Think of a prostitute. Who do you imagine? What do you think of?
Do you imagine a woman? A criminal? A victim? STDs?
There are a lot of stigmas associated with sex work and sex workers. Sex workers are thought to be low-class, diseased, and unintelligent. The problems that have been commonly associated with sex work have been identified as exploitation, indignity, physical and mental health, safety, and the objectification of women.
Prostitution is not generally understood as work because it is perceived to be uniformly unskilled; anyone can do it because everyone does it for free. You often hear the claim that prostitutes “sell their bodies” and the women are perceived as selling themselves.
Those who are against the decriminalization of prostitution argue that it is intrinsically tied to human trafficking, economic coercion, abuse, and a lack of power, freedom, and control. People argue that sex work is not a choice made by women.
My entire blog is dedicated to addressing these issues and dispelling these misconceptions, but I will outline some basic values that I will be arguing for:
1. Sex work is work.
2. Sex work is a choice.
3. Sex work does not objectify women.
4. Sex work must be regarded as gender-neutral.
5. Sex work must not be regarded as degrading and dirty.
6. Sex work requires skill and is meaningful in society.
7. Sex work does not involve selling oneself; it is the sale of a service.
8. Sex work must not be confused with human trafficking and abuse.
9. Decriminalization will alleviate the negative aspects that are commonly associated with sex work.
10. The stigma that society places on sex workers is what perpetuates the harms associated with sex work.
11. There is nothing inherently wrong with sex work itself.
There is a lot of disagreement among feminists about sex work (much like pornography). I want to break down three general schools of thought in feminism in regards to their views on sex work: Radical, Marxist, and Liberal feminism. These general views are really important because they operate as the theoretical and moral foundation of any argument regarding sex work.
Radical Feminists view sex workers as essentially being women and sex work as being essentially coercive, exploitative, and abusive to women. Radical feminists argue that prostitution is an institution used to “assert the dominance and power of men over women” (Allison Jaggar, “Prostitution,” 1997). For example, Andrea Dworkin asserts that prostitution “is the use of a woman’s body for sex by a man” (Prostitution and Male Supremacy). Under this conceptualization of prostitution, women are depicted as subordinate and powerless. Dworkin does not intend to label prostitution as abuse because of the physical violence that can be associated with it; rather, she argues that “prostitution in and of itself is an abuse of a woman’s body” (Prostitution and Male Supremacy, 1992). Catharine Mackinnon holds a similar position, comparing prostitution to rape: “In rape, the security of women’s person is stolen; in prostitution, it is stolen and sold” (Prostitution and Civil Rights, 1993). Furthermore, Radical feminists like Dworkin argue that “the people who defend prostitution and pornography want you to feel a kinky little thrill every time you think of something being stuck in a woman” (Prostitution and Male Supremacy). For them, the prostitute is inherently the victim, rather than a free-thinking agent. By arguing that prostitution is inherently in the hands of men, Radical feminists reinforce the idea that women cannot be in power, implying that women cannot be in a position of power or in control of their sex.
I find the Radical feminist approach incredibly problematic because these feminists adopt the same sort of structural boxes of the oppressors without really deconstructing them. By saying that “prostitution exists to meet the desire of men to degrade women,” (Jaggar) Radical feminists reinforce the idea that prostitution is degrading. By assuming that the role of prostitute is inherently a female one, while also asserting that it is a vulnerable and inferior role, Radical feminists reinforce the degradation of women that they argue against. They conceive of prostitution as being degrading for the same reasons that the oppressors do. In other words, they argue that men are the oppressors and that women are the oppressed, while adopting the same oppressive view of women that the oppressors do – that prostitutes are vulnerable, submissive, low-class, and inferior.
As Marxism focuses on class struggles involving capitalism, property and exploitation, Marxist feminists focus on how this relates to women. They argue that one may choose to prostitute because it is the only way for them to make money to survive, and in this capitalist world they are forced to sell themselves and their sex. The Marxist feminist argument against prostitution because of its exploitation may be valid, but the same exploitation exists with any other low wage and socially low class job. Marxist feminists argue that “all wage labour is a form of prostitution,” and that prostitution “is only a specific expression of the general prostitution of the labourer” (Jaggar). Marx uses the term prostitution here in two different ways: in a general way to describe wage labour, and in its understood meaning as a sex worker. What is interesting to note is that he uses prostitution generally as a derogatory term for any sort of wage labour, and thus conceptualizes prostitution as something inherently exploitative and wrong. Marx stresses that there is a “lack of genuine freedom that exists under capitalism” since individuals “are not free to refuse wage labour” and are “forced to become wage labourers” to survive (Jaggar). However, if one takes away the monetary aspect of prostitution, there is just sex. If it is the monetization of sex that Marxists oppose, how does this make it different from any other job in our society?
Liberal feminists argue that prostitution should be seen as gender neutral (and ultimately morally neutral). They generally claim that cultural, political, and legal policies and beliefs are the cause of inequality between men and women and accordingly advocate for the ability of women to maintain equality through what they freely choose to do. The freedom of the individual reflected by the Liberal feminist approach of decriminalization will protect those involved in prostitution. The steps involved in this decriminalization will help regulate and prevent problems of exploitation, dignity, physical and mental health, safety, and it will remove the idea of the objectification of women because women won’t be objects to be sold, they will be workers selling a service. Liberal feminists want to treat prostitution as an “ordinary business transaction” or “sale of a service” (Jaggar). They want to argue that economic motivation is not coercion and that it should be differentiated from a “sexual act committed by physical force or under threat of force” (Jaggar). I agree with the Liberal feminist argument that prostitution can be like any other contract, with both parties entering for their own benefit. Decriminalization will put the power back into the hands of the prostitutes and eliminate pimps. Regulation would address problems with “hygiene, safety, minimum standards of service, working conditions, misleading ads” (Jaggar) and can provide benefits and equality of opportunity for both sexes.
Jaggar, Allison. “Prostitution” Ethical Issues: Perspectives for Canadians. Ed. Eldon Soifer. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 1997. Print.
Dworkin, Andrea. “Prostitution and Male Supremacy.” Prostitution: From Academia to Activism. University of Michigan Law School. 31 Oct. 1992. Speech.
Mackinnon, Catharine. “Prostitution and Civil Rights.” Michigan Journal of Gender & Law. Volume 1: 13-31. (1993): 13-57.
Though one might think that gender-neutrality is always good and progressive (because equality!), thinking of people as gender-neutral individuals has led to the oppression of women and minority groups. This is because the gender-neutral individual is assumed from the perspective of the most visible, powerful, and influential group in society: rich, white men. The experiences and thoughts of men are the assumed norm; therefore, this viewpoint enforces expectations it has of men onto women, without acknowledging the different reality and treatment that women face. Feminist activism and academia focuses on distinguishing women from men and highlighting the differences which are invisibilized, as women’s experiences are dismissed and hidden from view. Feminism is not interested in an equality in which women are treated the same way as men, rather, feminism is interested in an equality which does not privilege men over women; same treatment does not mean equal treatment.
However, there is a divide within the feminist community about whether to classify sex work as a gender-neutral issue or not. I have a bit of a difficult time navigating my stance on this because I believe that certain aspects of sex work are presently a woman’s issue, but I do not think that sex work ought to be a woman’s issue. Many feminists (and people in general) view sex workers as essentially being women. I mean, it’s hard to ignore; most sex workers are women. Many people use this fact to fight against sex work, claiming that it constitutes slavery and violence against women. They argue that men are in control of sex work and that women are the victims of this domination.
In relating the role women play in sex work to the role of men, people assume a false binary of genders. They do this by assuming that sex work can only be the ones who get fucked, rather than the ones doing the fucking; in other words, the prostitute is inherently the victim, rather than a free-thinking agent. By arguing that sex work is inherently in the hands of men, people reinforce the idea that women cannot be in power, implying that women cannot be in a position of power or in control of their sex. Many people argue that women are predominantly sex workers because only women are sex objects and can occupy this subordinate status in society. If a male is a prostitute, he is emasculated. Not only is he emasculated, he is feminized. Women are not only ranked as sexual objects, they are further degraded by a constant comparison to being a slut or a prostitute. Evelina Giobbe argues that “the prostitute symbolizes the value of women in society. She is paradigmatic of women’s social, sexual, and economic subordination in that her status is the basic unit by which all women’s value is measured and to which all women can be reduced” (qtd by Catharine Mackinnon in “Prostitution and Civil Rights”).
However, I think this problem can be solved by changing the way sex work is viewed in society. It would be wrong to assume that sex work is inherently degrading to women without entertaining the possibility that it can be empowering to women, and that this all depends on how we as individuals and a society conceive of sex work.
Liberal feminists argue that sex work should be seen as gender neutral (and ultimately morally neutral). We must not define sex work as being a profession of women. Such a view is problematic because it reinforces the oppression and discrimination against women in society. Defining it as being a profession of women is not only discriminatory, but it subordinates women by assuming that it is only a women’s job and that men are above “selling themselves.” Sex work is already regarded as a degrading activity and I would argue that this degradation relies partly on the status of women as inferior, vulnerable, powerless, and not in control of their sex. We must work to eliminate power imbalances between men and women. If society identified sex work as gender neutral, one would not default to the image of a woman being subordinated, or a woman at all. Therefore, we must work to define sex work as gender neutral to combat the subordination of women.
Mackinnon, Catharine. “Prostitution and Civil Rights.” Michigan Journal of Gender & Law. Volume 1: 13-31. (1993): 13-57.
Generally, you will hear the word prostitution used to describe the exchange of sex and money. However, how often do you hear the word prostitute used to describe things other than the exchange of sex and money? A derogatory term for someone who is promiscuous, someone who looks trashy, etc, prostitute is a loaded word.
The word is also exclusively for women; if a man is involved with sex work, he is distinguished as a male prostitute. In this patriarchal society, our language is structured with men being the default. In academic writing, “he,” “man,” and “mankind” are used to talk about individuals universally. In everyday language, the male is assumed and anything to do with a woman is distinguished as a “female ____.” So, it’s very problematic to have a default-female word such as prostitution because it really demonstrates the status of women in society. In other words, men are the norm except when it’s a stigmatizing, subordinating, demeaning, and dehumanizing position.
Prostitution carries with it a negative judgement about the person because there is a perceived identity of the person and their moral worth. Furthermore, the phrase “to prostitute oneself” means one is selling oneself and this has dehumanizing connotations. The term prostitute makes it so that the sex and the person are inseparable, and combined with the negative moral judgments and stigmas associated with it, a prostitute is then a very horrible thing to be.
On the other hand, the term “sex worker” is the most simple and direct way to convey that one exchanges sex for money. There is no room for stigmatizing or dehumanizing connotations of this word. It also acknowledges that sex is work.
No one insults someone by saying “you’re such a sex worker.” It doesn’t make any sense because it isn’t loaded with derogatory values or perceived identity of the person. If the person does not work in sex, this term is meaningless to them. However, when words like “prostitute” or other derogatory terms like “whore” are waged against someone, their integrity is called into question, as it is loaded with negative assumptions about their moral character and worth.
Sex worker divorces the moral worth and intrinsic personal identity associated with the word prostitute and extracts the important and relevant aspects of the definition: sex and work. It is also an inclusive term, including all types of sex work.
Sex work is an all-encompassing term which refers to various different kinds of sex work. One may be on the streets, work in a brothel, answer house calls, or do phone sex; one may be a stripper, escort, dominatrix, porn star, nude model, etc. Each situation requires different skills, care, and needs. All in all, I want to argue that sex work should be recognized as work, rather than an illegal or immoral activity.
How can sex be work if we all do it for free? If we all do it for free, then how can one commodify sex?
I want to start by highlighting the liberal basis for commodification and marxist counterargument. John Locke’s conception of property allows for a person’s labour to be “property in his own person” and thus this property is open to commodification (Julia O’Connell Davidson, “The Rights and Wrongs of Prostitution,” p.85). However, Marxists argue against this liberal conception, claiming “that a person’s labor is… an inalienable property of the human individual” and is therefore inseparable from a person (Julia O’Connell Davidson, “The Rights and Wrongs of Prostitution,” p.85). In regards to prostitution, one’s sex cannot be commodified because it is inseparable from who they are as a person. When a person sells sex, that person sells their body and themselves.
However, are we really our body or sex? Is that what constitutes our humanity? I argue that we are more than our body and sex; what constitutes our humanity is our capacity for rationality, emotion, intelligence, and free choice. Our humanity consists of our autonomous will.
One may argue, “but that’s the thing, sex work does not involve free choice, rationality, emotion, intelligence, etc.”
It is abundantly clear through popular social narratives and media that sex work is not considered as a choice; rather, sex work is the result of economic coercion (or physical coercion). It is commonly argued that only those desperate for money go into sex work, and that sex workers therefore do not make a free choice to enter into the profession. However, in this sense, most people do not make a free choice to do any sort of work. As I argued previously, this exploitation exists with any other low wage and socially low class job. So what’s the difference?
I argue that being economically coerced into being a sex worker does not make prostitution inherently wrong – the presupposition that sex work is degrading makes the economic coercion wrong. Sex work has to be viewed as the lowest route one can take to survive, and that it is a shameful and emotionally damaging thing to do. Sex work has to be qualified as degrading in order for it to be a problem that people turn to it to make money.
In a post called “It’s not even for rent,” the blog Everyday Whorephobia writes, “Dig deeper into the “selling your body” trope and what you discover is people saying sex workers cannot be raped, cannot be assaulted, cannot be beaten up, because their autonomy over their own bodies ceases the moment money is exchanged.”
Furthermore, Wendy Chapkis makes a wonderful point by proposing that “mundane concerns like status differences between worker and client, employee/employer relations and negative cultural attitudes toward the work performed, may be at the root of the distress and damage experienced by some worker” (87). The criminalization of sex work leaves sex workers vulnerable to bad working conditions and confined to limited opportunities to leave and find other employment. Criminalization promotes economic coercion in sex work and reinforces unbalanced power structures.
Before sex work can be decriminalized, it must be recognized as work. Without labour rights, sex workers experience a lack of control over their employment and are vulnerable to power structures which subjugate their worth not only as workers, but as persons.
The CBC interviews “Berlin”, a 28 year old sex worker and takes calls from listeners regarding the question “is being a sex worker just another job?” Many calls came from those who were involved with sex work in some way.
This is one of my favourite parts:
Interviewer: “How do you feel safe? These are strangers… How do you make sure that you’re not going to end up in a really creepy or dangerous situation?”
Berlin: “Well, I don’t know. What do people going out on first dates do? I often have more information about my clients than people who are going out on dates or bringing people home from the bar…”
Listen to the whole thing. It’s really interesting!
So, in Canada there is quite the debate about the relationship between sex work and Indigenous women. In this video, Cherry Smiley and Fay Blaney read the Indigenous Women’s Declaration Against Prostitution, which was created and read out during the International Women’s World Conference in July, 2011.
I want to briefly outline three of their arguments and explain what I think is wrong with them.
1. “Our analysis of prostitution as a form of violence against women and as a system of colonialism is… based on our life experiences, on the life experiences of our mothers, our sisters, and all our relations. It is based on theory and knowledge constructed collectively by Indigenous women.”
In one of my earlier posts, I countered the Radical feminist argument that sex work is a form of violence against women by proposing that they are reinforcing the degradation of women with this belief. In short, they conceive of sex work as being degrading for the same reasons that the oppressors do; they argue that men are the oppressors and that women are the oppressed, while adopting the same oppressive view of women that the oppressors do – that prostitutes are vulnerable, submissive, low-class, and inferior.
2. “We demand a return to our traditional values that place women and girls at high esteem.”
This argument does not necessarily contradict the decriminalization of sex work. Sex workers and supporters of sex work want women to be respected and treated with high esteem and dignity. No one wants to engage in any sort of employment which subordinates and humiliates oneself. In a society which respects and values women, sex work would not be as dangerous and degrading; in fact, it might be seen as an incredibly attractive employment opportunity. I would love to live in a society in which sex workers were treated like royalty for providing such an important service and care work for its population.
3. Sex work “encourages the racist and deadly male access to the bodies of women and girls, with Indigenous women and girls being disproportionally targeted.”
In my next post, I address the continuous referral to “girls” in arguments against sex work. For now, I want to address the argument concerning the relationship between racism and sex work. There is no denying that Indigenous women are disproportionately represented in prison populations. “Current estimates state that Aboriginal people make up more than 20% of the total prison inmate population across Canada, which is a full ten times more than the general population.” Though there are less conclusive numbers on the amount of Indigenous women working as sex workers, I’m willing to assume similar statistics.
However, wouldn’t this mean we should focus on addressing issues of racism, racial profiling, and the overall respect which is given to Indigenous women? This seems to be at the heart of this issue, as well as many others. Indigenous women suffer “double discrimination” because of the intersections of racism and the stigma against female sex workers. However, neither of these issues are inherently a problem with sex work. As I have argued before, it is the negative external influences and societal attitudes which shape the harms of sex work. If you remove the racism and stigma against sex workers, and empower sex workers through decriminalization, sex work will not be as harmful to Indigenous women.