Feminism and Sex Work

Sex work has long been a controversal and contested subject amoung feminists. 80% of sex workers providing in person services worldwide are female, and sex workers are one of the most marginalized groups within societies [1]. Sex workers are also more likely to belong to other minority and underprivileged groups. While some people turn to online sex work out of necessity to support themselves and their families, others find online sex work empowering and choose to pursue a form of online sex work as a career. Feminist disagree on how to uplift people who do sex work and disagree about whether sex work can be empowring to women.

In the 1970s, some feminist activists “deemed working as a sex worker a choice and therefore a form of empowermen” that “allows women to creatively express their sexuality against a patriarchal society that has long endeavoured to repress it” [2]. Feminist Carol Leigh first coined the term “sex work” in the 1980s.  Carol Leigh defined sex work as a “legal way of making income for survival” [2]. Many second wave feminists, however, disagreed with this view of sex work. Feminist activist Laurie Shrage wrote in 1989 that “the sex industry, like other institutions in our society, is structured by deeply ingrained attitudes and values which are oppressive to women” [3]. Second wave feminists who opposed sex work also “often point to the fact that it is commonly known that the vast majority of prostitutes’ clients are males and the way men use women’s bodies is a form of commodification” [2]. In contrast to “the dominant perspective on prostitution held by the second wave of feminism stands in opposition” of sex work, the dominant perspective amoung third wave feminists supported sex work as “a voluntary choice, a choice that a woman can be proud of owing to the fact that they have the rights to enable them to be a prostitute in the first place” [2]. Angela Bonavoglia advocates the position that, while some “women and girls face enormous brutality in prostitution”, “some women choose to do sex work and enjoy it” [4]. In contrast, Norma Ramos, Co-Executive Director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women International, advocates the position that “prostitution is not a job” and it “is not glamorous or safe” but rather “a direct outcome of the social, political and economic inequality of women” [5].

In 2021, many feminist and human rights activists focus their advocay on decriminalizing sex work. Sex work has undeniable risks and dangers, but advocates for decriminalization believe decriminalizing sex work is the best way to protect sex workers from violence. Amnesty International states that “decriminalization provides sex workers with greater ability to operate independently, free of exploitation, and to control their working environments, and helps reduce discrimination and marginalization” [6]. They importantly clarify that “where consent is absent for reasons including threat or use of force, deception, abuse of power, or involvement of a child, such activity is not sex work but constitutes a serious human rights abuse which must be treated as a crime” [6]. Decriminalizing sex work also may help prevent trafficking by becuase “criminalization severely limits sex workers’ efforts to organize with peers and with police to combat trafficking or establish safe working environments” [6]. Decriminalization also helps prevent traffickers from using “the existence of criminal law and policy enforcement against sex work to control trafficked persons and discourage them from approaching police for help” [6]. The ACLU also advocates for decriminalizing sex work stating that decriminalization will “help sex workers access health care, lower the risk of violence from clients, reduce mass incarceration, and advance equality in the LGBTQ community, especially for trans women of color, who are often profiled and harassed whether or not we are actually sex workers” [7].

1 - “How Many Prostitutes Are in the United States and the Rest of the World?,” Britannica ProCon.org, March 19, 2020, https://prostitution.procon.org/questions/how-many-prostitutes-are-in-the-united-states-and-the-rest-of-the-world/.
2 - Nask Saeed, “A Feminist Perspective of Prostitution,” Culture Project for Art, Feminism and Gender, March 6, 2017, https://cultureproject.org.uk/2017/02/24/a-feminist-perspective-of-prostitution/.
3 - Shrage, Laurie, “Should Feminists Oppose Prostitution,” Ethics 99, no. 2 (1989): 347–361.
4 - Angela Bonavoglia, “Of Victims And Vixens--The Feminist Clash Over Prostitution,” On the Issues Magazine, 2008, https://www.ontheissuesmagazine.com/july08/july2008_3.php.
5 - Norma Ramos, “‘It’s Not TV, Its Sexploitation’ Protest Against Home Box Office,” On the Issues Magazine, 2008, https://www.ontheissuesmagazine.com/july08/july2008_5.php.
6 - “Sex Workers at Risk” (Amnesty International, 2016), https://www.amnesty.be/IMG/pdf/sex_work_png_final.pdf.
7 - Lala B Holston-Zannell , “Sex Work Is Real Work, and It's Time to Treat It That Way,” American Civil Liberties Union, June 10, 2020, https://www.aclu.org/news/lgbtq-rights/sex-work-is-real-work-and-its-time-to-treat-it-that-way/.
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