November 18, 2011

Feminist legal scholar argues against prostitution

Legal scholar and feminist Catharine MacKinnon discussed misconceptions surrounding female prostitution and delivered a public lecture at the Law School on Monday afternoon.

In her talk, entitled “Trafficking, Prostitution, and Inequality,” the University of Michigan Law School professor spoke on issues raised in her widely cited book Are Women Human? And Other International Dialogues, specifically those concerning prostitution and women’s rights.

MacKinnon described two common ideas about prostitution: that of “sex work” and of “sex trafficking.”

Although some say sex work allows for agency and sexual liberation for women, MacKinnon argued that nearly all forms of prostitution are actually sex trafficking. Prostitution is little more than a form of serial rape, MacKinnon said, and more than 89 percent of prostitutes want to leave “the life,” but don’t know how.

“No one fights to be a prostitute against all odds,” MacKinnon said. “She becomes a prostitute when the odds beat her.”

Throughout her field work on the streets of Calcutta, MacKinnon said she encountered many women—at an average age of 10—forced into brothels on the basis of their low social status, which she called “survival sex.”

“I was walking down a street in Calcutta lined with 13-year-old girls selling themselves, when I saw a six-year-old girl with her legs spread apart,” she said. “Tell me—when did she choose this life?”

We need to remove the stigma placed on prostitutes, MacKinnon said and place it instead on those who control them. Prostitutes, she said, are “guilty of the crime of being forced.”

MacKinnon, who helped coin the term “sexual harassment” and identified it as a form of sex discrimination, took to U.S. federal court to represent Bosnian women who endured Serbian sexual atrocities. That case, Kadic vs. Karadzic, was the first decision to recognize rape as an act of genocide.

In 1999, Sweden adopted legislation that MacKinnon helped shape, which actively criminalizes clients and third-party sex-traffickers instead of prostitutes. Sweden now has the lowest rate of sex crimes in Europe, MacKinnon said.

“If you can’t imagine a world without prostitution, rest assured that the women themselves have no such trouble. They see ahead of them real love, dignity, and hope,” she said.

The event was part of the Classics in Feminist Theory series, and was sponsored by the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality and the University of Chicago Law School.