Men in the sex industry
A Critical Review of Marlowe's ‘Thinking Outside the Box: Men in the Sex Industry'
In his article, Marlowe discusses the reality behind the prostitution and porn industries in relation to male prostitution. From this perspective he argues that abolitionist disregard elements of the male prostitution industry in their beliefs, and that this element of the commercial sex industry cannot be construed as harmful to women because they do not play any role in the process. He thus brings male prostitution into light as a factor by which to re-examine abolitionist arguments.
According to Marlowe, abolitionists believe that a woman is being raped every time she engages in prostitution because it is never entirely consensual. This suggests that women are always ‘on the losing end of the transaction' and that no amount of payment can rectify her emotionally (Marlowe, 2006: 352). However, the discourse of prostitution is that a contract is formed in which both parties are satisfied with the arrangements. The belief that this kind of context could be viewed as a violation is therefore in Marlowe's opinion unfounded. Rape is an act which is forcibly imposed on someone whereas a contract of mutual consent is necessary in prostitution. This ‘consensual' contract may undermine the idea that prostitution can be interpreted as rape, but it is still important to acknowledge the effects that it can have on women, as well as on men. A further problem Marlowe points out regarding the notion of prostitution as rape is that it cannot apply to male prostitutes with female clients, as they are the ‘active' participants (Marlowe, 2006: 353). This presents us with the question of if we can define rape only as sexual penetration and whether our inherent gender can predetermine who is powerful and who is violated in our sexual society. Marlowe asserts that although it is assumed that male prostitutes share the same passive and submissive role as the ‘receivers' in sexual encounters, this is not generally the case. He makes the point that gay sex ‘typically involves a high degree of reciprocity, which makes the rape arguments appear kind of silly in this context: it's very difficult to argue that a hustler is being raped if he's the active partner' (Marlowe, 2006: 353). Therefore it is wrong to typically assume that prostitution is invasive in its nature or that is always dependent in oral, vaginal or anal penetrative sex.
The scenario of prostitution as rape can clearly not be applied to every situation. If commercial sexual exchanges can take place between two men without there being the notion of rape then theoretically it is wrong to assume that we can define sexual exchanges between women and men as rape; this equates to prejudgements on the basis of gender alone. From this perspective, Marlowe illustrates that rape and prostitution are very different in construct. However, prostitution between males and females should not be understood as being the same as between two men. Marlowe notes that ‘men almost always work independently of pimps, are more likely to face violence from gay bashers than from clients, seldom have children to support, and in many cases merely use prostitution as a way to explore their sexuality' (Marlowe, 2006: 353). Although these are valid issues to explore, Marlowe does not acknowledge the possibility of a substantial emotional difference between men and women with regards to sex.
The innate quality of gender means that men and women have a different perspective towards the act of sexual intercourse. They are different in their approach to sex, and Marlowe does not adequately address this notion. He demonstrates that males can be indifferent to elements of domination in the sex industry and that payment is the overriding motivation for participation (Marlowe, 2006: 352). From his assumption that men are not bothered about being objectified or dominated it is possible to suggest that sex is fundamentally a more emotional experience for women and so they are more susceptible to feelings of exploitation. However, although money seems to be the dominant incentive for engaging in the act of prostitution, Marlowe does acknowledge his own feelings of guilt in accepting the money which shows that men are not immune from emotional repercussions.
What motivates somebody to actively pursue sex on demand is widely unknown. Commercial sex is more than just a physical act; is it driven by certain emotions and an urge to satisfy our subsequent emotional demands. ‘Johns' or consumers are less visible in the debate of prostitution because they are anonymous counterparts who are difficult to characterise due to the secretive nature of their recreational interests. It is therefore hard to gain any knowledge of their identity or conceptualise their motivation. Marlowe believes that abolitionists ‘fill in the blanks with a blanket characterization that casts all johns as misogynist sociopaths intent on expressing their contempt for women through commercial sex' (Marlowe, 2006: 353). This is clearly a very exaggerated and extreme view, although that is not to say that being a john could not be construed as immoral. Although consumers cannot be understood as one homogenous group, the main appeals seem to be the prospects of discrete immediate gratification with minimal effort. It is perhaps easier for someone who is in a position of great authority or public demand to conceal any obscure sexual needs in order to prevent them from risking their reputation. There will always be men (and women) among us who yearn for ‘easy' commercial sex, and where there is a high demand a market will exist regardless of policy or normative standards. Abolitionists and even society may aim to establish harm reduction through the control of independent action, but ultimately they cannot prevent individual freedom of choice.
We cannot fully understand the motivations that guide consumers into seeking out prostitutes, nor can we understand the strength of their desires. Johns are ‘diverse demographic' group which cannot be homogenised as having a common set of values and attitudes (Marlowe, 2006: 354). Marlowe also speculates that a wide proportion of consumers seeking male prostitutes are otherwise straight in their identity. Prostitution therefore provides them with a discrete and private means of exploring their sexuality. Other potential reasons to motivate someone into obtaining a prostitute include a lack of desire to comply with social conventions and form a relationship as the basis of sexual interaction. Johns may also wish to acquire sex from someone they would otherwise consider as out of their league.
Abolitionists fail to make distinctions between the natures of the consumer's intent, and thus view all such men as rapists. They believe that the prostitution industry will inescapably dehumanise its subjects and that they will ultimately be viewed as sexual objects rather than as people. It is inevitable, that if you are having sex with a number of partners on a frequent basis that you will become desensitised to notions of love-making and romance. Despite this we cannot attempt to govern the actions of other people as we are defined only by our own experiences. People are entitled to form their own judgements over what qualifies moral behaviour. Any job will in some way take its own toll, and in modern society we are entitled to freedom in establishing our own personal values. A boxer can experience personal damage in his occupation and is likely to suffer from head injuries, but society does not question his moral standards in pursuing this occupation. Similarly, soldiers can experience tremendous physical and emotional trauma as a result of their careers, they are not only accepted but endorsed by a large proportion of society. From this perspective, it is fair to argue that prostitution could be considered as a legitimate profession.
The porn industry differs to the prostitution industry in a number of ways. Porn is less hidden in society, and as most people have had first-hand experience of observing it, it is impossible to depict all subjects as motivated by ‘economic desperation' (Marlow, 2006: 355). Also, the issue of porn is related to the notion of freedom of thought: it is difficult not only to define pornography but to control a person's reaction to images. Where there is a market, sex industries will form and this is an unavoidable element of society.
Abolitionists believe that porn objectifies women as a man expresses sexual power through the process of penetration. The man is the actor and the woman is the passive recipient. Marlowe claims that homosexual and heterosexual porn are distinctly different, and that male objectification cannot be understood as being harmful to women. In homosexual relations it is naive to assume that one partner must undertake a feminine role and forfeit his masculinity (Marlowe, 2006: 355).Marlowe also objects to the notion that gay men cannot be recipients and simultaneously retain their gender identity. It is important to remember that roles are not ‘fixed' in homosexual relations and roles are affectively chosen by partners. However, Marlowe does not acknowledge that it is the concept of objectification rather than the gender of the subjects involved which is offensive to abolitionists or radical feminists. It's just that in the majority of cases it is the female who is sexualised and coerced into various sectors of the sex industry because of the predominantly straight male market. It is not just the concern of degrading women that is an issue here, rather the dehumanising process of exploitation which invariably occurs within the sex industry.
Marlowe believed that the principles of feminism such as ‘equality and independence' suggest that women have ‘the right to define their own moral standard', and thus it is contradictory to state that women do not have the right or responsibility to deal with their personal sexual choices (Marlowe, 2006: 356). A woman is entitled to her own values and standards and is capable of making her own decisions in regards to how she uses her body. However, by complying with a society which allows and endorses the sex industry we are compromising women's image as merely a sexual object in spite of the fact that any activities may have been consensual. We are debasing moral values that advocate sex as a product of love, effort and commitment. Women are guided into the porn industry to obtain economic viability. They are usually detached from their work and do not gain genuine gratification from it. Marlowe assumes that these women have genuine power or control over their choices, however this is not always the case. Women are more likely than men to experience some degree of harm in the sex industry, whether it is emotional or physical.
The position of abolitionists is that the sex industry has detrimental consequences for those involved regardless of their gender. Marlowe may interpret these ‘universal conclusions' (Marlowe, 2006: 356) to be inaccurate, however abolitionists oppose the sex industry because of its harmful effects and the lack of personal integrity which is inevitably involved. In Marlowe's eyes, if prostitution in any case can take place without being dictatorial then is not degrading and should be considered as legitimate. He draws on his own experience to suggest that people's perceptions of prostitution being exploitative are fundamentally wrong. In his opinion women are stigmatised as helpless and vulnerable by sensationalist radical feminists. However it is important to realise that Marlowe's evidence for the experience of male prostitution is anecdotal and thus bias and potentially uninformed.
Marlowe believes abolitionist views are based on stereotypes, and are not representative of reality. He demands a gender-neutral view within the sex industry, however the role and experience of men and women is fundamentally different. Since male sex workers only make up a small proportion of the entire market which is male dominated, it is focused on female objectification. Predominantly men are the consumers. It is therefore fair to say that men and women think about and experience sex differently: women tend to be more vulnerable and so activities involving different sexualities cannot be directly compared.