Theoretical View of the Degrading
Nature of Prostitution

      Radical feminism opposes prostitution ostensibly because it degrades all women. There are at least three approaches to viewing degradation. First, when radical feminists talk about degradation, they are discussing it in terms of an activity that affirms and sustains the male power dynamic, which in turn dominates and oppresses non-prostitute women as well. Second, feminists are sometimes speaking of degradation in Marxist terms where “Prostitution, like wage labor, degrades the actor.”17 Third, if a woman behaves in a manner that fits the stereotype of what men commonly perceive as a whore, she is degraded by that association. Certain actions and style of dress lead people to certain other expectations about what that person is saying about themselves. The idea of degradation, therefore, derives from not being fully aware of how one is perceived in the world by association with certain behaviors.

      In the first instance, the idea of sexual empowerment asserts the notion that the value of equality between the sexes is the cardinal value in a hierarchy of values that guide human evolution and human behavior. But competing with this view is the likely fact that survival of the individual, and the species as a whole, is the cardinal value in a hierarchy of values that profoundly affect human behavior and determine the context of morality. As the human species has evolved, raw survival is no longer the primary issue. At this point, in order for civilization to grow and remain secure, it must theoretically acknowledge both genders as equals. Without this recognition, society will be deprived of an essential social spirit and fair play sufficient for the evolution of a better world. The survival of a culture can also be viewed in terms of a function of harmony producing the greatest social gains and economic efficiency. But oppression as an issue does not replace the fundamental importance of survival as the cardinal value that ultimately determines the evolution or extinction of humankind.
In the second instance, there is a Marxist perspective that tends to seep into feminist thinking, promoting the idea that even ordinary wage labor is degrading. In Barry’s writing it is unclear as to how much of her conceptualization is grounded in Marxism. The application of Marxism to political process never demonstrated itself as a viable approach to the governance of people, so why apply it to prostitution in this case?

     Third, prostitutes and their clients also have a world view about the degrading nature of prostitution. Exploiting sexuality is not uncommon, and it is not always men who are exploitative. Men could probably cite numerous instances of exploitation by women who have used their sexual prowess to exploit them for favors, money, or promotions. In a very abstract way, it could be said, the power of human sexuality—which is the source of its perpetuation—is the power of the species, and in this light anyone caught in its power can be vulnerable to making immature and unwise judgments that result in the corruption of the conscience. Barry’s arguments focus only on sexual power operating at the social level, not at the genetic or biological level of action. If the cause of what she observes is biological or genetic, how can she hope to resolve the issue without addressing principles of biology?18 If Theodosius Dobzhansky is correct, culture is an “instrument of (biological) adaption.”19 Biological survival is a systemic process that appears to extend itself into the governing principles of societies it ultimately creates. The precise reasons why men oppress or appear to oppress, therefore, likely address higher considerations of adaptation and survival found in biology.


17. Applications of Feminist Legal Theory To Women’s Lives, p. 192.
18. In The Prostitution of Sexuality, Morris Berman is credited with pointing out “that cultural history is embedded in our bodies,” p. 346 This likely is a reference to genetics, thus the entire problem of oppression is likely to be governed by factors existing on a larger scale.