Sex Work: A Feminist Debate

Much of the research done around the theoretical framework and debate of female prostitution is focused on the societal structure level, but the issue of this debate is a very individual one as well. Nevertheless, these structural theories are integral in the interpretation and creation of legal perspectives as well as the financial systems of the industry and their political connections. [1]


Intersectionality provides a lens of sexism through identity, as it defends that the experiences and impacts of sexism are different for women of different racial and class identities. With this concept, it is necessary to evaluate the debate of prostitution on a basis of more than just gender, and that gender alone cannot used to assess sexual exploitation’s impact and oppression. Women of color, for instance, are more often considered to be representing sexual vice and are treated as lower class individuals systematically. This is just one example of how intersectionality plays into sexual exploitation and the victimization that occurs within it. [1]

Intersectionality still has some ways to go in terms of methodology and empirical validity, and more identities need to be studied to fully embody the concept. Sexual orientation identity and other race identities in the research of prostitution have yet to be fully explored to the extent of the injustices of Black women in the industry. [1]

Political Economy Perspective

This perspective outlines the correlation between the state and the economy. The argument describes that violence against women is due to economic welfare and political processes of the state. The focus is more on the nature of capitalism and the differences of wealth it creates, while having similarities to the Marxist feminist theories. The main takeaway is that the lower socioeconomic classes of women combined with political economy could lead to the presence and choice of sex work. It points out the dependency that is caused by the capitalistic system because of unequal opportunity and pay for women in the political economy. It does not support that women want to take part in the sex work industry and fall victim to trafficking or chose prostitution with not other options. Personal agency is ignored, and the right to choose is questioned. [1]

Legal Perspectives

There are 4 legal approaches to governing prostitution. Prohibition criminalizes the sale, soliciting, and purchase of sexual service. Abolition criminalized only the purchase of sexual services. Regulation is the government licensing and regulation of prostitution establishments, and decriminalization removes all criminal prohibitions of the sale or purchase sex work for consenting adults. Sweden adopts abolition, while the Netherlands and Germany have adopted regulatory legal approaches. Nevertheless, the larger global trend towards government regulation is in criminalization, penalizing customers and pimps but not the prostitutes themselves. [2]

Prohibitionist Perspective

The prohibitionist perspective is what drives the U.S. political stance in almost all parts of the county. Promotion and practice of sexual activities for economic grain is a charge of prostitution and commercial vice, and there is no specifications or exemptions from those who purchase, offer, or organize the sale of sexual acts. Cases that involve minors (which calls for illegality) and adults when force, fraud, or coercion occur are the only exceptions. [1]

Decriminalization and Legalization

There are two methods of legally addressing prostitution among academic scholars. The first is the decriminalization of prostitution, where criminal penalties are lifted. Examples of this are seen in other countries of the world, such as the decriminalizing sex workers but not their customers in Sweden. The second option is the legalization prostitution. This legalizes all parties who participate in the industry, such as in New Zealand, and treats the practice as a form of service that can be regulated and taxed. This also allows labor standards to be implemented across the board, as access to legal health insurance and other labor benefits could be available to the already vulnerable sex workers, keeping them safer. [1]

Margo St. James founded COYOTE (“Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics”) one of the many advocacy organizations created by former prostitutes and sex workers to promote the legalization or decriminalization of sex work and challenge the prohibitionist narrative. James and the organization advocate for the claim that sex work is a legitimate career choice and should be treated as such by law and in practice. [1]

Critics of the legalization and decriminalization of prostitution claim that the accepted industry will normalize sexual demands of employers in any field and may increase human trafficking (at least globally). [1]


One proposed approach to sex work is in “sexual geographies”, where potential harms depend on where and how the sex work is performed. Virtual sex work is safe, whereas outcall work, in which sex workers meet customers in private spaces like hotel rooms, involves physical contact and is much riskier. Exotic dancers are physically in public but have limited physical contact, so they experience a moderate amount of risk. Laws and regulations of sex work should factor in the health and safety of different kinds of work sites and risks, each with different safety measures to implement. [2]

One argument from an anti-prostitution persepctive comes from Scott A. Anderson. [3] He claims that the legalization and normalization of prostitution reduces sexual autonomy, degrades women, is a source of social injustice, and creates sexist attitudes towards women. The possibilites of normalizing prostitution he outlined include: 

1. Job descriptions might be re-described to include sexual tasks.

2. Welfare might be denied to people who are capable of doing available sexual work.

3. People could write enforceable contracts that include sexual services. Courts would be required to uphold them.

4. Corporations that provided sexual services could monitor the sexual acts of employees.

5. Sex workers might have to adhere to non-discrimination standards when taking on clients.

6. The government would be entitled to inspect the health of sex workers and might prohibit risky sexual behavior outside of work.

7. Corporations might market aggressively to change prejudices about buying sex.

8. Schools would have to counsel students about their options in sex work. [3]

His main point lies in our feelings towards sexual autonomy. It is something that deserves special consideration. Anderson fears that what is now the role of pimps will be taken on, legitimized, and normalized by big business in a capitalist economy. However, the transfer of these powers from pimps to big business would be possible only if we legalized and normalized the alienation of sexual rights. Legalizing prostitution does not entail the market alienability of sexual rights. [3]

This point of view is responded to by Hallie Rose Liberto, who makes the claim that Anderson’s perspective only applies to sexual-rights-alienating prostitution, not sexual-rights-preserving prostitution. [3] The liberal position of legalizing sex work creates more safety, security on client negotiation, and control of economic venture and career development. Normalizing releases the stigma of sex work, and the industry would be legitimized as any other labor force. The liberal perspective thinks that contemporary feminism degrades women, exploits inequalities, and objectifies women’s bodies, but does not support that these are intrinsic features of prostitution but of contemporary American prostitution. [3]

Other conversations around the debate for prostitution include the aspects in which we think about sex and accept the nature of the human practice. For much of the Christian religious narrative, sex is a tool for procreation during marital union, and the desire for any other sex is sinful. This, on the surface, makes a compelling argument or at least a strong religiously motivated personal view against the legalization of prostitution. This also motivates the strong opposing opinions to abortion rights and legality for conservative religious Christians, as it goes against the principles that conception is the only acceptable way to have sex and abortion promotes all other forms of sex. However, human nature cannot confine the desire for sexual attraction and intimacy to procreation alone, and when the desire cannot be suppressed or addressed in marital relationships, commercial sex seems like an appropriate option and should be supported. Sex in relation to romantic partnerships is often considered to have meaning when one is acting in loving sex, as opposed to non-loving sex (sex for the sake of sex). But the notion of non-loving sex having a negative impact on the way an individual approaches or prioritizes loving sex to their romantic relationship has been proven false, and thusly to fulfill the human desire for sex in these various ways it is preferable to have the options of loving and non-loving sex (commercial sex, or casual sex). [4]

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

[2] Shrage, “Feminist Perspectives on Sex Markets.”

[3] Liberto, “Normalizing Prostitution,” 138-45.

[4] Primoratz, “Whats Wrong With Prostitution?”, 158-92.

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