Week Woman

A Pox on the Patriarchy

Marriage versus Sex-Work: A Question

Yesterday, I had a piece in the New Statesman about marriage – specifically, about marriage certificates. Having recently got engaged, I had discovered, to my horror, that the legal document that would represent this incredibly important (to me) moment, declared one of the most important people in my life surplus to requirements: simply put, marriage certificates ask for your father’s name, but not your mother’s. Not only this, but while your father has a box for his profession (??!), should you not know who your father is, should you have two mothers, you cannot put your mother in this box instead. Better have no parent at all, than a female one – so the law goes.

Obviously, given how ridiculous this is, I was outraged by this blatantly sexist hangover. What a nasty little blight on what should be a joyous day. I felt that I simply couldn’t get married as things stood. But the thing is, I love my boyfriend, so I want to get married. So the obvious thing to do, was to get this changed – and luckily, someone had already started a petition on this very issue. I just needed to throw my weight behind it – and I did.

Now, I obviously expected the usual suspects to immediately declare themselves against this campaign and all it stood for. That was taken as read. Whatever CCP does is evil and wrong and shall not pass: either she is campaigning on the wrong thing, or she is campaigning on the right thing for the wrong reasons. I’m long past trying to convince my little band of haters (see here for more details on their delights) to stop – well, hating. So I wasn’t surprised when they came out vociferously against the campaign (although, as ever, I was bemused that they should waste so much energy declaring a campaign pointless rather than just ignoring it / starting their non-pointless one). No, what surprised me, was the form their complaint took – because it seems to me there are serious issues of consistency that they have failed to address in their main complaint, which is that, never mind tinkering with the beast, marriage itself, the whole institution should be abolished! You can’t go about making things a little bit better, getting rid of reminders here and there that marriage is historically a property contract, enshrining men’s ownership over women and their bodies. The whole thing is rotten to its core, so just get rid of the whole thing!

I have some time for this argument; I really do. Marriage may be beyond salvaging. It may well be that its roots in the sale and purchase of women (and specifically, let’s face it, women’s bodies in the form of their reproductive capabilities) make it an institution not worth saving. This is especially likely given the extent to which the oppression of women is still based in these very capabilities: hello primary care-giver role; good-day pay-gap; how d’you do lack of abortion! That said, in the here and now, while no other options exist, I’m going to go ahead and try and make it a bit better.

But here’s what confuses me: the very same people who now say “get rid of marriage altogether, it’s hopelessly sexist & misogynistic and you can never separate it from its original intent!” are usually really very clear about one thing, and that is, choice is all. Any choice is a feminist choice, because a woman has made it. These people don’t usually go in for a structural argument: they don’t like it when you point out that, actually, while no woman should be condemned for any choice she makes, because she makes it in the context of an oppressive patriarchal regime and sometimes, we’re just trying to survive, that doesn’t mean that every choice she makes is de facto feminist. All of our choices are constrained – some more so than others – but I find that a useful rule of thumb is that if nearly every woman is making a certain choice and nearly every man isn’t (leg-waxing is a good example of this), then you can be fairly safe in assuming that the choice can’t be defined as a free one. This doesn’t mean every woman is unhappy with that choice; it doesn’t mean that no woman would wax her legs if patriarchal beauty standards weren’t so stringently enforced. It just means that we can’t separate out those women from the rest of us, because there’s no way of knowing how we’d feel if we lived in such a free-for-all utopia. But you can’t point this out to this group: they don’t like it. If a woman makes a choice, they insist, she has made her choice and to even hint that it might be constrained is to oppress her. Never mind that actually it’s the structure that is oppressing her – pointing out an oppression doesn’t make someone any more oppressed than they already are.

Now, one of the major bones of contention between this group of people, and feminists who define themselves as radical feminists, is over sex work. As you might guess, this group of people says that sex work is a choice made by empowered women, there is nothing inherently wrong with sex work, it’s all just about each individual woman’s choice and that’s that. To hint at the context in which sex work takes place – that is, a capitalist patriarchy, in which women are violently and sexually oppressed on the basis of their role in a gender hierarchy; to point out that the vast majority of sex workers are women, and the vast majority of their clients, men, this is to oppress sex workers. In this instance, in total contrast to their apparent position on marriage, individual choice is everything; patriarchal structure is nothing. What this group go in for is tweaking legislation here and there, in order to make the lot of sex workers better, to make it safer. There is absolutely no desire to “abolish” sex work altogether, citing its position in an oppressive regime wherein women have historically been no more than property exchanged between men. To do so would be to oppress women and remove their free choice to be sex workers. Again, we’re focused here on individual choice in a structure-free environment – very different, in fact, totally opposite to the position on marriage, which is “screw individual choice, screw improving the conditions in which that choice is made: we’re all about the structure here, and the structure cannot be salvaged. It must be abolished!”

Now, personally, I am not actually sure that abolishing sex work is a valuable aim – at least in the short-term. I like dealing with the here and now, and in the here and now, there are women who are, for whatever reason, constrained or not, making the choice to be sex workers, and I don’t want to put any woman in more danger, or to make her life more difficult. There are, it seems to me, good reasons why you might focus on harm reduction over abolition when it comes to sex work – to put it crudely, in this particular omelette, I’m just not prepared to break any eggs, when breaking eggs would mean an increased number of raped and murdered women. And, at this juncture, there doesn’t seem to be clear evidence either way for what works when it comes to protecting women selling sex through legislation – research on both “sides” is generally loaded the desire for preconceived outcomes. And ultimately, men carry on trafficking, raping, beating and killing vulnerable women. But while these people do cite these reasons, one of their central tenets is that sex work is not, in itself, a problem. What is a problem are the bits and pieces of oppressive and antiquated legislation. That is what, they tell us, we need to change.

Now, forgive me for stating the obvious, but traditionally, selling sex and marriage, have not really been that far apart. The only real difference between the two, back when choice in marriage was overtly denied to women, was that marriage secured a dynasty for men, while prostitution secured illegitimacy. In both, women were bought and paid for (or rented if you prefer), so that their bodies could be put in the service of men.

So the question I have for these people is the following: where is your logic in telling women that they may not tweak one sexist, antiquated institution that has traditionally oppressed and harmed women, telling women who want to make a choice, constrained or not, to enter into it, that it must instead be abolished because it’s rotten to the core; while at the same time saying the exact opposite about something else that has traditionally oppressed and harmed women and treated them as property. Why is one choice an empowered one, made in a structure-free environment, and the other hopelessly doomed to enact historical patriarchy? Why is one sexist institution unsalvageable, while the other is touted as somehow rebellious and even at the more radical fringes of this group,  actually progressive? In short, why is marriage an unacceptable form of, in this argument, self-exploitation – while selling sex is just fine and dandy? I just don’t get it.

Maybe they don’t get it either. Maybe they haven’t thought it through that much. But I would say this: either you believe that women are oppressed and exploited as “resources” in a capitalist patriarchy – or you don’t. And either you think the answer to this exploitation is to abolish rather than tweak – or you don’t. You can’t have it both ways.

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This entry was posted on May 2, 2014 by in Uncategorized.
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