Liberal Feminism

     In liberal feminism, prostitution is conceived of in the contractrarian sense of being a private business transaction. Radical feminists, on the other hand, view a prostitute as a human being who has been reduced to a piece of merchandise. The liberal contends that a woman is free to enter into contracts. However, the radical feminist does not believe that a prostitute’s desire to enter into such a “contract” is done of her own free will. The radical feminist usually sees prostitution as an exploitative relationship in which the customer is interested only in the prostitute’s services and not her personally. But the liberal responds to this by pointing out that when one seeks out a professional such as a doctor, lawyer, plumber, or mechanic, one is not centrally concerned in the person doing the professional work—only his or her services.23
Since variations in educational level and experience will define how much freedom a person has to make their own decisions, the radical feminist argument that prostitutes are victims is overstated. The Marxist feminist response to the liberal position is that prostitution represents a corruption of wage labor, and is therefore degrading and oppressive. But Carol Pateman in The Sexual Contract goes to some length to show that the prostitute is not really a wage laborer but rather an independent contractor who has it within her means to start or stop a transaction. Her contract is with a male customer and not an employer.24 In this respect, the liberal position’s defense of the contractual work agreement makes sense.

      Liberal feminists believe that personal “rights” should predominate over concerns for the social good. This political view goes back to the early feminism of John Stuart Mill, who believed that government should stay out of the private affairs of its citizens.25 The oppression liberal feminists identify involves the injustices fostered by gender roles which favor men over women. The liberal feminist wants to free women from oppressive gender roles. This focus bears a similarity to the existentialist position which seeks equality of rights and freedoms between women and men. But just because liberal feminists tend to see the choice of prostitution as an inherent political right does not necessarily mean that they all approve of prostitution in a moral sense.

      While the liberal feminists’ view may be “supportive,” there are, within the ranks of prostitutes themselves, people who object strongly to the ideals of the liberals. Their ideas tend to value the radical feminist position, not the liberal feminist one. To women in WHISPER (Women Hurt In Systems of Prostitution), harsh experiences in prostitution separate them from liberals. Members of WHISPER are commonly in contact with women who have been terrorized, traumatized, bruised, and beaten in prostitution. This experience leads women to conclude that the liberal position is wrong since it accepts a social system in which women can be exploited and harmed. And, there is little doubt that WHISPER does see the harm that has been done.

     WHISPER and COYOTE SF (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), are two prostitute organizations that hold widely divergent views on the issue of harm and degradation attributable to their profession. Some of the divergence in experience can be explained in terms of the nine categories of prostitution referred to earlier. In these categories the danger to the individual prostitute varies widely between the first four categories and the last five. Women in WHISPER may not have the same background or political skills those in COYOTE have. In both cases, prostitutes are led by their experiences to believe that prostitution is either very dangerous and degrading, or relatively safe. One would not claim that WHISPER members have not experienced prostitution the way they describe it, nor would one deny that members of COYOTE have experienced prostitution the way they describe it. WHISPER is generally more involved with the experiences of women of color, and very poor white women, many of whom have had fewer educational advantages than COYOTE women. In addition, many of WHISPER’s members may have additional hurdles to overcome that are rarely encountered in COYOTE. For those with limited political skills, inspiring spirited cooperation from advocacy agencies26 which only marginally understand their lives or their culture is a major hurdle. It takes considerable political skill and organization to succeed in obtaining advocacy. The liberal position does not include any safety net for prostitutes who might experience difficulties in prostitution which that same liberal policy towards prostitutes engenders. Liberals sometimes seem to want to “get off the hook” of responsibility for what prostitution does to some women by claiming that they do not promote prostitution, but merely view it as an inherent right of choice.
WHISPER describes prostitution in such terms as “disgusting, abusive, and like rape,”27 sentiments that seem quite the opposite of those expressed in COYOTE. WHISPER probably represents a much broader view of prostitution, finding its analog among prostitutes in underdeveloped countries where educational levels are lowest and advocacy agencies are few. But COYOTE is a necessary ally for all prostitutes. While members may not have experienced the same harshness and brutality in prostitution that members of WHISPER have, it is within the power of their more politically influential members to gradually influence change in the world towards improving the quality of life of all prostitutes. At the same time, the liberal approach has the capacity to encompass the arguments of WHISPER. Given enough time to understand the complexities of all forms and “levels” of prostitution, they are in a good position to work towards realistic solutions to the problems involved.


23. Applications of Feminist Legal Theory to Women’s Lives, p. 211. The relationship between the public and professionals is that both treat each other for their own ends. The client needs sex and the prostitute needs money. Experienced men and experienced prostitutes sometimes share a rapport
that goes unnoticed by any research.
24. Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1995), p. 202.
25. Applications of Feminist Legal Theory to Women’s Lives, p. 189.
26. Stevi Jackson and Sue Scott, eds., Feminism and Sexuality: A Reader (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), p. 70.
27. Evelina Giobbe in The Sexual Liberals and the Attack on Feminism.,

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Liberal Feminism

Marxist Feminism

Socialist Feminism

Moral Considerations

Theoretical View of the Degrading
Nature of Prostitution

Figurative, Not Actual Degradation