Should sex workers be thought of as individuals or women?
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.