Ask A Feminist is Stylist.co.uk's weekly column answering your questions on feminism, sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st Century context. Send your dilemmas to firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll get one of our brilliant panel of feminists to cast a discerning eye on the issue at hand.
This week's question:
‘I have been dating a guy for the past six months and I really love him – he’s funny, caring and considerate. But he recently let slip that he’d visited a prostitute years ago on a trip to Amsterdam, in his early 20s. He tried to pass it off as a stupid, drunken mistake but I can’t equate this lovely man with someone who exploits women for sex. Can I get past this?’
Feminist Harriet Hall says:
It’s difficult to find out that the man you’ve fallen for did something in their past that doesn’t align with your own values. It can feel like a betrayal, and that your boyfriend isn’t as squeaky clean as you thought he was.
But it’s not.
The operative word here is ‘past’.
Everyone should automatically be given a free pass for their sexual experience prior to meeting you (presuming said experience was conducted under legal and consenting circumstances). It's not fair to torture your other half for something he did before you even knew he existed.
Having said that, when you open up the ex-files - Pandora’s sexy box of nightmares - you form a mental picture in your head of everything that may or may not have gone down between them.
It’s natural to feel uncomfortable.
First off, your boyfriend has been honest with you, when he could easily have withheld this information.
Don’t make him feel as if he made a mistake confiding in you about something that he knew you would not be comfortable with. Don’t terrify him into never telling you anything again.
Second, you use the word ‘exploit’. This is interesting. But many would argue it’s not accurate. The word ‘exploit’ implies the control lies in the man’s hands – it suggests that this was not a consensual interaction and took place against the woman’s will. Prostitution in Amsterdam is legal. By suggesting he has exploited this woman directly denies her and all other sex workers agency in their actions, which some feminists would take issue with.
The feminist lobby has long debated the topic of sex work, battling between two opposing views of prostitution: the feminist ‘sex wars’.
The first school of thought is the Abolitionist perspective. Abolitionists argue that prostitution is a direct result of the patriarchal order and should be made illegal. It posits that sex workers are in a subordinate position and thus prostitution is an extension of rape - not a mutual and consenting act – as the majority of women are in the sex industry as a result of ill-fated circumstances. Eighty percent of women working as prostitutes have experienced physical threats whilst doing the job, so men who pay for them are therefore seen by Abolitionist feminists as buying into an industry that is responsible for violence against women.
The second school of thought, aligned with many third wave feminists of the 1990s, sees women working as prostitutes as the agents of their actions. They are frustrated by the portrayal of sex workers as victims. This group believes that prostitution is an autonomous career decision and that sex work should be legalised to protect women within the industry.
You need to figure out your own view of prostitution before you can begin to reconcile your image of your boyfriend.
Once you know where you stand on the issue, the key here is to tackle it on a personal level, by having an adult conversation.
If you’re feeling upset about it, it might help to find out more details. It sounds to me like this was a one-off, rather than an habitual sexual preference and there are a multitude of reasons why a young man would visit a prostitute (loneliness, post break-up, etc etc).
By opening up the discussion you will throw light on how the situation really played out - as opposed to the wild, aggressive night of BDSM and golden showers that is going on in your mind.
It probably wasn’t his proudest moment and he likely cringes over the memory of it all (the clue here is in the 'drunk' line).
It’s easy to see how you can view this encounter as an implication that he objectifies women and that he approaches sex as a clean business transaction. This would naturally make you question how he views women in general. But what is important here is how he treats you and other women; and you say he’s caring and considerate.
Assuming he used protection and hasn't put you at risk of contracting an STI, this is about your reaction to his sexual past.
It was a long time ago, the chap’s fessed-up and it’s not fair to hold it against him forever.
You need to decide if you love him enough to move past this. If you don’t, that’s your call, and it’s your problem - not his.
Do you agree with Harri's advice? Or is this kind of revelation a deal-breaker in a relationship? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.