by Allyson Whipple
Woman at Point Zero
Zed Books, 1990, 2007
The issue of prostitution (and sex work in general) is a contentious one for many feminists. When reading Laura Cude’s InContext post on The Handmaid’s Tale and “Fun” Feminism, I felt that her assertion that it is “impossible” for a woman to engage in sex work “without being at the servitude of a man” negated the complexities inherent surrounding pornography and prostitution. While I will not deny that many women are victimized due to sex work, I feel that it is equally important to consider the instances in which women choose prostitution voluntarily, finding empowerment in their career choice.
Prostitution rates vary among cultures, and while it is difficult to gather data on a profession that is largely illegal, it has been estimated that there are 40 million prostitutes worldwide. Whether countries are liberal or conservative, democracies or dictatorships, most (if not all) have citizens who engage in sex work. There are too many prostitutes with too many different experiences to simply say that all those who participate are enslaved to men. Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero, a book on the Goodreads Best Feminist Fiction list, illustrates the ways in which prostitution has the potential to render women victims, but also points to the fact that those who choose prostitution may find fulfillment or freedom in sex work.
In Woman at Point Zero, set in mid-twentieth-century Egypt, Firdaus goes from being a daughter, to a wife, to a prostitute, to an office employee, and finally back to a prostitute. As a child, she is sexually abused by her uncle; as a married woman, she is beaten by her husband. As an office worker, she does not make enough money to maintain the privileged standard of living she had as a prostitute. During her initial months as a prostitute, her (female) pimp takes advantage of her; it is not until Firdaus strikes out on her own that she finds any degree of freedom, agency, and self-worth.
When Firdaus was a child, she was denied food while her father ate a full dinner; when she was married, her miserly husband complained if he thought she ate too much. When she was a prostitute, she had the money to buy and eat what she wanted. By the end of the novel, Firdaus comes to the conclusion that Egyptian women are oppressed no matter what they do. She asserts that “All women are prostitutes of one kind or another.” They sell themselves to husbands for food and shelter; unmarried women often “sell” themselves sexually for promotions or raises at their jobs. In a system where she felt she had no freedom and was subservient to men, active prostitution (selling sex for money rather than trading it for food or a promotion) gave her the most liberty and agency possible.
This is not to say that Firdaus enjoyed the work. Even though she was selective about her clients, she hated the job itself. But she concluded that, in a culture where women were being taken advantage of at every turn, prostitution gave her some of that power back. She says: “A woman’s life is always miserable. A prostitute, however, is a little better off . . . The fact that I rejected [men's] noble attempts to save me, my insistence on remaining a prostitute, proved to me this was my choice and I had some freedom, at least the freedom to live in a situation better than that of other women.”
Unfortunately, Firdaus does not get a happy ending; she kills a manipulative pimp and is sentenced to death. But, at the same time, Woman at Point Zero illustrates why prostitution is such a complex issue, and why it and other forms of sex work cannot be unilaterally described as oppressive. Firdaus uses prostitution as a method of finding freedom rather than enslaving herself. To say that sex work rendered her subservient to men does not truly hold up when she had already endured a clitorendectomy, sexual abuse, and a forced marriage. Prostitution does not render her more enslaved; in fact, it gives her the freedom she craved.
In societies in which women face constraints at every turn, sex work has the potential to be empowering rather than enslaving. However, Firdaus’ example shows that even when women find freedom and agency in sex work, they nonetheless face substantial dangers. In New York City alone, 80% of street workers and 46% of indoor workers have experienced violence and threats. Rather than dismissing sex work as something inherently enslaving, I believe it is more important that feminists focus on ways in which to make sex work safe for those who choose it (and to prevent anyone from being forced into prostitution). Feminists need to be able to discuss both the positive and negative aspect of sex work, and work towards creating a culture that fosters sexual expression while also eliminating the risks that prostitutes face during their careers.
Allyson Whipple is a writer and English tutor based in Austin, Texas. Her novella, A Scandal of Choice, is available for sale at Amazon.com. She has a B.A. in English from Kenyon College and an M.A. in English from Case Western Reserve University. When not working on one of her many literary projects, she enjoys yoga, swing dancing, and playing Texas Hold ‘Em.
Laura Cude is twenty one years old and from a dead beat town called Leatherhead which is located in Old Blighty. She left Kingston College last year with three A grade A levels, and three university acceptances. She turned them all down in favour of practical work experience, which is what brought her to Her Circle originally as a blog coordinator for The Writer’s Life blog, and now as the writer of inContext. She is a music enthusiast and keen writer, using song composition and screenplays as her weapons of choice. Combining her interests in feminism, existentialism and pop culture, she aims to make inContext a revealing and energetic exploration of the politics in feminist literature and the 21st century.