The objectification of a person means the conversion of that person into an object. Extreme cases spring to mind easily: slavery is one, in which human beings are bought and sold like any other form of property. Cannibalism of certain kinds (not, for example, ritual funeral cannibalism) is another, and rightly horrifies us: we would not like to be regarded dispassionately as someone else's lunch. Objects can be consumed, and for a human being, being consumed means spiritual or physical death.
Certainly nothing more accurately expresses the chattel or object position of women in male supremacy than the twin mechanism of marriage and prostitution. It's been said that traditional marriage, as legally defined, differs from prostitution only in that one is a sale and the other a rental. That which is sold or rented is an object. Certainly some have argued that a woman has a marginally better chance at autonomy as a whore than as a wife (though most of these arguments conveniently ignore the institution of pimping). Too seldom is the argument forcefully made that women's choices are meaningless if limited to these two alternatives. Whether sold or rented, women remain (as Levi-Strauss pointed out long ago) the currency of transactions between men.
And yet (no matter how much we know about objectification) prostitution and the sex industry in general are nowadays hyped as inherently progressive. Because the American Right makes a traditional - and bogus - show of opposition to immorality, millions of wannabe radicals leap to the easy conclusion (in which they are naturally encouraged by the sex-capitalists): being consumers for the sex trade is somehow revolutionary or subversive.
For gays and lesbians, long associated in the public mind (since the writings of the ancient Greeks, at least) with the sexual underworld, the sex trade is now being sold as a community . There are academics among us (well-paid, in no danger of resorting to prostitution for grocery money) now proposing a politics of deviance which should embrace all queers, prostitutes, pornographers, pimps, fetishists, transsexuals, bestialists, sadists, masochists, and perhaps even paedophiles in one community of queerness, united in resistance to straight middle-class values.
Ironically, this only confirms the most traditional bourgeois stereotypes of what homosexuality is about. The bourgeois have always believed that gay men and lesbians lead sordid lives as paid companions and prostitutes (after all, queer sex is so disgusting that no one would possibly do it without pay!) Gay sex, like other kinds of kinkiness, is then merely another flavour in the sexual marketplace where straight men shop. Or, correspondingly, gayness is a sign of depravity and therefore belongs with the violence, coercion, double-dealing and general ugliness of the sex trade. Attempts to reclaim epithets like slut and whore and to propose bad-girl-ism and prostitution as a revolutionary feminist path would make me laugh, if they were not so essentially tragic.
It's difficult to imagine what might be considered deviant about the sex trade, known as the oldest profession (though this is inaccurately applied to prostitution, when it should be applied to pimping). No one can dispute its antiquity. From the beginning of written history, what we call civilisation, men have bought, sold, and rented women, girls, and boys for sexual entertainment. Those who propose a politics of deviance or a community of queerness conveniently overlook the fact that large sections of that community, as they define it, constitute a service industry patronised by those same respectable middle-class males whose values they claim to despise and reject.
Yes, the same respectable men who preach about family values have always known where to go for a night out with the boys; they would be completely at a loss if the sexual underworld vanished overnight. Even if their only contact with it is a few tattered porn magazines hidden in the garage, they rely on its existence, on the knowledge that somewhere, if they choose, they can go and find someone who needs a few bucks enough to give them a blow job.
This attempt to invent a politics of deviance also misses a beat in its happy assumption that all the standards and beliefs of the bourgeoisie are false, and that anything which contravenes them must therefore be good. (If the bourgeoisie think suicide is a crime against the Lord, then obviously we should all go out and kill ourselves right now. That'll show them!)
People fall into this trap constantl - not just feminists and queers - when they become unable to realise that the opposition may actually be right about one or two things. Too often we end up demonstrating our purity and righteousness by refusing to agree with Them about anything at all, no matter how ridiculous this makes us. Certainly this is the tactic used over and over again by the sex-capitalists in their own defence: Jesse Helms hates pornography; you hate pornography; therefore you are (or at least you like) Jesse Helms.
The attitude we take to the sex trade is relevant to other points of dispute among lesbians and feminists. The struggle over lesbian sm and pornography has been described as differences around commercial sex, which may in fact be quite accurate. It may be that what we disagree about most fundamentally is the commercialisation of sex, about the basic premise, about whether it is right or wrong to rent human beings for sexual use, or to use women's bodies as a commercial resource; and by extension, whether it is right or wrong to objectify each other in our private dealings.
Some women argue that prostitution cannot and must not be considered different from any other line of low-paid, sometimes demeaning, sometimes dangerous work: sharecropping, for example, or waiting on tables. It's not the best job, they say, but surely it's no worse than the assembly line or the fast food kitchen. I have been stumped by this objection for a long time, but I believe there is something about prostitution which makes it different from, and more questionable or unacceptable than, other kinds of work.
First there is the fact that the overwhelming majority of customers of the sex trade are male and adult, and that its workers are women and children. This is not merely a byproduct of capitalism, but has to do with the nature of male sexuality and fantasy. Although, as one rather whiny essayist has recently pointed out, there are more homeless men than women and fewer social services and supports aimed at helping homeless men, nevertheless there are not large influxes of homeless adult males into the prostitution trade.
There are other trades in which the vast majority of workers are female, mostly the textile and food-packing industries and the service sector of receptionists, manicurists, waitresses, and so forth. It strikes me as very significant that the service sector is disproportionately populated by women workers. Smiling, soothing, and kissing ass have traditionally been women's work and still are; long after the equivalent white-folks' fantasy of the subservient black male has become socially uncomfortable and embarrassing, it is still normal and reasonable for women to be required to smile and cajole while on the job.
Most of us consider this component of ass-kissing, placation, subjugation of our pride or temper when outraged, as an unwelcome extra part of our jobs, to be endured with gritted teeth and much bitter wit shared with co-ranking co-workers when the more powerful are out of hearing. Now consider the prostitute. All these things we have just described as annoying extra stress in the average job are her job. And she is expected to do a lot more than smile and say, Thank you for shopping at Safeway.
The prostitute is not really paid for not running away, for passively submitting to being fucked. She is expected to provide active sexual service to the client on demand. She is further expected to provide make-believe at various levels: to pretend that she enjoys it, that he is physically impressive and a good lover, that she finds him attractive; depending on her rank and place in the sex industry she may be required to pretend to be somebody in particular, to act out some simple or complex scenario of the client's choice.
The fact is that her job is about lying, and lying at the most intimate level. The more intimate the lie, the more it costs the liar; and this cost, like so many others in our economy, is concealed. Men often describe pretty women as being endowed by Nature with an inexhaustible source of pure profit, as if there were no cost at all to be borne in selling one's body and one's lies.
There is another side to this situation, which is that intelligent slaves despise their masters. Anyone who survives by manipulation and deceit cannot help but develop a certain contempt for the person who is so easily manipulated and deceived. This aspect of the man/whore relationship is often highlighted as proof that the woman really has the power in the arrangement, that men are merely helpless dupes of their own biology, which is exploited by mercenary and street-smart females. (In this mythology, note that once again the pimp has vanished from the picture.)
It doesn't really matter if the richest man in the world is stupid. The fact remains that he and other members of the Old Boys' Club have material power over my life and other people's lives, which we do not have over theirs . The fact that a pretty girl in a short skirt may be able to talk her way into a good job with a rather dim and egotistical male employer does not change the situation: he is the boss, he can fire her.
The fact that a hooker is clever enough to interpret and manipulate a client's fantasies and obsessions does not for one minute obscure the facts: he has the money and she needs it. Manipulation and deceit are the survival tools of the powerless; they would not need them so much if they had real, genuine, power.
I think we are generally right in our intuitive perception that slavish submission and catering to the egos of those in power are not good for us, and are a distasteful blight upon the already-complicated relations of power in a workplace. So I think there is good reason to conclude that prostitution lies at the extreme worst end of a long continuum of jobs; at the other extreme we find those lucky people who are expected only to supply their skill or strength to the work in hand, and are not used as some kind of emotional puppets by those who employ them.
This is one simple reason for feminists to strive for general progressive goals like social justice, unemployment insurance, and full employment programs; without a job, food, or shelter, any woman or child (you or I, dear reader) is a potential prostitute. Frightened and hungry people have difficulty exercising little luxuries like choice and dignity in a free country. Servitude, no matter how objectionable, is generally preferred to death; few of us would nobly freeze or starve to death on the street rather than buy food and shelter with anything or everything we had.
I am willing to say that in a fully-employed, fully-enfranchised, and fully-fed world, where male violence was strictly curbed and punished, a nation of healthy and fearless women, youths, and children would provide very few prostitutes. The industry would die for lack of labour. May we not also say that€since the one runs on the other€those who defend and praise the sex trade are defending and praising the poverty and fear that keep it alive?