Versions of Truth: 'Normalising' Sex Work or Is Sex a Matter of Labour?
NB: This is just my reflection
It’s 11pm and I just got home from the library. And, I should not forget that it’s also Friday. I was just in the library, reading and trying to choose which book I should write about for my paper on ‘social research and methodology’ class. I was with my friend, Bea, who, on the other hand was reading on sexual violence. She made up her mind on writing a short critique on the methodology of it. Essentialist as it may sound, it is not so surprising that even in the library when two close girl friends are seated together, they can’t help but to cut the silence between them to have little chats. This is always true in our case. It would seem that every time we encounter terms or concepts that interest or bother us, we just have to discuss them whether we’re reading the same book or not, whether we only get to finish a paragraph, a page or a chapter the moment we seat down. This is the reason why I’m writing now because so many thoughts came up after our conversations.
I came across the terms ‘feminist standpoint epistemology’ where the researcher let the ‘researched’ speak for themselves (i.e., women) and ‘post-modern feminism’ where there are multiple narratives and therefore multiple truths as well. This was the time I asked her about her thoughts on prostitution—if she is in favour of legalising it or not.
She said, ‘Absolutely, not. Women are being exploited.’
While I totally agree with her, I still used the newly acquired terminologies to argue for the sake of discourse. ‘What if, prostitution is considered a regular job?’
‘No, that can’t be.’
‘Why not? If intellectuals use their mind to earn money, why can’t they use sex to get paid? Why should it be such a big deal if you use your sex than your mind for your job?’
‘That’s false consciousness.’
‘But whose consciousness are we talking about? From whose point of view, Bea? Is it false consciousness on their part because we say so? Because we have so many constructions about it that we tend to give it a different post? What if they say, it’s their body, their choice?’
‘They are oppressed in that kind of work. They don’t have the power to say no.’
‘But aren’t labourers oppressed too? Often, if not all the time, they can’t say no or else they’ll lose their jobs and their family will starve. What if they use that same argument with us, saying that their family will starve if they don’t do it?’
‘There should be options.’
‘Like work in another job that’s oppressive too, like domestic work somewhere?’
‘I will argue,’ she said, ‘that most of the prostitutes are forced to do that work but if they have another option, they will choose a different life.’
‘But how do we protect those women, if the law won’t side with them?’
‘The law should punish clients, the pimps, the capitalists for what they’re doing with those women.’
‘I agree but the society does not see the clients, the pimps, the capitalists. They see only the women, how they “pollute” the community.’
‘That’s true. Arggghh, it’s so complicated! I hate it when they misjudge those women, they don’t even know what they have to endure. Women are the victims. They are not at fault. Why doesn’t society get it?’
It occurred to me how dangerous the concept of multiple truths is. On the one hand, it’s true that we have to accept different realities, different experiences as legitimate but how far can we go? It reminded me of two people I met in a conference in Mexico 3 years ago: first, was a contemporary, then college student who worked with ‘sex workers’ right in Hong Kong; and the other, a “Madam” who represented the ‘sex workers’ organisation (or a sex workers rights organisation). Both of them supplied my arguments with Bea. But remembering the first time I met Madam, when she said to me that ‘those women have no choice’, I doubted that it was the case with the women she “handled” because in the group that she managed, it was the so-called ‘first class’. At the back of my mind, I was thinking if she just wanted to protect her business and that’s why she was fighting to legalise sex work or she was really sincere in helping them. I wondered how well she really represented those women, that her voice was theirs. Of course, I didn’t want to sound judgmental. I didn’t know enough about her or her line of work to make a critical judgment. I just stayed quiet. I was aware, too, of the power relation among women especially when talk of age. I was certain, I’d get the statement: you’re still young and you don’t know anything. She even commented, ‘It’s like this: you give your boyfriend free sex, why not ask him to pay?’ But why would I ever think that a consented sex with my boyfriend is a service? Because I’m young and I think it’s love?
Are there better truths? Better realities? Am I and Bea discrediting the idea of legalising prostitution because of our privilege position? Do we just see prostitution as oppressive because we just think of it as oppressive to women when they actually don't see it that way, that sex work is just a regular work? With the multiple truths, the multiple realities, the many feminisms and philosophies we claim to support and defend our action and thinking, what is left to hold? I honestly don’t know. But in times of confusion, I will always go back to my values—the things I carry with me no matter what school of thought I learn. And my values tell me that I own my body and therefore I will love it and protect it from exploitation.