Is the prostitute the seller or the sold?

Excerpts from Being and Being Bought, by Kajsa Ekis Ekman, Spinifex Press, 2013.

Ekman, a Swedish journalist and critic, brings together a Marxist and feminist analysis of prostitution and surrogacy in this groundbreaking book. This is the third part of a synopsis and brief commentary of the book by Daphna Whitmore. Part 1 was published here. and Part 2 here.


What we are hearing from the sex trade lobby is that the ‘sex worker’ does not sell herself. She is the seller – but what, then, is being sold? What, exactly, is the commodity being bought?

The commodity sold in prostitution is generally said to be ‘sex’. The john is the ‘buyer’ and the prostitute is the ‘seller’, they say. All the talk about selling sex makes it sound like ‘sex’ is something manufactured in a factory.

This is how the idea of prostitution if formulated today: a Self that sells her own body. In order to think it is possible to sell the body without selling the Self, one must take Cartesian dualism for granted. She is called the seller not the sold, to mark the difference: what is being sold is not actually her. She is made up of both a being and a commodity in this formulation. The body is presented as an object bending to the will of the Self. The freedom of the Self, so hailed in the story of the sex worker, stands in direct contrast to the lack of freedom of the body.  

We often hear of destimgatisation. She is as much an agent as anyone else. Yet for this very reason she must be separated from her body: it must become an object, it must be stigmatised because it is what is bought. While the prostitute as a defective individual was central to the traditional story, the Split Self stands at the center of the story of the sex worker. This echoes throughout pro-prostitution rhetoric: “But she’s not selling her Self!”

A key point for Ekman is that this is an ideology that tries to depict prostitution as freedom. This is in line with the prevailing free market ideology, a kind of liberalism for which ‘the equal value of all people’ is axiomatic. While it is totally alien to this ideology to allege that some people are biologically inferior, it is equally taken for granted that the free market must be defended at all costs. In this case, it is the free market that reduces people to mere commodities.

The idea that the Self “is entirely distinct from the body” is the cornerstone of the whole idea that it is possible to sell your body without selling yourself.

In the story of the sex worker, something else happens as well. Sex becomes something separate from both Self and body. The supporters of prostitution use the expression ‘sexual services’, maintaining the distinction that what is sold is the service not the body. In this abstraction sex is neither the Self nor the body. We thus have a threefold abstraction: The Self becomes a body. The body becomes sex. Sex becomes a service. 

When we speak of sexual services, we have moved several steps away from the human Self. We are no longer talking about, for example a 56 year old man called Peter who tells his wife and children he’ll be working late and solicits a 17 year old called Miriam. We don’t say that they sit in his car, that he reclines the driver’s seat, that he has bits of toilet paper stuck in his pubic hair, etc. Instead, we have something abstract: a sexual service. Reflect on this phrase to describe what happens in prostitution: she sells sex to him. What does this tell us? Sex hovers in the air between two people as if it were completely unattached, a product that women happen to possess. And therewith the relationship between Peter and Miriam becomes veiled; the power differential becomes a static object, impossible to comprehend. The ‘sexual service’ – sex as a commodity – is convertible to currency, exchangeable in the marketplace and therefore socially accepted – without us having the chance to ask Peter what the hell he thinks he is doing.

Prostitution is, essentially, not a capitalist phenomenon but a patriarchal one. It did not automatically occur when people began to buy and sell but is instead rooted in the relationship between men and women. But when prostitution is incorporated into an advanced, highly developed market economy, this complex power struggle itself becomes a commodity. Sex is separated from the person and becomes supernatural. According to Marx, once something appears as a commodity it no longer behaves normally. If you make a piece of wood into a table, even though the wood changes form, it is still wood:

But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than ‘table-turning’ ever was (Marx, Capital Vol 1).

When a person has sex, s/he is mostly certainly a person, and perhaps more than ever a body. But when sex becomes a commodity, it begins to act in all sorts of strange ways. It is wrenched from a person and seems to go around and exchange itself for other commodities. Some argue that as we accept the commodification of water and food, without which no human life would be possible, why not sex? The problem with this formulation is it implies that sex is a thing, a material good like food and water, something that can be produced, delivered and walked away from.

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