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.