Written by an activist in conjunction with March 8 and work for red women’s struggle.
Translator notes: Venstre is a liberal centrist party in Norway and is referred to as the “Left Party”. Rødt and SV are the Red Party and Socialist Left Party, respectively. They are both social democratic parties in Norway.
Proletarian feminism, a red line for women’s struggle, fights against prostitution and against liberalism in this question. This is a line rooted in the class standpoint for the proletariat and for revolution against the system.
For several years, the youth wing of the Left Party, Young Liberals of Norway, joined the slogan meetings of the March 8 Committee in Oslo. Here, the liberals have served as an ever so slight proponent for what they themselves call “liberal feminism”. Central to this idea is that individual freedom is the greatest virtue - also in feminism. With this thought as the basis, they have attacked radical feminism and the March 8 Committee’s line for the criminalization of purchasing sex.
For the liberal feminist, criminalization of the purchase of sex is at odds with both the free market and full freedom to do whatever one wishes with their own bodies, and even the bodies of others - as long as one pays for it. This is parallel to, if not directly lifted from, the liberal position on narcotics.
Radical feminism is a different direction in feminism, and to a large degree it is dominant among the women’s group Ottar, as well as Kvinnefronten (The Women’s Front) to some degree. Radical feminism has long been dominant in the Norwegian women’s movement. It has typically been the core of the March 8 Committee in several parts of the country, and overlaps with some parties - for instance Rødt and SV. Radical feminism distinguishes itself from liberal feminism on several points.
The Indian Maoist Anuradha Ghandy has written about these philosophical directions within feminism and criticized them in the text Philosophical Trends in the Feminist Movement.
In 2018, the liberals gained support from others who approach a similar liberalism. These supporters wish for a feminism that is “Sex Worker-Inclusive”, and thereby oppose the use of the word “prostitution”. This mirrors an identity politics oriented direction that has had a clear position in the US for many years. It is worth noting that this is not a position among the masses, but rather among leftist intellectuals and political environments. This thought has influenced many, and has been criticized by many, but is seeping into Norwegian environments today due to a westerly influence.
A proletarian feminism, a red women’s movement, grows out of another tradition apart from both liberal and radical feminism. It stems from Marxism. At the basis of this red line for the women’s struggle lies class perspective and materialism. When one says “freedom”, we wish to ask the follow-up question “for whom?”. For whom is there freedom when prostitution is legalized? It is freedom for men with money to buy access to the bodies of others. And it is freedom for poor women and drug addicts to sell themselves. Yet the latter already have this “freedom”, as in Norway, only the purchase of sex is criminal, while the prostitute is not breaking any laws. This is of course good, and criminalizing prostitution is totally wrong. Which class has the most to gain from pimps and clients getting free rein?
The freedom to buy sex is not in any way positive for women’s rights. Over 100 years ago, the position of women in Norwegian society was much lower. Women were more oppressed - and prostitution and brothels were “free”. Prostitution and the oppression of women, in particular the poorest women, go hand in hand.
Research on prostitution has repeatedly destroyed the myth that prostitution is a safe way for people to earn a living. It is strongly connected to trauma and sexual abuse in childhood, with post-traumatic stress disorders and several other consequences for the individual.
A class line, a line for solidarity with poor prostitutes or prostitutes that are addicted to drugs, is to seek to fight to free people from prostitution - not to it. All forms of help and support are good, as well as individual organizing, but not if it makes it easier to remain in prostitution, or recruit more people into it.
Liberal feminists play off of the liberal myth about the autonomy of the individual, and on the myth of the “happy hooker”. Their ideal is luxury prostitutes who earn well and have no pimps. Those who choose their own clients, who can reject those with menacing glances or the drunk man. Who know their clients names, perhaps where they live, and thereby live entirely different lives than women in trafficking, those with drug addictions, and poor, desperate women who have no other options than prostitution. But we believe that nonetheless, prostitution is negative for those who partake in it, even those who relatively speaking are not in the worst position.
The liberals consciously pick out those who are in a better position, preferably those who are a part of the petit bourgeoisie, when they paint a picture of the prostitute who only uses their own bodies for income for themselves. Like any other type of “worker” or sole proprietor. These are not the typical prostitutes. To focus on them is typical for bourgeois or petit bourgeois feminism. At its peak it will push forward drug addicts, perhaps by claiming that criminalization of clients places them in greater danger, but for them the ideal prostitute is not unlike their ideal worker - namely, one who is not a worker at all, but a self-owned petit bourgeois of the entrepreneurial variety.
We have no moralistic agenda when we say that prostitution should be fought against. This is not some preface to a debate about what people ought to want or ought not to like. We believe and know and respect that people have different desires and different relationships to their own bodies. But we also believe that the purchase and sale of sex and bodies influences ideology and culture in a society. We believe that it influences the way we view womens’ bodies when we know that one can buy access to it. And we believe that it goes hand in hand with violence against women. We maintain that prostitution is violence against women. Not just individual women, but women as a group of people in this society, particularly the poorest and most systemically vulnerable women. The focus here is on women, but we do not mean to say that the sale of young men is any better.
Prostitution is not just a question of those prostituted, but of what kind of society we live in - which structures that advance or hold things back. We believe criminalization of the purchase of sex is a step forward in this question. A step that the women’s movement should defend.
Prostitution affects women outside of prostitution - and with the influx of trafficking and prostitutes from Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa, it is not only prostitutes who are stigmatized. Women from Thailand experience racist harassment based on prejudice. The same goes for black women, which was particularly prevalent when many African women were streetwalkers in several Norwegian cities (before the abolition of purchasing sex). Prostitution reinforces negative stereotypes, harassment and sexual assault - also against women who are not a part of it. The patriarchy and racism work together against these women.
Furthermore, prostitution is first and foremost a question of class. It is among the world’s poorest women, women in the proletariat - and often those who are extra oppressed, for instance by racism - that the majority of prostitutes are recruited. Economic depression, promises of quick money, drugs, or plain and simple force, is the background for pushing women into these extreme form of exploitation. Prostitution does not help these women out of poverty or depression - on the contrary, they cement the problems and often reinforces them.
The consequences for prostitutes are often great. Studies and research suggest that very many prostitutes develop trauma, or worsen their preexisting traumas. Those who claim that prostitution is just a job like any other look past this. Some claim that it is the stigmatization of prostitution that causes most of the psychological problems, but one does not remove stigma through liberalization.
Stigmatization of prostitutes is closely tied to the patriarchy and class society. As long as we live in a capitalistic patriarchy, prostitutes will be stigmatized because they break with gender roles about being “good mothers” and “chaste women”. They are stigmatized after sexual morality, are objectified, and looked down upon. Street prostitutes in particular will experience that they are at the bottom of the class structure. This stigmatization will remain, regardless of whether or not the laws are liberalized. Mores do not mechanically follow jurisprudence. Prostituted women experienced stigmatization when both clients and pimps had free rein, and perhaps even more then.
Proletarian feminists see proletarian prostitutes as our sisters. Of course we have no disgust for people who sell sex. We support each and every struggle they lead for health services and other advances. And we fight against patriarchal and moralistic judgments of them. But to pave the way for more prostitution is not in solidarity with prostitutes. The only true class solidarity is the struggle against prostitution as a phenomenon, and against more women being pushed into it. Studies and insight into the reality of poor prostitutes must surely awaken indignation among all those with a sense of justice. We cannot support actions that appear to support prostitutes, but in their nature pave the way for more prostitution through liberalization or similar means. As always, the bourgeoisie and the petit bourgeoisie pushes others in front of themselves to serve their class interests. It is not unlike when Angelina Jolie stands with the NATO leadership for “women’s rights”.
Liberalism, individualism, and postmodernism offer empty promises of power. They say that women will have the power through being free to do what they want. But we know that the real power does not come through individual freedoms under capitalism, but through strong collectives and collective struggle. Real power can only be won if we smash a system that in its very nature oppresses and exploits the proletariat. As Mao said, political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, and this insight must have consequences for how women organize to take the power and liberate themselves. Freedom in capitalism is as always freedom for the rich to buy what they want, and freedom for the poor to indulge the rich, or go to sleep hungry under a bridge.
The patriarchy and capitalism are not two separate systems that live in different realities. These are weaved into one system: an imperialist and patriarchal capitalism. In this system, women - and other groups like oppressed nations - experience particular forms of oppression, in addition to the oppression and exploitation of the proletariat. This creates a need for a particular form of mobilizing, organizing, and struggle. But the root of the oppression lies within the system itself, such that a solution to this problem requires a rejection of the capitalist system itself. True women’s liberation demands revolution.
Researchers report that there are fewer prostitutes and less trafficking as a result of an abolition on the purchase of sex: https://www.dagsavisen.no/innenriks/forsker-sexkjoploven-virker-1.278389 (in Norwegian, original document can be found here)
An excerpt from a master’s thesis on prostitution https://brage.bibsys.no/xmlui/bitstream/handle/11250/184230/Veesalu_Helen.pdf?sequence=1 (in Norwegian)
“Up to 96% of those who are in prostitution wish to leave, but feel that they cannot. They are trapped by fear (The A21).”
“When it concerns psychological health, there is no doubt that the life situation of these women creates room for different expressions of psychological problems. After women have left prostitution, one can notice that many have post-traumatic stress disorders and their symptoms. Physically, they will often have chronic muscle pains.”
“Many have an extremely steadfast belief that prostitution is something one can do for just a short period, but then stop so that it does not affect one’s mental health. Perhaps the thing that informants who have had direct contact with women see the most is that psychologically, it is a strain to be in prostitution, many suffer from sleep issues, problems related to eating enough food, and the psychological stress level is high.”
“To prostitute oneself is a problem in itself, because you oppress your own personality and allow others to exploit you sexually, physically, and psychologically. Studies show that prostitutes suffer from trauma similar to prisoners of war, rape victims, and torture victims. Prostitution is violence because it destroys the human personality, in addition to placing the person on the lowest rungs of society (Pajumets, 2004).”
“Author and therapist Odile Poulsen’s experience is that 90% of women he met within prostitution in Denmark had experienced sexual assault before they began, and nobody sells themselves without serious reasons behind it (Poulsen, 2006).”
Psychologist Audhild Sinnes writes http://www.psykologtidsskriftet.no/index.php?seks_id=321144&a=3:
Studies from different places in the world seriously ties psychological symptomatology to sex trafficking. A study from Nepal showed higher levels of depression and PTSD for women who were exploited sexually compared with women exploited in other ways (Tsutsumi, Izutsu, Poudyal, Kato & Marui, 2008). A Greek study showed that women who were abused in the sex industry had a higher incidence of dissociation, depression, shame and negative body image than other women who were victims of abuse (Antopoulou, 2006). An Australian study reveals complex traumatic experiences among women street prostitutes, along with a higher degree of PTSD than the general population (Roxburgh, Degenhardt & Copeland, 2006). Cathy Zimmerman is the foremost researcher on the mistreatment of women and women’s health. Her research shows a clear relationship between prostitution in the sex industry and multiple psychological and somatic symptomatology to serious degrees (Zimmerman et al., 2003; Zimmerman et al., 2006; Hossain, Zimmerman, Abas, Light & Watts, 2010).
Studies in several countries reveal a relationship between post-traumatic stress and prostitution: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/154140.stm