There are a few topics that still never fail to divide feminist activists, and sex work is one of them — which is why this post (based on this one by Melissa Gira Grant) is so contentious right now. I love our regular guest bloggers Laurie and Debbie, and I posted that piece myself — but I don’t agree with all of it. I am an anti-sex-trafficking feminist. I think sex work is incredibly problematic. And I also support the rights of sex workers. I think you can do all those things at once.
The problem seems to be one of philosophy vs. practicality, and what should dictate policy. My view is basically that sex work wouldn’t exist in the feminist utopia. Why? Because sex wouldn’t be this commodified thing that some people (mostly woman) have and other people (mostly men) get. Sex would be a fun thing, a collaborative thing, always entered into freely and enthusiastically and without coercion. While that view would leave room for some types of sex work — sexually explicit performance, for example, if that performance were no longer primarily a looking-at-women’s-bodies-as-stand-ins-for-sex thing, which is what it mostly is today — it doesn’t leave room for offering money in exchange for sex, especially as we see it now, with men being the primary consumers and sex being seen as something you can buy. (For the record, it also doesn’t leave room for offering other things — social status, commitment, ongoing financial support, etc — in exchange for sex, which would nix a whole lot of “traditional marriages”).
None of that means that I think what sex workers of any stripe do is unethical or immoral or bad. I don’t think there would be McDonalds or Wal-Mart in the feminist utopia either; it doesn’t mean that in the here and now I don’t want to see the workers there have a full range of workplace protections and rights.
And that I think is where we lose each other, and why I often feel like I can’t find a comfortable place in these debates. I tend to “side” with the pro-sex-worker voices, because they’re promoting the kinds of things that are necessary in the here and now to protect women and to promote the voices and needs of women who are too often silenced or ignored. I see the anti-sex-work side simply promoting criminalization, which doesn’t work. I see them casting the net of trafficking a bit too widely, and using that buzzword to fight against hard-won victories like the distribution of safer sex supplies to sex-work-heavy areas.
But I also find the narrative promoted by many sex workers’ rights advocates to be shortsighted. Yes, of course women should have the right to do what they want with their own bodies, and of course there are many sex workers who aren’t trafficked or forced into the trade. But that smacks a bit too much of “I choose my choice!” feminism, which I find to be incredibly intellectually lazy. Part of the problem is that the net of trafficking as been cast so widely that in response, sex worker advocates have cast a similar too-wide net — arguing that sex work is a job like any other, that every job is coercive, etc etc. Both narratives erase the vast grey area of the entire idea of “consent” when money is involved. And in pushing back against the narrative that sex workers are all “prostituted women” who are enslaved entirely against their will, I too often see a similarly reductive argument — that while a small number of women and girls are actually enslaved, the rest are there voluntarily and we should support their choices.
But it’s not that simple. All choices are constrained, and certainly people who work in slaughterhouses or at clothing factories for 16 hours a day are coerced into that employment. But from a birdseye feminist view — from a sex-positive view — sex work is different because it’s commodifying something that should ideally be a basic pleasure, entered into entirely freely and at will. From a practical point of view, there are a whole lot of women in the sex trade who are technically there voluntarily insofar as they aren’t kidnapped and chained up, but who are coerced into sex work in ways that most of us would find intolerable — owing large sums of money to traffickers, psychologically and physically abused by pimps, cast out by their families and communities for doing sex work and believing there are no other options. These aren’t the same problems faced by highly-educated women doing fetish work or other relatively highly-paid sex work in the United States. Putting them all under the umbrella of sex work is helpful in advocating for recognition and certain legal changes, but ultimately it doesn’t mean that more women’s voices are heard; it means that the most privileged of the group dictate policy. I think Audicia Ray is right when she says:
During the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s and the sex wars of the 1980s and 1990s, the struggle to define sex positivity with respect to sex work served a purpose. To say that not all people have a horrendous experience of the sex industry, and that many sex workers value sexuality and see themselves as complex sexual beings as well as sex educators was an important statement to make, and one that had not been spoken before. However, it is essential to put this statement in historical context. To continue making the statement that many sex workers have a good experience of the sex industry without also including those whose experiences are negative and making space for them to speak up reveals a deep doubt about the validity of the sex positive argument. If we believe in the positive power of sexuality, we must also examine what happens when people’s lives are infused with sex negativity, and we must listen and support people with this experience in sharing their personal truths.
If we put aside our attachment to the sex positive construction of sex work, we will certainly hear things that will be hard to sit with. But for sex positivity to be a useful framework, one that encourages the pursuit of social justice, it must also engage with the ugly pieces of sexuality, and not in a simplistically reactive way. Otherwise, the concept of being a sex positive sex worker is a self-serving marketing practice, in which the enjoyment of sexuality is being sold as a product to both workers and our clients.
All of that said, the reality here today is that there are millions of people working in the sex trade. And while a small percentage are relatively privileged and fairly compensated, most aren’t. And most sex workers face very real barriers to basic rights like bodily autonomy, workplace safety, and freedom from violence. In there here and now, we need to advocate for what women of all backgrounds and walks of life need; we need to center the voices of women in the sex trade in strategizing how to best meet the needs of women in the sex trade. But the sex industry is a vast place, encompassing a world of women from nearly every background, ethnic group, religion, region and belief system. There are some methods that can best serve most of these women — safer sex supplies, legal rights. But what serves a 14-year-old in a Cambodian brothel whose clients are mostly middle-aged white guys from Europe and the U.S. is not the same as what serves a 22-year-old in New York advertising on Craig’s List. Just like what serves a steelworker in a U.S. auto plant is not the same as what serves a Pakistani migrant doing construction in Dubai.
There are lots of other things I want to write about here — the colonization aspect to many areas of the sex industry, and what it means that the international sex work hubs involve white men going on sex tours so they can sleep with (often underage) women and girls (and often boys) of color; or the fact that in the relatively wealthy northern European cities where sex work is common (Amsterdam, Hamburg) you don’t see many of the beneficiaries of those welfare states doing sex work, and instead large proportions of the sex workers there are migrants from Eastern Europe. When you’re talking about sex for money, you can’t take money and international economics out of it. As I’m troubled by the exploitation of brown labor here in the United States, and by the gross mistreatment of migrant workers from the global south in much of the global north, I’m troubled by the migration of sexual labor and what it says about who “deserves” sex and who provides it.
I’m troubled by the lack of focus on johns, because while I don’t think it’s immoral or unethical to exchange sex for money, I do think it’s immoral and unethical to buy sex. I think it speaks to a view of human sexuality (and women’s bodies in particular, although of course there are men who pay for sex with men and boys) as purchasable; it belies a buyer’s view of himself as entitled to sex as a thing, instead of a party to a mutually pleasurable experience.
But those are different posts. Here, I want to talk about the friction between one feminist ideal of sex as collaborative and enthusiastically consensual, and the here-and-now necessities of advocating for all women and centering the voices of the women who know best what they need. We can do two things at once, can’t we? Push for a world where sex isn’t commodified, while still recognizing that today it is commodified and sex workers, like all workers, deserve to live lives free of violence and social ostracization, and deserve basic workplace protections? Labor movements do this every day — I’m personally a fan of capitalist marketplaces because I don’t think there’s a better system out there, but I also know that capitalism is man-made, and it’s what we make it. We can respond to the basics of supply and demand while not giving corporations outsized power; while building a social safety net; and while instituting physical, legal and financial protections for workers. We can critique the forces that establish patters of exploited migrant labor while advocating for the rights of migrant laborers. Can’t we?
- Why the Sex Positive Movement is Bad for Sex Workers by Jill April 20, 2012
- Centering Sex Worker Voices by Jill February 8, 2013
- New Sex Workers’ Rights Blog by Cara September 3, 2009
- It’s not just violent clients who abuse sex workers by Jill December 17, 2010
- International Sex Workers Rights Day by Cara March 3, 2009