Feminism's Sex Work Problem

…one could argue that the production of feminist discourse around prostitution by non-prostitutes alienates the laborer herself from the process of her own representation.

– Jill Nagle, “Whores and Other Feminists”

A certain strain of Feminism has a definite sex work problem. Yes, yes – I know: Not all Feminists. Perhaps not even the majority. And yes, I know there’s a term for them, but I’m going to avoid using SWERF here because I disagree that it is only radical Feminists who are anti-sex work. I don’t consider Gloria Steinem to be particularly radical, and she certainly is a vocal opponent of sex work, as she’s made a point of discussing in several interviews she’s conducted in connection with her forthcoming memoir. So, we’ll refer to sex worker exclusionary Feminists as SWEFs for purposes of this discussion.


In addition to Steinem, the SWEF community appears to have become far more clamorous since Amnesty International joined the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, NFPA, the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women, the Global Commission on HIV and Law, Human Rights Watch, The Open Society Foundation, Anti-Slavery International, the ACLU and UN Women (among others) in recommending full sex work decriminalization as a best practice. Because misinformation quickly (and arguably, intentionally) spread, I’d recommend at least taking a look at these bullet points if you’re not familiar with the specifics of Amnesty’s proposal. But make no mistake about it, there is a full on war currently being waged against sex workers, and SWEFs are playing a large part.

Actual active sex workers are frequently shut out of Feminist discussions and conferences in which their very existence is a topic of discussion. Even non-sex workers with “problematic” thoughts on sex work are protested. This leaves sex workers little platform to speak about their concerns in Feminist spaces, creating a situation where an agenda that includes significant policy recommendations is formulated in a vacuum, absent the already marginalized voices whose livelihoods – and very lives – are at stake.


I’m not going to make the pro-decriminalization case here. Others have made it far more eloquently than I could, and any of the links to the notable organizations calling for decriminalization listed above will provide an overview of the careful research and thought that went into their policy recommendations. If you’d like to learn more directly from sex workers, you can access the ally resources of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (and if you are a current sex worker looking for support, their hotline information is included there as well.) Also, this enlightening CATO Unbound discussion provides a broad overview of some of the basic discussion points on both sides of the issue for those interested.

However, there are some elephants in the room that simply have to be addressed before a real conversation can occur. These are mistruths that seem to have become cemented as fact through sheer force of mindless repetition, and unfortunately they severely derail any objective discussion of sex work:

Myth: The average age of entry into prostitution is 13

Fact: That number is an extrapolation from a study in which the first age of sexual contact (not necessarily commercial) was surveyed in a sample group exclusively comprised of minors engaging in commercial sex. Estimates vary widely, but a recent study out of Canada found the average age to be 24 within the much more representative sampled population.


Myth: 300,000 girls are at risk for trafficking in the US

Fact: That number is based on a very flawed synthesis of risk factors (including, for example, having watched pornography) and math that can most charitably be characterized as back-of-the-napkin at best. It’s a number that - when pressed - one of the two University of Pennsylvania professors who conducted the study had to admit would look more like “about a few hundred people” across the entire country if we were talking about actual sex slavery. The honest reality is that the clandestine nature of trafficking makes firm statistics difficult to come by. What we do know from at least one account is that the vast majority of victims (nearly 80%) are trafficked into forced labor of a non-sexual nature, inviting the question as to why sex work seems to receive the bulk of the attention rather than construction, domestic work, the garment industry, or any of the other major global trafficking sectors.


Myth: Decriminalization will increase trafficking

Fact: The fact that SWEFs - and increasingly lawmakers - conflate sex trafficking with sex work aside, the two are actually very distinct, and commingling them does nothing to help either population. The very well-researched policy recommendations of the organizations mentioned above are all intended to reduce trafficking, certainly not abet it. In New South Wales, one of the few areas to have fully decriminalized sex work, trafficking has been greatly reduced, with a 2012 report indicating, “no evidence [was found] of recent trafficking of female sex workers in the Sydney brothel survey…or in a clinic study…. This was in marked contrast to the 1990s...” A government-conducted study on the impact of decriminalization in New Zealand found similar results, reporting that “...no situations involving trafficking in the sex industry have been identified.”


Myth: PTSD is rampant among sex workers

Fact: The reality is there have been very few clinical studies conducted on the mental health of sex workers. While sex workers have been shown in some studies to have higher rates of mental disorders than average, even those that have link their findings primarily to violence and stigma. If PTSD is in fact rampant, the best way to minimize it is to offer the safest and least stigmatizing environment in which to conduct sex work, and that is full decriminalization.


Myth: No woman would willingly perform sex work if she had better options. 97% of sex workers want to “exit” sex work

Fact: Again, little research has been done on the job satisfaction of sex workers, but the same mental health study referenced above indicated that 37% of the women were highly satisfied with their jobs and ~55% were looking to make a job change. In another study, only 11% of the sex workers surveyed were cited as being very unhappy with being involved in sex work. While that may not sound like a ringing endorsement, it’s a far cry from the statistics often cited, and the satisfaction rating is comparable to many careers. Most people choose their work for economic reasons, and many would like to be doing something else entirely. This is not unique to sex work.


Myth: The Nordic Model is the answer.

Fact: The Nordic Model is the darling of sex worker exclusionary Feminists. If you’re not familiar, it’s an approach wherein the act of selling sexual services is [ostensibly] legal, but purchase is prohibited. It is also known as the “end demand” approach. Its failings are well-documented, and a decade and a half after its first implementation in Sweden, the results are “limited and unconvincing” at best. It does little to combat trafficking (and may actually increase it), restricts the agency of sex workers, and poses as many – if not more – risks to workers than to clients, just a few of which are:

  • It often leaves many laws on the books (e.g., loitering, condom possession, etc.) which can still very easily be used to prosecute sex workers
  • It does not eliminate police interaction for the sex worker, and many sex workers are far more (and rightfully so) concerned about police abuse than working with a bad client
  • It continues to force the activity underground, removing transparency, decreasing sex workers’ physical safety, and limiting the ability of sex workers and clients to aid underage or trafficked women (and men) get in contact with resources that can help them
  • Because of fear of arrest, clients become less likely to cooperate with screening techniques sex workers utilize to prevent interaction with abusive clients
  • The most cooperative (and candidly, lucrative) clients are somewhat less likely to avail themselves of the services of a sex worker, leaving the population of potential clients less desirable and less safe
  • The reduction in demand drives down prices which negatively impacts sex workers’ ability to make a living, makes clients more emboldened to negotiate bargain prices, and forces some (particularly the most disadvantaged and underserved) sex workers to engage in more risky practices/situations to compensate

Further, there’s no evidence (statistical or even anecdotal) that suggests that the model does what SWEFs most hope it will, that is diminish the prevalence of an attitude of entitlement towards women’s bodies. Sweden - the first to implement the model in 1999 - has recently experienced a disturbing increase in teenage sex crimes. Not only is this horrifying, it’s notable in that the perpetrators have literally grown up under the Nordic model. Further, reported rapes have quadrupled since passage of the sex purchase ban. In short, end demand tactics certainly do not appear to be positively affecting attitudes in nearly the way SWEFs claim they do.

There are many other myths surrounding sex work, but I hope we’ve at least re-contextualized enough of them to have a conversation about what appears to be the root of SWEF opposition to sex work: objectification, reinforcement of structural and normative sexism, and the act of women selling their bodies.


First off, no woman I know “sells her body.” Sex workers sell a service. They sell a fantasy. They sell an escape. I can tell you, however, that one quick way to agitate them is to suggest they sell their bodies. Perhaps you might think that’s semantics, but it’s a boundary that is very important to sex workers, and it should be observed in dialogue with and about them. Sex workers are people, and they appreciate respect. Correspondingly, they don’t appreciate having their bodily autonomy called into question.

With regard to reification of sexist norms, I’m not sure I could ever hope to say it better than Eva Pendleton in her essay “Love for Sale”:

While some feminists argue that sex workers reinforce sexist norms, I would say that the act of making men pay is, in fact, quite subversive. It reverses the terms under which men feel entitled to unlimited access to women’s bodies. Sex workers place very clear limits on that access, refiguring it on our own terms.1


The narrative that suggests that the very existence of sex work perpetuates male entitlement also misses how much the clients themselves are frequently stigmatized. Outside of SWEF circles, the clients of sex workers are sadly often seen as pathetic, hardly as some embodiment of predatory masculinity. The reality is, demographically they tend to be fairly conventional middle class, middle-aged white men whose primary motivations (“key push factors”) include: meeting emotional needs, change in life-course (i.e., life changes), unsatisfactory sexual relationships, and unease with conventional dating etiquette.2

But even with a more mimetic understanding of sex work and a far different than typically assumed client profile aside, any assertion that male feelings of entitlement to women’s bodies is reinforced by the very existence of commercial sex has dangerous implications, namely that it implies a causal link between male attitudes towards women and women’s sexual behavior. Not only does this seem contrary to traditional Feminist arguments that women cannot – and should not – be held responsible for the actions and beliefs of men, but taken to its logical conclusion, it would mean that all women’s sexual behavior would be open to policing to ensure men aren’t “getting the wrong message.” In essence, the notion that a woman’s choice to offer sexual services for money perpetuates the male sense of entitlement to women’s bodies is just another form of blaming women for the abhorrently arcane beliefs held by too many men.


But perhaps most disturbing is that SWEF rhetoric completely erases the agency of women who perform sex work. This is most clear when sex workers are invariably referred to by SWEFs as “prostituted women,” the clear implication being that the sex worker is a passive object rather than a rational agent. Side note: it’s also another way to quickly agitate a sex worker. And lest you should think this is frequently true – that women are typically prostituted – perhaps I was remiss in not addressing the non-existent pimp lobby earlier. Fact: It’s not a thing. Study after study has found that sex workers (at least in the Global North – unfortunately fewer studies exist for other populations) primarily work autonomously and of their own choice. You can argue about how that choice is influenced by socioeconomic factors and the correlated options any particular woman may have at her disposal, but again, the same can be said for many jobs. Depriving women of an income is not the solution, and the proposed policies so often offered by SWEFs do exactly that, further harming those who are most marginalized and most likely to choose sex work as the least undesirable of several undesirable options. Further, as an economist acquaintance whose current area of study is the commercial markets for sex recently opined in a related discussion, “if sex work is the best available choice, you make sex workers decidedly worse off if you ban it. If you want to improve someone else’s life, you expand their choice set [not narrow it.]” Or, to put it another way, if you are truly concerned about the welfare of women engaged in sex work, harm reduction is the best approach, and the well-substantiated opinion of many objective organizations and every sex work social justice advocacy group run by active sex workers (i.e., non-pimps) is that full decriminalization is simply the best option. It gives the greatest possible chance of assuring sex workers’ safety, it provides them with basic human rights, it restores dignity, reinforces agency, and provides them with the broadest set of options from which to choose.

And yet, the rhetoric I hear from so many SWEFs is disturbing. Holding women accountable for men’s attitudes toward them, silencing women with whom they don’t agree, erasing women’s agency, minimizing their experiences, shaming their chosen sexual behaviors, disregarding their material realities … hearing this type of dialogue, I’m sometimes concerned I’ve accidentally stumbled into an MRA meeting.


There’s one last elephant in the room that probably needs to be addressed for my investment in this discussion to be understood. After all, I’m just a queer white dude, and it’s always uncomfortable addressing Feminism as a guy even though I consider myself a lifelong Feminist (if the Feminists will have me.) Well, although it’s been a bit since I’ve blogged here (hi again - sorry for the absence) I was rather prolific at one point. And yet, while I shared quite a bit about who I am, I always quietly withheld one aspect of my life: I myself have been a sex worker throughout much of my adult life. Many of us get very good at compartmentalizing our lives due to the stigma and illegal nature of what we do. Some are far more open than I have been in the past, and they have been truly inspiring to me (check out Jiz Lee’s recently published Coming Out Like a Porn Star for just a sampling.) Others, however, simply can’t take the chance of being outed. I’m taking that chance today, and even though it’s a fairly anonymized one, I think it’s necessary for this message to be understood.

Feminism was the first social justice movement in which I became involved – even before queer liberation or sex worker’s rights. Feminism provided me with a framework to understand subjugation and structural inequality, and some of its most promising voices even taught me about intersectionality and multiplicities of oppression. It gave me a lens to view the world outside the Horatio Alger myth so many of us in the US continue to believe. The fact that sex workers are all too frequently not invited to the table – that the voices of my sisters continue to be talked over by those who know nothing of their lived experiences – pains me given how much I believe in the core of all Feminism stands for. I can only hope after reading this, a few of you will stand with me in stating proudly “not my Feminism.”


PS, If you’re interested in hearing more of my thoughts on sex work, and the thoughts of my sex worker friends to whom I’m truly indebted (and whom I re-tweet incessantly) I invite you to join me on Twitter at BringMeTheAx.

1 Nagle, J. (1997). Whores and other feminists (p. 79). New York: Routledge.

2 Sanders, T. (2008). Paying for pleasure: Men who buy sex (pp. 39-40). Cullompton, UK: Willan.

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