A Marxist outlook on Prostitution

Written by Rosa Cecilia Lemus
Monday, 26 October 2015 12:34
“The position of woman is the most graphic and telling indicator for evaluating a social regime and state policy.” Leon Trotsky [1].
If we go by this phrase of Trotsky, the capitalist social system in which we live and their States’ policy throughout the world fail the test. The statistics on violence against women that their own institutions – such as the UN – have called a global pandemic, the poverty figures that show women are the 70% poorest in the world, deaths of women due to unsafe abortions, a growing number of unwanted teenage pregnancies, the cutting of their social rights due to austerity, and the frightening figures on prostitution, trafficking and sexual exploitation of children, are “graphic and telling indicators.
In the 90s of last century, when the restoration of capitalism of the former workers states became public, the world bourgeoisie could not hide his joy and loudly declared the “supremacy of capitalism over socialism.” His boldest spokesman, Fukuyama, came forward to bury the class struggle once and for all. Instead, we would achieve a kingdom of reconciliation, progress and prosperity for all. Would he have to eat his words today? Or would you say the figures of global agencies of imperialism are wrong?
As reality can’t be changed or hidden, deep changes in language, in concepts (meaning) have been made, illusioned that it would change reality. Impossible. However, it has had its effect, especially in some social classes, as the upstart petty bourgeoisie or the modern middle class. An example is what happened this year in Greece. The first negotiations with the European imperialism, made by the Prime Minister Tsipras and his former minister of economy Varoufakis, showed the change of names as a great triumph: “Troika” by “institutions” and “imperialism” by “partners.” To worsen things, they really believed that from then on German and French imperialism would treat them as “partners”. The reality, besides being very stubborn, has shown that although changes in language, the imperialists continue to treat Greece as a semi-colonial country, submissive to the Troika’s dictates.
The truth, incredibly, is that the it is a completely idealist approach. Ideas don’t change reality unless they turn into action. The existence determines consciousness. In this maze, language has become a real euphemism understatement. “International community” for imperialism; “layers” or “castes” for social classes or simply nothing, just “citizens”. And “sex workers” for prostitution, hoping that using the word “workers”, because work “dignifies” men and women, the deep social, economic and psychological implications for women who practice it and for all society would disappear by the art of language. A relief, for one’s conscience. Thus, the punters will calm down because they will have given “job” to a woman who will have money to raise her children, and the woman feels good because she’s at work.
Nevertheless, beyond ideologies that each one of those involved makes for himself, reality again puts things in place. It is a scourge of capitalist society the millions of women worldwide who resort to selling their bodies to survive, or that there is a growing number of children who do not even understand why they are up to do “that.” This capitalist system doesn’t, at least, dare to offer them the opportunity to sell their workforce to an employer to exploit it, producing goods they will be alienated from. These children submitted to this slavery don’t understand why they must be sexually used by an adult instead of enjoying their age of innocence.
This reality can’t be changed, no matter the growing number of policies applied to justify and legitimize it, ranging from legalization to regulation and legal punishment. Capitalist states are unable to eradicate this form of violence against women, children, gays, lesbians and transvestites because it is functional to their exploiting system.
Is it the oldest “profession” of the world?
The hired hacks of the bourgeoisie repeat, to begin, its treatises on the subject: “the oldest profession in the world,” and even ordinary people refer to prostitution in the same way. What lies behind this statement? In the first place, it gives it a sense of eternity, that is, what history has defined as an inherent “value” of the human species can’t be changed. Second, it imprints a “respectable” sense of profession or trade to the practice. However, based on researches done by leading anthropologists like Morgan and Bachofen, Frederick Engels, in The Origin of the Family, shows how prostitution did not exist in the early stages of humankind’s development, it was born as a social fact determined by the conditions of “production and reproduction of immediate life”, which caused changes in the institutions, family, and legal superstructure and that consolidated with the rise of monogamy and private ownership of the means of production.
“We thus have three principal forms of marriage which correspond broadly to the three principal stages of human development. For the period of savagery, group marriage; for barbarism, pairing marriage; for civilization, monogamy, supplemented by adultery and prostitution. Between pairing marriage and monogamy intervenes a period in the upper stage of barbarism when men have female slaves at their command and polygamy is practiced”. (emphasis added). [2]
In this same work, Engels says that “The overthrow of mother-right was the world historical defeat of the female sex,” referring to the fact that insofar as productive forces are developed, and with them wealth and accumulation, the recognition of descent only in the female line began to appear as an obstacle to men’s accumulation, to whom herds have belonged, as the descendants of the male members did not remain in their gens and, therefore, could not inherit from their father.
Thus, losing mother-right “is connected with the peculiarity that women, but not men, are increasingly deprived of the sexual freedom of group marriage.” Women’s infidelity begins to be considered a serious crime while man’s behavior is seen as honorable.
Engels continues: “But the more the hetaerism of the past is changed in our time by capitalist commodity production and brought into conformity with it, the more, that is to say, it is transformed into undisguised prostitution, the more demoralizing are its effects. And it demoralizes men far more than women. Among women, prostitution degrades only the unfortunate ones who become its victims, and even these by no means to the extent commonly believed. But it degrades the character of the whole male world.” [2]
What does Engels mean, stating so firmly that prostitution degrades all the men? First, because the emergence of prostitution appears together with the concentration of considerable wealth in the hands of an individual – the man – and the need to bequeath this wealth to his children and not to others. Therefore, monogamy is required for women, not for men, for whom it is guaranteed full sexual freedom through polygamy and prostitution. The woman is twice enslaved, as a private property for the reproduction of the man’s children and as a prostitute to satisfy his lust. In another sense, we could interpret that women who are forced into prostitution in order to survive, do it for necessity; while the punter does it for sexual pleasure, making women a mere object, a commodity with use value.
Prostitution and monogamy combine as true contradictions in the modern capitalist society, they are two inseparable poles of the same social condition. Could capitalism resolve this contradiction? We think not. On the contrary, it has worsened in recent times. On the one hand, the need to incorporate large masses of women into social production, combined with the impossibility to absorb all the female workforce, due to the market laws of capitalism, leaves a huge contingent out of the productive system, pushing them to resort to prostitution to make a living. On the other hand, it has been created a real sex industry, turning a human need into a merchandise, deepening the view of women as sex objects, as a source of profit.
Karl Marx showed the essence of capitalism in his writings on alienated labor in such a masterful way that they don’t lose validity.
“Finally, there came a time when everything that men had considered as inalienable became an object of exchange, of traffic and could be alienated. This is the time when the very things which till then had been communicated, but never exchanged; given, but never sold; acquired, but never bought – virtue, love, conviction, knowledge, conscience, etc. – when everything, in short, passed into commerce. It is the time of general corruption, of universal venality, or, to speak in terms of political economy, the time wheneverything, moral or physical, having become a marketable value, is brought to the market to be assessed at its truest value.” Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy (our emphasis). [3]
This feature of a society based on the capitalist mode of production hits most the class deprived of the means of production, the working class. Capital not only appropriates the fruits of their work but subjects their entire lives to market laws, in which men and women from the working class have no way out but to sell their workforce as a commodity, for miserable wages. What is left for enjoyment?
“Next to intemperance in the enjoyment of intoxicating liquors, one of the principal faults of English working-men is sexual licence. But this, too, follows with relentless logic, with inevitable necessity out of the position of a class left to itself, with no means of making fitting use of its freedom. The bourgeoisie has left the working-class only these two pleasures, while imposing upon it a multitude of labours and hardships, and the consequence is that the working-men, in order to get something from life, concentrate their whole energy upon these two enjoyments, carry them to excess, surrender to them in the most unbridled manner. When people are placed under conditions which appeal to the brute only, what remains to them but to rebel or to succumb to utter brutality? And when, moreover, the bourgeoisie does its full share in maintaining prostitution – and how many of the 40,000 prostitutes who fill the streets of London every evening live upon the virtuous bourgeoisie! How many of them owe it to the seduction of a bourgeois, that they must offer their bodies to the passers-by in order to live? – surely it has least of all a right to reproach the workers with their sexual brutality.” (Engels, The Condition of  Working Class in England, Results). [4]
I hope to have shown – for those readers with critical awareness and for those working women who feel outraged by human tragedies, for men and women who are not happy to just contemplate the world but want to change it – that women’s oppression and prostitution, as one of its most brutal expression, is neither eternal nor a profession. It is one of the appalling consequences of oppression and capitalist exploitation.
The figures of prostitution, trafficking and sex trade
Following several current investigations by different agencies, we see that almost all agree that the trafficking business, the internationalization of the mafias that support it, child prostitution and pornography business have grown to outrageous levels. They also agree that most of the forcibly recruited people are women, among whom a high percentage are minors, whose purpose is sexual exploitation. The vast majority come from poor countries in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and their destination are the rich countries in Europe, Japan and in the Orient.
On June 1, 2012, the International Labour Organization [ILO] released its second world report on forced labor. It estimates that modern slavery across the world reaches about 20.9 million victims. The estimates on movement show that cross-border movement is closely allied with forced sexual exploitation. The ILO estimates that 11.5 million (55%) victims of forced labor are women and girls, who comprise 98% out of the 4.5 million (21.5%) people engaged in forced sexual exploitation. Although the ILO alerts that its first estimate of forced labor in 2005 can’t be compared with the 2012 figures due to changes in methodology, it’s undeniable the growth of forced sexual exploitation in the last seven years, from nearly 1.36 million to 4.4 million women and girls. By region, Asia-Pacific (including South Asia) region still has the largest number of victims, but Africa’s victims have grown since 2005.
The 2013 UN report of the Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography states the following:“Since 2008, the world has undergone significant changes that have had a far-reaching impact on the extent and nature of the sale and sexual exploitation of children. The progression of globalization, the continued expansion of the use of the Internet, including in developing countries, increased migration — either internationally or domestically, in particular due to urbanization, the economic and financial crisis, natural disasters, conflicts and climate-related changes have all affected children’s vulnerability.”
The Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2012, published by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime says that“When comparing the proportion of child trafficking detected between 2007 and 2010 (27 percent), to the proportion recorded earlier between 2003 and 2006 (around 20 per cent), a general increase of detected child trafficking at the global level can be discerned. This finding is further corroborated by the fact that more than 20 countries recorded a clear increase in the proportion of child trafficking detected in the period 2007-2010 compared with the period 2003-2006. In recent years, the increase has been greater for girls: in 2006, 13 percent of the total victims detected were girls; in 2009, 17 per cent were girls.” It continues: “two of every three trafficked children were girls,” while “in Africa and the Middle East approximately 68 percent of the identified victims of trafficking were children.
Again, the report of the UN Special Rapporteur refers to child pornography: “The Internet has been significantly misused as a tool for the dissemination of child pornography. Estimates indicate that the number of child abuse images online runs into the millions and the number of individual children depicted is most likely in the tens of thousands. The age of victims has tended to decrease and representations are becoming more graphic and violent. Images are increasingly disseminated through peer-to-peer networks, making them more difficult to detect.”
The United Nations estimates that this “business” reports profits between 5 and 7 billion dollars a year. According to the magazine Forbes, pornography moves every year around 60,000 million euros in the world and has about 250 million consumers. And one more interesting fact,  women from Eastern Europe began to be seen working as prostitutes on the streets around 1998-1999, once capitalism was restored in those countries. Prostitution and trafficking are associated with businesses like drug trafficking and arms smuggling.
The report adds another terrifying information about organs trafficking:”Studies on the topic have highlighted that “tourism” for organ transplants has expanded, again facilitated by the development of international travel. People from high-income countries travel to poor areas where people will sell their organs as a survival strategy. Existing research has highlighted that the most vulnerable members of the population are particularly affected by this crime.” The most vulnerable members of the population are children, women, young – who belong to the working class and its reserve army of labor – the unemployed and the poorest popular sectors, who live in the outskirts of large cities, among whom there is also the black population.
I have dwelt on reports from government agencies and the figures acknowledged by themselves to show that we are not exaggerating when we denounce this stark reality. Capitalism, which was founded on the ideals of the French Revolution that proclaimed “freedom, justice and fraternity” has shown and continues to show that only to the victors, that is, the world bourgeoisie could enjoy these achievements, that the imperialist stage of development leaves no stone unturned to keep rising rates of profit. The expression “slaves of capital” has a much wider use in present days, because it’s not applied only in this field of sexual exploitation, but also in important areas of the world, many branches of social production are adopting real forms of slavery, with maquilas and the famous factory ships offshore. The capitalist society is resourcing to increasing forms of barbarism; we could include the disasters caused by global warming and the images of immigrants arriving by the thousands to European countries and treated as outlaws. Many of them are women and many will be forced into prostitution.
Women as sex objects
Prostitution confirms daily and at every moment that women are turned into a commodity to be consumed by men to satisfy their sexual desires. No matter her age. Now, LGBTs are thrown into prostitution due to homophobia that discriminates them in the workplace and in society. Just another oppressed sector that share the same fate of many women. But what a coincidence! In all these crimes, be they related to prostitution, to pedophilia, to rape, to Internet pornography or its use, to trafficking networks, men are behind almost 100% of them. What does this so perverse and aggressive obsession toward sex mean?
Based on “scientific studies”, some argue that men and women have different “natural” differences regarding sexual desires. Thus, male desire would be stronger, unstoppable, difficult to tame or, crudely, “full of unleashed, unbridled testosterone.” Beyond the serious studies of some sexologists, we find the explanations in the social or cultural spheres.
One of the most used branches of production nowadays is the advertising and marketing business, fitted to fully develop the “free” movement of commodities, to use people’s needs and creating new ones, based on images, language and its subjective effects on consciousness, that means, to influence or create the social imaginary. But this imaginary, a prejudice previously powered by an objective basis, is pushed to the limit by the mass media to expand the needs created by a capitalism immersed in an overproduction crisis, seeking a desperate way out in the increased flow of goods with an ever shorter life.
So, the image of women as sex objects – as a commodity – acquires more power, used to promote the sale of other commodities. It is generally a beautiful young woman who appears naked or scantily clad, or dressed in a suggestive way. The desired effect is to draw the attention of men through erotic images. Be it to promote the sale of a car or a perfume, this woman, who is beyond the reach of most men, becomes part of their imaginary, by the power and magic of subliminal message: by purchasing the advertised product by her, you can have her too. The woman also serves as a symbol for the male success, as a trophy. According to this society’s sexist culture, any man worth his salt will have at his side a beautiful woman of great distinction, an outward sign of his “wealth”. So, the woman becomes one of the man’s property, who uses her to show his social position and his virility.
This real burst of images hitting every minute, every moment, the minds of consumers, with the clear aim of reinforcing the sexist culture, to legitimize it, is at the basis of what is called “crime of passion,” femicide; in fact, violence unleashed by the idea that “if this woman is not for me, she’s not for anyone else,” a justification printed on the chronicles of the tabloid newspapers around the world, with this or another common argument as “the blinded rage of his wife’s infidelity.” Street rape, verbal or psychological aggressions, reckless and lewd looks, all this so common and daily violence is based on reinforcing the concept of women as sex objects.
The other side is the housewife symbol. In advertising, a woman dressed in her apron, promoting a product for toilet or kitchen, or kid’s meal appears. All products are associated with her role as a home slave, lady of the house, mother. She decides what to do in this space while the man appears as the provider. She’s also a worker, a modern woman who, after taking advantage of the products offered by the market to “relieve” her housework, runs off to her job. She is an “empowered” woman, a warrior who does everything is needed in a home or work and must also look beautiful and in good shape. And these same ideas are repeated infinitely in books, in magazines, on the news, in movies, songs or education. Is the reproduction of the dominant ideas imposed by the ruling class by force of habit.
Legalization or abolition?
“In the world there are four approaches to treating prostitution. The prohibitionist, based on the penal repression by the State, where the client is the victim and the intention is the safeguard of moral; the regulationist, which seeks to regulate it instead of combating prostitution; abolitionist, taking criminal action against pimps and customers; and legalistic approach, in which prostitution is valued as a job.” (Magazine Semana, Colombia 2015/08/18).
The background for that article was the global meeting of representatives of Amnesty International, which called for the full decriminalization of prostitution when performed with “consent.” These are actually the four approaches that capitalist states are using to address the issue of prostitution. It is worth clarifying that they are all bourgeois policies.
Many of the NGOs that abound in different countries have adopted the “legalistic” approach, in which prostitution is valued as a “profession”, arguing from a humanistic position of defending human rights, of respect for social rights of those who practice it and against the criminalization of its victims.
It’s worth mentioning here that the equally bourgeois point of view of considering “clients” as victims of the “temptation” that some “immoral women” cause on them deserves our condemnation, for they are the purest expression of double standards that penalizes and persecutes victims created and recreated by this very system. It is similar to the poor man that steal a chicken to feed their children and is sentenced to long years in prison while the white collar thieves who plunder the coffers of the public treasury are given their mansions as a jail.
Surely, we also agreed that all women, without exception, have the right to social security and health care, funded and provided by the state, without any kind of discrimination. We advocate that women engaged in prostitution receive training to work and have jobs guaranteed by the state. If they organize themselves to this goal, we will give them our full support. And we will defend them from any kind of repression and mistreatment by the state.
But, in addition, we are totally opposed to the legalization of prostitution or any other bourgeois policy to regulate it. We advocate an end to prostitution and all forms of commodification of the female body. The Amnesty International’s policy of legalizing prostitution for those who exercise it “under consent” and punishing trafficking in persons is a mistake.
It is not true that there is consent of the women engaged in prostitution. Although, in some cases prostitution may be the result of a personal decision, its practice is carried out based on the lack of alternatives, forced by joblessness and social conditions of existence. Does this policy eliminate the existence of pimps or will simply change their name, and they will be called, respectfully, “entrepreneurs”? Will it prevent violence and mistreatment by “clients” against women? It is not true that in the logic of the market the one who buys a commodity has the right to “consume” it the way he wishes to?
Not only many of the NGOs but also left political organizations defend the legalization of prostitution arguing, for example, that there are women in prostitution by choice and with full awareness of their sexual freedom. It may be that there is a minority of women in prostitution by choice and even bourgeois women do it for the thrill of adventure, to escape their useless life, putting some adrenaline to the legal prostitution they are submitted in their marriage of convenience. But that has nothing to do with the massive prostitution that exists in society. Prostitution is closely linked to the exploitation of man by man; that is, in our time, to capitalist exploitation and human destruction it produces.
We have an irrefutable evidence in Cuba: one of the greatest achievements of the revolution, together with the expropriation of the bourgeoisie, was the end of prostitution, not by suppressing women, but through re-education and giving women opportunities in the social production, thus allowing them to regain dignity. The restoration of capitalism on the Island also brought prostitution back and the  “jineteras” became one of the biggest attractions of social tourism that has proliferated in Cuba.
What’s more, these same organizations, using the Marxist theory of production of goods, argue: it is a job like any other, where the woman sells her workforce in the market and produces surplus value for her boss. The problem is that women who are forced into prostitution, sell not only their workforce, they sell their bodies, their dignity. Therefore, it resembles much more the selling of women during slavery. And we are totally against legalizing and regulating slavery, which only benefits the slaver.
Researches in some European countries, where prostitution was legalized, showed that the main beneficiaries of this policy are the sex “entrepreneurs” while the number of women and children in prostitution increased. It resulted in an increase in collected tax, fattening the state coffers. The remedy is worse than the disease.
Sweden made a drastic decision and changed its legislation in 1999, passing the Sex Purchase Act, by which prostitution is decriminalized. Prostitution is now regarded as an aspect of male violence against women and children. It is recognized as a form of exploitation of women, and as a significant social problem. It criminalizes the purchase of sexual services, but decriminalizes the sale of such services and, more recently, approved resources to help women who want to leave prostitution, planning their entry in the labor market. The result is that prostitution rates have decreased significantly and trafficking in women and girls has almost disappeared.
This experience, in a capitalist country, shows that progress is possible in this regard and that the struggle for democratic demands, for example, the right to legal and free abortion, the right to equal pay for women, should be strongly demanded by the workers as a whole. It’s not enough to lower the rate of prostitution, it must be completely eliminated. That will be possible in a society in which the means of production are not in the hands of a few but of the whole society, in which women participate fully in social production; as Marx posed in the Communist Manifesto: “it is self-evident that the abolition of the present system of production must bring with it the abolition of the community of women springing from that system, i.e., of prostitution both public and private.”
We stand for a society completely different from the capitalist one, a socialist society in which human relations, including relations between different gender, are based on other moral, the moral of solidarity and of common good, truly free from bourgeois economic constraints, free from every kind of oppression and submission, free of commercialization and commodification, in which any kind of exchange, “moral or physical” is not subject to the miserable law of value of the capitalist system.
[1] – https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/xx/stalinism.htm
[2] – https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1884/origin-family/ch02d.htm
[3] – http://marxists.catbull.com/archive/marx/works/1847/poverty-philosophy/ch01.htm
[4] – http://marxists.catbull.com/archive/marx/works/1845/condition-working-class/ch07.htm

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