Just like with the resignification of meaning, invoking consent is a marvelous way of washing your hands. To put it into simple terms, it is the famous tactic of shifting responsibility and blaming the victim. Consent is a concept that, while seemingly in alliance, is more often detrimental to women’s rights.
First of all, because consent is subjective and ideological, when abuse is real and material. How important is consent in a situation of human rights violations? How important is it that a person consented to work in situations analogous to slave labor because it is their only choice? How important is it that a person consented to remain in a relationship while suffering daily domestic violence because it is the only way to secure shelter?
When people tell me that they don’t see or recognize a problem with prostitution when it occurs between “two consenting people”, I die a little on the inside. To begin with because, as a woman, I know that consent is important in sex, but it is not enough. Furthermore, because by revamping it as “sex work” and talking about “consent”, we are assuming that consent can be marketed – which seems incongruent, to say the least.
To consent is not to desire. To consent is not to want. And women consent, especially in sex, for reasons often foreign to their own – because we live in a patriarchal society that tells us that pleasing men is the best thing you can do with your life, that getting married is the peak of success, that a woman must be “a lady in the street but a freak in the bed” and always be up for it. She must always be up for it, even if she does not say it in her own words. Even if her words say otherwise. That her “no” is a “yes”, that her clothes ask for it and that the more violent it is, the more pleasure she feels.
Jurist Catherine MacKinnon, a precursor in law against sexual harassment in the workplace in the United States, is one of the prominent figures in the debate over consent and prostitution. As the author and jurist said during a conference, sex in prostitution isn’t “just sex”. It is “you’ll do what I want”, “you’ll do as I say”. It’s the buyer’s sex. It’s not dictated by freedom, nor mutual desire, but by a power relationship marked by money – in which one has means of payment and the other requires that payment to live. A situation that necessarily involves a human being’s commodification, a violation of sovereignty over their own body.
It seems to me that the habit of victim blaming leads us to look incorrectly at the prostitution problematic, and always seek blame or guilt in women – such as when judge Neto de Moura attenuated a man’s sentence for beating a woman with a nailed bludgeon because she was “adulterous”, or the female judge who asked a rape victim if she had tried to “close her legs”.
In that sense, to question if the prostituted person consents to losing rights in order to say if it should be legal or not is another extension of rape culture and blaming the victim. With or without consent, with or without payment, the ultimate question should be: is it acceptable or not to rape human rights?
The fallacy of choice
Once again, it is interesting to realize that diverse sectors of the Left opt for arguing in liberal terms regarding this question. The movement of materialism and structural analysis resorts to, without thinking twice, the argument of “individual choice” when it comes to prostitution.
First of all, arguing for a supposed “pro-choice positioning” is here directly related to the whitewashing that frames the debate, directing and pre-conditioning the spectator / reader / listener’s understanding. This is because talking about choice immediately associates anyone against that positioning with being “anti-choice”. Just like what pro-life conservatives do regarding feminists when the subject is abortion: they call themselves pro-life and, consequently, the other side becomes “anti”, “against”, invoking the image of murder, homicide and death, framing the debate.
We don’t ignore that some people may, in fact, choose prostitution. But that is not the important point. More important than knowing it might be a choice, is to know what leads, fosters and conditions that choice. Who makes that choice. Why make that choice. In what conditions is that choice made.
It is interesting, to say the least, the way prostitution is mostly chosen by women. In particular, in the vast majority of cases, by economically vulnerable women. There is an insistence in centering the debate on “luxury escort” women, who are in college or already graduated, who freely “chose” to prostitute themselves. It is the same argument of the pauper who got rich in capitalism, even if he is but one out of the billion poor and exploited who will never even know secure housing.
Using the image of the “luxury prostitute”, the one who makes in a single night what a call center or restaurant worker makes in a month, is a common argument to claim sex work is a conscious choice motivated by money, but one which immediately denounces the economic oppression inherent to the situation. In a society in which women don’t even receive equal pay for equal labor, in which they are still a minority in top positions, in which they are still fired for getting pregnant or become a second or third choice if they are mothers, it is significant that the only way a woman can get enough money to live in reasonable conditions, is by serving men sexually.
Furthermore, it is worth remembering an indispensable passage by feminist author Andrea Dworkin about the false distinction between luxury prostitution and “vulgar” prostitution:
(…) from the perspective of a woman in prostitution or a woman who has been in prostitution – the distinctions other people make between whether the event took place in the Plaza Hotel or somewhere more inelegant are not the distinctions that matter. These are irreconcilable perceptions, with irreconcilable premises. Of course the circumstances must matter, you say. No, they do not, because we are talking about the use of the mouth, the vagina, and the rectum. The circumstances don’t mitigate or modify what prostitution is.
– Andrea Dworkin, in “Prostitution and Male Supremacy”
How does this differ from rape?
Above all, what is the difference between this “Left” and “consent” liberalism when it comes to producing surplus value for those who exploit us, to the “choice” to submit in order to get housing and food, to the violation of human rights that becomes legitimized by a financial transaction, to the meritocracy of the one in a billion who won “despite the inequality”, to the commodification of life?
Aline Rossi writes in Portuguese at the blog Feminismo com Classe, where she also publishes translated feminist texts from all over the world at a prolific pace.