Servicing the Subject: a Feminist Re-appraisal of Prostitution

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Allen, Judith

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Bulbeck, Chilla

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This thesis examines theoretical and popular ways of knowing the prostitute and the client. Its purpose is to intervene in contemporary ways of knowing and articulate a more consistent feminist stance on prostitution. Currently, the prostitute is known predominantly through the discourse of psychology whilst the client is known through the discourse of sexology. She is deviant and he is normal. She is a victim and he is an agent. The issue of inconsistency in the feminist stance on prostitution is related to the recognition that these dualisms figure in the way in which all knowledge of the client and the prostitute is organised. Within feminist theory the prostitute is known through the dualism of victim and agent whilst the client is known through the sex/gender distinction. The former perpetuates certain ways of knowing the prostitute that cannot embrace the complexity and ambivalence of prostitution for women. If she is a victim she is only passive and exploited. If she is an agent she is both active and free. Utilising the latter allows the client to escape scrutiny. This thesis will argue that this is for two reasons. Firstly, because feminists have tended to support the idea of the prostitute as agent within the victim/agent dichotomy. Within such a way of knowing, any critique of the client became a critique of the livelihood of the prostitute, and is best avoided. Secondly, because feminists tend to work within the sex/gender distinction and its associated dualisms of mind and body, nature and culture. As such, they tend to perpetuate, rather than challenge, the sexological relationship between the sexual and the social. In both analyses, the sexual urge is ultimately natural, albeit modified by society. Analyses that argue for the social constitution of sexuality (rather than simply its social construction) still perpetuate the sex/gender distinction by claiming the validity of the mind/body dualism for their analyse. This thesis will argue that these dualisms structure an impossible choice for feminists and help to position them within the divisive prostitution debate. In a political climate that perpetuates only two ways of knowing prostitution, to critique prostitution is to be anti-sex, moralising, prudish and conservative. In contrast, to support prostitution is hailed as pro-sex, pro-women and pro-choice. Within this dichotomising of the political issue, feminists gain either conservative or libertarian allies. Within such a political climate, a consistent feminist position is lost. In order to counter this political and theoretical inconsistency, this thesis argues for a connection between the dualisms through the organisation of modern liberal democracies. To know the prostitute through the victim/agent dichotomy and the client through the sex/gender distinction (and associated dualisms of mind and body, nature and culture) is also to call upon the public/private split as their organising feature. The public/private split gives meaning to the dualisms of victim and agent, sex and gender, mind and body, through its role in the perpetuation of associations between victim, body, sex, private and women, and between agent, gender, mind, public and men. This thesis will argue that these dualisms are not useful for explaining the ambivalent and contradictory status of prostitution as both work and sex, public and private, rational and irrational, embodied and disembodied, sexual and social. However, not only does prostitution challenge the explanatory value of these dualisms, but the experience of prostitution for the prostitute and the client both subverts and inverts these dualisms. The usual configuration of the dualisms public/private, worker/consumer, male/female, mind/body, rationality/irrationality, are public, worker, male, mind, rationality, in contrast to private, consumer, female, body, irrationality. The prostitute is positioned in and through modern liberal democracies as embodied, but claims the status of worker through her experience of disembodiment. The client is positioned in and through modern liberal democracies as disembodied, and continues this proprietorial relationship with his body during the prostitution contract. She becomes the embodied worker and he becomes the disembodied sex partner. This further demonstrates the inability of a dualistic conception of prostitution to take into account the ambivalent and contradictory status of the prostitute and the client. Whilst this thesis will suggest that such an ambivalent status is to be found in all relations between men and women in modern liberal democracies, it will also propose the political implications of this theoretical reconfiguration for the feminist position on prostitution.

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Thesis (PhD Doctorate)

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Cultural and Historical Studies

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Feminist theory

Dualism of victim

Dualism of agent

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