Everyday at lunch when it is nice out, I walk across the street to a little café and buy a bag of chips as a snack. And invariably I end up getting catcalled.
For me, the gauntlet of sexual harassment began early, as I developed beginning around 12, and until about 18 I looked much older than my years (one could say I eventually caught up). This gauntlet consisted of whistles, hoots, lewd comments, stalking as I walked home, groping, threatening comments if I didn’t respond – and many times there was some sort of combination. Many readers will understand what it is like to suddenly become public property. It was especially disconcerting for me as I never “identified” with being traditionally feminine and was, for a while, a straight up tomboy, with the athleticism to match the attitude. Then I developed breasts and an ass, and everything I understood about myself changed – and not for the better.
There is a trauma to this process of becoming public property, a trauma that is both acute and chronic.
I can best describe the acute trauma as a disembodied feeling, having one view of yourself while knowing that the world has an entirely different view of you and your body. It is almost a dissociative feeling, this cognitive dissonance in your identity. For me, I truly believe that the acute trauma is responsible for igniting mental illness. I am bipolar, and my first bouts of real depression and mood swings correspond to the beginning of the harassment. Because mental illness runs in my family, I was thus already predisposed to mental illness, and this acute trauma developed feelings of sadness into full-on mental illness.
The chronic trauma to which I refer is better described as a feeling that you are constantly on display. I can feel this as I walk down the street and men stare and leer at me, particularly when those stares turn into catcalls. This chronic trauma makes a woman hyper-aware of her body even when harassment is not present, and it affects the way in which she mentally moves through space. When I say “mentally move through space,” I mean the way in which I, and I am guessing many other women, move with an invisible wall around oneself to create a modicum of privacy for our bodies. For me, it involves walking with purposeful strides, head up and eyes straight ahead, and pretty much ignoring all men around me unless they are coming directly towards me.
Of course, the wall is invisible and I am quite aware that due to my curvy physique, including large breasts and curvy butt, I can never hide. I will ALWAYS be sexualized by my figure. There is no disappearing into more masculine clothing for me (please note, I am not down-grading the experience of less-curvy women or more masculine women. I am just speaking from my own experience).
A large part of why I became a feminist, and continue to be a feminist, is this auto-objectification of women and the resulting sexual harassment and assault of women based on men’s sexual privilege. All feminists, liberal and radical, seem to agree that such objectification of women needs to end if we are truly going to abolish patriarchy.
So what, then, does legalization and normalization of prostitution mean in the overall fight against sexual objectification and violence? How, if you are a feminist trying to end the objectification of women, do you reconcile the two seemingly opposing goals of ending sexual harassment and normalizing the objectification of women as products?
You come up with nice, tidy neo-liberal euphemisms such as “sex work,” “sex workers,” “sex workers rights” and “whorephobia” to silence the dissenters. You acknowledge that yes, poverty plays a role in pushing women into prostitution, but then frame this objectification as consensual and possibly empowering. Meanwhile, you still try to fight against sexual harassment and assault, despite the fact that normalizing prostitution cements the objectification and de-humanization of women into society – factors directly responsible for the sexual harassment and sexual assault of women that occur on a daily basis.
Legalizing prostitution as work, normalizing it as a career option for women, legalizes and normalizes the ways in which men objectify, degrade and dehumanize women into sexual objects for their own pleasure. Instead of abolishing sexual violence against women, feminists who support the complete legalization of prostitution are reinforcing sexual violence and male sexual privilege into the fabric of society more so than is already currently in existence.
Furthermore, why would a government spend money on providing exit resources from a job that is legal and normalized as completely legitimate? And legitimization, not just legalization, of prostitution is part of the goal of liberal feminists. They literally say it on their website when they declare they are “pro sex work” and “pro sex worker” – which of course provides the delusion that abolitionists are somehow “anti sex worker” and have no interest in actually improving the lives of prostituted women. So, by legalizing prostitution, liberal feminists are quite possibly eradicating the provisions of providing options for women who want out – especially if the governments responsible for such programs are themselves profiting from prostitution.
Legalizing prostitution will do nothing but compound and reinforce the ways in which men enact the patriarchy on women’s bodies. Women, as a class, will never be able to escape being put on display, for once prostitution is normalized and legalized it will proliferate as it has in every region and country in which it is legal and accepted. Women, as a class, will now be forced to mentally move through a landscape in which not only are they on display, but in which they are also potentially on sale.
Prostitution will do nothing for women as a class except exacerbate the experiences of sexual harassment and objectification I have described. It will result in a collective trauma as the objectification and purchasing of our bodies by men is legitimized as a form of commerce. This is already a reality for women who, for whatever reason, have to travel through the red-light districts of Amsterdam, pretending they don’t see the women “being sold like meat” in store windows. This is quite a play of mental gymnastics women will be forced to undergo to not objectify themselves, to mentally buffer themselves from the visibility of prostitution. The mental walls will indeed need to be made of steel.
In conclusion, how can we overthrow the sexual objectification of women, and the accompanying violation and violence, if boys grow into men understanding that the girls they see daily could very possibly, one day, be on sale as objects for their pleasure?
The fact that “pro-sex work” liberal feminists miss this point entirely is absolutely astounding.