A pertinent one this week: Feminism and sex work.
My partner (male) asked me recently how one can be both a feminist and a sex worker. He feels that women who offer sex work (in addition to men that use the service) promote the sexual objectification and commodification of women, which feminists are (generally) against. He agrees with me that sex work is not inherently bad, and that men buying sex are more of an influence than women selling it, but he still thinks that if more women stopped selling sex, there would be some improvement in attitudes towards women. So he thinks that feminists shouldn’t be sex workers.
Notably, when he talks about “women”, he’s not talking about women who provide sex work because they have no other reasonable options or because they’ve been forced or coerced into it. He’s talking more about me and my feminist friends, many of which have dabbled in sex work at some point during college. Although we often did it because of our student debts, we had the privilege of doing it with more autonomy, personal control, and safety than most women in the sex industry. Also, he’s only talking about hetero cisgendered sex work.
I disagree with him — I don’t think there’s an inherent ideological or moral contradiction in being a feminist and sex worker. But I’m having a hard time explaining why. Or maybe I’m wrong. Could Feministe weigh in?
Obviously sex workers can be feminists because there are sex workers who are feminists. I’m not big on playing occupational Feminist Police, and as far as I can tell, sex workers have long been on the margins of society. They’ve been shamed and they’ve pushed the sexual envelope, and in some ways they’ve been at the forefront of challenging the patriarchal model of women and family. Sex workers — those who do it voluntarily, without coercion — are the most obvious “whore” side of the virgin/whore dynamic. And by voicing their opinions and telling their stories, they break that dynamic down by adding a complex, human face to it, and by refusing to be shamed or bullied into proper feminine submission.
And there certainly isn’t an inherent contradiction between being a sex worker and a feminist — or if there is, there are also inherent contradictions between being a feminist and doing approximately 9,000 things I regularly do (wear make-up, date men, shave, etc etc) and if that’s the case, I think we can all give up our Feminist Cards right now. Not everything a feminist woman does has to be feminist in and of itself. That said, there are arguments that voluntary sex work can be a feminist act. I don’t know that I buy those arguments, but they’re there. I’m not sure if it even matters if sex work is a feminist act or not; I think what matters, from a feminist perspective, is making sure that exploitation and harm is reduced as much as possible. And I think that requires listening to what sex workers need.
Thoughts on strategies for how to discuss feminism and sex work?