Power play on the game

Prostitution, Power and Freedom

September 10, 1999

Julia O'Connell Davidson draws together a range of themes in her exploration of prostituted women's experiences of, and clients' engagement in, prostitution. As she points out, though there are male prostitutes and female clients, the "norm" is the opposite. She focuses on the meaning of power, control and contracting transactions. Different prostitution milieus, for example, brothels, streets and flats; legal, individual, ideological and societal contexts; and control by third parties, pimps to women working independently are explored in Europe, Asia, Africa and Central America.

Of particular interest is her use of a Marxist analysis in exploring prostitution as the creation of surplus value, though different from other forms of exploitative labour relationships. In this way O'Connell Davidson focuses on third parties who benefit financially from prostitution and whose interests are served by keeping women in prostitution. Women's poverty and limited employment options, and clients' economic power are looked at, particularly in relation to sex tourists, in conjunction with the colonial and racialised nature of this type of prostitution.

O'Connell Davidson explores the nature of the state's involvement in prostitution in terms of its regulation through the criminal justice system, but because of attitudes towards the selling of sexual services, women in prostitution are not offered protection. She also points out how the state benefits in terms of prostitution "operating as a kind of alternative 'welfare' system".

While critiquing a feminist analysis of prostitution as not taking account of women's different experiences of prostitution, seeing all prostitution as abusive, and forging what she sees as "false" links between the oppression of women in general and that of women in prostitution in particular, O'Connell Davidson presents an ambiguous political position. She looks at the specificities of the different milieus, prostituted women's varied ability to negotiate transactions, why men use prostitutes and notions of masculinity, and makes links in relation to the damage caused and use of all women in prostitution. "The domination client, as much as the 'straight' client, dehumanises the prostitute, refusing to acknowledge her as anything more than her sex."

While O'Connell Davidson highlights differences and argues against this feminist position, she ends by supporting the protection of women in prostitution but envisages a future where resorting to prostitution is unnecessary. Exploring prostitution along a continuum of sexual violence and incorporating the interconnected manifestations of patriarchal power and abuse within and outside of prostitution would have allowed for a clearer exploration of the specificities and commonalties of women's experiences.

Melissa Friedberg is lecturer in social work, Brunel University.

Prostitution, Power and Freedom

Author - Julia O'Connell Davidson
ISBN - 0 7456 1739 5 and 1740 9
Publisher - Polity
Price - £45.00 and £13.95
Pages - 232

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