Sunday, September 24, 2006


A Heroine for 'Our' Age?

An eulogy from the ghastly Julie Bindel on the 19th century feminist and social purity campaigner Josephine Butler, who was one of the founders of the National Vigilance Association.

It is quite typical for a person who thinks in ahistorical categories to deem Butler's views on prostitution to be applicable to and a blueprint for all times. Likewise Bindel disingenously fails to mention that Butler's opposition to prostitution initially sprung from religious grounds, and a desire to save 'fallen women'.

However, to quote the ending paragraph (Bindel quoting the feminist historian Jane Jordan):

""Butler would find the discussions on prostitution as 'sex work', and the normalisation and expansion of the sex industry today very odd," says Jordan. "She would want to know how we could have gone backwards after the huge strides forward she achieved".


Yes, Jane, it is unlikely that Butler would have understood the concept of 'sex positive' feminism, or would have had much truck with the libertarian view on prostitution. She would no doubt be outraged by the displays of 'public immorality' so common today. But what you and your co-thinkers forget is that Butler and her contempories would have had little truck with you or your contempories either, who encourage what they viewed as infanticide. Butler believed that abortion should only be permissable in the case of rape. Be as moralising as you wish, but please don't be hypocrites on top.


Butler believed that no woman could voluntarily enter prostitution. She could only do so out of either blatant coercion or economic and social forces beyond her control. Prostitution was therefore sexual slavery, and served as a metaphor for men's cruelty to women, and a world full of economic injustice.

This metaphor may be applicable in the cases of some women, mostly the trafficked migrants forced or tricked against their will. But to apply it to all sex workers is far too much of a generalisation, and unhelpful to those who do not perceive themselves as victims.

Even in the Victorian era (when the working class lived in more appalling conditions than they do now) it is doubtful that it could have been applied universally. Prostitutes today can not be divided into neat categories of high class call girls/drug addict victims so it seems therefore unlikely that Victorian prostitutes were simply courtesans or underclass laudanam drinkers.

Besides which, if the working class prostitutes Butler tried to save were all on some level forced (economically), then why didn't all working class women enter the profession, judging from the conditions they were forced to live in? Why was there a ready army of regular factory wage slaves of the female sex?

From a religious/moral standpoint prostitution is really not different from casual sex. It depends to some degree on our upbringing, but people do have differing values regarding sexual mores. Some will flout the mores of their age more easily and readily than will others if they find they don't resonate that much with them. For some people sex is simply more sacred than it is for others. An act, after all, is only worth as much as a person invests in it. Difference say, between, preparing fast food for a stranger or cooking a candlelit meal for a loved one. Or, on the part of the consumer, eating it. For some people sex is always a sacred and romantic act, hence not one they would be prepared to exchange for cash. A woman who is desperate for cash via severe economic and social hardship and engages in work she at heart considers to be against her values is more likely to be damaged by the experience than somebody who considers sex to be less sacred. Women who do not enjoy casual sex and have romantic concepts of sexuality are unlikely to make good sex workers. They will not have the mentality needed for the work. But it is wrong to universalise this and make this morality binding on all women. At heart it would be no less sexist and constraining than the old virgin/whore myth. Yet this is exactly what Bindel and her allies do. Butler could not fully move beyond this, and the dictates of her time probably made it impossible for her do so. Butler was *of* her time, the Victorian era. She was not 'ahead' of it as Bindel preposterously claims.

The mentality of Bindel is no less Victorian than that of Butler. Butler believed that no decent woman would willingly engage in what she considered to be an immoral act. But her advocacy for the female sex and women's rights prohibited her from wishing to condemn women she knew to be vulnerable, shunned and outcast from polite society, as being immoral. Hence the view of prostitution as abuse was the only logical way out of this, as with the other social reformers of her age.

But times have moved on. The Victorian age is now known for it's purient sexual morality, an age when women could not even bare their ankles in public. Hence the sexual views of Butler and other middle class reformers must be seen in terms of their social background and the time they lived in. This can be recognised without dismissing all the causes they fought for, and their campaigning against misogyny and sexist double standards. Butler did the right thing in opposing the contagious diseases act with it's discriminatory nature, and the stigmatisation and despair it would have brought to many women.

There is a good article here on the panic in the late Victorian age surrounding the phenomena known as white slavery, the disputes as to whether or not it existed (or at least it's prevalance) and the formation of the National Vigilance Society prior to the publication in the Pall Mall Gazette on the alleged rape and abduction of English virgins for sale.

Butler may have been a heroine, but of the Victorian age, not for ours.

6 comments:

David Duff said...

Yeees, but your contemporary laissez-faire approach would be more acceptable if the so-called liberals didn't boss the rest of us around on all sorts of other activities like smoking, eating fatty but tasty convenience foods, saying what we like, and so on. All they have done, it seems to me, is to change one set of restrictions for others of their choice.

As to prostitution, a cursory view of the behaviour many young women falling out of pubs and clubs on a weekend seems to indicate that a career move into sex for money would not be a huge step! I suspect that with many (western) so-called 'sex workers', good old-fashioned laziness, greed and the desire for spurious glamour is enough to hook them.

Even so, and writing as some-one with libertarian (not liberal!) leanings, the sight of young girls rutting like animals for the profit of men and the titillation of other men is simply disgusting. (Yes, I have watched it, and yes, I have been aroused by it, but yes, I do feel a sense of shame.) Given the price these young girls pay in the mental and physical degredation they undergo, I can't help feeling that pornography should be stamped on and made much more difficult to operate. If a few toff liberals have to forgo their vicarious thrills, well, too bad.

Liz said...

David - I am a left libertarian rather than a liberal so I'm not one to go in for the other moralising you describe either!
If I am any kind of a feminist it is of the Camille Paglia variety - libertarian, pro porn etc. I don't go for the view that porn is misogynist.

It's not a crime (in my view) to be lazy, it human nature to want to do less work for more money and have more leisure time. Greed is part and parcel of the mentality of a capitalist society, encouraged by it. But I think the reasons why many women enter the sex industry are far more complex than you seem to give them credit for.

Rutting 'like animals' - well, at the end of the day we are animals. As for the profit of men, do you mean the producers of porn films/owners of strip clubs? Profits are made from anything in a capitalist society. I prefer with porn that it would be produced by the actors themselves, or in the case of a strip club that it be a co-operative owned by the women who work there. But if this is not the case, my concern is that the workers get what they have worked for, have decent conditions etc. Unions can help with this (see the link in my toolbar). If you feel a sense of shame at feeling aroused by this then I for one don't think you should feel any shame.

I grant that some young women suffer psychological damage from this kind of work (as I described in my post there are some more likely to than others, depending on their character types). But not all of them suffer damage, and it is not for me to judge other people as being lazy, greedy whatever because of what type of work they do. Slogging away in a call centre 45 hours a week for a low wage is degrading, so I cannot say I blame people for choosing something that pays more money and has more flexible hours. As I stated, my view is that sexual acts are only worth what we invest into them. Pretty much like the bread and wine in the Christian mass - it's only sacred if you invest sacredness or emotion into it (and I say this as someone who respects religion and the symbolism of ritual).

You seem to be objecting to porn on a moral basis (I saw your post on your own blog on this and related issues). This is down to you - but at the end of the day it's not up to the State to legislate on morality.

David Duff said...

I am so very depressed at your response which is, I suppose, summed up in you rown words - "well, at the end of the day we are animals".

If that is truly your belief then there is no hope. Bring on rape and pillage, let's have another Gulag, another Auschwitz but whatever happens "it's not up to the State to legislate on morality."

Nonsense, of course, and you know it! It's just the same old, same old, you have your morality and I have mine.

Liz said...

Hi David,

I'm sorry my response depressed you, please don't let it ;)

My comment 'we are all animals' was in response to one of yours about young girls strutting around like them (i.e sexually provocatively). What I was getting at was that at the end of the day sex is an animal act. If anything defines as being human it is not the capacity to mate. It is, I suspect, only humans who have the ability to elevate sex into something romantic, spiritual. But not all sex between humans is like this, some remains of the animal kind.

Of course I know that there are things which distinguish humans from other animals. And I wasn't claiming the State cannot make laws on anything. It can make laws on acts which will harm another person. Sexually - there are limits. I believe it should be (and in fact is) against the law to have sex with an animal or a child. There should be laws against rape. But banning something like porn is very problematic - as that is where you start to blur the line between consensual sex and rape. Providing that the men and women participating in porn are adults and are consenting to the activity it isn't for the State to police what goes on between consenting adults. It seems so far you have just been talking about straight porn involving women. I would like to ask you what your view is on gay porn. When porn has been outlawed it is usually gay porn that is the first to suffer. I'd also add that there are some very young looking men in some gay porn, do you find that exploitative, degrading or potentially damaging? Gay porn is something that is ignored by anti porn feminists and something you seem to be overlooking. I think if one takes your line then you should apply it to both catergories.

I didn't mean to slip into relativism there. I meant that when it comes to matters that are strictly personal (i.e drugs, alcohol, sex) the State should butt out, unless of course it involves children. Grown ups should be treated like grown ups.

David Duff said...

I look forward to seeing your daughter/sister/mother appearing on the raunchier late-night TV channels!

And when it happens I look forward to your brave liberal defence that "Grown ups should be treated like grown ups".

Liz said...

Grow up, David. Whether or not it would be her finest hour is indeed debatable, but if my sister decided to do what you describe it would be her business, not mine. Ditto my mother or daughter (providing she was old enough). But I doubt my mother would go on there, she is a little old for that kind of thing! Sorry to disappoint, but I'm not one of those hypocrites who believes these things to be ok for others yet not women in their family. Ultimately it is their decision, whether they are related to me or not. So yes, grown ups should be treated like grown ups. And that includes members of my family.