Separate Voices

This is a quote I have used before – but now it has even more meaning to me. It from “Not for Sale”, in the essay by Margaret A. Baldwin”, “Strategies of Connection: Prostitution and Feminist Politics”. This is a longer quote to give some context to my views.

“Feminist activists confront profound challenges in crafting feminist strategies against prostitution, and for prostituted women. Those challenges require putting into action the greatest and most demanding strengths of feminism: forging connections among women, confronting the political meaning of our silences, and refusing to abandon any woman by the side of the road. A feminist political approach to prostitution must begin from these strengths, and be tested against the standards set by them…


In feminism, we are committed to promoting solidarity among all women. We do this based on the belief that our experiences as women are linked, and our destinies shared. Yet the divide between “prostitute” and “non-prostituted” is thought to describe something meaningful and real, no less in feminist advocacy than in society at large. We assume an antithesis, or at least a difference, between prostituted women and “other women”. We should know to be cautious about these kinds of assumptions. The history of women’s oppression is likewise a tale of fine distinctions made among us: who deserved it, who asked or it, who is made for it, and so on. The history of feminism is, in turn, the history of our resistance to those distinctions. So we need to ask carefully whether, and how, the division between “prostitutes” and “other women” has a place in feminist politics….

…. That men hurt, despise, and exploit women and girls in and by prostitution should be enough reason for solidarity with survivors. My question, through, is whether more is demanded o us in forging a connection between prostitution and other sexual abuse – and between prostitutes and other women – beyond an initial understanding that prostitution is abusive, too…. We have long examined how men’s treatment of women as “other” operates as a practice of domination. Likewise, we need to explore whether prostituted women are treated within feminism as “other” in this political sense, and if so, how those relationships can be transformed into genuine bonds of solidarity.

This is not to suggest that all women are the same, or experience the same kinds of victimisation as women. Certainly, not all women are prostituted, and that is a good thing. Not all women, that is, turn tricks for money, five times a day, thirty-five times a week, with two thousand men a year, while suffering at least the usual incidence of incest, rapes, beatings, and sexual harassment that other women do. The prostitution is on top of that. Many women have to endure only pieces of prostitution. Many women are subjected to unwanted sex from men who objectify us, but not typically from two thousand men a year. Many women suffer serial battery from husbands or lovers, but not typically also at the hands o hundreds of relative strangers. Many women receive money from a harassing boss in the form of a paycheck, but not typically in a context where harassment is the job. Each of these transactions shares something in common with prostitution, but none of them is prostitution. We might observe, too, that none of these transactions is exactly like the others, either. Rape is one thing, domestic violence another thing, sexual harassment another, prostitution another. All of them, nevertheless, involve some expression or manifestation of sexual ownership. Each of these practices, understood this way, is like a particular tactical weapon in the arsenal of male dominance – each can be deadly, even if differently deployed.

On this understanding, the political “otherness” of prostitution can be dispelled simply by “adding on” prostitution to our existing feminist reform agenda…. These groups organised brilliantly to extend battered women’s services to women in prostitution, challenging practices that excluded prostituted women and girls from shelters and from the vision of the anti-sexual violence movement…. The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women has advocated similar interventions at the international level. This work was not easy to accomplish, and needs the continued support of survivors and their allies to sustain and move forward.

…. For if the presumption of prostitutes’ consent is especially entrenched, every other feminist reform initiative against sexual violence has confronted similar victim-blaming obstacles. The litany is familiar: rape victims ask for it, battery victims provoke it, sexual harassment victims manipulatively sleep their way to the top….

…. Like other forms of sexual abuse, prostitution is often compelled by physical force or its threat, by physical and mental torture, and by kidnapping….

You can do this kind of work in solidarity with prostituted women, whether in law reform, through advocacy, or in providing important recovery services…. Find out whether women in prostitution are being provided services and whether staffs are trained to assist girls and women in prostitution, and insist that they contact a prostitution recovery agency for knowledge about how to do it…. Educate yourself and other women about how sexual harassment claims might be crafted on behalf of women in prostitution, in strip clubs, and other “live sex” operations. In any forum in which violence against women, women’s poverty, or the sexual exploitation of children is on the table, take initiative in addressing the victimisation of women and girls as a necessary focus of political action against those practices.

These “add-on” strategies, through, are not complete ones…. For underlying each of our principal strategies in rape law reform, in domestic battery and self-defence work, and in sexual harassment resistance, is an assertion crying out to be believed – we are not prostitutes….


The biggest silence maintained by the anti-prostitute design of our sexual violence work is the silence about johns. In reality, they are mostly white, married men with at least a little disposable income – real people, that is. Empirical research on johns is almost non-existent. Since johns are rarely arrested, their identities remain shielded from public disclosure, as well as from criminal sanction. Even johns themselves try to avoid the label. In prostitution transactions, johns frequently adopt a variety of sexual roles – as boyfriend, as lover, as father, sometimes as punitive avenger of the public good. By insisting on thes roles, a john avoids seeing himself as just a trick. On all o these fronts – academic, legal, and personal – who johns are, why they buy women, and their culpability for doing so, are evaded questions.


Prostituted women and girls themselves, who have the most insight and information on johns, have also been silenced. The prostitution itself takes its toll: in despair, depression, denial,drug abuse, isolation, torture, and murder. Many women do not survive. Women who do survive prostitution usually find recalling and retelling their experiences enormously painful and disturbing…. Criminal records, mental health treatment histories, and substance abuse issues compromise a prostituted woman’s credibility, assuming she ever gets to talk at all about the men who buy her…. The obvious beneficiaries of the suppression of prostituted women’s voices, again, are the johns who use them.

We need to begin to understand the stake that men have in not being named as johns, whether by themselves, by other men, or by prostitution survivors. Perhaps non-prostitutes, especially white, middle-class, married women, have some stake in this separation, too. It is uncomfortable to think your nice husband or retired dad as a guy who buys women and girls for sex. Maybe this is the reason, however unconscious, for non-prostituted women, especially white, middle-class, married women, to keep separating themselves from prostitutes and their own abuse from prostitution. In any case, there is an obvious historical continuity available for understanding these arrangements, permitting mostly white men to buy “bad” women for sex, while their wives and daughters avert their eyes in complicity and shame….

…. This connection not only concedes that prostituted women are hurt; it also affirms that the voice and participation of prostituted women are necessary to understand the conditions of all women’s lives.

…. Whether a woman is on the street, turning tricks, or at whatever place she call “home”, sexual exploitation and abuse is a given. I think this is true in most women’s lives, at different intensities. One man is not the same as two thousand…. Prostituted women face all of these men every day, dad after day, undefended and alone.


…. She [Aileen Wuornos] said she killed these men in self-defence; seven of the probably 4000 men who brought over that time. With maybe one exception, each of these johns was a “nice” white married guy – one a child abuse investigator, another a former missionary. She stood alone at the side of the road – literally, for twenty years. It is time for us to join her.”


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