Prostitution After 1973


During the Women’s Liberation movement of the early 1970s, questions as such were circulating around many feminist spheres and groups: “is support for prostitutes/women more important than critique of prostitution/patriarchy/sexism? Are prostitutes/ women victims or agents? Do feminists who are not 'on the game'/not oppressed in the same manner, have the right to speak for prostitutes/working class women/black women?”[1] There exists a kind of double standard, where prostitutes are victims to inequalities and sexism and have the burden of criminal records and less respectability for their labor that is not felt by their buyers and clients. Through this perspective, support for the legalization of prostitution and the amplification of the voices of sex workers is promoted, but a remaining question stands: Is the support for prostitution ignoring or disabling the feminist critique of prostitution? [1]

On many grounds, the sex work debate is a pro- vs anti-prostitution debate, and pro- vs anti-sex debate, and a conservative vs liberal/radical debate. This polarizes the issue greatly. Among the feminist views of the early 1970s, one consists of an upholding of previous feminist campaigns, where there is an advocacy against female objectification institutionally, and this would include the institution of prostitution. The other contrasting view of second wave feminists point out the limited world view given to women by earlier feminist struggles through a middle-class morality on working class female sexuality. [1]


Judith R. Walkowitz, a professor at Manchester, has been conducting research about feminist thought and theory since the 1970s. [2] She took part in the academic development of prostitution during the “sex wars” and the revitalized feminist movement of the 70s. In her resaerch, she has come to three conclusions of female prostitution modern history: “feminist historians see female prostitution as sexual labour, an integral part of the survivalist strategy of the poor over many centuries. Second, they argue that intensified policing had negative effects on women in the trade. Finally, they cast doubt on political campaigns, including feminist campaigns that repeatedly ended in legislation and other state actions that marked off sex work from other forms of labour.”[] This is a fantastic jumping off point to the evolution and diversification of the many feminist perspectives utlined below. [2]


Feminist Perspectives of Prostitution

Feminism theoretical frameworks apply the concepts of intimacy, gender-based crime, economic venture and, voluntary vs involuntary action to the debate of prostitution. Two main groups of thought emerge with these concepts at the helm: Neo-abolitionists and sex positivists. Neo-abolitionists deny that prostitution can by consensual and sex positivists defend the right of employment and career choice for the prostitution industry. [3]

Radical and Marxist Feminism

Neo-abolitionists condemn all forms of prostitution, voluntary or involuntary. They interpret the activity as oppression against women. The foundational belief of this feminist perspective is rooted in the patriarchal nature of social structure. This is evident in the historical exclusion of women in the public sector, higher education, structural labor forces, and religious institutions. Sexism perpetuates this gendered male privilege. Violence by men onto women is a form of male domination and social control, and that men believe they have a right to enact violence on women to enforce their institutionalized male privilege. [3]

Because this system of oppression is so engrained and readily available, the motivations of female sexual exploitation are rooted in male domination and gendered inequalities. It motivates the subordination of women to men and the patriarchal right to women’s bodies. Pornography has the same effects to societal perspectives. [3]

Marxist feminists, specifically, tie this structural male domination to the economic dependence of women in a society that motivates the centrality of men in the workplace. It ties capitalism into the oppressive forces against women and emphasizes that the economic system perpetuates male economic dependence. The sexual energy of women is appropriated by the customers and pimps of the sex industry, comparing this to the appropriation of laborer work to the capitalists that profit off of it. Sex work takes power away from women. [3]

Problems within this feminist perspective is the lack of addressing the right of women to voluntarily chose this line of work, and the narrow focus of the sexually exploited and trafficked women. It treats the issue as if everyone in the sex industry are victims of trafficking or sex exploitation, which can have very negative effects of the legal and social services that are implemented as a result. It negates the idea of autonomy for sex workers and does not try to work with the reality of capitalist systems that dominate today. [3]

Sex Positivism

This feminist perspective is the flip of neo-abolitionist feminism. Women’s right to choose sex work and their autonomy within the industry is emphasized and supported. Sexuality can and is in many cases consensual, and that the power of deciding what is intimacy in the line of work women choose is up to individual women themselves, not society. This view is held by former sex worker, activist, and writer Maggie McNeil. Mandates and laws that tell women if their profession is wrong is infringing on their right to determine intimacy and facilitates dangerous patriarchal standards. Women are free to choose whatever kind of labor they like for career fulfillment or financial gain, and laws or regulations that limit and spell out the available choices of work for women are patriarchal in nature and very dangerous. [3]

Sex positivism has integral critiques, aside from the obvious fundamental opposition of neo-abolitionist feminist foundations. One of which discusses the lack of focus on sexual assault rates and historical abuse in the discussion of consent. There is also the factor of a lack of economic options for women that drive them to sex work, which adds to the discussion of voluntary principles. Some religious institutions stout the moral corruption that this perspective brings on a national level, further contributing to the complex nature of the debate around prostitution. [3]

Domination-Theory Feminists

Women’s oppression is in sexuality. Prostitution is a state in which women are in, not an industry, and that the sexuality of women is derived from the objectivity by men, and thus women are the victims of the male sexual desire. Sex work asserts male dominance and power over women and is not a choice, much like radical feminist theory. The pimps exploit females and the women are essentially slaves. However this theory dismisses the case of male prostitutes and homosexual relationships. [4]

Liberal Feminists

Sex work is degrading because of the objectifying that fuels it, but it does the work of any other kind of laborer. Sex work should be legalized so prostitutes can make decisions that pertain to their bodies with protections and labor benefits. This aligns with the reasoning in the Roe v. Wade case, which gave women the right to control their bodies. [4]

Black Feminist Thought

In the 1960s and 70s mainstream feminism emerged to focus on oppressions for all women as well as men. While acting all encompassing, black feminists and women see racism as a primary concern, not opposition to men, and thus did not feel this theory movement represented all women. Black feminists and women are oppressed uniquely because they have multiple sources of oppression. While systematic and sexual oppression comes from the patriarchal society, they also are oppressed racially from White people and further by Black men. Here the prime example of intersectionality emerges, as Black prostitutes battle stigmas and oppressions on the bases if race, class and gender. Also, more black women consider prostitution for economic means than white women due to fewer opportunities for labor and other general inequalities tied to racism. Additionally, black prostitutes are arrested at a disproportionately higher rate than white prostitutes. [4]

[1] Carpenter, “The Dilemma of Prostitution for Feminists,” 25-28.

[2] Walkowitz, “Feminism and the Politics of Prostitution.”

 [3] Gerassi, “A Heated Debate,” 79-100.

[4] Robinson, Counterpoints, 21-36.

Prev Next