Sunday, 21 September 2014

The Handmaid's Tale

Kajsa Ekis Ekman is a Swedish journalist and author that I had the pleasure of hearing speak at the 2014 Festival of Dangerous Ideas a few weeks ago. I have just finished reading her thought-provoking book Being and Being Bought - Prostitution, Surrogacy and the Split Self (2013) which casts a Marxist and feminist lens on these divisive subjects.

The first half of the book focuses on prostitution. Ekman effectively demolishes the notion that prostitution is a normal job.  She explores feminist attempts to reposition prostitution as "sex work",  a conscious non-exploitative career choice, and of moves to legalise/decriminalise prostitution in many jurisdictions.

Ekman writes of the slippery slope from independent escort to human trafficking (when there is not enough supply of local women to meet the demand of the consumers). She exposes attempts to unionise sex work as fraudulent as these moves are not traditional trade unions seeking better wages and conditions for workers but rather justification for exploitation. Prostitution has an exceptionally high mortality rate and there is no compliance to labour laws.

The second half of the book looks at the messy issue of surrogacy which Ekman sees as an extension of prostitution. Ekman's presentation at the Festival came in the weeks following the media maelstrom of the Baby Gammy case in which an Australian couple had contracted with a young Thai surrogate to carry their child for around $16,000. The surrogate gave birth to twins - a healthy girl and a disabled boy (Gammy). It later emerged that the father was a convicted child sex offender, giving rise to concerns about the lack of regulation in the surrogacy business.

Ekman digs deep into the surrogacy industry and exposes how women in poor countries or poor circumstances are relied on to rent out their womb to a childless person. She looks at how the notion of motherhood is denied the gestational carrier as parents seek to have a child that is biologically related to them.

For me the whole problem of surrogacy was summed up in the quote from Elizabeth Kane, a surrogate who regretted giving up the child she bore for others. Kane stated "I now believe that surrogate motherhood is nothing more than the transference of pain from one woman to another. One woman is in anguish because she cannot become a mother, and another woman may suffer for the rest of her life because she cannot know the child she bore for someone else" (in Ekman, p186).

In both her exploration of prostitution and of surrogacy, Ekman argues that the Self has to be separate from the body in order to be able to sell yourself. This Cartesian concept of the Split Self enables sex workers and surrogates to create a barrier within themselves.

I found Ekman's thesis to be a compelling and incisive look inside these industries. While overflowing with research, I thoroughly enjoyed the way in which she approached this subject and thought the book was easy to read. But the book does make you think about these issues and how all women are affected regardless of how far removed we are from these industries.

If you want to more but don't have access to her book, you can watch Ekman's "Surrogacy is Child Trafficking" presentation from the 2014 Festival of Dangerous Ideas on YouTube.