Women's oppression and prostitution: a Marxist perspective

Some feminists argue that the term and notion of ‘prostitution’ should be abandoned and replaced by that of ‘sex work’. In other words, prostitution should be treated as any other form of work and recognised as such. According to the feminist activist Morgane Merteuil (among others), prostitution would even be a tool in the fight against capitalism and for the emancipation of women. In this article, we intend to respond to these ideas from a Marxist point of view.

The origins of prostitution 

While male prostitution does exist, overwhelmingly it involves women. Prostitution is one of the component parts of the oppression that women suffer – and have always suffered – in class societies. In order to analyse prostitution in concrete terms today, it is therefore useful to look back at the origins and historical development of women's oppression, in order to show the organic link between this oppression and the origins of prostitution.

Contrary to popular belief, the oppression of women has not always existed. It arose in conjunction with the appearance of class exploitation – which also did not always exist. Friedrich Engels (Marx’s great friend and comrade) traced the development of oppression with class society in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), which has been confirmed by the research of archaeologists and anthropologists for over a century.

For tens of thousands of years, men and women lived in relatively egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies. In these societies, there was no private property, no social classes, no state and no oppression of women; hence Engels described these societies as ‘primitive communism’. Certainly, there was a division of labour between men and women, arising out of the needs of pregnancy and breastfeeding. Hunting tended to be a male activity, while women were responsible for gathering and maintaining the household, which was then a collective task. However, this ‘sexual division of labour’ did not imply the oppression of one sex by another. Women participated in collective work, and gathering played a major role in feeding the group. Today, there is archaeological evidence that women were also involved in the production of rock art, a task that all historians recognise as very important in these societies. Moreover, any coercion or power imbalance in the sexual division of labour was not strict. Some women were involved in hunting and some men in gathering or maintaining the household.

In terms of love and sexual relationships, these societies were marked by relative freedom and equality of the sexes. Monogamous families and marriages did not yet exist; they were preceded by various forms of ‘group’ marriage. Under these conditions, lineages were based on matrilineal descent, as this was the only lineage known with certainty. This had consequences for the transmission of property. Although the kind of private property that would develop in class societies did not exist, a hunter nevertheless owned their weapons, an artisan their tools, etc., and they bequeathed them to their mother’s family.

Hunter gatherers Image public domainHunting tended to be a male activity, while women were responsible for gathering and maintaining the household / Image: public domain

That said, these societies should not be idealised. This ‘communism’ was first and foremost dictated by an implacable necessity. The very low level of the productivity of labour and the absence of any surplus made these groups extremely vulnerable; this made solidarity and equality absolutely imperative for survival.

This situation changed dramatically with the Neolithic period, some ten thousand years ago. With animal cultivation, followed by agriculture, communities were able to produce a surplus of food, which could be stored or traded with other communities. Trade began to develop. This raised the question of ownership of these new resources – which could become commodities – and the means of producing them. Private ownership of land and livestock emerged, along with slavery and social inequality. The first class societies were born.

Since agriculture and animal husbandry were primarily male-dominated activities, men now had a huge advantage: it was their labour that brought in the majority of the products needed by the community – and almost all of what could be exchanged as commodities. This development led to an upheaval in family relations, which Engels described as the “world historical defeat of the female sex”. With control over economic resources, the richest men wanted to pass them on to their children – no longer to their mother’s families. In turn, matrilineal descent was replaced by patrilineal descent. In order to ensure that the children were those of their official father, monogamy was imposed on women (and women only).

From being a place of collective work, the domestic home became a private domain and a prison for wives. Women were driven out of social production, confined to the role of mothers and domestic (and sexual) slaves. They were reduced to commodities: they could be sold as slaves by their husbands or fathers. Their families could give them away or sell them as wives without consulting them. It was at this point that prostitution began to emerge. Removed from the productive sphere, women from the poorest social classes were forced, in order to survive, to sell the only commodity they had: their bodies. Moreover, as Engels pointed out, while women’s coerced monogamy was strictly enforced, prostitution was one of the means by which male polygamy was de facto maintained.

In the West, history has seen a succession of slave societies in antiquity, followed by feudalism, and finally capitalism – without eliminating the oppression of women. Prostitution also endured because it was organically linked to family structures. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the hypocritical condemnation of prostitution by the Church did not make it disappear. In fact, the popes and cardinals of Rome or Avignon were among the best clients of prostitutes, when they were not acting as pimps themselves. In all societies based on class exploitation, women have been oppressed, and prostitution was therefore one form of this oppression.

Oppression and capitalism

Capitalism introduced a major change in the situation of women. In 19th century Europe, the need for labour for flourishing industry took some of the poorest women out of the domestic sphere and into social production. As an integral part of the working class, they participated in the class struggle and in the development of the labour movement. Women workers, for example, were at the forefront of the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Russian Revolution of 1917.

It was during this period that the foundations of ‘liberal’ gender equality legislation were gradually laid down in the West: women’s economic independence from their husbands (at least formally), freedom of residence, marriage and divorce, but also the right to vote, formal equality before the courts, and the right to abortion. It must be stressed, however, that by no means did the bourgeoisie generously offer these rights to women. All of them had to be won in mass struggles, which were systematic class struggles. The example of the Russian Revolution is illuminating: after the Bolsheviks took power, Russian women won, within months, full legal and political equality with men, as well as the right to divorce and abortion – none of which were achieved in most Western countries until decades later. Women’s rights were only advanced as a result of mass mobilisation. In France, for example, the right to abortion was won in the wake of the huge general strike of May 1968.

However, despite all this progress, the oppression of women has not disappeared. The bourgeoisie has many reasons to perpetuate this oppression. Like all class societies before it, capitalism is ultimately based on private property and inheritance, which have been the keystone of the patriarchal family since the Neolithic period. Added to this is the need to divide the working class to prevent it from uniting, becoming aware of its strength and threatening the domination of the bourgeoisie. Sexism and the oppression of women, just like racism, homophobia and all forms of oppression, are part and parcel of the bourgeoisie’s arsenal to pit workers against each other.

1917 Women Image public domainWomen workers, for example, were at the forefront of the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Russian Revolution of 1917 / Image: public domain

Prostitution has also been perpetuated. In a society where women’s bodies are commodities, a layer of the poorest women are forced to sell themselves to survive. At the end of the 19th century, the German socialist August Bebel pointed out that most prostitutes were recruited from among the poorest workers, especially those in the textile industry, as they were particularly poorly paid. Like Marx and Engels before him, Bebel pointed out the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie, which officially condemned prostitution, but ruled over a society that made it inevitable. Moreover, this same bourgeoisie advocated marital fidelity – while maintaining armies of mistresses and courtesans.

The concept of ‘sex work’

In the 1960s and 1970s, a wave of mass mobilisations swept the world. These included May ‘68 in France, the waves of strikes in Italy (1968-69), the Portuguese revolution of 1974, the Chilean revolution of 1970-73, and the fall of military dictatorships in Greece and Spain.

However, due to the betrayal of the reformist leaders, these revolutionary mobilisations did not lead to the overthrow of capitalism. A wave of reaction thus followed: there were military coups (Chile, Argentina, etc.), the rise of conservative leaders to power – such as Reagan and Thatcher – and a vast ideological offensive against the ideas of Marxism. During this period, 'postmodern' theories developed, with the support of the ruling class. It was in this general context that a new theory emerged within the feminist movement, re-characterising prostitution as ‘sex work’.

According to the promoters of this theory, we should abandon the concepts of ‘prostitution’ and ‘prostitutes’ in favour of ‘sex work’ and ‘sex workers’. In other words, prostitution should not be regarded as a component of women's oppression, but a job ‘like any other’, and thus all the negative connotations associated with it – and, above all, the objective of ending prostitution – ought to be rejected and fought against. Thus, in 2013, the ‘Afro-feminist’ activist Rokhaya Diallo affirmed that prostitution was a matter of individual choice, which – for the women concerned – was a matter of the "free disposal" of their bodies.

In justifying this position, some feminists have even resorted to so-called ‘Marxist’ arguments: in selling their bodies, prostitutes in reality face the same situation as salaried workers. The conclusion: we should not campaign for the disappearance of prostitution, but for its ‘recognition’ as a job in its own right, which women choose to do ‘freely’.

Some activists, like Morgane Merteuil, go even further and argue that the recognition of sex work is a necessary step in the struggle against capitalism, as it would encourage the recognition of sex in general as ‘work’, which would represent a challenge to the patriarchy. Still others argue that prostitution is in itself revolutionary, as it can encourage women’s sexual freedom. The patriarchy may therefore find itself financing its own destruction through ‘sex work’!

The reality of prostitution 

The ideas of these feminists ignore – more or less consciously – the reality of prostitution for the majority of people who are its victims. Let us begin with the issue of human trafficking and its role in prostitution. In a 2016 article, Morgane Merteuil considered that, on this issue, it was necessary to “go ‘beyond’ these exchanges of figures and experiences”.

At risk of annoying Morgane Merteuil, let us go ahead and give some “figures” and “experiences” to paint a general picture of the prevailing situation. In 2016, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimated that 40 million people worldwide had been trafficked for forced marriages, slavery, prostitution networks or organ trafficking. Prostitution constitutes the overwhelming majority of those trafficked. In 2018, according to the UN Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, 70 percent of the victims of trafficking were women, and 83 percent of them were trafficked for sexual exploitation.

Contrary to what some advocates of the legalisation of prostitution say, this phenomenon also concerns countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, where prostitution has been legalised. In these two countries, it is estimated that 75-80 percent of prostitutes in brothels have been trafficked. Far from eliminating trafficking, the legalisation of prostitution facilitates it by allowing traffickers to expose their victims in the open, in the windows of brothels in Hamburg and Amsterdam.

Red light district Image public domainFar from eliminating trafficking, the legalisation of prostitution facilitates it by allowing traffickers to expose their victims in the open, in the windows of brothels in Hamburg and Amsterdam / Image: public domain

Both in Europe and indeed around the world, women victims of human trafficking are living a real hell. Their passports are often confiscated by traffickers. They are constantly threatened and frequently beaten or raped. They live in a situation that is in no way comparable to salaried work, but rather to slavery. These women are reduced to commodities for the benefit of criminal networks. Moreover, their status as illegal immigrants very often prevents them from seeking any assistance from the services of the bourgeois state (which itself oppresses them). Caught between the violence of the pimps and the police, it is often impossible for them to make their voices heard – and thus ‘feminist activists’ can appear to speak on their behalf.

When they claim that prostitution is synonymous with greater freedom for women with regard to their bodies, feminists like Rokhaya Diallo remain in perfect agreement with the principles of capitalism and the free market, principles according to which wage employment is a contract concluded ‘in complete freedom’ between a boss and a worker. In reality, this is never the case, and it is even less true when it comes to prostitution.

Under capitalism, people are not equal and do not all have the same means. The vast majority of the population is divided into two categories: on the one hand, those who own the means of production (factories, enterprises, etc.) and live from the exploitation of other people’s labour; and on the other hand, the mass of wage earners who own only their ability to sell their labour power. Most people belong to the second category. They are, therefore, not at all ‘free’ to choose whether or not to work. They are forced to sell their labour power in exchange for a wage.

In this context, a small fraction of women who do not own the means of production and cannot find a job (due to mass unemployment) are forced into prostitution to survive. The example of Greece shows this in an illuminating way. After the 2008 crisis, when unemployment hit almost 25 percent of the Greek population, the number of prostitutes there increased by 7 percent. The same economic and social causes led to the growth of the ‘camgirl’ phenomenon, to advertising campaigns for prostitution aimed at female students, etc. Far from recognising a ‘free choice’, legalising prostitution would only legitimise the fact that poor women are reduced to objects, commodities – and forced to surrender their bodies to their clients and pimps.

It could be argued that a prostitute is always free to refuse offers that she considers degrading or that make her feel uncomfortable. But in reality, this freedom is more often than not purely fictitious. On the one hand, a refusal exposes the prostitute to a violent reaction from her exploiter (client or pimp). On the other hand, in a market economy, the law of competition prevails. A prostitute who refuses certain clients or certain of their requests risks losing her livelihood. She is therefore pushed – by competition – to accept everything.

Prostitution affects women in general, but transgender people are particularly hard hit. Due to oppression and disproportionate unemployment, many are forced into prostitution for a living. It is no coincidence that the demand for ‘recognition of sex work’ is often linked to calls to support the rights of transgender people, in order to legalise the activity that some are forced to engage in. This is completely counterproductive: instead of fighting prejudice and combating the oppression and marginalisation of transgender people, this approach reinforces prejudice by implying – and sometimes even asserting – that prostitution would be the only suitable activity for them.

On the other hand, examples are sometimes given of wealthy and middle-class women who prostitute themselves “out of choice”, out of attraction for the ‘profession’. The recognition of prostitution would protect them, it is said. But in reality, if these people are really sheltered from need, they do not need any particular protection, because under capitalism the rich are already, de facto, ‘protected’ by their wealth. Their sexual habits are therefore a private matter, and do not concern us or enter into this debate – especially since, as we have already shown, these few cases represent an insignificant proportion of those who engage in prostitution. The ‘rich prostitutes’ – and these rare and completely atypical cases – serve as a fig leaf to hide the sordid and brutal reality of prostitution.

We also frequently hear of ‘autonomous’ prostitutes, who are the real ‘sex workers’ and who live a very different life to those who work under the control of pimps. Here again, according to most statistical surveys, it is established that the majority of prostitutes are subordinate to pimps, i.e. to criminals who demand exorbitant percentages from their victims, under threat of physical and psychological violence. ‘Independent’ prostitutes are a minority. In addition, they are themselves victims of an oppressive system, as they have very limited means to leave prostitution. 

Moreover, their entry into the ‘profession’ has rarely been smooth. In 2014, a European Parliament report underlined that “80 to 95% of prostitutes have suffered some form of violence before entering prostitution (rape, incest, paedophilia)”, that “62% of them declare that they have been raped”, and that “68% suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder – a percentage similar to that of victims of torture”. These statistics alone are enough to reveal the hypocrisy of those who wave the flag of ‘freedom’ in defence of prostitution.

The same report points out that prostitutes “face a higher mortality rate than the average population”, notably because they frequently suffer from “addiction to alcohol and drugs”, or because “many buyers of sex services request unprotected commercial sex, which increases the risk of adverse health effects”. This is the reality of prostitution, far from the rhetoric of some feminists on ‘sex work’.

How to fight against prostitution?

No law designed by bourgeois democracies can eradicate prostitution. For example, the strictly repressive laws of the Scandinavian countries – or of France – have not put an end to prostitution, nor to human trafficking. In fact, the laws passed by bourgeois governments only aggravate the oppression suffered by prostitutes.

Supported by reformist associations such as Osez le féminisme, a law passed by the French National Assembly in 2016 penalises clients of prostitutes and makes them liable to a fine. Far from helping prostitutes, this law has pushed them into the darkest and most dangerous corners of French cities. As we have shown, in the overwhelming majority of cases prostitution is not a 'choice', so prostitutes will have to follow their clients to less crowded areas, where clients are less likely to be stopped, but, in turn, where prostitutes are much more exposed to violence and abuse. Moreover, this provides a new pretext for the police to persecute them.

Soviet poster Image public domainUntil capitalism is overthrown, no choice will be truly free, and the oppression of women / Image: public domain

This example is typical of reformist abolitionism, which wants to abolish prostitution within the framework of capitalism, but which in the end provides bourgeois politicians with opportunities to display their so-called 'humanism'.

The solution to the problem is obvious: if all prostitutes, whatever their situation or origin, were offered financial support, access to housing, mental health treatment, vocational training, and if undocumented victims of trafficking were all naturalised, how many would choose to continue?

We are told that this is impossible to achieve. Indeed, under capitalism, it is impossible – not because there is insufficient money, but because this wealth is monopolised by a minority to the detriment of the rest of the population. Like many other social ills, prostitution grows out of poverty and unemployment, which forces people to sell their bodies in order to survive or to flee their country in abominable conditions, at the risk of falling into exploitation networks, managed by organised crime. This exploitation is exacerbated by gender inequality, racism and imperialist wars.

Serious measures could be taken immediately to combat prostitution by tackling all the economic contradictions on which it is based. Such measures were taken during the early years of Soviet Russia. The fight against prostitution then consisted of organising care services for unemployed women, before they were given access to employment, as well as setting up public nurseries and dormitories for homeless women. A network of public clinics offered treatment for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), while at the same time awareness campaigns were organised explaining the relationship between the spread of prostitution and STDs. In collaboration with mainly mass women's organisations, the new Soviet government provided access to concrete opportunities for women to leave the 'profession'.

At the same time, the Bolshevik government prohibited any form of legal regulation of prostitution. The Penal Code did not punish prostitutes, but provided for severe penalties for pimps and brothel owners. Due to the immense devastation caused by the World War and the Civil War, prostitution was not completely eradicated, of course. Nevertheless, by targeting its economic and social base on the one hand, and its profiteers on the other, these measures reduced it significantly. 

This policy was completely abandoned by the Stalinist counter-revolution, which caused a rapid degeneration of the status of women in society. Prostitution reappeared as a mass phenomenon in the 1930s. The new Stalinist Penal Code took up bourgeois methods by again attacking prostitutes.

We support the implementation of democratic measures similar to those adopted by the Bolsheviks in the early years of the Soviet regime. Of course, we are fighting for their implementation now as well. However, we are well aware that no capitalist state will implement them. For Marxists, the struggle against prostitution is therefore closely linked to the struggle against capitalism. 

Prostitution is based on the oppression of women and the misery generated by a class-divided society. Until capitalism is overthrown, no choice will be truly free, and the oppression of women – in all its forms – will never be completely eradicated.

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