Can there be such a thing as feminist pornography? Many still say no. Echoing decades of anti-pornography feminist literature, Gail Dines told the Daily Beast in 2012 that “anyone willing to feed off women’s bodies and use them as raw materials to make a profit has no right to call themselves feminists.” But many feminists, including those who make porn, disagree. Despite decades of efforts to suppress it, porn is reaching larger audiences than ever. Making porn more politically progressive for those who consume it and making sets safer for performers are critical issues for feminist intervention—and feminist pornographers have chosen to take on both.
Prostitution is often viewed in feminist theory as the sine qua non of the female condition under patriarchy. Frequently cited as ‘the absolute embodiment of patriarchal male privilege’ (Kesler, 2002: 19), the highly gendered nature of commercial sex appears to offer a graphic example of male domination, exercised through the medium of sexuality.
This construction is, however, as convincing as it is problematic. By reviewing the work of Shelia Jeffries, Judith Walkowitz, Gail Pheterson, Shannon Bell, Jo Doezema, Kamala Kempadoo and Jo Phoenix, I aim to illustrate that feminist writers, by assuming different theoretical lenses, offer diverse interpretations of the subject of prostitution – both in terms of women’s subjective positions and as a problem of a particular type. Prostitution therefore rather than having a singular meaning is more usefully viewed as an important crucible for testing the central mainstays of feminist theory. As Donna Guy notes:
Full of apparent contradictions and discrepancies, the history of modern prostitution control offers a dynamic perspective on the private lives of women as well as the public functioning of medicine, patriarchy and the nation state and emphasizes the need to understand how gender and sexuality are interrelated inextricably to race, cultural diversity and economic circumstances. (Guy, 1995: 182)
As this quotation suggests, and as I will demonstrate in the course of this article, there are limitations in viewing prostitution as straightforwardly paradigmatic, given the contingencies and diversity of the structures under which its materializes.
The 2000 UN Trafficking Protocol has obliged states to discourage demand that fosters exploitation that leads to trafficking. Fifteen years later, there is still no shared understanding of what demand means in the context of debates on trafficking in human beings (THB). The terms “trafficking” and “demand” display a lexical and referential ambiguity. This paper provides a history of the occurrence and usage of the concepts “trafficking” and “demand” in the context of debates on trafficking and explores the different meanings and understandings attached to these terms in past and present debates. The paper covers debates on trafficking in human beings since the 1860s and shows that terminological confusion was and still is a constant feature of these debates. The term abolition referred initially to the abolition of state regulation and not – as it is understood in the present-day debates – to the abolition of prostitution. The term trafficking is introduced in past and present debates with a confusing diversity of meanings, referring to the kidnapping of girls for the purpose of prostitution, fraudulent procurement of unsuspecting women for prostitution abroad, procurement of consenting women for prostitution, abetting of irregular border crossing or fraudulent abetting of irregular migration with the purpose of exploiting migrants after arrival and other issues. The term demand was introduced in past and present debates and has a diversity of meanings. It can refer to the biological drive of males, to a demand generated by a system of state regulation of prostitution, to a demand of brothel owners and pimps, or to a demand of male clients to purchase commercial sexual services. Thus, when the issue of demand is raised in debates of trafficking, the meaning attached to the term in a communication context is usually not clear; and the same speaker can often use the term demand rather metaphorically with changing meanings. The paper shows that terminological confusion is effect and cause of ongoing and unsolved controversies about the legal handling of prostitution. The paper shows how the issue of demand originally entered the UN Trafficking Protocol and how subsequent attempts failed to develop an authoritative definition. Although debates are characterised by terminological ambiguity, even the claim that a definition is a necessity is denied. Conceptual confusion hampers mutual understanding, prevents reasonable dispute and undermines the capacity to develop policy approaches which effectively provide protection from trafficking and exploitation. The paper closes with the observation that the controversy surrounding the meaning of demand in the context of anti-trafficking efforts has the effect of raising attention to deal more directly with the issue of exploitation.