maine. "It's the strategies to securing those goals that are the source of great debate."

    Chapkis, author of "Live Sex Acts: Women Performing Erotic Labor," supports Measure Q because she says decriminalization improves the safety and wellbeing of women by providing legal protections for prostitutes. Chapkis echoes other pro-decriminalization feminists who argue that prostitution is a legitimate occupation whose stigma and exploitation lies heavily in sexual double standards, and the absence of legal safeguards and social acceptance.

    Other feminists who oppose the measure maintain that those who defend prostitution -- generally white middle-class intellectuals -- know little about the practical realities of the daily lives of sex workers in Berkeley and elsewhere, most of whom are poor, uneducated, immigrants, women of color, many with substance abuse problems and few other life options.

    Janice G. Raymond, professor of women's studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and author of "Sex Trafficking of Women in the United States: International and Domestic Trends," said the prostitution debate is problematic when groups who claim to represent sex workers are led by women who are not in systems of prostitution­meaning, they have done it casually, or do it as an ideological form of women's resistance.

    "There are two groups of women in the prostitution debate," said Raymond. "The first group is characterized as being articulate, and engaging in outlaw sexuality or sexuality as a form of resistance. The second group is out on the streets, in brothels, trafficked, poor, and of mainly African, Latin or Asian descent."

    A 45-year old former prostitute, Robyn Few, put Measure Q on the Berkeley ballot in June 2004 after collecting 3,200 signatures, well over the required 2,100 to qualify as a city ballot measure, to make sex for sale the lowest priority among Berkeley law enforcers. Few was motivated by what she saw as a total lack of protection and rights for prostitutes after she was convicted on one federal count of conspiracy to promote prostitution and received six months house arrest.

    The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, an international human rights organization that combats prostitution and sexual trafficking, defines prostitution as an oppressive social practice. But some experts in modern feminism, which grew as a field of study with the women's liberation movement in the 1960s, disagree even on this point.

    "The prostitute is not, as feminists claim, the victim of men but rather their conqueror, an outlaw who controls the sexual channel between nature and culture," wrote renowned feminist critic, author and educator Camille Paglia in "Sex, Art and American Culture."

    Andrea Dworkin, however, a radical feminist critic of sexual politics has written, in a speech entitled, "Prostitution and Male Supremacy, "when men use women in prostitution, they are expressing a pure hatred for the female body…"

    Raymond is against Measure Q because she insists it would grant men legal and moral permission to engage in more sexual exploitation of women. She believes the pimps and johns should be criminalized but that the women in countries such as the United States, where prostitution is illegal, should not be arrested. However, Raymond said that decriminalization of the total practice will not protect women but merely turn pimps into third party businessmen, and brothels into supposed "houses of protection" for women.

    "This isn't about consent but compliance," said Raymond. "Most women would not be prostitutes is they had another option or choice."

    Laurie Shrage, professor of philosophy at the California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, and author of "Moral Dilemmas of Feminism: Prostitution, Adultery, and Abortion," disagrees.

    "There is a tendency among some feminist intellectuals and activists to see the work that sex workers do as a function of the oppression of women in society," said Shrage, in an email responding to questions about Measure Q. "Some feminists worry that our society's efforts to prohibit it stem from paternalistic desires to protect women from sex or punish them for promiscuity. For feminists like me, punitive laws against prostitution symbolize one of things I'd most like to change about our society, namely double standards of sexual morality that result in stigmatizing not just prostitutes, but many unconventional women, as sluts or whores."

    Shrage supports Measure Q based on the belief that arresting sex workers and their clients does little to help sex workers or restrain those who would like to sexually and economically exploit women or children. Rather than prohibiting prostitution, she noted, sex work must co-exist with an environment of tolerance.

    Shrage also believes that decriminalizing adult sex work would result in sharper political focus on far more serious and harsher practices, including forced and child labor, slavery and indenture, and violence.

    "Today, the production of cheap consumer good is linked with appalling labor and living conditions in many third-world countries," said Shrage. "I wish that those appalled at feminists for their support of voluntary, adult sex work were at least equally appalled by the practices that make cheap consumer goods available to them."

    According to Shrage, the contemporary so-called "third-wave" feminists, especially those who emerge from lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered movements, tend to defend prostitution as an occupation because sex workers are similarly stigmatized by mainstream society for their sexual practices. By contrast, many so-called "second-wave" feminists 30 years ago linked female prostitution with female slavery, dismissing the entire sex work industry as immoral or demeaning. Even earlier, nineteenth century feminists protested against sex work as part of a campaign to protect prostitutes and wives from often-deadly venereal diseases.

    Raymond believes that despite this historical feminist divide, the current debate is a great step forward in feminism because anti-prostitution views are increasingly recognized as a progressive, feminist stance whereas before, it was heavily associated with neo-Victorian, puritan and conservative thought.

    "We're not right-wingers and we're not conservatives - we're feminists," said Raymond. "Prostitution is certainly an issue that divides some elements of the feminist community, but issues divide a lot of groups. To present it as a catfight among feminists is feeding into the stereotype that we women and feminists just can't get it together."

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