Prostitutes, Feminists and Economic Associates

Part Two

by Wendy McElroy

In Defense of Economic Associates

The prostitutes I've spoken with believe that the current feminist stress on targeting 'the men' is harming 'the women'. And, because the most reviled men in prostitution are the pimps, I want to argue against current anti-pimping laws in the assumption that, if I call these measures into question, doubt will be cast on all other laws against the men.

I want to begin by presenting an e-mail exchange -- a discussion that occurred between myself and three female prostitutes -- on the subject of pimps and madams. The first woman wrote:

"I would like the movement [Prostitutes' Rights] to be *less* oriented toward social work and *more* about giving people the skills (and other things they need) to be professionally successful. Key to this is SUPPORTING MADAMS AND BUSINESS OWNERS instead of trashing them (whether subtly or directly). Because in order to succeed and have staying power a prostitute eventually has to become more entrepreneurial." [Emphasis in the original.]

The second prostitute chirped in electronically:

"I think madams are a great asset to the industry -- they're women who usually have first-hand experience, and tend to be thorough when it comes to protecting their underlings. I have a bit of a problem with pimps, though...especially men whose only experience in the biz is from the demand side."

The third whore voiced a dissenting opinion:

"What is the big fuss about pimps?...If you are talking about people who (but for a penis) might be called madams, I don't see a problem. I might prefer to work with another lady but that's a personality thing. When I was younger, I worked for an agency that was owned by two guys and one woman. They were all about the same -- sometimes nice, sometimes annoying, like anyone else in the world."

It is interesting to note that the discussion of pimps does not even touch upon the issue of violence. It dwells entirely upon economics, and that is because the definition of pimp is an economic one. As the Canadian ex-prostitute Alexandra Highcrest commented in her book At Home on the Stroll, "In simple legal terms a pimp is someone who lives off the earnings of a prostitute. Such a broad definition can include many people most of us don't think of when we hear that word. Children live off the earnings of prostitute mothers; husbands, lovers, siblings, perhaps even parents, can all meet the basic requirements for being classified as pimps by the courts."[14]

Such laws do not punish people for beating, raping, or stealing from a whore. They do not define a pimp as a man who kidnaps a woman and coerces her onto the streets. Such laws refer to financial arrangements and target those who receive money from or give money to whores. And, so, it becomes illegal for a prostitute to form the economic associations that most women take for granted.

The public widely perceives anti-pimping laws as protecting prostitutes from abusive men. And Kathleen Barry not only agrees, but extends the definition of pimping to include anyone who promotes the commodification of women, including pornographers. But if mere economic arrangements with men were damaging the women who are street walkers, you would expect the Prostitutes' Rights Movement to support measures against them. Instead, the community adamantly opposes anti-pimping laws.

In a COYOTE release, the veteran prostitute activist Carol Leigh -- 'the Scarlot Harlot' -- offered insight into their reasoning when she pleaded on behalf of her husband:

"You want to make laws against the pimps? Make sure that you make the distinction between forced prostitution, and those who want to be in prostitution by choice. Go after those who actually abuse us. Just as in marriage, some husbands are abusive of women. Not all husbands are that way. Don't take away my husband because he's really, really good to me. But if you want to help women, go after those people who actually abuse us, but be very, very careful how you word legislation that goes after those who you think exploit and abuse us, because those laws ultimately get used against us."15

How do allegedly protective laws get used against whores? For example, in both the United States and Europe, it is common practice for the police to use anti-pimping laws to ignore a whore's right to privacy. In pursuit of pimps, the police may break into the home of a known whore, riffle or confiscate her possessions, and harass anyone they find on the premises. The fear of such laws being used in reprisal makes many prostitutes reluctant to speak out or to become involved in community affairs. In turn, this makes them more alienated and less likely to break out of prostitution.

Anti-pimping laws also act as a barriers to those prostitutes who wish to marry and get out of the business in that manner. The husband, even of an ex-whore, becomes automatically vulnerable to charges of pimping. This is true even of husbands who do not live primarily off their wives' whoring, but who share household expenses with her.

But what of the husbands or lovers who are fully dependent on profits from prostitution? Are they not parasites living off the sexual wages of their wives? Whores are quick to point out that other women have the right to support their husbands and lovers. No one passes laws forbidding waitresses, lawyers, feminists, or secretaries from having dependent men in their lives. Why are whores the only women legally singled out in this manner?

Yet pimps continue to be excoriated, with no reference to whether or not they are abusive. There are two main reasons for this. First, pimps -- and not madams -- are associated with street walking which is the most violence-prone and stigmatized form of prostitution. Second, pimps -- as men -- have been systematically portrayed as exploiters and oppressors by modern feminism. As Kathleen Barry explains in Female Sexual Slavery:

"Together, pimping and procuring are perhaps the most ruthless displays of male power and sexual dominance...Procuring is a strategy, a tactic for acquiring women and turning them into prostitution; pimping keeps them there. Procuring today involves 'convincing' a woman to be a prostitute through cunning, fraud, and/or physical force, taking her against her will or knowledge and putting her into prostitution." [16]

How can this image of the pimp be reconciled with the following observation by a whore who chooses to remain anonymous:

"Many of the men who get 'pimps' are boyfriends, lovers, license-plate-number takers and managers. Many girls seek out pimps and even love their 'man'. A girl has a right...even if she is a bit dumb and is being taken. And the venom of the law is another way to get at prostitutes -- by busting their lovers. If a bank teller's husband beats her, he is charged with assault, not with being a bank teller's husband."

The best explanation of the schism between these two portraits of the pimp is that pimping, like prostitution, is not a monolithic institution. Some pimps are husbands and friends, who offer protection and partnership. But, especially on the street level of prostitution, other pimps are kidnappers, batterers and rapists who deserve to be taken to a back alley where feminism can be more graphically explained to them.

But such criminals are not generally the ones being prosecuted by the law and the court system. Barry reports talking to a street prostitute who had been raped and kidnapped by pimps, and another who had been slashed by a razor the night before. Barry mentions in passing, at the women "didn't consider reporting to the police" 17 Barry details many horrifying cases of women being abused by pimps, but she never seems to dwell upon why the street walkers do not seek protection from the police. It is because regular woman are protected by laws that prosecute rapists and kidnappers, but the law routinely ignores assaults against whores. Even worse. Prostitutes are persecuted and physically abused by a legal system that protects other women. The police become just another layer of abuse.


The foregoing has been a political analysis of the deepening schism between prostitute activists and anti-prostitution feminists, who should be natural allies rather than enemies. The poem which follows is meant to provide a window onto the emotional impact of the ongoing conflict.

Written by Norma Jean Almodovar, director of COYOTE Los Angeles, the poem has a specific history. In her capacity as one of the organizers of the 1997 International Congress on Prostitution, Norma Jean coordinated an exhibit of Whore Art. One of the most distressing encounters she experienced was with a politically correct female academic who insisted that prostitutes could not use the term 'whore' to describe themselves. The poem was written to explain why the Prostitutes' Rights Movement prefers the word 'whore'. It also captures the emotional distress that women are inflicting upon each other over the issue of prostitution.

The "Whore" Word

I am a woman...and if I get out of line, you call me a whore
And if I have a good time, you call me a whore
And if I speak my mind - you call me a whore.
You throw the word at me when I stand on my own
You use the word often to hold me down.
You ever remind me that whores are the worst -
the outcasts, pariahs, without any worth.
"You're just a whore!" you repeat like a mantra -
Like a shot of cold water to dampen my joy.
"You're just a whore - so what do you know?
and what do I care of whatever you think!"
"You're a whore," is a dagger you drive through my heart
as you pound into my psyche that name.
You equate everything that I ever thought good - with that word
which you spit out like venom - to show me how awful I am.
But I ask you, please tell me, just what is a whore?
A whore says what she think and she thinks for herself...
She's independent and feisty - so what? is there more?
Why does it frighten you so to know I've a mind of my own
and don't need you permission to live or to love or to be?
And what if I tell you
I don't care anyone if you call me a whore...
What will you call me now?


(1) "Prostitution and Male Supremacy", Dworkin delivered this speech at a symposium entitled "Prostitution: From Academia to Activism," sponsored by the Michigan Journal of Gender and Law at the University of Michigan Law School, October 31, 1992.

(2). L.Shrage 1989 "Should Feminists Oppose Prostitution" Ethics 99: 347-361.

(3) as quoted in Good Girls/Bad Girls: Sex Trade Workers and Feminists Face to Face. ed. Laurie Bell (Toronto: The Women's Press, 1987).

(4) Peggy Miller as quoted in Good Girls/Bad Girls: Sex Trade Workers and Feminists Face to Face ed. Laurie Bell (Toronto: The Women's Press, 1987) p.11.

(5) 'Whore' is the term preferred by most prostitute activists. Please see poem "The Whore Word" at the conclusion of this paper for an explanation as to why.

(6) In reality, many of the most important offices in the highly centralized organization are held by anti-prostitution, anti pornography feminists, such as Tammy Bruce.

(7) COYOTE Howls 1979,p.1.

(8) Alexander, Priscilla "Prostitutes Are Being Scapegoated for Heterosexual AIDS", pp 248-63 in Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry, edited by Frederique Delacosta and Priscilla Alexander, Pittsburg: Cleis Press. p.203.

(9) In its HIV/AIDS Surveillance Report, 1993; 5 (no.30), the CDC found that -- of 202,655 males diagnosed with AIDS since 1981 -- only 123 cited sex with a female prostitute as their only risk favors.

(10) Presented at the NGO Forum, Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing, Sept 4, 1995. The authors' address: Box 16254, San Francisco CA 94116, USA.

(11) I also had questions about the study's methodology. For example, Farley and Hotaling entered with certain assumptions, including 'Prostitution is almost always a continuation of abuse which began much earlier, usually at home.' Using this assumPtion, they often interpreted or dismissed data from subjects, rather than simply record responses. For example, the study comments, 'Several subjects commented that they didn't want to think about their pasts when responding to the questions about was probably too painful to review childhood abuse.

Nor did they accept the subjects' own assessment of wheter they had been abused. They called such subjects 'profoundly confused'. The study reports on one woman: 'When asked why she answered "no" to the question regarding childhood sexual abuse, one woman whose history was known to one of the interviewers, said:"Because there was no force, and besides I didn't even know what it was then - I didn't know it was sex." The researchers concluded 'Denial may be affecting these subjects' ability or willingness to report their trauma history.'

(12) For a more extensive report on this study, see Wendy McElroy, XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography New York: St. Martin's, 1995, Appendix.

(13) The Prostitutes' Rights Movement was particularly outraged by this feminist co-operation because of the deep history of hostility displayed by the SF Vice Police. For example, in the early days of AIDS awareness, Cal Pep -- the California Prostitutes Education Project -- sent workers into the SF "stroll districts" where street prostitutes worked and distributed condoms, spermicides, bleach and educational materials, as well as talking to the prostitutes about safe sex practices. Meanwhile, San Francisco Police Department confiscated the condoms and used them as evidence of prostitution in court. Because of police policy, the streetwalkers would throw the distributed condoms away.

(14) Alexander Highcrest, At Home on the Stroll: My Twenty Years as a Prostitute in Canada Knopf Canada, 1997, pg. 121. From uncorrected proofs.

(15) As quoted in COYOTE Press Release of October 1995, to ANnounce VICTORY AT BEIJING WOMEN'S CONFERENCE.

(16) Kathleen Barry Female Sexual Slavery p.73.

(17) Ibid, p.90.


Alexander, Priscilla "Prostitutes Are Being Scapegoated for Heterosexual AIDS", in Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry. Pittsburg: Cleis Press, 1991. Frederique Delacosta Frederique and Priscilla Alexander, ed.

Barry, Kathleen. Female Sexual Slavery. New York: Avon, 1981.

Bell, Laurie ed. Good Girls, Bad Girls: Sex Trade Workers and Feminists Face to Face. Toronto: The Women's Press, 1987.

Coyote Howls, 1979. (Newsletter of Call Off Your Tired Old Ethics.)

Coyote Press Release October 1995. Los Angeles.

Highcrest, Alexander. At Home on the Stroll: My Twenty Years as a Prostitute in Canada. Toronto: Knopf, 1997.

McElroy, Wendy. XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography. New York: St.Martin's, 1995.

L.Shrage 1989 "Should Feminists Oppose Prostitution" Ethics 99: 347-361.

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