What is feminism’s relationship with sex work?

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.

Cited Sources:

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.


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