Divide, Conquer and Sell

Divide, Conquer and Sell

by Merle Hoffman

Growing up in Philadelphia in the 50s, girls were labeled sluts if they dressed provocatively, let boys “tongue kiss” them or behaved in such a way that crossed the white middle class boundaries that defined appropriate role behavior. Sexual behavior had the power to divide women from themselves, their community and, some would say, even their souls.

I learned very early that the use of my sexuality was the thing that determined both my personal worth and acceptance into the Byzantine world of teenage girl politics.

If one chose to be the object or recipient of male desire, one risked being the target of female disdain. The first great divide was between those who did and those who didn’t—the bad girls (sluts) who “gave it away” and the good ones who kept it safe between their legs.

Once labeled, “sluts” were thrust out of the circle of acceptance into the landscape of sexual outlaws

Later, the concept of power attached itself to sexuality and created a second divide — myself from the sexual resource I inherited just from being female.

I learned that I possessed something that I could exploit, grant or withhold. It was mine, but always in relation to the other. The idea that I could sell or rent this resource never entered my mind.

Webster’s dictionary defines a prostitute as “a woman who engages in sexual intercourse for money.” Unlike sluts who give it away for free, the prostitute charges and, in her case, money changes everything

In prostitution, the complex issues of sexual mores, gender roles and women’s sexuality are viewed through the contaminating lens of money.

Women have historically placed prostitutes on the outer edges of the community — barred from respect, understanding and attention.

Feminists, on the other hand, have viewed prostitution through a philosophical and political lens, and attempted to analyze and define the “true” nature of this behavior, the root causes that propel these choices and the best strategies for eliminating, controlling or reducing it.

One of the main philosophical divisions among feminists regarding prostitution is whether or not the prostitute herself is a victim of an oppressive patriarchal system, or a free agent choosing sex work as a rational career choice in difficult circumstances.

Even though there is a great amount of information from prostitutes themselves who view their choice as a free one, there are those who think that they are operating under a “false consciousness.” They would say that in a world so determined by powerful financial and market forces beyond any personal control, the concept of free choice is an illusion.

The issue of prostitution has divided feminists for years: are prostitutes women who sell sex for money or are they sex workers? Merely posing this question brings in myriad issues. If prostitutes are workers, are they then entitled to respect, bargaining power, health care benefits?

This edition of On The Issues Magazine reflects in writing, poetry and art the personal and political divides within the feminist movement surrounding the issue of prostitution.

Our pieces on trafficking and sexual slavery highlight the nature of sex as a continually renewable resource– unlike other body resources (sales of kidneys), it does not self-exhaust; it can just keep giving. (See Transspecies Transplants: Home-Grown Atrocities). As such, we ask the questions of just who owns that resource, who has the power to use, abuse, buy and sell it.

We look at the creation of the Sexual Industrial Complex — with its hierarchy of beneficiaries — at the lowest level: the worker herself, then her pimp (either an individual or in the case of legalization, the state), the purchaser of services (the john), the agencies, and the society whose power structure has benefited for generations from the division of women into Madonnas or whores.

And, perhaps, most importantly, we look at the women themselves, speaking for themselves — their voices, hopefully, leading us towards a deeper understanding.

Judgments regarding changing relations with the self and the body within the evolving morality of the 21st century will most likely present us with a different view of sex-for-money.

But within this nexus of debate and analysis stands individual women – alone and responsible for their lives and choices. Beside her stands the children, and the young girls, tortured, raped and sold into living hells.

In the end, perhaps it is reduction of harm we must seek first for the casualties of the Sexual Industrial Complex, while we struggle for a world where little girls can grow up free from fear of violence and sexual exploitation, and women will not only define their sexuality, but own it.

Merle Hoffman
Publisher and Editor-in-Chief
For more Merle Hoffman Editorials