sex positive, anti-sex work: changing hearts and minds on prostitution
I recently completely changed my mind about prostitution laws. I want to first explain in this post what I used to think, and then discuss the facts that changed my mind, before ending with what I believe now. I address sex work in America in this post specifically because it’s what I’ve mostly studied, and I can’t speak to many specific differences between the industry, laws, and culture here vs. in other countries, though I trust that some things may be applicable if investigated.
To begin with: a disclaimer that I am no expert but simply a curious college student. Let’s make sure we are on the same page with a few definitions:
Essentially, these terms are interchangeable considering that people who are against sex work call it prostitution and people who are supportive of prostitution call it sex work. “Sex work” does emphasize the “labor and economic implications” of the trade as Wikipedia explains, and that is why its advocates prefer the term. I’m going to call it sex work, because it’s the term I prefer even though as you are about to find out, I oppose it. I do this mostly as a personal plight to remind myself of where I used to stand on the issue and thus the need for a stance that carefully considers all sides and is not bent on me being right but rather me adapting my position when I learn new information.
To be very clear, there are sex workers on both sides of this issue, so just talking about asking sex workers what they want- while absolutely necessary- does not provide us with a concise answer as to how to address the problems in/of/related to sex work, some of which the most pressing are (in my opinion):
In one study:
1) Women and children abused in prostitution experience severe and long lasting physical and mental health problems.
2) […]Whatever the reason for women entering prostitution, her drug and alcohol use is likely to hugely increase.
3) Many women involved in street prostitution do not have care of their children (usually as a consequence of drug and alcohol misuse). This has a strong impact on the women themselves and is a common issue they need support on through services. It also has an impact on the children, the extended family, for example grandparents bringing up grandchildren, and on child protection services.
In another study:
4) 41% of the sex buyers knowingly used a woman in prostitution who was controlled by a pimp.
5) Sex buyers were more than seven times more likely than non-sex buyers to acknowledge that they would rape a woman if they could get away with it and if no one knew about it.
6) Sex buyers are far more likely than non-sex buyers to commit felonies, misdemeanors, crimes related to violence against women, substance abuse-related crimes, assaults, crimes with weapons, and crimes against authority.
7) 89% of sex buyers said they would be deterred from buying sex if their name were to be added to a sex offender registry.
8) 90% of sex buyers said they would be deterred from buying sex if a $1,000-$2,000 penalty were imposed.
9) 100% of sex buyers said they would be deterred from buying sex if a one month jail term were imposed.
10) 62% [of former sex workers] reported having been raped in prostitution. 73% reported having experienced physical assault in prostitution. 72% were currently or formerly homeless. 92% stated that they wanted to escape prostitution immediately. (Melissa Farley, Isin Baral, Merab Kiremire, Ufuk Sezgin, “Prostitution in Five Countries: Violence and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder” (1998) Feminism & Psychology 8 (4): 405-426)
11) A Canadian Report on Prostitution and Pornography concluded that girls and women in prostitution have a mortality rate 40 times higher than the national average. (Special Committee on Pornography and Prostitution, 1985, Pornography and Prostitution in Canada 350.) In one study, 75% of women in escort prostitution had attempted suicide. Prostituted women comprised 15% of all completed suicides reported by hospitals. (Letter from Susan Kay Hunter, Council for Prostitution Alternatives, Jan 6, 1993, cited by Phyllis Chesler in “A Woman’s Right to Self-Defense: the case of Aileen Carol Wuornos,” in Patriarchy: Notes of an Expert Witness, 1994, Common Courage Press, Monroe, Maine.)
A little background then:
I used to be very pro-sex work. I argued that people sell themselves all the time- that’s what capitalism does. You sell your body’s labor and ideas and creativity. What is so different between sexual activity and any other grueling physical labor or mental work? Most Mormons believe sex to be divine and a sacred power, but I could not justify a legal argument against people having sex with who they wanted to have sex with simply because I do not plan to have sex in the way that workers in the sex industry do. I cannot justify writing legislation saying that people should only have sex if it is to bond with their husband or wife or if it is to create children.
So why did I go from being pro-sex work to anti sex work in only a couple of weeks?
First, I read a report from human rights researchers that described how countries in which sex work is legal had higher rates of sex trafficking and human trafficking, whereas countries in which sex work is not legal had much lower rates of trafficking . This was enough to stop me in my tracks. I have been a staunch advocate for ending trafficking for long enough to recognize that there was a serious tension between my acceptance of the sex industry and the reality of its effects on trafficking. I realized I needed to do more research because immediately I felt in my bones that if criminalizing sex work would decrease human trafficking and make it easier to spot, I would advocate for it in a heartbeat (while doing everything I can to help former sex workers find other careers of course).
So I started reading reports online and watching some documentaries, including one called Buying Sex (which is on Netflix instant, for anyone interested), which is about the legal efforts at decriminalizing sex work in Canada. In summary, it depicts two sides: sex workers, former and current, who support decriminalization; on the other side are sex workers, all former, who oppose decriminalization. I will be honest that I started the film expecting to side with the first group. I have heard and rebutted many arguments against sex work before and assumed I would mostly retain my position.
But from the very first moments, I felt the rug being pulled out from under me. A pro-sex work advocate opens the documentary describing how the oldest profession in the world is prostitution. I nodded my head – the sex industry has always existed in most countries in some form. But then the film jumps to an anti-sex work advocate who declares, “The oldest profession in the world is AGRICULTURE.” The film continued on and while both sides received fair screen time and I can imagine others may well be persuaded by the pro-sex work side, I was continually pulled to the anti-sex work side. I was beginning to see who was really talking about how to best end the abuses sex workers so often face and how to end the abuses that so many non sex workers face as a byproduct of a culture that tolerates the sex industry. By the end of the film, I knew that I could no longer fully support the sex industry in the way I had previously done.
To be clear, I don’t think that I previously would have characterized myself as supporting the industry- I would have simply said that I support the right of any woman to choose her profession, and if she wants to have sex for money or if she needs to have sex for money, I support her right to do so. What changed is that I realized that that level of analysis which so many pro-sex work advocates engage is so limited. It is an individual level of analysis – “This woman made the choice, so I will support her” – when fully analyzing sex work requires systemic and cultural analysis as well.
And once I started doing some research, I realized that the people who are talking about anti-sex work are in many cases the ones who are talking about that systemic and cultural analysis- patriarchy as an intersectional force that oppresses women through gender but also through class, race, and sexual identity and orientation. For example, the organization End Violence Against Women states:
Our critique of prostitution is not moralistic, nor do we condemn or infantilise women who are involved within it, rather we argue this is a patriarchal institution through which women are exploited, marginalised, abused and stereotyped. Prostitution, and other structures in which women are objectified, reinforce and perpetuate stereotypes of women, especially where this intersects other aspects of social identity such as race/ethnicity, age and class. Prostitution as an institution reinforces and perpetuates the unequal status of ALL women. We do not therefore support criminalisation of women in prostitution.
There is a context of patriarchal and capitalistic demand for women’s bodies with which any woman who chooses a career in the sex industry interacts. Many common pro-sex work arguments fail to consider this fact. I’ve listed a few of them below along with my initial rebuttal:
- Men will always want to pay for sex, so there will always be a demand. Why not legalize and regulate it to protect sex workers?
Legislation that is centered so squarely around the sexual desires of men will never be able to justify the desperately needed measures to end violence against women and the exploitation that occurs daily in the sex industry. When has caring about men’s sexual desires ever helped dismantle and deconstruct the patriarchal constructs that run rampant in America and contribute to rape culture? Simply because people are willing to pay for it does not make a practice or industry morally or legally justifiable.
Legalising prostitution turns it into a business, turns it into a career option and turns pimps and traffickers into legitimate businessmen overnight. Legalising prostitution removes any obligations to provide exit services from what becomes a profession like any other, it can give a green light to organised crime and it formally defines women as commodities, as objects of exchange for men’s presumed natural needs. (Source)
(I’m anti-capitalist most of the time, so no, I don’t think it’s a valid argument to say that there will always be a demand so we have to satisfy it.)
The male demand, that would supposedly never go away, is born out of the way heterosexuality is constructed under patriarchy. A woman can feel very horny (yes, we know what it’s like) and the idea that it should be the job of an eighteen year-old stranger to lick her genitals for sexual relief, on the spot, in exchange for money, will not cross her mind. Men, on the other hand, grow up receiving the message that there should be women at their disposal for their sexual enjoyment, on demand, to the point where they view this not simply as a desire but as a right. You don’t hear women tell a man ‘lick my clit’ in a non-sexual context. You hear men say to women ‘suck my dick’, and its corollary ‘go back to the kitchen’, both used to tell a woman to shut up, as a call to put her back to her place, i.e. subservient to men. (Source)
I worry about the implication of a society where men cannot use or do not have access to tools that teach consent and healthy relationships where they could engage in sexual activities but instead seek out a woman to pay for them. I want comprehensive (and sex positive) sex ed taught in schools that teaches about consent and how to build healthy relationships to mitigate this.
- Who are we to tell women what to do with their own bodies? Isn’t that just as bad as patriarchy?
A woman could do all kinds of immoral or illegal things with her body- chanting “her body her choice” is not without its exceptions. Simply because a woman does something with her body does not require me to support her choices. I wish I could just focus on the woman and her choices and celebrate her autonomy however she chooses to use it- but women don’t make choices in a vacuum. There is a context that has to be considered, and trying to oversimplify any decision or any human being is simply not acceptable for my personal brand of feminism.
“Her body her choice” and the impetus for such a refrain in feminist movements DO require me to support HER, and that is a big reason why I so strongly believe that anyone serious about mitigating the ills of the sex industry and human trafficking (and most other societal problems) should do so by thrusting their energy into anti-poverty efforts, which would at least help to remove financial necessity as one of the major reasons why women enter sex work. It is also why I strongly support providing better exit services and lobbying for any efforts that will improve sex workers’ health and safety while they are still in the industry.
Critical Development scholar, Ilam Kapoor, devised the term “decaf capitalism” to describe the use of kindness and generosity to offset social injustice as a form of humanized capitalism. I think “decaf prostitution” or “prostitution lite” captures the ideology of the movement to humanize the trade. The sex faction decaffeinates prostitution by petitioning for damage control without facing the enormous male power over women. Injury mitigation serves to stabilize the system, making it more palatable to society. Sex work in this sense is fundamental to the sustainment of the male global order. It masks the status quo, providing a safety net for men to flourish, and in essence depoliticizing that which is inescapably political. (Source)
Additionally, it is not so simple to just support a woman’s stated desires. I say this not to gaslight women who enjoy the sex industry, but instead to point out that there are women who have left the industry and stated publicly that their positive statements to the media while they were in the industry were much more complicated than wholehearted enthusiasm.
- A culture that shames women for having sex and for enjoying careers doing so is unhealthy because it is sex-negative and leads to more STIs, teen pregnancies, and rape culture.
Since crossing the aisle (so to speak) on this issue, I’ve found myself deeply uncomfortable with the slut-shaming and sex-negative attitudes I’ve sometimes seen held by fellow anti-sex work advocates (who are usually on the other side of the political aisle from me). It has been a good reminder to me of the importance of not shaming sex workers, demanding intersectionality, and considering the role that any perceived shaming can play in promoting rape culture. I do not support shaming women, but neither will I allow complacency to offer a blessing by default on an industry that is so deeply problematic.
I’m a sex positive feminist; I think that sex can be a healthy and awesome way for couples to explore new parts of their relationship, and it can bring about kids and I think families are awesome (to put it trivially). Women should have access to reproductive services that will allow them to decide if, when, and how they produce babies. But I’m not going to support the sex industry just because I’m sex positive.
“Sex positivity” as promoted by sex industry forces represents an intentional removal of all political context from sexual practice, which removes barriers to rape apologism and promotion of sexual violence and exploitation, said barriers of course being the objections of women and feminists which are then construed as “sex negativity.” (Source)
I hope you can see why I feel the need to reclaim my sex positivity in the midst of my anti-sex work stance.
Pro-sex work arguments too often fail to take down abuse and negative aspects of assumed sex positivity as well as male desire .
“Women who exit prostitution tell a different story than that of orgasms and sweet men. Our experiences are the most stigmatizing. Because other women don’t want to realize that their men are possibly sex buyers and cheaters. Men don’t want to lose their illusions of constantly horny women who love to have sex for money.” (Source)
This neglect is unacceptable, considering male desire has driven capitalism and patriarchy for millenia, and it currently leads to really dangerous and terrible working conditions for many sex workers right now. We shouldn’t structure legalization around male desire, but neither should we ignore the role it plays and fail to deconstruct its influence. I imagine this oversight is likely at least partially because the pro-sex work stance inherently favors supporting the continuation of sex work, leading to a potential bias towards overlooking or downplaying abuses by men towards women and trans folk in sex work.
Getting to the end, I promise:
So where does that leave me? I do not support criminalizing sex workers- I favor the Nordic model if there is to be criminalization at all . I find the following two definitions by Finn Mackay (seriously, read the root article and all the comments if you have time) to be useful:
What is the abolition argument?
Abolitionists are those who believe in the criminalisation of demand for prostitution, with a view to reducing prostitution, or perhaps ending it in the future. This is not just a feminist argument, many Socialists and anti-capitalists also subscribe to this view and look towards a future without the prostitution industry. Abolitionists usually view prostitution as a cause and consequence of inequality, including gender inequality; they do not view it as work like any other. This is a political stance, it is not a religious, moralistic or conservative stance.
What is the criminalisation of demand?
Many feminists, including abolitionists, are advocating what is called the Nordic approach, calling for the complete decriminalisation of all those exploited in prostitution and instead for the criminalisation of demand. In 1999 Sweden outlawed the purchase of sexual acts in prostitution, effectively criminalising punters, while decriminalising all those selling ‘sexual services’. To put it plainly – the women aren’t criminalised, but the men are. This move was in line with Sweden’s understanding of prostitution as a form of violence against women and a symptom of inequality, as well as being part of their commitment towards tackling global sex trafficking. Any such legal move must go alongside a large and dedicated financial investment in both harm-minimisation and exit services, and this is no less than what those people exploited and harmed in prostitution deserve, many of whom have been let down consistently by the very state services that should have protected them.
The following are some points that I think pro-sex work feminists need to make sure to consider in their arguments:
- Including more detail about addressing sexual violence and abuse in sex work and addressing broader societal repercussions of men buying sex from women.
- Avoiding a conflation of feminist agency with sex work– a very class based perspective that seems to view sex work as independent from the financial pressures and necessities that drive so many women to it. To embrace something as liberating does not absolve it of its problematic elements.
- Specifically critically considering the experiences of black women in America and how they face distinctly different pressures by the sex industry:
Racist stereotypes in the mainstream media and in pornography, portray Black women as wild animals who are ready for any kind of sex, any time, with anybody.(11) Additionally, strip joints and massage parlors are typically zoned in Black neighborhoods,(12) which gives the message to white men that it is alright to solicit Black women and girls for sex–that we are all prostitutes. On almost any night, you can see them slowly cruising around our neighborhoods, rolling down their windows, calling out to women and girls. And we got the message growing up, just like our daughters are getting it today, that this is how it is, this is who we are, this is what we are for.(13)
Once a Black woman gets into prostitution, it becomes harder for her to get out than for a white woman. Racism in the courts results in Black women paying higher fines and doing more jail time than white women.(17) Racist probation officers and child protection workers can create nearly impossible case plans for Black women, setting them up to fail and resulting in their being returned to jail or losing custody of their children.(18)
- Not shying away from recognizing that so many young girls are being pressured into, bought and sold into prostitution and how the average age of entry is 13 years old.
- Explicitly discussing ways that your pro-sex work feminism can address how sex trafficking is so difficult to separate from sex work.
And also there should be a heck of a lot more research done on sex work and sex workers.
Before I close, I would like to make clear some basic points about my position:
1) I do not support cultural or societal efforts to shame women who enter the sex industry, and I especially do not support such efforts when so many women do so out of economic necessity.
2) I do not support criminalization of sex workers themselves (and would posit that almost no one serious in researching this issue would take a stance otherwise).
3) I believe the absolute first step in trying to address this issue is to work on stronger anti-poverty efforts that actually work. And probably get rid of capitalism.
4) I strongly support providing better exit services for sex workers who wish to leave the industry and struggle to do so. I support any measures that will actually increase sex worker’s safety and health.
5) I don’t view eliminating sex work as some kind of rescuing poor lost women from a sinful trade- I see it as addressing an industry that contributes to the oppression of women. I do not view women who have sex outside of marriage as sinful or evil or unclean (remember the part where I’m sex positive).
6) While it is not oppressive for all women, it is extremely oppressive to most women, and I would rather some women have to find other ways to express themselves than have so many women suffer in the system.
7) I didn’t talk about male prostitutes in this post, or go into as much detail on the class based divisions, or discuss broader cultural tie-ins to rape culture and commodification of women’s bodies, or the differences between street prostitution vs brothel vs escort services, and I didn’t get to talk about the specifics of whether criminalization and its various forms would actually make sex workers safer. Please remember this is just a blog post and I can’t cover everything.
8) I didn’t reference or discuss arguments made by feminist scholars, though there are many prestigious ones, and you should google around to find them (I’m not the only feminist talking about this- this post is just my small contribution to discussions happening for decades around me).
9) I recognize that I do not go into much detail on how my argument applies to stripping, exotic performances, pornography , or other related subsections of the sex industry. I will most likely be doing a part 2 to hopefully address some of those areas and any questions or issues that arise from this blog post.
 The research in the study I cite was conducted by a prostitution-abolitionist institution- I will leave it up to you readers to study the methodology and decide if you trust it.
 Here is the summary of the research on the effect of prostitution laws on human trafficking:
-Countries with legalized prostitution are associated with higher human trafficking inflows than countries where prostitution is prohibited. The scale effect of legalizing prostitution, i.e. expansion of the market, outweighs the substitution effect, where legal sex workers are favored over illegal workers. On average, countries with legalized prostitution report a greater incidence of human trafficking inflows.
-The effect of legal prostitution on human trafficking inflows is stronger in high-income countries than middle-income countries. Because trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation requires that clients in a potential destination country have sufficient purchasing power, domestic supply acts as a constraint.
-Criminalization of prostitution in Sweden resulted in the shrinking of the prostitution market and the decline of human trafficking inflows. Cross-country comparisons of Sweden with Denmark (where prostitution is decriminalized) and Germany (expanded legalization of prostitution) are consistent with the quantitative analysis, showing that trafficking inflows decreased with criminalization and increased with legalization.
-The type of legalization of prostitution does not matter – it only matters whether prostitution is legal or not. Whether third-party involvement (persons who facilitate the prostitution businesses, i.e, “pimps”) is allowed or not does not have an effect on human trafficking inflows into a country. Legalization of prostitution itself is more important in explaining human trafficking than the type of legalization.
-Democracies have a higher probability of increased human-trafficking inflows than non-democratic countries. There is a 13.4% higher probability of receiving higher inflows in a democratic country than otherwise.
(a related image:)
 The quotes from these men about why they buy sex was on the whole troubling. I think it helps humanize and also at least begin to better understand male desire as I mentioned above. http://www.theguardian.com/society/2010/jan/15/why-men-use-prostitutes
 I am anti-prisons, so I don’t favor any legislative model that involves jailing people for their offenses, but research has already shown that fines and public exposure are pretty successful deterrents anyways. I remain skeptical of any legal redresses to the sex industry, as I have little faith in American law enforcement (based on the collective history of their involvement in this issue) to adequately respond to the needs of sex workers. In fact I have little faith in most enforcement of safety measures and such that would supposedly improve the sex industry. So while I don’t think it’s perfect, I do support the Nordic model as opposed to the current criminalization that targets sex workers themselves.
 While I don’t talk specifically about pornography in this post, it’s still a crucial component of sex work discussions:
80% of prostitution survivors at the WHISPER Oral History Project reported that their customers showed them pornography to illustrate the kinds of sexual activities in which they wanted to engage. 52% of the women stated that pornography played a significant role in teaching them what was expected of them as prostitutes. 30% reported that their pimps regularly exposed them to pornography in order to indoctrinate them into an acceptance of the practices depicted.
10 Responses to “sex positive, anti-sex work: changing hearts and minds on prostitution”
Nice post. I just want to make one note, it sounds a bit false to say that in Sweden prostitution is criminalized. How the model works is that the prostitutes/sex workers are decriminalized and the sex buyers are criminalized. So its not illegal to sell sex by this model, it’s illegal to buy sex. So the women who are for whatever reason in this are not criminals for doing so and what this has managed to do is to lower demand for men to buy sex and also when the women are no longer at risk of getting caught up into the legal system for doing this, they can actually easier call the cops on any john that has behaved badly also there are exits programs for women who want out and so on.
Hope it makes it a bit clearer.
The definition I shared of the “criminalisation of demand” explained that, but it’s definitely good to make sure everyone’s clear. Thanks!
Alrighty, its all good 🙂
“The male demand, that would supposedly never go away, is born out of the way heterosexuality is constructed under patriarchy. A woman can feel very horny (yes, we know what it’s like) and the idea that it should be the job of an eighteen year-old stranger to lick her genitals for sexual relief, on the spot, in exchange for money, will not cross her mind.” I’m sorry but I beg to differ with this statement I spent a large part of my teens and early 20’s catering to the sexual desires of women, young, single and married. The older married women paid the most, and the majority wanted as much oral sex as i could give, a few, in their minds, saw oral sex as NOT cheating because “what’s a kiss on the lips”, they were never violated so no harm done, according to them. Most of the women wanted to do things they were too ashamed to ask their husband/boyfriends to do, paying me was a service in their eyes. One woman was a closet lesbian and wanted me to dress as a female and give her oral sex, that was her thing, she paid, who am I to argue. I’ll probably get a lot of hate for this comment, but hey, that’s life, the “real” life that I actually lived.
I’m kind of surprised this post didn’t blow up with comments. I’ve been thinking about it since it was posted – it’s brilliant, and very persuasive. Thanks, Hannah.
I thought it would blow up more too, since I thought a lot more people would voice their disagreement. Thank you for the compliment! 🙂
I’m sorry but this is offensive. I understand that you say you are not against sex workers themselves, but you are taking a very strong stand AGAINST them by having anti-sex work views.
Being pro-sex work is NOT being pro-trafficking.
Yes, we should analyze the patriarchal roots of sex work, but we should not demonize it or demonize women (or men or people of any other gender/s) who are part of it.
I’m disappointed in you.
Please show me where I “demonize”d anyone who participates in sex work. I never stated that being pro-sex work is being pro-trafficking, nor did I demonize anyone who participates.
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Good reeading your post