The Prostitution of Sexuality
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The Prostitution of Sexuality

Kathleen L. Barry

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eBook - ePub

The Prostitution of Sexuality

Kathleen L. Barry

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About This Book

In 1979, Kathleen Barry's landmark book, Female Sexual Slavery, pulled back the curtain on a world of abuse prostitution that shocked the world. Documenting in devastating detail the lives of street prostitutes and the international traffic in women, Barry's work was called powerful and compassionate by Adrienne Rich and a courageous and crusading book that should be read everywhere by Gloria Steinem. The Los Angeles Times found it a powerful work filled with disbelief, outrage, and documentation... sexual bondage shackles women as much today as it has for centuries.
In The Prostitution of Sexuality, Barry assesses where we are 15 years later, how far we've come and, more importantly, how far we have still to go. Shifting her focus from the sexuality of prostitution to the prostitution of sexuality, Barry exposes the practice of teenage sexual exploitation and the flourishing Asian sex tour industry, emphasizing the world-wide role of the expanding multi-billion dollar pornography industry. The work identifies the global conditions of sexual exploitation, from sex industrialization in developing countries to te normalization of prostitution in the West. The Prostitution of Sexuality considers sexual exploitation a political condition and thus the foundation of women's subordination and the base from which discrimination against women is constructed and enacted. Breaking new ground, Barry convincingly argues for the need to integrate the struggle against sexual exploitation in prostitution into broader feminist struggles and to place it, as one of several connected issues, in the forefront of the feminist agenda.
Barry concludes the book with a sampling of strategies-- international, regional, local, and personal--that feminist activists have employed successfully since the early 1980s, highlighting new international legal strategies for human rights resulting from her work.

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NYU Press

Prostitution of Sexuality

“What is a woman? Ans: Support system for a pussy.” That sign, nailed to a post on the street of an outdoor bar, summarized the sex industries, not only there in Angeles in the Philippines, but everywhere. The next sign, “Protect yourself from AIDS, use condoms,” made it appear that under these conditions, aids was the only risk to women. This was only one scene that I thought about in 1993 as I was sitting on a panel in Manila, in a legal forum organized to address the question, “Are women’s rights human rights?” Listening to my colleagues on the panel, I thought of the women trafficked from Bangladesh to Pakistan, of the women trafficked from Latin America to the United States and Europe, of the bar women in Olongapo, Subic, and Angeles I had met and talked to during the previous several days. Most of them still had the naivete of many of the women who migrate from the distant rural countryside, some previously victimized sexually by incest abuse and rape, others without any knowledge or sexual experience, many not even fully comprehending what is happening to them, many still believing that their American “boyfriends” who left when the United States withdrew its bases from the Philippines are still coming back for them, some gagging into towels after each blow job, and others, those in the cheapest bars (as if these hell holes made for and usually run by American and Australian men could be distinguished between cheap and cheapest), who are known as “three holers” because no orifice of the human body is protected from sale and customer intrusion.1
On this typically hot (95o), Philippine summer day, as we sat coolly in an air-conditioned room that was unaffected by the Manila “brownouts,” my mind wandered back to the women from the bars I had met, some of whom I had come to know even during my too-short visits. I found my head swimming and my stomach clenched as my colleagues attempted to answer the question, “Are women’s rights human rights?” Given the realities I had just seen and had seen over and over again for the previous 15 years, I knew again how easy it is to become distanced, a distancing that oftentimes leads either to academic pretense of objectivity or to legal liberalism with its pretense of neutrality.2
The intense concern among the human-rights activists and lawyers gathered in this comfortable room was blurred for me by the reality of the days preceding. I was reminded of my walks through the areas of the maisons d’abattage in Paris 15 years earlier. The utter disregard for women’s humanity, as I saw it then and now, in Paris, in the Philippines, in Thailand, in brothels, on streets, and in storefront windows provokes a more direct but unasked question that must be placed before men, governments, their policies, and their institutions: “Are women human beings?”
When society becomes sexually saturated, sex is equated with the female body—where it is gotten, had, taken. In the sexualization of society, woman is sexed body. Sexualization of society constructs femaleness as an “essence” and as acquisition that is sex. As sexed body, woman is made universal, and women, accessible for sex, are made to be indistinguishable from each other. That is sexual essentialism.
By contrast, men may need sex, they may pursue it, they get it, have it, and frequently misuse it, and sometimes they may even be used for it. But men are not the objects of sexualization; neither as a collectivity nor in their individuality are they sex, sexed body. In fact, men are not reduced to their bodies or their biology or their drives. While male sexuality has been treated as driven by an imperative, however imperative their sexual drives are cultivated to be, men’s identities are formed by what they do in the world, not by functions attributed to their bodies.
While sexual identities are socially ascribed to women, men achieve their identities as acting beings. Sexualization of society genders inequality. Sexual essentialism goes beyond promoting inequality to producing oppression. Patriarchal domination makes women undifferentiated among and from each other and makes them known, in the first instance, as different from men, and therefore lesser.
There are no biological givens about sex that are not social and political constructions. In that sense society precedes biology. Sexual “drives” are built into interactions as needs or necessities. Sex, accessible to men through the female body, is a social product of culture, a political product of gender hierarchy, and these are the conditions of male power. Sexualization is conveyed into society through body images of women in the media, in pornography, and in the “scientific” construction of sex through sexology, which reduces sex to its physicality.3 Further, the construction of sexuality that reduces sex to a thing and woman to an object is a public condition which affects private life but has a public reality of its own. The public construction of sex as a social fact of male power sexualizes women as a public fact. The fullest patriarchal reduction of woman to sexed body is prostitution.
The everyday practice of equating female with sex is typified in the way Melinda entered prostitution. She had been a prostitute in the United States for several years when I met and interviewed her. She told me about her experience as a teenager coming home from the movies with her girlfriend one afternoon. She was waiting for a bus when a man approached her and told her he’d pay her $50 for a date. Being female and on the street was all that was required for her to be taken as a prostitute. But she was a naive 15-year-old who believed that he really wanted to take her out on a date. She talked with him for a few minutes and accepted his offer. With no idea that he had actually solicited her as a prostitute, she went to his hotel room, where she learned that being a “date” meant that he was buying her for sex. By the time she realized she actually had been picked up as a prostitute, she could not leave. Faced with the expectation that she provide sex, she reasoned, “Why not?” She thought, “It will be over quickly. I’ll get out of here.” At 15 she was picked up as a sex thing and “turned out” for prostitution. Once begun, she couldn’t get away. Afterward, prostitution kept coming back to her.
In many cases like Melinda’s, prior sexual abuse, particularly when it has been sustained over time, as in incest assault, has already predisposed women, made them particularly vulnerable to other sexual exploitations and to not fighting back. In exploring Melinda’s story with her, I learned that it was not only the trick who picked her up on the street that had taken her for sex, so had her stepfather. What made her a prostitute to each of these males is that she was a female, and therefore could be taken as a body for them to use for sex.
When the human being is reduced to a body, objectified to sexually service another, whether or not there is consent, violation of the human being has taken place. The human being is the bodied self that human rights is meant to protect and human development is intended to support. However, in the American legal context, consent has become the defining factor in determining whether violation has occurred. In this way, the fullness of human experience and the human self is reduced to will, intent or consent, as if that is all that is involved in violation. Human will is the cornerstone of liberal theory and law, which makes the individual central and singular in the Western concept of rights. In this way, liberal legal theory does not consider oppression, the condition of class domination which is so pervasive that it actually invokes consent, collusion or some form of cooperation from the oppressed. Prostitution is structured to invoke women’s consent, as is marriage, as is socially constructed sexuality.
In this work I am shifting from the nearly singular standard of consent or force in the determination of violation to its full human, interactive bodied experience, to span the range of oppression from individualized coercion to class domination. In the fullness of human experience, when women are reduced to their bodies, and in the case of sexual exploitation to sexed bodies, they are treated as lesser, as other, and thereby subordinated. This is sexual exploitation and it violates women’s human rights to dignity and equality. Therefore, while pornographic media are the means of sexually saturating society, while rape is paradigmatic of sexual exploitation, prostitution, with or without a woman’s consent, is the institutional, economic, and sexual model for women’s oppression.
To the oppressor, sexual differences and racial differences are visible evidence that all women and people of color, being unlike whites and men, are the “other,” the lesser. That is the significance of reducing woman to sexed body in the sexual saturation of society. It is how she is known, no matter what else she does, or who she is. In “otherness” time is made to stand still for the oppressed. By representing the oppressed as biologically or culturally different, by reducing them by means of their difference to “others,” patriarchal power dismembers women from their history. That is how human beings are deprived of their humanity. The making/doing of history is the way in which human social action takes place over time. In violating contrast, oppression is a historical condition in which, for the oppressed, time is shrunk to the moment; for that is what it means to be ahistorical, outside of time, immanent and therefore not transcendent. This is the most ancient and contemporary form of subjugation in the world. These are the ideological justifications that underpin relations of power in racism, apartheid, and colonialism.
Sexual oppression, through its biological determinisms, halts women’s forward movement and thereby attempts to annihilate the possibilities of their progress, change, growth, and development. Sexually subjugated women cease to be treated as if they exist in time, and to varying degrees they internalize atemporality contained by immanence. These are the conditions by which the subordinated are effectively deprived of the fullness and potential of their humanity. Men make themselves historical at the cost of those whom they have physically differentiated from themselves by race and by gender, those whom they have reduced to “other.” To them, women are not just a different body, but sexed body. It is therefore not coincidental that when women begin to claim their own history—indeed, to enter into history because they are making it—men reinvoke woman as sexed body with a vengeance. That vengeance saturates the society with pornography and enters women’s bodies through sexual exploitation.
Domination by sex, race, and culture is encoded in human beings.4 The body is our connection as human beings to both our personal inner world and the social outer world, our self and society, and the body is the material location of differentiation, the connection to the world outside of oneself through which one knows oneself as a separate and distinct human being. The body both encases human experience and transcends itself as hu-manness is achieved and sustained in interaction with others and with and in the world. “Body image extends beyond the borders of the body,”5 as Morris Berman points out. He quotes Paul Schilder: “In the construction of the body-image there is a continual testing to discover what could be incorporated into the body. . . . The body is a social phenomenon.” Therefore to influence a person in terms of image “is to have an impact on that person somatically.”6 The body cannot be taken as a discrete object, separate from its interactive moorings, for as Berman and others have pointed out, “I am” also means “I am not.” Interaction in the world and with others is simultaneously the source of one’s differentiation as an individual self and the means by which the world and our interpretations of it are brought into the body. The self “has no other root than a visceral one.”7 Yet it has humanity because it is social.
Simultaneously and artificially, racism and sexism etch inferiority or superiority onto, and socially construct human life through, social interaction. Interaction is the most specifically personal means for encoding domination in human beings, onto human life, in the human condition. When domination is encoded through social interaction, it dehumanizes in each instance. Racism invokes the body, with the use of physically differentiated racial characteristics to claim the superiority of one group through the domination of another. In different historical moments those physical differences are attributed to biology or to culture. The effect is the same—the reification of difference to dominate. Likewise, sexism invokes the body in power relations of domination in that physically differentiated sex/gender characteristics are used by men to sustain their subordination of women. Sexual saturation of society is a political accomplishment of male domination. With sexism, domination is brought into the female body through sexual interaction. When sex is objectified and human beings are reduced to vehicles for acquiring it, sexual domination enters into and is anchored in the body. This is the foundation of prostitution and its normalization in the prostitution of sexuality.
Sex, an embodied dimension of the self, is not a preexisting physical or physiological fact, not an already-shaped fact of human experience that merely realizes itself when it is stimulated. “Drives” or impulses that are engaged in initiating sexual desire dictate neither the nature nor the quality of the sexual experience. Rather, sex is socially constructed. In patriarchy, it is a political fact of subordination.
If in human experience, sexual interaction is dehumanized and exploited, then violation of the self occurs. Indeed, we do not know the self as separate from social interaction in which it is being produced. But that is not all. Oppression essentializes human life and determines those it subordinates. Biological and cultural determinisms theorize the essentialisms, such as that woman is sexed body, that produce subordination by constructing domination as intellectual truth.
French physician Suzanne Képés has carefully considered the body in relation to human rights and particularly in terms of the violation of prostitution. She identifies “human” as “the condition of existing in the world with a body which is a source of energy and a mind, a psyche, closely linked to that body, depending on and reflecting everything that happens in that body.” Understanding the body as a source of energy, “of different energies serving the motor, affective, intellectual, instinctive and sexual functions,” Dr. Képés points out that health requires that these multiple, human energies be balanced through self-awareness and self-acceptance. For the body/self to negotiate in a world that supports its existence and also threatens it, self-awareness and self-acceptance are necessary to derive introspective knowledge that only comes “from the feeling of being present with oneself.”8
Pursuing the duality of the individual and society, Dr. Képés distinguishes between the outer world, “that of everyday tasks, of joys and sorrows,” and the inner world, “a permanent fabric of sensations, emotions, ideas, images, imagined or imaginary actions” that become known as the ego, or personality, or self.9 Dr. Képés presents a “conventional medical view” of how the body responds to and interacts with its own energy:
The sympathetic and parasympathetic systems are connected in the hypothalamus, the oldest, instinctive part of the brain, and then in the thalamus, where the image of the body is formed. In the thalamus, which is itself connected to the limbic emotional centre and the regulatory matter known as reticulate, are stored actions, all the acts of our unconscious which will be released at a suitable moment. These are no stereotyped actions but actions which respect and reveal the original and specific structure of each individual, in a word: “true” actions. If these actions, which come from the depths of ourselves, are frustrated or corrupted, they block our energy.10
Dr. Képés’s medical approach to the body physically reiterates the foundation of human rights, which recognizes each human being as a distinct person whose personhood has the inalienable claim to human dignity and rights. Violation occurring on the body, oppression absorbing the self, violates human rights because it segments human beings, separating them from their bodies.
When one loses contact with one’s body, one dissociates from “’the only thing in the world which we can feel both inside and out,’ and which is therefore the channel through which we are able to get inside of everything.”11 The human need for “somatic anchoring” is disrupted. “If you are out of your body . . . you need a substitute for the feeling of being grounded.”12 Sexual exploitation, an objectification, is a disruption to the continuity of human experience, the undermining of sexual development for the subordination of women.
Human beings are incredibly resilient in the security of their bodied location just as they are fragile in the development of a self. In constructing the self, they are constantly negotiating their relationship to that which is not in their body. In the tension between inner and outer, the interaction between self and other, human beings negotiate their world and construct their identities. Violation is bodied—whether it is psychological and emotional, sexual, or physical. Violation occurs in exploiting those tensions between what is the self and what is outside of it. Distorting them destroys human experience. Following R. D. Laing’s formulation, “If our experience is destroyed, our behavior will be destructive. If our experience is destroyed, we have lost our own selves.”13

The Social Construction of Sexuality: Stages of Dehumanization

Under male domination today, when sex is not explicitly treated as/a genuine human interaction, it dehumanizes experience and thereby dominates women. The meaning that is the product of interaction can reveal how sex is experienced as an e...

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Citation styles for The Prostitution of Sexuality
APA 6 Citation
Barry, K. (1996). The Prostitution of Sexuality ([edition unavailable]). NYU Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 1996)
Chicago Citation
Barry, Kathleen. (1996) 1996. The Prostitution of Sexuality. [Edition unavailable]. NYU Press.
Harvard Citation
Barry, K. (1996) The Prostitution of Sexuality. [edition unavailable]. NYU Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Barry, Kathleen. The Prostitution of Sexuality. [edition unavailable]. NYU Press, 1996. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.