Being and Being Bought: Prostitution, Surrogacy & the Split Self by Kajsa Ekis Ekman.
As a socialist and women’s rights activist who continues to be perplexed, gob-smacked and horrified by the seemingly growing orthodoxy in left and feminist circles that Ekman entitles, “the story of the sex worker”, by which she means a sanitising of the sex industry and a justification for men buying sex, I felt a gushing sense of relief and also gratitude to the author while reading this enormously accessible, sharp and erudite book that looks at both the questions of prostitution and surrogacy.
Ekman puts both prostitution and surrogacy in the context of patriarchal capitalism; both of the hugely profitable sex and surrogacy industries commodify women’s bodies (the majority of the time it’s women in prostitution, in all cases with surrogacy) such that, as opposed to selling her labour or a service, women are forced to sell a part of themselves because there is no Cartesian dualism between the body and mind that are of course, inextricably linked. This means, Ekman contends, that the women often need to create a ‘split self’ for survival, such is the alienation this ‘reification’ causes. Kajsa Ekis Ekman is a Swedish left activist and academic who cites feminist and Marxist influences on her thinking.
In Being and Being Bought, Ekman demolishes the argument that prostitution is a job like any other, perpetuated by some lefts, feminists and academics whose pro-prostitution stance sanitises the sex industry. Ekman rails against the post-modern, abstract, theorising that views prostitution as either; (a) just a normal job (b) a sign of a powerful entrepenuer business woman (c) a form of rebellion against the status quo; all of which ignore the reality that women and girls in prostitution have a death rate forty times higher than average, and that, according to the widest ever international research done on prostitution, 89% wished to leave it.
Why is this view postmodern? It’s postmodern as it fits eerily slickly into a neo-liberal paradigm in which there are no victims of inequality, class division, sexism, racism, privatisation, the accumulation of wealth by a tiny elite, etc. There is no oppression. In the case of prosititution there are just individuals expressing themselves sexually. To question this or make a value judgement is to be an anti-sex prude. Except this is not reality. Class inequality and sexism do exist. Victims of oppression do exist.
Ekman describes Prostitution at its most basic level in this way; “Money may get the buyer ‘consent’ and even fake appreciation during the act, but it only highlights the fact that the other party has sex even though s/he does not really want to… If there were mutual desire, there wouldn’t be any payment – and we all know it. Prostitution is therefore an enemy of sexual liberation, of lust, and of free will.” Those who obscure this fact, often do so while yelling about turning those in prostitution into victims, and therefore taking away their agency. As Ekman articulates clearly, being a victim is not a character trait. It simply denotes someone who is victimised by someone or something. Workers in the public sector can be victims of austerity, and also through collective action, agents in fighting it. Women in abusive relationships are victims of their partner’s violence and abuse and can also be unionised workers, anti-austerity campaigners and/or actively seeking assistance to get out of the abusive relationship.
Ekman writes that “the neoliberal order hates victims”, that “if there are no victims, there can be no perpetrators. The unmentionables, the men, are completely exonerated…” and she sardonically declares that “It is worse than any other physical or psychological violation to speak of her as subjugated – only then does she become a victim.”.
How is this postmodern argument constructed? Firstly, by purporting to come via the mouths of prostitutes/sex workers themselves. Ekman carefully lays bare the revision of history that has been perpetrated in Sweden by those who have tried to claim that those who campaigned for the criminalising of the buyers of sex, and to decriminalise the selling of sex, did so while ignoring prostitutes. Ekman explains that the Malmo project of the 1970s, progressive research into the sex industry that was an inspiration to the later social movement against the industry, precisely listened to prostitutes, and recorded their experiences, as well as those of the ‘johns’.
Just like the reality that Ekman delineates regarding many of the so-called sex workers’ unions, the truth is that many of those claiming to be listening to sex workers, are in fact didactic ideologues who, whatever their motivation, are working in the interests of the sex industry. For example, Laura Agustin, author of Sex on the Margins, who was invited to speak at the Dublin Anarchist Bookfair organised by the WSM in Spring 2013, goes so far in the denial of victims as she listens to the sex workers, that she actually either denies or justifies sex trafficking. Ekman quotes her as follows:
“The relationship involving women who live inside sex establishments and rarely leave until they are moved to another place without being consulted receives the media’s usual attention, it being taken for granted that this represents a total loss of freedom. In many cases, however, migrant workers prefer this situation, for any number of reasons: if they don’t leave the premises they don’t spend money; if they don’t have working papers, they feel safer inside in a controlled sitution; if someone else does the work of finding new venues and making arrangements, they don’t have to do it…”
Incidentally, the talk she gave at the WSM organised event was billed as a Q&A session, and when I attended and tried to make some points in opposition to Agustin (after speaker after speaker from the floor heaped gushing praise on her) and ask a question, I was shouted down by Agustin and the chairperson as was unable to finish my point. This incredible sanitising of the sex industry sinks into other murky waters in the quest to deny the existence of victims of prostitution. Ekman also gives examples of queer theorists, who, in their neoliberal, individualistic blindness, actually claim that men from the global North who are sex tourists in the global South are rebelliously transgressing sexual norms, as opposed to engaging in a sexist, racist act as they use their relative power and wealth to use a poor woman, man or child.
Heather Montgomery, an anthopologist who researched the sex industry in Thailand, was similarly hesitant about making any value judgement about men who buy young children for sex, for fear of oppressing the children. “The children that I knew”, says Montgomery, “did have a ‘sense of decision and control’… The search for victims of child abuse sometimes obscures the acknowledgement of children’s agency.”. Montgomery even goes so far as to say, while acknowledging the bruises, the drug abuse, and the STDs that many of these children suffered, she felt that it wasn’t possible to apply Western models of psychology to these children, and therefore raised a question mark over whether this abuse affected them negatively.
This is the path that the neo-liberal denial of victims takes you, all wrapped up in a ‘we speak for sex-workers and you just want to rescue them’, bow. This is common currency. In a recent edition of Rabble, a relatively popular Irish left-wing magazine, an article entitled “Saving in the name of scrub”, penned by Katie Garrett was billed as sex-workers speaking out. Prostitution was treated with such levity that apparently “some people might personally find the notion of paying, or being paid for, the ride a wee bit icky”, and Rachel Moran, a survivor of prostitution whose book, Paid For was a bestseller at the time of writing, was unsurprisingly not asked to contribute to this serious expose of the sex industry.
Often lefts justify their sanitising of the sex industry on the grounds that if prostitutes / sex workers organise in trade unions then the worst exploitation can be diminished, and therefore that the key demand that the Left should make is for unionisation of prostitutes / sex workers. Ekman gives a whole host of examples that illustrate the problematic nature of making this a central demand, as many organisations that claim to be sex workers’ trade unions are nothing of the sort – either they have such a tiny membership that they are entirely insignificant – such as the Dutch ‘de Rode Draad’ that according to Ekman’s research has about 100 members, a fraction of those engaged in prostitution in Holland, and has never engaged itself in any industrial dispute – or else they openly have bosses / pimps either in the union or supporting it. The IUSW in Britain, claims to be a sex workers’ union. However, of its 150 members, at least one prominent one is Douglas Fox who is co-owner of one of Britain’s largest escort companies.
Incidentally the Dutch Brothel Owners’ Association has a link to ‘de Rode Draad’ on its website. Organisations that contain bosses are not unions. Ekman also gives chilling examples of the way in which some such organisations, if they fundamentally don’t oppose the sex industry, end up accepting and negotiating, instead of fighting against and opposing all the worst aspects of this vile industry. For example, she cites a South African sex worker organisation that advises prostitutes / sex workers to toss a shoe under the client’s bed in order to have an excuse to check for weapons.
Ekman is also unimpressed with large state and EU funding for a number of organisations that she deems as ‘pro-prostitution’, that sprang up in the 1990s, with the development of a HIV/AIDs epidemic. Organisations like COYOTE and TAMPEP, Ekman contends, focus almost solely on teaching prostitutes about condom use and have no facilities to aid anyone in prostitution to get out of it, if they so wish. For Ekman, it’s an example of how the so-called ‘harm reduction’ approach is often more inclined towards reducing the harm for potential clients of the industry, and therefore an assist to the sex industry moguls, more than a charitable assist for prostitutes. One Austrialian state-sponsored ‘harm reduction’ brochure advises prostitutes to “always act like you enjoy it”, and the Australian sex worker organisation, the Scarlet Alliance, similarly advises prostitutes to continue to seek to arouse a man if he is getting aggressive as the best way to avoid being attacked, because bruises “can force you into having time off work, in turn losing more money”.
The second half of the book deals with the burgeoning global surrogacy industry. Ekman sees an alter ego for the ‘whore’, in the ‘Madonna’ women who give birth to a baby for a worthy, childless couple, as it’s generally portrayed. Both women are objectified, albeit with one vilified by patriarchal capitalist society, and the other glorified. Both women’s bodies are commodified. Fundamentally, both are dehumanised. It’s incredibly unsettling to read about the enormous surrogacy industry worldwide. It’s a global phenomenon with gender inequality, class oppression and racial inequality stitched into it.
What an indictiment of capitalism it is, that babies and women’s wombs have been so widely commodified in the quest for profits that surrogacy has blossomed into an industry that includes types of baby factories in India. There are clinics that mainly poor women go into and must live and stay in constantly during their pregnancy while under strict supervision and instruction about every morsel of food that they eat each day, while being administered with various injections and medicines at the will of the clinic. The women have no recourse to lay any claim to the baby that they carry in their womb and give birth to. Most often it’s dark-skinned women producing a white baby for a relatively wealthy couple from the US. The women receive between 2500 and 6500 USD, which could be up to ten years salary for a peasant woman in India. This can mean that women in India are coerced by husbands or family members into signing up to be a surrogate.
The unjust lack of adoption rights for gay couples can to some degree, fuel this industry. It’s more fundamental than this, however, as Ekman explains. The focus of the surrogacy industry relies, not so much on a desire to rear and nurture children as it does on the question of biological connection. This is central. The argument is in a skilful and nuanced fashion, fostered, that being a mother or parent is inextricably linked with having a biological connection – this means that the woman who carries and gives birth to the baby is not important and is virtually non-existent, and furthermore, it intimates towards ownership of a commodity or possession, rather than the question of loving and caring for a small human being. In some twisted type of way, it’s an extension of a very old-fashioned, reactionary, and patriarchal view of family, children, child-rearing etc, whereby children were objectified as possessions that ‘should be seen and not heard’.
As Ekman points out, less focus on the question of biological connection and of a traditional view of the family could mean that many people who can’t have children of their own could participate positively in child-rearing in numerous forms of non-traditional family arrangements. The surrogacy industry relies on traditional sexism, both in relation to the worshipping of motherhood in a really sanctimonious and hypocritical fashion (whereby the surrogate mothers are on the one hand praised as angelic figures, and on the other hand are stripped of their rights and humanity as mothers and human beings), and in relation to a closed view of what can and should constitute a proper family arrangement. Fundamentally, surrogate mothers risk both their physical and mental health through pregnancy, child-birth and giving up their baby in a way that is utterly incomparible to any ordinary job, and represents an extreme example of Marx’s forewarning that under capitalism, everything becomes a commodity.
Being and Being Bought gives an incisive portrayal, not only of the sex and surrogacy industries, but also of the arguments used to justify them both, arguments that Kajsa Ekis Ekman skilfully and comprehensively pulverises. Her work is overflowing with humanity and empathy for some of the most downtrodden woman and girls in the world, in particular. Reading her book, I certainly got a sense that Ekman has antipathy for the capitalist system, and all the horrors and miseries it heaps upon huge swathes of humanity. However, the book is limited. It doesn’t enough emphasise the sex and surrogacy industries link to the profiteering nature of capitalism. It focuses solely on legal changes as a panacea in relation to how to deal with, curb and end both industries. There is no assessment of any negative consequences of or limitations to the laws or legal changes that Ekman is in favour of.
Most importantly, it fails to point out the need for a more fundamental challenge to the profit system, in order to genuinely end these industries. Ekman’s advocacy of the legal banning of altruistic surrogacy in my opinion is questionable and problematic including in terms of how it might be implemented. Nonetheless, this a valuable piece of work. It’s strongest when it engages with what Ekman deems, ‘pro-prostitution’ arguments:
“This admiration of the whore is no vaccine against contempt – it is exactly the opposite. It goes hand in hand with scorn, overt or covert, for her humanity, and a lack of insight into her actual living conditions.”
Being and Being Bought: Prostitution, Surrogacy & the Split Self by Kajsa Ekis Ekman (Spinifix Press, 2013)
If you wish to read more about the Socialist Party’s analysis of the sex industry and prostitution, check out this article.