Legalization, morality, and the myth of the feminist 'sex wars'.

And by myth I don’t mean that this didn’t happen.

Or that there are not some serious debates around pornography and sex work that are still happening within the feminist community.

What I mean is that I thought the extremely dichotomous idea that there is such a thing as a ‘sex-positive’ feminist and, by this implication, that there is some kind of  ‘anti-sex feminist’ (this kind of labeling tends to assume that anti-porn or ‘abolitionist’ feminists are anti-sex and that, therefore, porn and sex work = sex, a line of thinking that is obviously highly disputed and, as far as I’m concerned, offensive, sexist, and misleading) had been left behind in the 70s and 80s, along with the idea that all feminists hate men and have no sense of humour.

While the debates around sex work are real and important, I feel that much of the dialogue and the binary representations of the debates are fairly inaccurate and fairly useless. This is not about morality. This is not about puritanism. This is not, even, about sex. The feminists I know are far from uptight. And they all seem to enjoy sex. And even if they didn’t, guess what! Their arguments and opinions would still be valid. The idea that being anti-porn or abolitionist (or simply believing that legalizing prostitution is not the answer) somehow makes a woman ‘anti-sex’ encourages a perception of sex that is defined by men. Seeing as, largely, men are the purchasers of sex, if we argue that, to be against this in one way or another is ‘anti-sex’, then it would appear as though this kind of purchase and exchange of services equaled ‘sex’. Is this really how we see sex and sexuality? As something that can be purchased from women, by men? Is this how we want to construe sex and sexuality? With this huge power differential? Wherein those with the most economic and social power are able to make sex  solely about their needs at the expense of those who hold significantly less financial and social clout?

This is debate has been….reinvigorated…let’s say, in light of the recent proposition in Ottawa to decriminalize and strike down key prostitution laws. And, as such, these old accusations and stereotypes have reared their angry heads. What I find interesting about this kind of dichotomizing of feminism and feminists is that, while the ‘sex-positive’ end of feminism is, for the most part, a self-identifying group, those who end up lumped into the abolitionist, and hence ‘anti-sex’ crew are actually being identified as such by those who view things in an oppositional way. I don’t know a single feminist who would identify as ‘anti-sex’. Not a one. But the nature of the term, ‘sex-positive’ feminist and the perceived need to define oneself or ones allegiences as such implies,  that there must be something that is not ‘sex-positive’ – THE OTHERS. What. I can’t be pro-sex and anti-pornography? To me it makes sense that, in order to protect any kind of autonomy or freedom in terms of female sexuality and female bodies, we would want to rid society of the kind of male sense of entitlement that views women’s bodies as things that can be bought and discarded at will, that sex means ‘what men want, when they want it’.

A year ago, The Globe and Mail published, actually, a very good piece, looking critically at the idea that legalization keeps all sex workers safe and that somehow, this kind of legislation will be good for women, in general. The piece noted, accurately, that the ‘opposition’ is, more often than not, ‘dismissed as as based on “moral panic.” To me, this kind of blanketing of the opposition is no different than the negative, ridiculous, and untrue stereotyping of feminists that has been happening for decades as a means to discredit the movement.

As many have been working very hard to convince us, not all johns are violent. But many are. Many, many women in sex work have been murdered, raped, and abused. Is it possible that there is some correlation between men who seek out prostitutes, and misogyny? Is it possible that men who are violent towards women might feel a kind of entitlement to access to women’s bodies? Many of the women who have been attacked and murdered by johns, because they are in sex work, are women who are among the most marginalized in our racist and sexist society. They are at risk, often, because they have no other options. This is survival sex work. Sex work for survival. Not sex work by choice. As Benedet notes in the above-mentioned article, “Being prostituted places women at risk, to be sure, but it is not a “lifestyle.” This is work that is highly racialized and highly gendered. This is work where class and poverty are most certainly a defining factor. Would these very marginalized women benefit from legalization? Or would johns benefit? Would pimps benefit? Would women who enter into sex work ‘by choice’ (‘choice’, of course, being a highly complex and contested word that is never as simple as it is portrayed to be, or as associated with ‘free will’ as we would like it to be) benefit? Perhaps. Those who are in survival sex work, those who already exist on the margins of society, those women, I do not believe, would gain. Hiding sex work (i.e. moving it indoors, as many who argue for legalization believe that this would allow for the work to move indoors and hence, make it safe for the women) will not necessarily make it safe, though it will certainly benefit men who wish use prostitutes free from social stigma and fear of arrest.

To quote Amber Dawn: “Just because something’s not criminal does not mean it will be equitable.”

What will the law do to change perceptions around women’s lives and women’s bodies? What will the law do to de-racialize poverty? What will the law to do end misogyny and male violence against women? And what does being ‘pro-sex’ have to do with any of this? Ok. So then I am ‘pro-sex’, if you want to call it that. Certainly not in a pro-porn, anti-abolitionist kind of way. But in the way that I believe and hope that women can, one day, define sex and their own sexualities outside a patriarchal, commodified, racialized system that makes ‘sex’ about money, power, and violence. I would like the freedom to have sex outside that pornographic and violent imagery that has bled into my mind, despite all my efforts to fight it. Sex has little do to with sex work. And therefore I do not see how being ‘pro-sex’ should’ be equated with being pro-sex work. Ok? So I am ‘pro-sex’, I am pro-women. I am a feminist. And I do not believe that prostitution is good for women.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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