Tomiye Ishida
Economics course in Women's studies, 1993-94.

"Morals Cost Money..."

Feminists have recognized that women have long been held prisoners of male texts and canons and have argued for the necessity of constructing new theories and interpretations by which she may elude her captors.

Similarly, working class women and women of color have taken issue with the virtual lack of representation of the lives and concerns of people such as themselves within the university discourse. Even within Women's Studies proper our voices, if heard at all are often very small ones that rarely legitimize our existence or help to give us strength and authenticity.

This is particularly true for prostitute women who are often triply disadvantaged by sex, race and class oppression. Yesterday, in a women's studies classroom I heard prostitutes defined as "female captives". In the feminist discourse prostitution is most consistently portrayed as the embodiment of sexual oppression; as women (fembots) who, possessed by a 'false consciousness' willingly or through coercion allow themselves to be dominated and controlled by a man with money.

I am writing as a mixed race lesbian, a feminist and a former sex trade worker. I worked briefly on the streets as a juvenile prostitute, then through massage parlors and escort agencies until I developed my own clientele and was able to work independently as a 'call girl'. I worked in Canada and the United States (California) over a span of nine years. I regret none of it.

Through my work I was able to regain ownership of my own sexuality. It was an act of resistance , a turning of the tables from my experience as a sexually abused child. In taking control of my sexuality it was I who decided who, when, how and on what terms I would be sexual with another person.

Homosexuality among my peers was no more a 'perversion' than any other aspect of the very broad range of sexual behaviors that we put down to 'different strokes'. Already sexual outlaws, we felt no hesitation in enjoying the physical comforts of each other. With each other we gave freely of ourselves, defenses down, vulnerably, body and soul... integrated women. That was not a commodity.

It is a radical political stance to assume prostitute legitimacy, but I strongly believe that prostitutes must be legitimized as self-determining agents and spokespersons who present a different, but equally valid reality.

Lack of job opportunity and pay equity for all women in the formal economy is compounded by class and race barriers that make prostitution one of the most lucrative professions open to women. This paper looks at voluntary prostitution as a rational economic decision made by adult women as self-determining agents who work both within, and in resistance to the constraints of a patriarchal society.

Institutionalized exploitation through gender biased legislation and enforcement of laws and socially sanctioned atitudes justify the oppression of prostitutes and the systematic violation of their human rights. Violence against prostitutes like violence perpetrated against any woman often reflects the subordination of women to men in personal and social relationships, but in the case of prostitutes laws that are designed to protect are only arbitrarily enforced if at all.

Like known lesbians, prostitutes and sex workers are regularly denied custody of their children. They are similarly isolated, stigmatized and made invisible. Within a feminism that claims a committment to giving voice and respect to all women the silence and patronizing atitudes towards prostitutes is unacceptable. Feminist struggle must include the rights of all women.

Women In Patriarchal Economies

The attraction of women to the sex industry is a reflection of our economic oppression. Although poverty affects women in every possible type of family situation the most severely affected group is the unattached. Forty percent of women who live alone or with non relatives live in poverty. For single parent mothers attempting to raise children the situation is even worse: 81% of young mothers in the 16-24 age group; 69% of those age 25-34 and 57% overall ages do not have enough money to maintain a decent standard of living.

Women face real discrimination in the labor force regardless of their experience or education. Women are the last hired and the first to be fired. We earn less and are promoted less often than male co-workers. Women employed full time are generally segregated into a narrow range of jobs which are among the least stable and lowest paying, and in 1989 earned on average only 60%-70% of the amount earned by men with the same education. (CASCW pamphlet)

Education is by no means accessible to all. Despite the student loan program, financially disadvantaged students must often supplement their income by working part time. Single parent mothers incur higher debts and along with working students must work much harder to complete the same educational program as others. Bursary applications, scholarships and some graduate programs also expect extra-curricular activities and club memberships as evidence of a prospective student's character and ability. This acts as an additional barrier to working class and single parent women with no time for outside activities.

A woman is doubly disadvantaged if she has a disability or is a member of a racial or ethnic minority group. Members of these groups are often passed over for hiring or promotion.

Without adequate, subsidized child care facilities some women cannot look for or accept employment. The demand for childcare far exceeds the spaces available to fill this need. Even when quality, subsidized care exists it is usually unavailable after school hours or in the evenings thus limiting women's options for afternoon or shift work.

Because of the limitations of childcare women must often seek jobs that allow them to be home when their children are home. In 1990, women filled more than two thirds of part time jobs in Canada although many (22%) preferred to have full time employment. (CASCW pamphlet) The majority of employed women who are poor are part time workers.

The sexual division of labor holds women responsible for the unpaid childcare and household work in the home. Even when employed full time outside of their homes, women still do on average three hours of unpaid household work per five day week. This leaves little or no time to enjoy children or leisure and amounts to sub standard living conditions.

Social assistance or welfare provides financial assistance when there is no other income, but thise payments fall way below the poverty line. A single parent mother with one child can receive up to $ 520. per month for rent, which is paid directly to the landlord or manage ment company from whom she rents. An additional $470. is paid directly to the mother to cover monthly living expenses for herself and her child. This is not much, but women who leave social assistance to take a job are usually worse off financially because they lose related benefits such as free prescription drugs and must then also pay child care.

Why Women Choose To Work In Prostitution

'What's a nice girl like you...' the hard question is not why a woman would turn to prostitution, but why more do not. Economics is a study of decision making and the majority of prostitutes choose prostitution as the occupational alternative in a patriarchal society that affords the highest attainable standard of living.

The bottom line is money...with "square" jobs, I've put up with condescension and sexual harassment that would either take complicated grievance procedures to redress -- with no guarantees... Besides, I had to worry about being fired if it was discovered I'm gay -- all this for a wage I could not live on. The fact is, there's a livable wage to be made in the sex business, and we decide when, where and with whom we'll do what. Money talks, bullshit walks, and we don't have to put up with anything we don't want.
- Peggy, lesbian-feminist college student and sex worker. (Delacoste 1987:25)

From a purely economic standpoint, financial pressures push women towards prostitution but financial gain is the overriding reason for getting into prostitution. In short, earnings from prostitution exceed earnings from the best labor market alternatives in some other job. The abundant supply of prostitutes may be a consequence of the disparity in wages available to women in comparison to men.

In times of economic duress, women are the hardest hit. umemployment rates for women are generally higher than for men, and during a recession women are the first to be let go. Inflation depresses real wages and since women's wages are on average less than men's we can assume that women will be more adversely affected by inflation than men.

The reason why I became a prostitute is because of the money. I could not find a job and I needed money. And my man, he doesn't force me to come out on the streets -- it's because I want to. I find it's and easier way to make a living and to have more things out of life.
- Blanche, New York prostitute. (Carmen 1985:103)

With rising divorce rates and more women opting to have children on their own, the reservation wage or the lowest wage one would accept to take a job is necessarily higher. The prostitute market is segmented and earnings vary considerably but even the streetwalker at the lower end of the hierarchy of price and quality can easily make $300. a night. (Delacoste:95) Vice police officers in Las Vegas estimate that some prostitutes in 1982 working the Las Vegas Strip could bring in $250,000. per year. Victoria prices in 1990 varied from $40 to $150. for a half hour and up to $250. for an hour. (Lavoie: TC, Mar 4/90) Most of this is never reported as income and is therefore tax free.

Masseuses, escorts and bar prostitutes comprise the middle eschelons of the prostitute hierarchy. Reynolds gives approximate prices in U.S. funds for 1983 as ranging from $20. to $50. for manual or oral stimulation by masseuses and $50. to $100. per transaction for escorts and bar prostitutes. Call girls are at the top of the hierarchy with prices beginning at $100. or more. Conventional intercourse is typically $500. for an attractive, well dressed call girl. More exotic services such as bondage or domination involve greater expenditures. (1986:14-16)

Jennifer James suggests that a secondary goal of prostitutes tends to be in maximizing their well being or self-image; that the impersonal, often manipulative relationship with their clients gives them a sense of adventure and a boost to their egos. (Reynolds:13)

Alternately, JoAnn Miller states that , "...women arrested for prostitution-solicitation on Philadelphia streets tended to perceive some sexual enjoyment in their work and an even greater level of sexual enjoyment from their private life partners. A considerable number of prostitutes found relatively high levels of erotic enjoyment with customers...Receiving oral sex was the most enjoyable outlet both with customers and with lovers." ( Ferguson 1991:46)

It is not surprising that higher levels of sexual enjoyment would be found in the private life sexual relationships of prostitutes. Prostitutes, accustomed to working in the nude, learn to live comfortably in their bodies and to talk openly about sexual needs and preferences.

About eleven years ago, I found myself with a young daughter to support, and a lot of sexual frustration. To work off some of my sexual needs without bringing them home, I began to answer ads in the underground newspapers...I found this a friendly, direct way to get orgasms I needed...I decided to combine business and pleasure.
- Mistress Lillith Lash, professional dominant. (Delacoste: 50)

Legislation And Enforcement Of Laws

Women engaged in prostitution are isolated and marginalized as a population group for whom specific control and regulation are required. Prostitution itself has never been a crime in Canada but various activities associated with it are subject to criminal sanctions.

Activities prohibited by the Criminal Code (1983) include: Section 193, "keeping, being an inmate of, being found without lawful excuse in, and allowing a place to be used for the purposes of, a common bawdy house"; Section 194, " transporting or directing or offering to transport or direct, another person to a common bawdy house"; Section 195, "procuring and living off the avails ," and "Section 195.1, "...soliciting in a public place for the purpose of prostitution." (Special Committee on Pornography and Prostitution 1983:50)

The contract entered into by a prostitute and her client is a private exchange between two individuals. It is hypocritical and a denial of her human rights and civil liberties to impose legal sanctions that restrict the behavior of prostitutes, their right to personal liberty, and access to economic survival.

Prostitution is a reflection of a profoundly sexist social and economic structure. Punitive laws designed to restrict the opportunities of prostitutes penalize women for their already disadvantaged position. Up until 1985, the male customer, and equal partner in the exchange, could not (in BC) be charged at all. (Blackstone 1984:21)

A 'common bawdy house' is defined in the Criminal Code as , "... a place that is (a) kept or occupied, or (b) resorted to by one or more persons, for the purposes of prostitution or the practice of acts of indecency." (SCPP:51) This provision denies prostitutes the right to a relatively safe place to work. A prostitute cannot engage in prostitution (itself a legal act) in the privacy of her own home. Yet, it is a well known fact that in marriage, wives will barter sexual favors in return for cash or other 'gifts' from their husbands. The difference is that prostitutes are unattached, autonomous entrepreneurs, and wives are legitimized by their dependence on a man.

Ruth Rosen documents the historical effects that resulted from the outlawing of brothels and 'bawdy houses' in the U.S.:

The relative safety and security of public brothels became increasingly replaced by the riskier, but less visible, act of streetwalking. New forms...such as massage parlors and callgirls, developed to thwart police detection and "protect" the prostitute from the law. Control of prostitution shifted from madams and prostitutes themselves, to pimps and organized crime syndicates...In addition, [the prostitute] faced increased brutality, not only from the police, but also from her new "employers".

As a lesbian, aware of the censorship of lesbian and gay literature and erotica as "indecent", I suspect that same sex partners engaging in mutual pleasuring in the privacy of our own homes may also be vulnerable to prosecution under the latter part of the definition.

While Section 195 appears to be protecting women from exploitation by pimps, a survey of prostitutes in Victoria conducted by Women Against Pornography found that in reality, "...this has been used indiscriminately against the boyfriends of prostitutes, with insufficient evidence of true pimping." (Blackstone: 22)

In fact, only a minority of prostitutes work with pimps and most do so by choice. This law puts all of a prostitute's personal asssociates at risk. Children, parents and roommates as well as her lovers may be subject to arrest. Even babysitters, taxi drivers and local shop owners could conceivably be penalized as prostitutes, like anyone supports those people by her patronage.

The right to private and family life and the right to marry and found a family are denied to prostitute women by laws that criminalize those who profit from her earnings. As sexual outlaws, women who refuse to conform to moralistic prescriptions of monogamous, heterosexual relations, prostitutes like lesbians are regularly denied custody of their children by courts that declare them unfit on the basis of their sexuality. (Pheterson 1989:107) This in spite of the fact that prostitutes often have more time to spend with their children and more money to support them with than other mothers.

Although prostitution is legal it is almost impossible to engage in the profession legally. Section 193 in essence pushes the women out onto the street and Section 195.1 which makes soliciting illegal, restricts her from communicating with potential customers. This is a violation of the constitutional quarantee of free speech.

Prior to 1985 a soliciting charge required evidence of pressing or persistent behavior on the part of the sex worker. Bill C-49 was passed into legislation in December , 1985 in response to lobbying by law enforcement officials and citizens' groups for more stringent provisions that would facilitate a massive campaign to "clean up the streets." The new legislation broadens its scope to penalize everyone who attempts to communicate in any manner for the purpose of engaging in prostitution or obtaining the services of a prostitute. Anyone caught is liable for a $500. fine or a six month jail sentence.

This in fact increases police oppression of prostitutes as even a smile or a wink could be construed as 'communication'. Rather than being a deterrent, the fines force women back onto the streets to make the money to pay. The state gets richer and the prostitute's chances of 'going straight' are lessened, as few employers are willing to hire someone with a police record. The law targets street prostitutes specifically who are already the most disadvantaged segment of the sex industry, those who cannot afford a more private place to work. A disproportionate number of street prostitutes are women of color. Black and Aboriginal women in particular are less likely to be hired on with escort agencies which could free them from the need to solicit business on their own.

The new legislation allows for an equal onus on the customer who seeks a prostitute, but here the male bias of the system comes into play. Between January when Bill C-49 (now Section 195.1) was brought into effect , and October 15, 1986, 980 women were charged with communicating for the prupose of prostitution, as compared with 553 men charged under the same section. (Ellis 1987:1) The male arrest rates include both male prostitutes and customers.

In summary, atitudes towards prostitution have pursued an undefined policy of deceit, contradiction, hypocrisy and double standard, The pretense is in the notion that laws, if harsh enough and rigorously enforced, can stamp out a human commerce that has been around for thousands of years. Contradiction lies in the fact that prostitution is legal while solicitation is illegal, so that a large percentage of prostitutes have no way of plying their trade with out breading the law. Hypocrisy is most obvious in society's atitude that prostitution is somehow necessary, but are appalled at the visibility of prostituiton downtown. The sexist double standard allows police to crack down on prostitute women while the men who create the demand escape punishment and censure and even have their identities protected to avoid the stigma of having associated with a prostitute.

Social stigma and negative stereotyping of prostitutes serves to justify a systematic denial of human rights to these women. Prostitutes do not enjoy the same rights to life as prostitute murders are commonly considered less offensive than other murders and are not followed up as thoroughly. Physical safety is threatened by the criminal sphere in which they are forced to work and liberty is restricted by curfews and boundaries that are routinely imposed on prostitutes in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and Vancouver.

Due to the criminalization of their profession, prostitutes do not seek protection from the police. They are generally considered fair game for abuse by state and judiciary authorities who are often customers and /or violators of prostitute women. The word of a prostitute is generally considered to be invalid. (Pheterson: 103-8)

Prostitutes And Feminists: Point, Counter-Point

Helen Buckingham (English prostitute):
On the question of feminism, I am a very old timer...when the feminist movement came to London, I was working as a night club hostess, which meant that I was dressed to the nines by seven...I went to one of those first meetings. I was wearing a wig, long flowing eyelashes, a cocktail dress with my boobs sort of out, flashy nails and make-up and I might just as well not have existed. They passed the cofee past me, they passed the biscuits past me, they just didn't even shake hands with me, they pretended I wasn't there.
(Pheterson: 171)

When local prostitutes were asked what feminists could do to be helpful, 30% cited the activities of the Vancouver based Alliance for the Safety of Prostitutes (ASP) which produces and distributes a "bad trick sheet" of information on violent and abusive customers. Forty percent simply said, "Stick up for us." (Blackstone: Appendix II)

Many women's groups have a long standing policy in support of decriminalizing soliciting, but rarely has this support been translated into positive action to see that it becomes a reality. This may be attributable to the ambivalence of the women's movement to prostitution.

In Sexual Coercion, Jo Ann Miller argues that , "Prostitution involves one gender's taking advantage of its superior social status and manipulation the other gender...Because members of the less powerful group are compelled or forced physically or psychologically, to engage in a sexual act, prostitution is fundamentally coercive and exploitative. (1991: 47) This is again, a repetition of the idea of the prostitute as a "female captive", as victims, unable to perceive their own subjugation. Such atitudes deny adult and human status to prostitutes.

To accept this argument is to dismiss out of hand the voices of prostitute women who claim that they make individual decisions, be it based on choice or necessity, to sell sex on their own terms. Relative to men, the inferior social postion of women in our society denies us power and control in many areas of our lives. Prostitutes equalize the disparity in gender based status by choosing a profession that earns them large sums of money. The terms of access to her sexuality are set by the woman herself. Non-compliance to her terms is rape and should be dealt with to the full extent of the law. Money is one of the resources that women in our society are generally denied access to. The money earned by prostitutes is a source of economic power.

We cannot disregard entirely the fact that for many women, the first time they felt powerful was the first time they turned a trick. (Delacoste:15) Feminists such as Catherine Mac Kinnon believe that the concept of female power is a contradiction in terms and explain that in a patriarchal society, "... the content for sexuality is the gaze that constructs women as objects for male pleasure." (Valverde 1989:241) It is true that the "male gaze" constitutes a large part of sexual relations in our society, but to assume that this objectifying gaze is the only possible meaning of the term "sexuality", "... denies women any position, however precarious, from which to reclaim or invent nonpatriarchal sexual desires." (Valverde:241) The sexuality modelled by prostitute women deserves more serious and open minded consideration.

From a working class perspective, workers both male and female are coerced by economic constraints and lack of oportunity to sell what they have--their labor. Since in patriarchal society women's bodies are objectified and commodified anyways, one might counter that women have an additional avenue of attaining a livlihood: from the sale of their bodies which as women we have been socialized to invest in (through make up, health and beauty aids) as well as separate from.

Nina Lopez-Jones, of the English Collective of Prostitutes puts it this way:

We sell our hands, we sell our heads, our sex , our time. That's prostitution. It's very dangerous to act as if prostitution is more degrading than other forms of exploitation.
(TC June 6/90)

Labels such as "good ", "bad " and "perverse " are used to divide us from our potential capacities and to divide us from other women. Good women, those assumed to be attached to individual men are legitimized by the patriarchal system as a model of subservience; bad women such as prostitutes and other 'loose' women are stigmatized as an example of the punishment awaiting any woman who strays; dykes and other celibates of patriarchy are ignored to demonstrate that a woman who rejects men loses her status as a woman. The challenge of alliance between women is to distinguish external functions they serve from the internal strategies for self determination they could be. (Pheterson: 21)


Prostitutes are individual women working both within the constraints of a patriarchal capitalist society as well as in resistance to its restrictions on them. Prostitutes play on the traditional female role which emphasizes service, physical appearance and sexuality.

The service provided however is generally an illusion pulled over on the man, and thus the term "trick". Physical appearance for the prostitute, like the lesbian announces her participation in the community. Lesbian (butch) dress codes simultaneously mark the woman as a dyke and defy patriarchal restrictions that prescribe gender appropriate styles for women and men. For the prostitute, her dress and appearance announce that she is 'open for business' and defy moralistic restrictions on 'proper' dress. Her sexuality is in defiance of the hypocrisy of Judeo-Christian morality that is meant to restrict or punish sexual behavior that is not heterosexual, monogamous, procreative or otherwise deemed acceptable, and sets a double standard for men and women.

Capitalism commodifies everything from cars and shelter, to services and natural resources. It is a condemnation of patriarchal capitalism that it makes women's bodies the most valuable resource available to them, but given that patriarchy and capitalism are well entrenched in our society it is a most rational choice for women to market their sexuality. In this context, adult women who make a conscious decision to become prostitutes may be seen as capitalists who, take ownership of their own sexuality as a means of production and exploit men's desire for them. A wife gives much more for less in return.

By their occupation, prostitutes are acting in resistance to poverty, which is based in the sexual division of labor and the expectation that she will attach herself to one man in compulsory heterosexuality.

Interestingly, there is considerable connection and overlap with prostitutes and lesbians. Many of the contributors to Sex Work, and A Vindication of the Rights of Whores, both written by women in the sex industry, worked as prostitutes but are woman identified lesbians in their private lives. In the film, Forbidden Love, about the lives of lesbians in the 'fifties and 'sixties, the native lesbian noted that lesbians and prostitutes hung out together in the same bars, and that many of the prostitutes were lesbian. Joan Nestle makes many connections in her description of what she terms a "historical sisterhood".

Lesbians are still an oppressed group in contemporary society but we enjoy far more legal protection than prostitutes as a result of the power of the Gay rights movement. Prostitute women must be acknowledged as part of the women's movement for financial independence and control over our own bodies, and as part of the working class movement for more money and less work. The sex industry is not the only industry which is male dominated and degrading to women, but it is the industry where the workers are illegal and can least defend publicly their rights.

Sexual self-determination includes the right to have lesbian sex, to refuse sex and to initiate sex, to have sex across race or class lines, to have multiple partners or to offer sex for money. The right to be a prostitute is as important as the right to not be a prostitute. While some research suggests that a higher percentage of prostitutes were victims of childhood abuse than non-prostitutes, it is also true that many prostitutes were never abused and many non-prostitutes were. Child abuse is a serious violation of human rights, but it does not mean that victims do not survive and recover. Survivors should not have to be stigmatized in childhood or adulthood. Instead rights to medical , psychological or legal services and to safety and sexual self-determination should be affirmed.

We must work to eliminate the whore-madonna divisions that separate us as women. This means affirming the dignity of women stigmatized for their color, class, history of abuse, marital or motherhood status, sexual preferance, disability or weight. Understanding means first listening to their voices and acknowledging their validity. The women's movement must include prostitutes as spokeswomen and theorists. Prostitutes object to being treated as symbols of oppression and demand recognition and respect as workers. and as women.


  1. Blackstone, Pam. Pornography and Prostitution: A Brief to the Fraser Commission. Women Against Pornography: Victoria. 1984

  2. Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women (CASCW). Women and Poverty Fact Sheet. 1991.

  3. Delacoste, Frederique and Procilla Alexander eds. Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Trade. Cleis Press: San Francisco. 1987.

  4. Ellis, Megan. Prostitution: Reflections on Demand. Women's Research Centre: Vancouver. 1987.

  5. Ferguson, Ann. Sexual Democracy. Westview Press: San Francisco, Oxford. 1991.

  6. Pheterson, Gail. A Vindication of the Rights of Whores. Seal Press: Seattle. 1989.

  7. Reynolds, Helen. The Economics of Prostitution. Charles Thomas Publishers: Springfield. 1986.

  8. Rosen, Ruth. The Lost Sisterhood. John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore. 1982.

  9. Special Committee on Pornography and Prostitution Report. 1983.

  10. Valverde, Mariana. "Beyond Gender Dangers and Private Pleasures: Theory and Ethics in the Sex Debates, in Feminist Studies, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Summer 1989)

Newspaper Articles

Lavoie,________. " Buddy system, bad-trick sheet can be lifesavers on the street," in Times Colonist, March 4, 1990.

Notes from Tomiye... [Analysis]

Created: May 31, 1998
Last modified: July 24, 1998

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