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Comment on Christine Overall - What's wrong with prostitution Shrage Signs 1994 19(2) 564-70

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Comment on Overall's "What's Wrong with Prostitution? Evaluating Sex Work"Author(s): Laurie ShrageSource: Signs, Vol. 19, No. 2, (Winter, 1994), pp. 564-570Published by: The University of Chicago PressStable URL: 29/05/2008 23:11Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unlessyou have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and youmay use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use.Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printedpage of such transmission.JSTOR is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1995 to build trusted digital archives for scholarship. We enable thescholarly community to preserve their work and the materials they rely upon, and to build a common research platform thatpromotes the discovery and use of these resources. For more information about JSTOR, please contact AND REPLY Comment on Overall's "What's with ...



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Comment on Overall's "What's Wrong with Prostitution? Evaluating Sex Work"
Author(s): Laurie Shrage
Source: Signs, Vol. 19, No. 2, (Winter, 1994), pp. 564-570
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
Stable URL:
Accessed: 29/05/2008 23:11
Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless
you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you
may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use.
Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at
Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed
page of such transmission.
JSTOR is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1995 to build trusted digital archives for scholarship. We enable the
scholarly community to preserve their work and the materials they rely upon, and to build a common research platform that
promotes the discovery and use of these resources. For more information about JSTOR, please contact
http://www.jstor.orgCOMMENT AND REPLY
Comment on Overall's "What's with Prostitution? Wrong
Sex Work" Evaluating
Laurie Shrage
N PREPARING the for the moral and groundwork political I
of feminist theorists have tried to a develop analysis prostitution,
account of and social evolution of the prostitution- single origins
a of how arises in that account is, society. general prostitution any
to if the social forces that rise are Presumably, give prostitution morally
Alterna- then so too is the social itself. problematic, resulting practice
moral if has then its tively, prostitution morally unproblematic origins,
character needs to be reevaluated accordingly.
Two stories have in the feminist literature origin predominated regard-
One has been offered socialist feminists who ing prostitution. by argue
that is caused and The other has prostitution by capitalism patriarchy.
been offered libertarian feminists who that is by argue prostitution
caused "natural" sexual desires for abundant and diverse sex.1 Yet by
these social and the moral evolutionary tales, analyses they support,
suffer from a lack of cultural and historical contextualization.
In a recent issue of Christine Overall offers a new version of the Signs,
socialist feminist to "sex work is an origin story. According Overall,
defined the intersection of and by capitalism inherently unequal practice
One with earlier narrations of this (1992, 724). problem patriarchy"
theoretical is that forms of labor can be traced to many general approach
the of societies and the social rise inequalities they patriarchal capitalist
we must either to all of these labor forms or show Thus, object engender.
that is more than other prostitution morally objectionable apparently
similar kinds of work.
1 in or derived from the fol- For the socialist feminist is articulated position example,
and Lerner Rubin Goldman 1975; Jaggar 1980; 1983; Engels 1985; lowing writings:
has been advanced for various 1986. The libertarian feminist view by spokespersons
as St. of and has been taken civil COYOTE) prostitute rights groups (such Margo James
and defended in the Richards 1979 and Ericsson 1980. up following essays:
Women in Culture and vol. no. 2] Journal of Society 1994, 19, [Signs:
? 1994 Laurie All reserved. Shrage. rights by
564 SIGNS Winter 1994 COMMENT Shrage
Overall this weakness in accounts and to recognizes previous attempts
a contrast between and other oc- bolster them prostitution by drawing
from and that to derive the economic social cupations appear inequalities
of and She looks at low-status work capitalism patriarchy. especially
where the laborers are female and the customers or bosses are primarily
male: for clerical and housework, work, primarily example, nursing,
child care.
with other that women Comparing prostitution jobs particularly place
in subordinate Overall "sex work differs in a crucial roles, states, way
from other forms of women's labor.... While and cooking, nursing,
child care need not be sex work is defini- necessarily commoditized, by
tion the commoditization of sex. What is essential to is not prostitution
sexual itself but the of sexual Pre- activity buying activity" (716-17).
and child even when conceived as sumably cooking, nursing, care, work,
can be in social where are ex- performed ongoing relationships they
in on a basis. Yet when as changed kind, reciprocal sex, work,
to cannot be on a or non- according Overall, exchanged nonmonetary
commoditized basis. For when sex is on a or exchanged
is work" noncommoditized basis, Overall claims it not "sex but "a sexual
event or that not does involve service for the sake of material relationship
when and child care are (717). contrast, gain" By cooking, nursing,
on a or noncommoditized basis are still exchanged nonmonetary they
do not become a event" or work-they "cooking "cooking relationship,"
or a event," and so on. unlike "housework" or "child Thus, "nursing
work," to treat sex as work is to treat it as a that commodity-something
is outside social in order to maximize exchanged ongoing relationships
material gain.
Overall that sex work not involves the com- Furthermore, argues only
moditization of sex but also forms of social requires pernicious inequal-
"Prostitution is a and sexist in which ity: classist, ageist, racist, industry,
the sell services to those who are more disadvantaged (717). privileged"
With sex the sex is more work, buyer always socially class, privileged by
and than the sex to Overall. For this age, race, gender seller, according
reason she claims that is not "reversible": it has no "value prostitution
of the conditions of sexual and economic under independent inequality
which it is That sex work has value when performed" (718). is, qua only
it is defined inferiors for their defined performed by socially socially
It has no value or when it is men for superiors. purpose performed by
whites for middle-class for women, blacks, people working-class people,
adults for or even women for men for and so on. children, women, men,
contrast, Overall that other forms of and domestic By argues nurturing
which work, women in subordinate roles vis-a-vis currently place men,
Winter 1994 SIGNS 565 COMMENT Shrage
are "reversible": "That there is in the nature of the work is, itself, nothing
from insofar as we can it its that would conditions, separate working
it from men for women for men, women, prevent being performed by by
most men for women. the labor of office or, Moreover, significantly, by
sales and child care workers has a value clerks, cooks, cleaners, workers,
of the conditions of sexual and economic under independent inequality
which it is and much of it would still be in a done, socially necessary
world" But sex work would be postcapitalist, postpatriarchal (717-18).
"in a for it socially unnecessary postcapitalist, postpatriarchal world,"
has little or no value when it is not of a commoditized transaction part
between a member of a class and a member of a socially privileged
class. socially underprivileged
While Overall's of isolates fea- prostitution many disturbing analysis
of work in our it fails as an account of sex work in tures sex society, many
ones. Overall intends other even other societies, Yet, patriarchal capitalist
In her to to all societies. this analysis apply regard,
in For on one there is a fundamental contradiction her account. the hand,
she claims to be at within looking prostitution only patriarchal capitalist
contexts and to be the attributes it has in those contexts- isolating
attributes that are to be On the other likely contextually contingent.
because she sees as caused the transcultural forces hand, prostitution by
of and she treats of capitalism patriarchy, many aspects prostitution
within these contexts as essential to all contexts- attributes-applying
rather than as attributes. contextually contingent
because Overall sees and as social Moreover, capitalism patriarchy
that create the conditions for sex she necessary work, systems together
all contexts as alike with to sees essentially respect patriarchal capitalist
sex work in a of sex work. Yet, considering range patriarchal capitalist by
non-Western we see that the societies nonindustrial, ones), (especially
its are distinct. social contexts that meaning interestingly shape
out that much sex work in For Overall patri- example, rightly points
involves customers archal societies privileged by gender, race, capitalist
and/or first white and and class, adult, bourgeois world, males) age (e.g.,
all of the same factors (adolescent, socially disadvantaged by prostitutes
and/or third women of her world, color). However, working-class analy-
sis the of social as it to the oversimplifies dynamics privilege pertains
For Over- of sex work across contexts. reversibility patriarchal capitalist
con- all overlooks the existence of and postcolonial
who are texts where sex work involves customers disadvantaged by gen-
race and class white der but socially privileged by (first world, bourgeois
and who are but women) prostitutes privileged by gender disadvantaged
men of see Karch and race and class world, color; by (third proletarian
were an defined Dann If 1981). "inherently unequal practice prostitution
566 SIGNS Winter 1994 COMMENT Shrage
the intersection of and then this case would be by capitalism patriarchy,"
Overall colonial contexts Similarly, ignores patriarchal capitalist
where sex work involves men and women of the same eco- primarily
and classes: for customers who to an nomic, race, age example, belong
and colonial adult male labor force indigenous, dislocated, impoverished
and who to the same and prostitutes belong indigenous impoverished,
colonized adult White In the latter the eco- population (see 1990). case,
are sexual services to the nomically disadvantaged selling economically
which would be if were disadvantaged, impossible prostitution inherently
classist an economic in some instances in these (in sense). Moreover,
the more are sexual services to contexts, economically advantaged selling
the more For in economically disadvantaged. example, describing pros-
in White titution colonial Luise "prostitutes were not Nairobi, states,
who ac- were women proletarians. Malaya prostitutes petty-bourgeois
controlled sale of the tively profit-generating enterprises-the sexuality,
or all sale of domestic the rental of three-for which skills, rooms, they
the labor" Like small-scale these (1990, 175). provided capitalists, pros-
titutes more for their wares than it cost to them. charged produce By
their customers were whose source of contrast, men, proletarian only
income was the of their labor for exchange wages.
One basic error in Overall's is that while commerce in account, then,
sex in most industrial Western societies be and may sexist, racist, classist,
it is not or and ageist, inherently essentially sexist, racist, classist, ageist
in all cultural contexts. without in a Indeed, examining prostitution
of cultural contexts than Overall has she has no greater variety done,
to claim it is or Overall grounds inherently essentially anything. Though
to avoid essentialism the contextual of attempts by specifying parameters
her she treats these as the universal causes of account, parameters pros-
titution and not as for its social Unfortu- principles assessing meaning.
such causal accounts have an internal that nately, logic begets "insights"
into the essence or nature of an to it activity-one presumably given
and in the act of if and through Furthermore, genesis. capitalism patri-
are the causes of then Overall's that archy prostitution, analysis implies
sex commerce should not occur in social contexts where and capitalism
are and thus her the absent, patriarchy analysis applies beyond param-
eters she has specified.
Another error in Overall's account to her claim that work sex pertains
differs from other kinds of work in that to treat sex as work is to treat it
as a Overall's claim assumes that sex cannot be constituted commodity.
as work when it is on a noncommoditized whereas exchanged basis,
for can be constituted as work even when it is ex- cooking, example,
on a basis. when services other than sex are changed However, personal
Winter 1994 SIGNS 567 COMMENT Shrage
on a cease noncommoditized basis like to then, sex, exchanged they may
be or work. For cook- as "services" culturally regarded example, though
in the of a not be context treated as ing exchange may
an or a a an "event" it be conceived as recreation, "relationship," may
than "work." or an "interest" rather entertainment, Conversely, though
sexual in the context of an social in activity ongoing relationship may
most circumstances be constituted as a social event or recre- culturally
in some cases it be constituted as a service or as ation, may culturally
work without commoditized. For White claims that in being example,
colonial "customers became Nairobi, [of prostitutes] occasionally boy-
friends or even husbands" in such cases sexual (1990, 57). Presumably
occurs in the context of social whose activity ongoing relationships purpose
is not individual material and at the same time primarily gain, yet
it is constituted as "work" or a "service" from which each culturally profits.
the cultural constitution of sex as and thus Therefore, work, prosti-
tution as an need not on forms of ex- occupation, depend capitalist
as Overall's account As White is a states, "prostitution change, implies.2
social not because causes capitalism prostitution capitalist relationship
sexual relations but because labor is a unique by commoditizing wage
of commoditized labor" In this feature (11). part, capitalism: capitalism
commoditized forms of labor means that sex work into capitalism shapes
be as a of and rather than sex to constituted exchange causing category
a labor. Whether sexual is work in one context and social event activity
or recreation in another is not a function of universal forces that distort
or the essence of sexual Instead it is a function of preserve activity.
that the social contexts in which culturally specific principles shape
sexual takes activity place.
In Overall fails to a from a addition, distinguish monetary exchange
commoditized Yet an can be a one without exchange. exchange monetary
a commoditized for when is one, as, necessarily being example, money
as between members or friends. When a exchanged gift family prosti-
tute's client becomes a or a then sexual may boyfriend husband, activity
still occur as of a in this context but not as a part monetary exchange
and husband commoditized when a wife participate exchange. Similarly,
in in which the wife receives and her sexual a of money system exchange
is construed as a service to her the wife's culturally husband, activity
of is not of a but a receipt money part commodity exchange monetary gift
This is a rather than a because the exchange. gift commodity exchange
wife's services are not traded with to maxi- impersonally just any buyer
wife in this context is a "sex mize Mauss Whether the (see 1954). profit
2 Indeed it that sexual services were and sold in many precapitalist appears bought
ancient civilizations in and China. societies, Mesopotamia, Greece, India, e.g.,
SIGNS Winter 1994 568 COMMENT Shrage
worker" or a I will leave to the reader's cultural "prostitute" imagination,
but her labor is neither commoditized nor dependent upon capitalist
social relations.
In like to the socialist feminist account of Overall, seeking, improve
a we should contextualized and prostitution, develop socially compara-
tive account. This account should not seek the universal causes of sex
and it should not the universal of sex. work, Instead, presuppose meaning
our account seek to understand how the nature and of meaning
sexual behaviors in relation to different cultural contexts. particular vary
It should also the fiction of as an acknowledge treating prostitution
isolable a transcultural More- phenomenon possessing single meaning.
our account should that while the of sex work in over, recognize meaning
our is determined and racist in other society by sexist, classist, ideologies,
contexts its be determined dominant social meaning may by ideologies
that are not and racist at or at least not in the same sexist, classist, all, way
as ours. it should not dismiss the of sex work oc- Furthermore, possibility
in a world" a curring "postcapitalist, postpatriarchal (or prepatriarchal,
even the social and precapitalist world), though definition, justification, sig-
nificance of this labor form would be from different similar quite outwardly
labor forms in our The is with a contextualized society. that, upshot socially
and account of and a socialist feminist need comparative sex, prostitution
not treat sex work as a and more case of special, egregious, capitalist
own our cultural sensibilities. exploitation-despite
Overall that of because the is so divisive speculates topic prostitution
for feminists have written little on it the feminists, with, (compared e.g.,
issues of or while feminist moral and 706). Yet, pornography rape; po-
litical theorists have sexual commerce less attention than the given topics
of sexual and sexual a number of feminist histo- assault, representation
rians have some detailed histories of sexual recently completed richly
commerce and the various laws enacted to control it.3 Thus the potential
divisiveness of this issue has not stalled all feminist of investigations
because of these new histories of a Moreover, prostitution. prostitution,
contextualized and moral of is socially comparative analysis prostitution
now feasible. while Overall has attended to the voices of Finally, rightly
women in our in her prostitute society formulating analysis, by utilizing
these new we can the debate on to histories, open prostitution prostitute
women in other societies as well.
Philosophy Department
State Pomona California Polytechnic University,
3 See Walkowitz Gronewold Otis Gibson Levine esp. 1980; 1982; 1985; 1986; 1988;
Hobson White 1991. 1990; Truong 1990; 1990; Guy
Winter 1994 SIGNS 569 COMMENT Shrage
Friedrich. 1985. The the Private and the State. Engels, Origin of Family, Property
New York: Penguin.
Lars. 1980. Prostitution: An at a Ericsson, "Charges against Attempt Philosophi-
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Emma. 1983. "The Traffic in Women." In Red Emma ed. Alix Goldman, Speaks,
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Donna. 1991. Sex and in Buenos Aires: and Prostitution, Guy, Danger Family,
Nation in Lincoln: of Nebraska Press. Argentina. University
Barbara Meil. 1990. Virtue: The Politics Prostitution and the Hobson, Uneasy of
American Tradition. of Press. Reform Chicago: University Chicago
1980. "Prostitution." In The ed. Alan Soble. Alison. Sex, Philosophy of Jaggar,
Rowman Littlefield. & Totowa, N.J.:
G. H. 1981. Encounters of the Third and S. Dann. "Close Karch, Cecilia,
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