Margaret A. Baldwin
Prostitution and feminist politics*
Feminist activists confront profound challenges in crafting feminist strategies against prostitution, and for prostituted women. Those challenges require putting into action the greatest and most demanding strengths of feminism: forging connections among women, confronting the political meaning of our silences, and refusing to abandon any woman by the side of the road. A feminist political approach to prostitution must begin from these strengths, and be tested against the standards set by them. How can we use these strengths to guide our vision of resistance to prostitution? How can we translate these strengths into concrete action? This paper attempts some modest answers to these large questions.
In feminism, we are committed to promoting solidarity among all women. We do this based on the belief that our experiences as women are linked, and our destinies shared. Yet the divide between 'prostitute' and 'non-prostitute' is thought to describe something meaningful and real, no less in feminist advocacy than in society at large. We assume an antithesis, or at least a difference, between prostituted women and 'other women'. We should know to be cautious about these kinds of assumptions. The history of women's oppression is likewise a tale of fine distinctions made among us: who deserved it, who asked for it, who is made for it, and so on. The history of feminism is, in turn, the history of our resistance to those distinctions. So we need to ask carefully whether, and how, the division between 'prostitutes' and 'other women' has a place in feminist politics. Is prostitution something distinct in the experience of women? Or is prostitution but another example of the many practices of sexual subordination—like rape, incest, sexual harassment, and pornography— that are challenged by feminism?
To many of us this may seem a very abstract discussion, lying somewhere between 'so what?' and 'who cares?' That men hurt, despise, and exploit
* This article is an edited version of an article that appeared originally in the Michigan
Journal of Gender and the Law 65 (1993). I thank Lily McCarty for editing assistance,
and Pearl Seafield, Jonquil Livingston, and Mike Cunningham for technical support.