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Nuts and berries and masturbation

Notes on:
Carole Pateman, “Defending Prostitution: Charges against Ericsson.”

[See also Ericsson on prostitution.]

Feminists do not see prostitution as unacceptable because it distributes benefits and burdens unequally; rather, to use Ericsson’s language of inequality, because prostitution is grounded in the inequality of domination and subjection. The problem of domination is both denied by and hidden behind Ericsson’s assertion that prostitution is a free contract or an equal exchange.

[The “problem of domination and subjection”—or the male inability to appreciate its enormity—is a reflection of the breach between the feminine and masculine experiences of the world. A critical aspect of the breach is a radically different relationship to power. What it means to dominate or to be subject to is not univocal across gender. A man cannot see domination in how he regards and treats a woman as long as a certain acceptable protocol is followed—a protocol he, in his more generous moments, wants to see as universal when in fact it is not. Ericsson’s position illustrates this. Another more classic example of this “generosity” is found in J. S Mill’s wish that liberty—that is to say, the male conception of what it means to be emancipated—be extended to women. When a man thinks he is being just, even generous, and a woman remains unmoved, he is almost bound to mutter the most sexist but revealing question of all, “what do women want?”

To break through the rhetorical fog of that question would require a retreat on his part from moral universalism and a realization on hers that he cannot be unmade as a man. Her best hope and his duty is to get clear about what he is and is not. He is only in a trivial sense “human” and his business here is not hers and he has been derelict in his duty to concede whatever earthly thing she asks. For her part she must accept that for him his abstractions are never merely that. They constitute for him what body would for her if she were, for once, permitted to instantiate its implications free of his judgment.

Pateman is correct in this: there can be no real sexual contract between women and men. For that would require a mutual understanding of what has value which does not exist and, as this world is constructed, is scarcely conceivable. The biological infrastructure for it is simply absent.]

The employer appears to buy labor power; what he actually obtains is the right of command over workers, the right to put their capacities, their bodies, to use as he determines.

Services and labor power are inseparably connected to the body and the body is, in turn, inseparably connected to the sense of self. [More so, we must add, for women; not as clearly for men.] Ericsson writes of the prostitute as a kind of social worker, but the services of the prostitute are related in a more intimate manner to her body than those of other professionals. Sexual services, that is to say, sex and sexuality, are constitutive of the body in a way in which the counseling skills of the social worker are not (a point illustrated in a backhanded way by the ubiquitous use by men of vulgar terms for female sexual organs to refer to women themselves [The metonymy in men is not accidental. Cf. Naiman notes.]). Sexuality and the body are, further, integrally connected to conceptions of femininity and masculinity, and all these are constitutive of our [women’s] individuality, our sense of self-identity. [But we exaggerate how much men care for their bodies. They are vehicles—and though sometimes they may revel in polishing them, their secret wish is to wreck them in some dramatic gesture or action. In too many, this is barely a secret. So how much should it surprise us to see how men regard the bodies of women?] When sex becomes a commodity in the capitalist market so, necessarily, do bodies and selves. The prostitute cannot sell sexual services alone; what she sells is her body. [The male prostitute could sell the services of his body while retaining psychic possession of it. Since every man is “homosexual” in a particularly revealing sense (as Marguerite Duras once mused), every man can only imagine that his sexuality is the only comprehensible version: he assumes homogeneity, and he projects it on to her.] To supply services contracted for, professionals must act in certain ways, or use their bodies; to use the labor power he has bought the employer has command over the worker’s capacities and body; to use the prostitute’s “services,” her purchaser must buy her body and use her body. In prostitution, because of the relation between the commodity being marketed and the body, it is the body that is up for sale.

[So there is a disanalogy between what a woman sells when she sells her body and the typical object of commerce… For a man to engage in something comparable to what the prostitute does with her body it would have to involve the selling of his soul or integrity. It is not for nothing that Weininger, as many others had long before, likened the politician to the whore. Both compromise their basic humanity in living a lie: the lie that intimacy can be shared with many, or that any person can possibly represent another (let alone many others) without a progressive dissolution of character. The fact that most politicians even today are still men is what has kept equal opprobrium from attaching to the two professions. (And if we pay tribute to reality in sacrificed character, then at least we should honor and reward our prostitutes in no way less than our politicians.)]

Critics of marriage have often claimed that wives are no different from prostitutes. Women who marry also contract away their bodies but (in principle) for life rather than for minutes or hours like the prostitute. However, a form of [563] marriage in which the husband gains legal right of sexual use of his wife’s body is only one possible form. The conjugal relation is not necessarily one of domination and subjection, and in this it differs from prostitution.

[But if marriage does indeed differ, it differs because of the effects of time and non-sexual intimacy in eroding human severability. And since nearly half of all marriages end in divorce (in those societies where the alternative is not still worse), imagine what might come of long term prostitution contracts? It is at least conceivable—if not common—that an arrangement initially founded on some domination/subjection model would eventually transform itself into something that transcended that stricture. Indeed, this transcendence may be one way to characterize a “successful marriage”. Forced marriages, arranged marriages and even marriages of convenience are not, in virtue of their dubious beginnings, exclusive of successful ones. (Still the domination/subjection model is only half the story. It is what he may bring to the mix and he will have to come to terms with its long term inadequacy. For her part, she enters expecting the development of a higher level of intimacy and mutuality than she will eventually have to realize is possible, and of which she will have to disabuse herself, if the relationship is to survive. The bottom line is that, in the best case, neither will be able to sustain their initial models, since each systematically misperceives the values of the other.)]

Pateman continues,

Ericsson’s defense is about prostitution in capitalist societies; that is, the practice through which women’s bodies become commodities in the market which can be bought (contracted for) for sexual use. The questions his defense raises are why there is a demand for this commodity, exactly what the commodity is, and why it is men who demand it.

[The question that Ericsson does not ask and should be blamed for not asking and which, we fear, Patemen also fails to ask is whether male and female sexuality are at all comparable. Both seem to be caught spinning their wheels in a mire of sexual presumption.]

For Ericsson it is merely a contingent fact that most prostitutes are women and customers men.

[Certainly, and Pateman is right to call him on this.]

Reacting to Ericsson’s comparison of nutritional and sexual needs in terms of the legitimacy of their commodification:

What counts as “food” varies widely, of course, in different cultures, but, at the most fundamental level of survival there is one obvious difference between sex and other human needs. Without a certain minimum of food, drink, and shelter, people die; but, to my knowledge, no one has yet died from want of sexual release. Moreover, sometimes food and drink are impossible to obtain no matter what people do, but every person has the means to find sexual release at hand.

[Both Ericsson and Pateman are missing the point: we may well be able to live on nuts and berries and masturbation, but we have chosen not to. The bulk of humanity, given a chance, demands more complex fare and sophisticated “release”.]

To treat prostitution as a natural way of satisfying a basic human need, to state that “bought meals are not always the worst” (p. 355), neatly, if vulgarly, obscures the real, social character of contemporary sexual relations. Prostitution is not, as Ericsson claims, the same as “sex without love or mutual affection” (p. 341). The latter is morally acceptable if it is the result of mutual physical attraction that is freely expressed by both individuals. The difference between sex without love and prostitution is not the difference between cooking at home and buying food in restaurants; the difference is that between the reciprocal expression of desire and unilateral subjection to sexual acts with the consolation of payment: it is the difference for women between freedom and subjection.

[The illusion that there can be mutuality in kind.]

Since the revival of the organized feminist movement, moral and political philosophers have begun to turn their attention to sexual life, but their discussions are usually divided into a set of discrete compartments which take for granted that a clear distinction can be drawn between consensual and coercive sexual relationships.

[Cf. Onora O’Neill on consenting adults. (Notes in preparation.)]

Not all husbands exercise to the full their socially and legally [but not morally] recognized right—which is the right of a master. There is, however, another institution which enables all men to affirm themselves as masters. To be able to purchase a body in the market presupposes the existence of masters. Prostitution is the public recognition of men as sexual masters; it puts submission on sale as a commodity in the market.

[Pateman is correct here in everything but the assumption that men can be “fixed,” cured of the wish, explicit or otherwise, “to dominate.” What ought to be done is dilute their opportunities to subject—or rather, objectify—by forcing them pay a much steeper price, not only for whoring, but for their very existence. They must cede material power at every level and of every kind imaginable. (Editor’s note: At least in proportion to their numbers, see Agacinski notes.)]

Feminist discussions of the differential development of gendered individuality suggest that the masculine sense of self is grounded in separateness, especially separation from those other (opposing) feminine selves which proclaim what masculinity is not. [Gilligan and company…] Hegel showed theoretically in his famous dialectic of mastery and servitude that a self so conceived always attempts to gain recognition and maintain its subjective isolation through domination. [Hegel must have been describing not diagnosing, expressing the male vision as opposed to suggesting it is a deformation in any but perhaps a normative scheme of aesthetics. Certainly not the moral one Pateman seems to imply.] When women and men are seen in their substantive individuality, and not as abstract makers of contracts, an explanation can be found for why it is men who demand to buy women’s bodies in the market. The demand by men for prostitutes in patriarchal capitalist society is bound up with a historically and culturally distinctive form of masculine individuality. [Historicism is to the Marxist what universalism is to the classical liberal. The historicist asserts a cultural relativism of sorts while inconsistently passing judgment on its manifestations, while the classical liberal presumes with abandon… No, the demand is not specific to “patriarchal capitalist societies”. This is a bit of a red herring. Yes, it has blossomed there, but “patriarchal capitalist societies” and the male demand are co-effects of a deeper cause.] The structure of the relation between the sexes reaches into the unconscious early development of little boys and girls and out into the form of economic organization in which the capacities of individuals, and even women’s bodies, become commodities to be alienated to the control and use of others.

The peculiarity of Ericsson’s argument for equality of opportunity in “sound” prostitution should now be apparent. He assumes that the (sexual) selves of women and men are interchangeable. [He does, this is a mistake, and Pateman is right to point it out.] This may appear radical, but it is a purely abstract radicalism that reduces differentiated, gendered individuality to the seemingly natural, undifferentiated, and universal figure of the “individual”—which is an implicit generalization of the masculine self. [Once again, Pateman is right.] The feminist exploration of gendered individuality provides the material, sociological grounding for that familiar, liberal abstraction, the possessive, atomistic self that appears as the bearer of rights and the maker of contracts in civil society. The logic of Ericsson’s sexual contractarianism also leads to two unpalatable conclusions that he is unwilling to draw. The first is that all sexual relations should take the form of universal prostitution, the buying and selling of sexual services on the market. The equal right of access to sexual use of a body (or “sexual services”) can be established more economically and advantageously for the individual through universal prostitution than through (the contract of) marriage. [But whence this implicit appeal to marriage as somehow not a product of history and culture and as such not sullied by its grime? The implication that marriage is somehow the preferred context for non-commodified sex is a distraction.] Second, it is unnecessary to confine the buying and selling of sexual services to adults. Ericsson is fainthearted in his contractarianism when he excludes children from the market. Strictly, the capacity to make a contract is all that is required; surely not a capacity confined to those who are statutorily adults.

[I think Ericsson was assuming as much (i.e., the capacity to make a contract) and excluding children for their incapacity as full autonomous agents. But contractarianism is indeed faint-hearted on other grounds: The fact is, moral capacity to make responsible contracts is easily and commonly lost in adults, if it is indeed ever attained. It is amazing how often moral philosophers assume that because the law typically does not revert the rights of the adult to those of the child for cause that morality is bound to follow suit in such an automated manner. (No doubt from fear of disrespecting autonomy, but that is precisely the point: autonomy is too easily assumed to exist where it does not. This is what we mean by the madness of presumption.) The fact is, the majority of adults display ample evidence of irresponsibility in this regard and so should strictly speaking be stripped of the privilege of being included among the class of eligible contractors with far greater frequency than is typically the case, in the interest of moral consistency. Rights should be earned, just as wherewithal and property—that is, if the central truth in classical liberalism is to be properly venerated. (Editor’s note: cf., for example, Luno’s discussions on capital punishment, especially this one for more on the underlying skepticism of the depth of our purported commitment to autonomy and responsibility.)]

Ericsson shows how complete is his misunderstanding of feminism and the feminist criticism of prostitution when he complains that “so many feminists seem unable to understand that contempt for harlotry involves contempt for the female sex” (p. 365). Neither contempt for women nor their ancient profession underlies feminist arguments; rather, they are sad and angry about what the demand for prostitution reveals of the general character of (private and public) relations between the sexes. The claim that what is really wrong with prostitution is hypocrisy and outdated attitudes to sex is the tribute that liberal permissiveness pays to political mystification.

[As I argue elsewhere, in the end, it is not about left and right, Marxist and liberal, communitarian and contractarian, etc.,—not even about power except insofar as power is embodied in sex.

It is about sex. The fact that there are two, no less and no more. As for human beings, abstract ones or historified ones, there are none.

That said, there is plenty of call for sadness and anger.]

Posted by luno in prostitution, philosophy and sex, female criminality, marriage, sex differences, feminism (Monday August 21, 2006 at 2:25 pm)

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