Posted by: eliseanne | December 18, 2009

Does Feminism = Pro Sex Worker?

This is a question that has been mulling in my head off and on for awhile. Mainly because International Day Against Violence Against Women, and International Day Against Violence Against Sex Workers both occurred sometime in the last few weeks. [note: i realize that not all sex workers are women, and that my feminism interacts with notions of male sex workers, too. that sounds complicated so i am going to stick with talking about women. let me know if you think that is an unjust choice and i’ll go from there.]

So obviously I am pro women’s rights and equality, and am anti sexism and oppressive patriarchal systems. I call that feminism. I dont know what you call feminism, or what baggage you bring to that word, so I chose to desribe that instead.

[another note: please do not bring up reproductive rights debates in this thread, i haven’t the energy or synthesized thoughts for that discussion.] 

I get all messed up in the brain, though, when I think about sex workers and the whole industry of sex work, and my feminism. I support the right of women to choose to be sex workers, theoretically. But I also know that in many cases, what looks like a “choice” is really not. Many women are forced into sex work, by kidnapping, manipulation, power/control, or modern-day slavery situations. Others have been traumatized by sexual abuse or rape in the past, and sex work becomes a coping mechanism. Some become sex workers as a way of physical survival, and others have hardly any other options but sex work, or surely feel that way, because of past or other circumstances. In all of these and similar situations, would my support of these sex workers actually look more like providing other options, food/shelter/safety, and healing or support from trauma??

There is a whole lot messed up with pimps and jons and how sex workers are going to jail for prostitution while the menfolk mentioned above often do not. Especially when it is a situation like the ones I just mentioned. Woman goes to jail for prostitution when she is a literal slave who was kidnapped and forced into the work against her will? Like that makes sense. It is also very dangerous work. The threat of violence, STIs, etc etc etc must exist most of the time.

But then there are women who actually choose to do the work, who have other options, who haven’t been forced or who aren’t doing it for coping or survival. And, to be honest, I dont understand this realm yet, but I’m beginning to hear and see its existence more.  Some are wealthy, upscale women who do wealthy, upscale sex work. Some might not be.  And to them, it might be offensive for me to assume all the negative situations mentioned above, about them. Perhaps they see their work as empowering, or as fighting against the sexist notion that only men would want that type of free sexuality. Just hypothesizing outloud.  I am working on this realm.

Regardless of why a woman is a sex worker, I agree with Audacia Ray (cross-posted at Feministing) that

We [sex workers] need the support and participation of a culture that sees us as human beings – we are your mothers, sons, cousins, friends – who are worthy of living lives of dignity that are free of violence.

And Jessica Yee says, cross-posted at Racialicious,

Women forget that while we show up to vigils and talk up a nice speech about some “poor prostitute” who died on the streets, we simultaneously judge, shun, and degrade current sex workers and speak against decriminalization – something that might actually help protect us.

Yes. Every human being is worthy of living a life of dignity free of violence. Dignity and respect means no shunning and degrading. I 100% agree.

…but do I support the legalization or normalization of the work?

I’m figuring out that there are definitely different camps on this issue. Racialicious linked to an article about the prevalence of Native American women in MN who are forced into prostitution, which is then called sex trafficking. But..

Although the legal system treats prostitution and trafficking differently, the report often uses the terms interchangeably, as many advocates believe that prostitution can never be considered fully consensual. The prostituted woman is the true victim of the crime, they argue.

“There’s a general acceptance that prostitution is a lifestyle choice, when it’s actually a federal crime against women,” Koepplinger said.

The article, which is really interesting btw, goes on to say:

Many advocates say that law enforcement needs to address not only the traffickers, but also the individual men who pay for sex. Carter, of Breaking Free, said she believes that the men should receive felony convictions as a deterrent.

“We believe it’s about supply and demand,” she said. “And there’s so much focus on the supply, which is the women. The demand is the men who buy them. That’s what keeps prostitution thriving is the demand.”

It seems like they advocate for sex work like prostitution to continue to be illegal and to have increasing consequences for the clients, as a way of protecting the workers and, I assume, putting the pimps and thus the trafficked workers out of business, and hopefully, out of their oppression or slavery.

The only pattern I can sense is that women of privilege, or who are in sex work by choice, advocate for legalization and support of the industry. But women who did not choose, who are oppressed, do not. Or is it just the people trying to help them that do not?

And does “supporting” or being “pro” sex worker necessitate being pro-legalization/decriminalization of it sex work like prostitution? Or does it also mean being pro health, dignity, respect, and safety for sex workers like all people, regardless of their work or the legalization of their work?

I’m stuck. It seems so multi-faceted. Your thoughts?



  1. Just a heads up, I’m not sure how organized these thoughts are, but here goes:-

    One of my seminary professors said that “Jesus is not against us because of our sins but is for us against our sins.”

    So with that in mind, my thought is that first of all we must be for the women, men, and children who are in the sex trade, and work towards their shalom. Part of that may need to be relaxing our laws so that they are free to seek the help they need.

    Part of being for their shalom is that we need to work to help them be free of the system that are keeping them in bondage against their will, and work to call them out of bondage that they willingly step into.

    In either case, the ultimate goal should be to make it easy and attractive to take the next step to wholeness (wholeness taken to include health, dignity, respect, safety, etc as well as spiritual wholeness).

    I agree that the problem is multifaceted, I don’t think there is a single, neat answer that we can advocate for. I suspect that the best answer from a policy perspective may not be the best answer on the ground, and the best answer on the ground may not be the best policy decision.

    Final random thought: It also sounds like a question of grace and mercy vs justice and Philemon may be a good book to read to discern an approach.

  2. Richard you always bring great additions of perspective abd this is why I love processing things with you. Thanls! And yes I am writing this by phone which is why it will stay this short. 🙂

  3. another link that is interesting

    about how a community that is concerned with the “blight” That sex work has on the neighborhood reputation can work together with sex workers for safety and mutual respect

  4. Oh right. Choice. I call cop-out to people who use this phrase for women who are in the process of being sexually abused, and harmed. Those people? They’re enablers, cowards. They have abandoned those women.

    Choice is absolutely not choice when the outcome harms someone. We don’t stand by and watch and enable people to make destructive drug and alcohol “choices”. We call it. We know it’s wrong and criminal to make excuses for them, and to be enablers of their destruction. When will so-called feminists stop telling these desperate women what they are doing is choice.

  5. from:

    Poor women’s migration from poor to rich countries has been cast as involuntary, forced by violence or poverty; migrant prostitutes, in particular, have been portrayed as slave victims of rape or kidnapping regardless of the actual conditions of their lives.

    Even when women nationals … insist that they want the same worker rights as local women, they are considered to be victims of abuse in need of state “protection”, i.e. expulsion, if not arrest and confinement.

    State policy seems to be nothing other than control of migrant labor.

    Feminists who portray foreign migrants as helpless victims play into the state hypocrisy.

    Usually the migrant women are among the most ambitious, and often best educated, of their home communities; their migration is an attempt to earn money to send home and to increase future options for themselves and their families.


    Specifically and predictably, anti-trafficking policies single out those migrant women assumed to be prostitutes such as black, poor or young women traveling alone or in the company of other women.

    Trafficking is not defined by force, deceit, debt bondage or rape (offenses already illegal in most countries), but rather by a combination of travel, sex and commerce.

    In principle, travel agents rather than travelers are criminalized as traffickers; however, the persons dependent on the so-called traffickers are women who need mediators for access to funds, legal documents, jobs or services since they have no independent means.

    Furthermore, the woman is the sign of the trafficker’s criminality and she is thus the target of state discriminatory controls


    Social, medical and criminal codes tightly survey women’s fertility, on the one side, and sexual-economic behavior, on the other.

    Control is exercised through a carefully designed system of coercions and restrictions, rendering imperative for some women at certain times in their lives what is prohibited for other women.

    Mystifications that glorify pregnancy and demonize prostitution divide also feminist theorists and activists such that those who champion reproductive rights rarely join forces with those who champion sexualeconomic rights.

    Mechanisms that stigmatize, immobilize and disenfranchise women as prostitutes are no less discriminatory and oppressive to the class of women than are instruments used to degrade and constrain women who are or could become pregnant.

  6. whoops, forgot my link:

  7. @Jillia and @FW

    welcome to the blog.

    thanks for the your input from both of you. I continue to wrestle with this, and I think I hear what each of you is saying.

    I think the main difference between the two of you is whether sex work is innately negative or not for the sex worker in some way. Is that too simplified? And if that does seem to fit, why do you think it is or why do you think it is not?

  8. “The only pattern I can sense is that women of privilege, or who are in sex work by choice, advocate for legalization and support of the industry. But women who did not choose, who are oppressed, do not. Or is it just the people trying to help them that do not?”
    The only women I have ever heard with a positive take on the sex industry were those who were both privileged and young. And I have seen far too many young women say that they are happy and then run away to cry to be convinced by a smile that someone is really okay.

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