I’ve just finished listening to The Moral Maze on BBC Radio 4; the subject this week was proposed changes to the law regarding drug use and prostitution (you can read what I think about the usefulness of such a comparison here), the programme is available on BBC iPlayer here. I find the format of this programme very limited and unsatisfying, Dr Finn Mackay did her best within the time and questioning allowed, but I find the whole ‘debate’ format stale, nobody ever really changes their mind about anything, no one involved is actually interesting in working anything out or coming up with new ideas.
As an aside, I know men are supposed to find women’s voices ‘nagging’ or whatever, and to just tune women’s voices out, but Michael Buerk, the programme’s presenter, has the most annoying, hectoring voice on radio, it’s unbearable! How can anyone listen to him, let alone hear what he’s saying!?
What I want to focus on for this blog post is the claim from one of the female panellists that the abolitionist approach to prostitution (it was never actually labelled as such during the programme) ‘took away women’s agency’ and ‘turned women into victims’ (this may not be the exact wording, but I can’t be bothered to listen through it again right now).
‘Agency’ is becoming an overused term that effectively means nothing. We have agency all the time, a person with a gun to their head told ‘eat shit or die’ has a choice and therefore has agency; they don’t have any good choices, and a person in that situation is not free in any meaningful way. Oppressed people have agency, they always have, what goes wrong with the concept of ‘agency’ is that it is used to deny oppression; ‘sex workers’ have ‘agency’ therefore there is nothing wrong with ‘sex work’! ‘Agency’ has become a shield to hide behind, and a way of shutting down critical thought: ‘you’re taking away sex workers agency!’ by noticing that something bad happened – so ‘agency’ is this all powerful force, until a radical feminist observes the situation and her reality-bending mental powers ‘turn women into victims’.
The claim that opposing oppressive practices (in the case of the programme, the sex industry which turns women into objects) ‘turns women into victims’ is a strange one, and this, along with the ‘agency’ rhetoric, only tends to be used in relation to women/feminism, and this is in no way an accident; imagine if a panellist on the Moral Maze (or whatever) where to challenge a development worker by saying: ‘by calling a lack of food oppressive, you’re turning hungry people into victims.’
Ridiculous isn’t it? The observation of oppressive circumstances does not create the oppression; if every radical feminist in the world were to turn mute overnight, women would still be oppressed. There is this tendency among liberal and pro-sex industry ‘feminists’ to blame radical feminists for ‘turning women into victims’, rather than blame the oppressive circumstances themselves (because that would involve, y’know, actually challenging the status quo and those in power). The result is a brand of ‘sex positive’ ‘feminism’ that is highly victim-blaming, and treats victimisation as a pathology, a personal failing of the individual woman, and nothing to do with the system itself.