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Posts tagged ‘Patriarchy’

The Ontario Superior Court struck down prostitution laws yesterday which decriminalized many of the restrictions around sex work and paved the way for other provinces to do the same thing.

It is generally seen as a progressive move that will allow sex workers to ply their trade in safer and more secure conditions.

I was interested to read my own views on prostitution from my archives: this is a column that was written 20 years ago, in early 1990. I have edited it slightly and added some links.

As many feminists do, I have mixed feelings around the whole issue of prostitution. I think it is the ultimate form of women’s oppression and I hate the thought of any woman being forced into it to make her living or feed her children.

Not only that, I reject many of the myths about prostitution. I don’t accept that very many women work as prostitutes by choice; I think, rather, it’s a severe lack of choice. I remind people constantly that life for most women who work as prostitutes bears no resemblance to the life of Jane Fonda’s character in Klute – the life of the so-called high-class call girl. Instead, most girls and women who work as prostitutes live a dangerous, often-violent life, under male control, on the edge of male-made laws.

Some of these same doubts and mixed feelings are expressed in an article by Toronto feminist Susan Cole in a recent issue of the feminist newspaper Broadside. Susan has found herself in a conflicting position on occasion in conversation with women who work as prostitutes because she wants to believe them when they say prostitution is “just another job, just another skill – like typing” and yet her own instincts react strongly against the idea of women selling sex for a living.

In fact, Susan Cole has often been singled out by prostitutes’ rights groups as a personal whipping post, and has been assured that most women working as prostitutes simply want to be left alone to do their work in peace and safety and don’t want to hear theories of male dominance and patriarchy.

So Susan has recently come to a new conclusion about these conflicts. She’s decided that only ex-prostitutes can bridge the gap between “sex-critical feminists and prostitutes’ rights groups.” She decided this after meeting a representative of – in what must be THE acronym of the year – WHISPER: Women Hurt in Systems of Prostitution Engaged in Revolt. This is what the representative, Sarah Wynter, ex-prostitute, said:

We started to organize because the cultural mythology didn’t reflect the reality of our lives. I’m referring to the line that prostitution is a free choice; that it can be decontextualized from the patriarchal society we live in; that it can be fixed by unionizing it, legalizing, decriminalizing it; that the relationship between a pimp and a prostitute is a love relationship; that prostitutes are on the cutting edge of women’s sexual liberation and that prostitutes control tricks and rates of pay…

I was sold into prostitution and control of my life was taken away from me. I learned that prostitution is an abusive institution that benefits men. The pimp gets money, the john gets sexual gratification. Prostitution gives men access to women’s and children’s sexuality limited only by their ability to pay. I’ve yet to meet a prostitute who hasn’t experienced some kind of abuse. That’s why we founded WHISPER, because we know that women whisper about the things that happen to them.

At Stepping Stone in Halifax, women didn’t have to whisper. Stepping Stone is the agency set up a few years ago to support, help, and counsel women who work as prostitutes. It, in turn, was supported by both women who work as prostitutes and women who used to work as prostitutes.

I’m still confused about where I stand on prostitution, but I too vigorously support Stepping Stone. Since its inception, it has had to struggle and fight for every penny of government support – as do most agencies that exist to help women and children – and it’s now in danger of closing its doors as the governments turn their backs.

It’s nothing short of outrageous. Male politicians – provincial and municipal this time – pay lip service to caring about the safety of women and children. In fact, where prostitution is concerned, they care about only one thing: that it be kept out of sight so “respectable” citizens won’t be offended.

These men who run our society are responsible for the economic conditions that force girls and women into prostitution. They’re the ones who administer our woefully inadequate safety net which somehow, allows women and children to fall through and face either hunger and eviction or a job on the streets.

The refusal to fund Stepping Stone is just another in the long list of callous acts that can be pinned on these cold, uncaring governments.

Stepping Stone was founded in 1987 and it continues to do its work in Halifax. It has reacted to this week’s decision by the Ontario Superior Court.

Back when second-wave feminism was a new and exciting movement, we used the word “patriarchy” unabashedly, not at all self-conscious about naming the structures that were deliberately designed and kept in place always to the advantage of one segment of society. “It’s a man’s world” was no joke and it was the premise we had all grown up with.

It came with another word: entitlement. Entitlement was so deeply embedded that to even suggest — never mind demand — changes that would bring those outside the advantaged group some measure of equality was met with fearful hostility.

It was as if some people gaining a few rights meant that others had to lose some — as if there were only so many rights to go around.

There has been a backlash against some of the strong language we used as feminists in the ’70s. Nowadays, patriarchy is mostly used — condescendingly — in speaking of Afghanistan or other cultures that we need to demonise and look down on.

But in our own society, patriarchy hasn’t gone anywhere. Physical and sexual violence against women and children — up to and including murder — continues unabated. Popular culture is rife with images and stories that exploit the sexuality of young people. Planeloads of North American and European men still fly off to Southeast Asia where they have made specific arrangments to have sex with children — children as young as six.

Catholic priests live in the heart of the patriarchy. Why would it be shocking to anyone that they too are swept along in the privileged belief that adult males are entitled to act out their sexual urges no matter the hurt and broken lives they leave in their wake?

Of course it is a horrible betrayal of trust to be raped by your priest — as it is to be raped by your father, your stepfather, uncle, brother, Boy Scout leader, hockey coach. Yes, some are worse than others although comparing betrayals doesn’t seem wise to me. But this rampant abuse is all rooted in the same place and it has shaped the society we live in.

Men no longer “own” women and children but in large swaths of the world — and in too many religions — men still seek to control the minds and bodies of women and children, both those they know and those they don’t know.

During my reading on this subject, I came across a website called Male Survivor. It’s the kind of website I usually avoid because I expect it to be heavy on men’s rights and feminist bashing. But this website has neither. Instead, it pays tribute to the feminist movement and urges those who are working on child abuse issues to take a lesson from rape crisis centres and other feminist organizations.

For years, professionals grappled unsuccessfully with how to understand and prevent the physical battering of a woman by her husband or partner. The standard question asked by the professional focused on the (female) victim: “Why doesn’t she leave?” That question was based on numerous theoretical models and treatment interventions designed to resolve the problems of battering by treating the “victim’s pathology.” However, advocates of battered women, many of whom had been physically assaulted themselves, eventually confronted the professional establishment and posed an important re-framing of the question. Quite simply, by shifting the focus from the victim to the (male) perpetrator, the primary question then became: “Why does he hit?”

It goes on to say, ” the abuse of children cannot be adequately addressed without acknowledging the fundamental political and social dimensions that govern our society. Existing social norms create a climate that fosters physical and sexual abuse of children.”

To suggest that priestly celibacy is the problem implies that child sexual abuse doesn’t exist in all other segments of society — most notably in families.

The problem is patriarchy and its upholding of the social norms of adult male entitlement and the often not-very-subtle subjugation of women and children.

I recommend much of the material in Male Survivor. I also recommend this column, written by my friend, Ralph Surette.

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