Is selling sex any less feminist a choice than furthering your career while other women clean your house/look after your kids?
— Alison Phipps (@alisonphipps) May 16, 2015
Confession: I am not sure what a “feminist choice” is meant to be, other than something that people use to defend bad arguments before deciding that the people they’re arguing with are the ones who believe in “feminist choices” to begin with. But I do think if we are to have any discussions about gender, work and possibilities for change, it makes sense to distinguish that which is inevitable and/or gendered from that which is not.
For a man, the alternative to paying for sex is not having sex. That is it. The sex “not done” is not an undue burden that will one day need to be relieved, no matter what the average adolescent boy might claim. For a woman, the alternative to paying for childcare is doing the work yourself, immediately, unpaid, and isolated from the broader economy. One is not the same as the other. It should not be the case that social class privilege enables some women, but not others, to mitigate sex class disadvantage (albeit at a cost). Nonetheless, it is not the case that paying for childcare is a form of exploitation based on class privilege in the same way that paying for sex is (and I realise the original quote is about selling, not buying, sex, but I refuse to compare apples and pears just because it suits someone else’s desire to hide the true comparison).
Someone has to do childcare. That someone does not have to be a woman but it usually is. All people – including men of all classes – benefit from the fact that children are cared for. Yet it is only women who are expected to bear the burden of this work, regardless of whether they are doing it themselves or not.
A society in which sex is not work for anyone – in which it is leisure for both parties – should not be unthinkable. It may be impossible to achieve under patriarchy (and people can and do disagree on what is the safest, most humane way to proceed in the meantime) but anyone who suggests that such a society cannot even be imagined – that even to dream of it is a pointless indulgence – might as well give up any pretence of holding men to account in the here and now.
On the other hand, a society in which childcare is not work for anyone – in which it is always times leisure for both carer and child – is impossible to achieve. And yet we find it easy to imagine. More than that, we pretend it exists right this very minute. Women who outsource childcare are vilified not least because of the myth that when it is your own child, childcare is not really work at all. It is “natural.” It is just how things should be, so why shouldn’t you knuckle down and accept the exhaustion, sleep deprivation and ecomonic exclusion that goes with it? For some, the thought that childcare is inevitably work – and that therefore we should find better ways to distribute it equally between the sexes, to make it pay better and to remove all stigma associated with it being paid for – is much more taboo than the thought that sex is sometimes, for women, inevitably work (which it isn’t in any absolute sense). It is a strange imbalance, one that can only be justified by seeing the world as one in which men “naturally” need sex in the same way that women “naturally” want to care for others (which is not, by the way, a feminist way of seeing things at all).
The meaning of women’s labour should not be contingent on how men feel about it – whether they realise that they themselves benefit from it, whether they would wish to do it themselves, whether they notice that it is work at all. There is another way of seeing things, one which recognises women not just as objects who meet supposed “needs” but as human beings who have needs themselves. Neither childcare nor sex is “what we’re for” but we are expected to live in a male-dominated world which treats us as though this is the case, not paying us for the former because they love it really, paying us for the latter because who gives a shit whether they love it or not? That each of us is making a contribution to the world – on average a greater one than the men around us – gets lost in discussions of how compromised each of our contributions is and fearful disagreements over how far one might dare to imagine alternative societies, ones which demand more from men and less from us.
The solution is not to make what should be leisure for both sexes into work for women, while pretending that what should be work for both sexes is leisure for women. That is, however, the “solution” that patriarchy offers us and it is incredibly difficult to disentangle ourselves from it without feeling that we lose what little value we have been granted as human beings. Nonetheless, that is no reason to avoid thinking the unthinkable, nor is it one to distort debates that matter and which we need to be having right now.