'I guess I may have lived up to my own advice too well last night': Jane Caro, photographed in August.

'I guess I may have lived up to my own advice too well last night': Jane Caro, photographed in August. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer/Getty Images

On Monday night I was on the ABC's Q&A all female panel from the Festival of Dangerous Ideas with five other festival  participants. Our brief from the festival organisers was to be provocative and take risks.

After 35 years in advertising, I am trained to always fulfill the brief. Half way through the show, there was a question about sex workers. I was relaxed, there was an expert on the subject on the panel - Kajsa Ekis Ekman who had written a book on the subject.

But Tony Jones pulled an old rugby move and instead of asking her, threw the question to me. For a few moments I fumbled the pass as I tried to gather my thoughts. I did not want to isolate sex workers as a group, so I sought to broaden the question out to the way all women were caught up in an economic transaction in the past by talking about traditional marriages that included conjugal rights. This has resulted in many people thinking that I meant marriage as it is practised today and women who choose to work in the home currently. I did not and I would like to put the record straight.

For better, for worse: Modern marriages a different proposition to the traditional kind.

For better, for worse: Modern marriages a different proposition to the traditional kind.

I have been married to the same man for 39 years. Does that make me a prostitute? No. Do I think any of the women and men living together in today's Australia, whether married or not, are engaging in a form of prostitution? No. I was a stay-at-home mother for five years when my daughters were small. Was that a form of prostitution? No, it was not and for women who decide that staying at home and caring for their kids is where they want to be, it isn't either. I refuse to judge women for the choices they make. Live your life the way you want to and the devil take anyone else. Indeed, as I also said on Q&A, the best advice I can give anyone is to be yourself and don't worry about whether others approve of you or not.

I guess I may have lived up to my own advice too well last night.

Given the reaction to my remarks about marriages from the past, I obviously expressed myself badly – an occupational hazard on Q&A, as others have also discovered. I was trying to talk about marriage in the bad old days when it was much more of an economic transaction than it is today. Once, when married women were unable to retain their own earnings or property (only changed in Britain in 1882), they had no rights to their own children. When a husband had not only his conjugal rights enshrined in law but also the right to "discipline" his wife as he saw fit, society very much made women the possessions of their husbands. Women's currency was pretty much reduced to – as I said – their sexual and reproductive capacity. That still did not make the women in such relationships prostitutes but it did make marriage much more about survival than choice.

Things have changed and very much for the better. Now marriage is about free choice, at least in the western world. These days, two people with agency and economic alternatives come together because they want to and I am a complete fan of love and relationships. Indeed, I created and presented a six part radio series on ABC Radio National's Life Matters called "For Better, For Worse" about successful long lasting marriages. My daughter was married in April and I wept with joy just like mothers of the bride everywhere.

But, before we get too sanguine, conjugal rights - the legal right of partners to sexual relationships in marriage - existed for much longer than you might imagine. Indeed, South Australia was the first place in the English-speaking world to acknowledge that rape in marriage could exist and to criminalise it as an offence. They did it - and this shocked even me - in 1976!

Right up until the 1970s, in some parts of Australia and in some professions, women were fired when they married or when they got pregnant. Did that make them, or our grandmothers prostitutes? No, but it did make the way society policed marriage uncomfortably close to an economic transaction and that is precisely why feminists fought to change it.

Obviously, in some parts of the world, marriage remains an economic transaction. There is even still a bride-price in some cultures, making the buying and selling aspects between father and prospective husband even more overt. That is the analogy I was clumsily trying to make.

Hence my reference to "once upon a time…"

Jane Caro is an author, speaker, columnist and historical novelist.