Who is the real enemy in the prostitution debate? A response to one argument against abolition

Earlier this month, rabble.ca published a response from a sex worker named Sarah M. to, not only the abolitionist argument as a whole, but to me in particular. Having written several blog posts, cross-posted to rabble.ca (as F Word blog posts are) on the topic of prostitution which address and challenge arguments for decriminalization and/or legalization, building on or using abolitionist and radical feminist arguments as foundation, the site, with good reason, felt it fair to solicit a response from a sex worker, as many of their regular readers suggested they do.

I do question the recent efforts by some to focus this debate on individuals and on personal attacks. In essence, I am not convinced that this conversation should be specific to me / my work… While I do feel it is more productive to build an argument based on ideas, key issues, law, and of course, the broad spectrum of ways in which the sex industry impacts women, rather than to divert the argument into one focused on individuals, I also feel it necessary to respond to this piece in particular as the author has addressed my writing and arguments specifically.

I should, at this point, make it it very clear that all of my arguments and writing are inspired by the work of other women – radical feminists, exited women, Aboriginal women, and those who work on the front line day after day. The ideas I relay here are not solely my own, but rather they build on the breath of knowledge and theory and activism done, for decades, by my sisters in the struggle. With regard to my response to the piece published by rabble, which I was initially unsure would be useful or necessary, I believe there are enough points made which are either debatable, fallacious, or deserve to be expanded upon, to warrant a response. As such, I am unable to avoid addressing the author specifically, though I will do my best to avoid individualizing the debate to the extent to which the argument becomes lost in personal attacks, assumptions, or critiques.

I do not believe that, for the purposes of discussing this particular issue, it is useful or ethical to attack a progressive news site for publishing writing that some readers do not agree with. I support dissenting views and thoughtful critique, but not efforts to remove certain people or certain ideas from the debate. This is both a complex and difficult issue which has grown to dominate much of feminist discourse and, of course, has a very direct and dangerous impact on the actual, individual lives of women everywhere. Again, I believe this conversation can be had without personalizing the debate and without making assumptions about the interests and backgrounds of those involved in the debate. I am not particularly interested in engaging in arguments about who is more or less oppressed and which women do or do not have the right to speak.

Prostitution is a feminist issue. Prostitution is a women’s issue. Period.

I have never argued that, as the author claims, “anyone who disagrees with [me] must just need to experience more abuse ” nor have I depicted ” survivors as damaged goods, draw[n] caricatures of [their] modes of resistance, or refuse[d] [them] the dignity of defining [their] own experiences of sexual assault.” To argue such things is an abhorrent misrepresentation and is absolutely unproductive, as well as verging on slanderous.

While this particular response was, many ways, much more thoughtful and intelligible than many other attacks or criticisms that have been made on me, my writing, my arguments, and on abolitionists as a whole, the author nonetheless appears to, in places, misrepresent my position and the position of many abolitionists and radical feminists. Very often, within this debate, there are concerted attempts to remove feminists from the left and to paint abolitionists as somehow engaged in oppressive or right-wing tactics in order to further our cause as well as to accuse feminists of actually being the perpetrators of violence themselves. This could not be further from the truth.

Assuming that there have been points made in my writing which require clarification around my and many other feminists’ positions on prostitution, I am happy to clarify and to address some points made by this particular author.

While yes, this is a divide that has existed for decades (though not “always,” as the author claims – rather I would argue that this debate stemmed from the “sex wars” of the 1980s), it has been reinvigorated by Bedford v. Canada, a case which could lead to the decriminalization of not only prostituted* women (which abolitionists advocate for), but also of pimps and johns (to which abolitionists are opposed).

What is new, from my perspective, is a growing desire and solidarity among feminists and among progressive men to end a practice that reinforces, perpetuates, and normalizes female subordination.

Who is the “Sex Work Lobby”?

The first point made by the author addresses my use of the term “sex work lobby,” which the author argues “doesn’t exist” as “sex workers don’t have the government’s ear,” nor, according to her, do they have any collective power. The “sex work lobby,” it should be stated, is not limited to sex workers. The “sex work lobby” includes many people who hold considerable power in our society; such as pimps, johns, and pornographers. These groups also include many women who are not engaged in sex work. Many of those who aim to legitimize and legalize sex work are clients of sex workers as well as those who profit financially from the industry (i.e. pimps). The “sex work lobby” does not refer to specifically to marginalized women, though it does, obviously, include some women who engage in sex work,* and therefore does include the voices of some women who have been marginalized in our society in one way or another (in that some of those who are involved in these lobby groups are members of marginalized groups, such as women, racialized women, and poor women).

Though there are some women and sex workers who are involved in the sex work lobby, it isn’t accurate to describe this work as the work of a marginalized or silenced population. The sex work lobby does not include the voices of exited women nor does it tend to include the voices of survival sex workers and it’s leaders are women and men who have relatively loud and prominent voices in the media. A reference to the “sex work lobby” does not equal a reference to prostituted women as, again, many of these lobbyists are not prostituted women. This isn’t to say that these people do not have a right to engage in debate around this issue, but that to frame these advocacy groups as somehow more deserving of voice than other women’s or feminist groups is erroneous.

As for having “the government’s ear,” in Vancouver at least, many of these lobbyists do indeed have the ears of our local politicians which has and does have an impact on discourse and decisions made at the municipal level.

All that said, a lobby group refers to a group who advocates for or works to influence legislation or government decisions. Seeing as decriminalization/legalization advocates are working to change the law and that the groups who are engaging in this type of advocacy generally describe themselves as either sex work/worker advocacy groups and/or decriminalization advocacy groups, I think that the descriptor of “sex work lobby” is applicable.

The Sex Worker as “Transgressive”

An argument commonly made by women who discovered feminism within the third wave or through post-modernism is that sex work is somehow “transgressive” – that somehow, sex work defies norms and challenges dominant ideology or cultural expectations of women. To frame sex work as “transgressive” presents the act of commodifying one’s sexuality as a radical act. But what is radical about the selling of sex? Isn’t “sex sells” one of the most commonly used defenses for sexist imagery and depictions of women of our time? Isn’t the objectification of the female body the easiest way for men, for advertisers, for corporations, and of course, for mainstream media to profit? Isn’t the simplest way to gain male approval to sexualize our bodies and to appear as though our very being exists for their pleasure and consumption? Haven’t men long used female bodies to profit or to sell products? Capitalist patriarchy is not radical.

Sex work may well be necessary for many, many women. Many women must resort to prostitution in order to survive. There should be no judgement in this circumstance. We live in a world that doesn’t always leave us with many options. Survival is a priority.

Sex work may even be a choice of sorts for some women. If you have a certain level of privilege, there is a great deal of money to be made in the industry. There may even be aspects of this work that some women enjoy on a certain level. But money does not equal freedom and an individual’s ability to profit from a misogynist industry does not equal collective empowerment. In truth, prostitution is a “choice” largely determined by class / poverty.

As such, sex work is not transgressive. It is something that exists because we live within a system that thrives on inequity. Put women in a world where many cannot survive comfortably, where men, at large, hold more social, political, and economic power, where they are taught from day one that the most important thing about them is their sexuality and their ability to attract male attention, and where male pleasure is prioritized over female pleasure and well-being and see what happens.

The Location of the Debate

I agree that the location of this debate should not necessarily be between feminists, meaning that I don’t see how pitting feminists against one another could possibly be productive for the movement.

What has always been clear to abolitionists and to radical feminists is that this is a fight between feminists and the patriarchy.

Prostitution is not something that exists because of women’s power. It exists as the result of a lack of power and a lack of choice. I am as disappointed as the next woman that this debate has caused many of those who identify as feminists to call abolitionists their “enemies” (as well as a host of other, much less pleasant names). I am disappointed that this debate continues not be to centered around the perpetrators of violence – that is, the men. I am disappointed that we continue to blame feminists rather than an exploitative, violent, misogynist system that allows women suffer and die without a second thought.

Yet those who advocate for the decriminalization and legalization of prostitution often claim that it is not men who are their enemies, but rather it is feminists.

I am in complete agreement that we need to re-focus. Abolitionists have done just that; turning the lens onto those who are doing the exploiting and onto those who are profiting from women’s lack of power and lack of real choice. In the end, we are primarily concerned with stopping those who are doing the violence, that is, the men, as well as changing the system within which this kind of exploitation is allowed and encouraged.

Neoliberalism as the Enemy of Feminism

The author points out that which we are all (sadly) aware: “[if] the enemy is neoliberalism, then feminists are losing spectacularly.”

As Rahila Gupta wrote, back in January: “neoliberal values created a space for a bright, brassy and ultimately fake feminism,” going on to say that “if the culture of neoliberalism had something to offer women, it was the idea of agency, of choice freely exercised, free even of patriarchal restraints.”

What neoliberal ideology (that is, the work to privatize everything under the guise of providing more choice and freedom for individuals) has done for feminism is to provide a basis for a kind of individual empowerment which rests on a supposed “freedom” to choose. What the individual woman chooses is, of course, not relevant. That she is making a choice to get breast implants, to get onto a stripper pole, or to, yes, sell sex, is enough to frame this choice as potentially empowering. Gupta elaborates on this idea by referencing a concept discussed by Clare Chambers, called: “the fetishism of choice,” arguing that “if women choose things that disadvantage them and entrench differences, it legitimates inequality because the inequality arises from the choices they make.” Making a choice does not, in and of itself, empower anyone. Particularly when it is made within the constructs of an oppressive framework.

Within the context of neoliberalism, “choice” can work against us. We have convinced ourselves that by choosing to emulate that which has been sketched out for us by oppressive systems of power such as capitalism and patriarchy, we are actually empowered. Inequality, within this context, is overcome by choosing to frame said inequality as empowerment.

While it could be argued, as the originally referenced article does, that “the abstractions of neoliberalism” are less important than it’s practices, I would argue that the two go hand in hand. Attempts at privatization, the destruction of social safety nets, the work to dismantle unions and to defund essential women’s organizations happens because of people. People who believe that the world must function in a certain way and cannot or will not imagine another way. The poor will not rise above the rich by simply making do within the system designed to destroy them and women will not become empowered by pretending their oppression is liberating. “The abstractions” lead to policy, to legislation, and to decisions that affect the real lives of individuals and society as a whole.

What many abolitionists and the left have in common is the desire to change the system so that people have real choices and can live with dignity. This entails affordable housing, health care, education, social safety nets and, of course, a state that does not perpetuate and condone violence against women. To argue that feminists do not believe in and fight for these things is, to put it quite simply, dishonest.

I won’t be erased from the left by those who wish to vilify and make enemies of the feminist movement. The feminist movement nothing if not a progressive movement for collective empowerment.

Ending Prostitution is a Progressive Goal

While many of those who advocate for a model of decriminalization which decriminalizes not only the prostituted, but also the pimps and the johns, appear to enjoy arguing that abolitionists simply want to magically end prostitution in an instant, leaving those who engage in sex work without a means of survival, the argument is much more complex than this.

The argument is for more options and for something better. The desire is for women to be able to survive without having to resort to sex work. The desire is for real choice. That is, as Sarah suggests, “housing, income, physical safety, access to education,” as well as for exiting programs. Prostitution will not instantly disappear with the implementation of the Nordic Model. It will hold men accountable for their actions and will enable us to work towards a more equitable society in the long term.

From the perspective of feminists, pimps and johns do not desire freedom for women. They don’t want women to have alternatives to prostitution because then their orgasms would be a lot harder to come by. It would be pretty inconvenient for men who buy sex from women if those women could actually choose not to give a man a blow job so that she could buy groceries. I have a really hard time believing those men are pro-equality and I have a really hard time believing those men have women’s and society’s best interests in mind. Actually I’m pretty sure it’s their own immediate pleasure they have in mind.

Those men are never going to freely give up their power and donate liberty to women. It isn’t in their best interest. We’re just going to have to take it from them. Which is what the abolitionist argument really boils down to.

No, men don’t have the right to access women’s bodies simply because they have the means; no, they don’t have the right to abuse or rape or murder women. No. Those men must be held accountable. Presenting prostitution as something that men have the right to expect and benefit from will not make men responsible for their sexist behaviour. Instead it legitimizes it.

The Real Enemy

I don’t care how many times radical feminists are accused of being the enemy, are accused of being “in bed with the right” or are accused of imposing on individual freedom. We are women who have witnessed and experienced violence and abuse first-hand and continue to. We are women who believe in a better world and who don’t wish to settle. We are progressive women. We won’t be pushed out of the left so that men can buy sex more easily.

Feminists do not consider themselves to be enemies to anyone but the patriarchy. They want women to be safe and not to be criminalized for having to engage in less-than-ideal work in order to survive. That is to say we also advocate for the decriminalization of prostituted women. But that does not mean we must compromise our goals. That does not mean we shift our focus.

Sarah argues that “if ‘real’ feminists recognized sex worker advocates as feminists, even if we still disagreed about decriminalization, we would be a stronger movement.” And I would add that, to paint feminists as the enemies of women is to provide men with a huge gift. Because they agree. Men who buy sex hate feminists too.

So I’m not going to side with them and I’m not going to do them any favours. We aren’t going to forget who our real enemies are. Women are not our enemies and sex workers are not our enemies. There is no doubt in that. What remains uncertain is why so many continue to avert their eyes when we point to that truth and why the focus is continually shifted back to paint feminists as oppressors. All feminists want to end violence against women. We will not achieve this without forcing the state and forcing men to be accountable to women.

 *Within this article I use the terms “prostituted women” and “sex work/er” interchangeably. The term “prostitution” or “prostituted woman” is used out of respect for the exited women, Aboriginal women, and my feminist allies who use this language in order to draw attention to the exploitation, violence, and unequal power relations that are intrinsic to prostitution. I use the term “sex work” or “sex worker” at times with respect to this debate and in order to advance rather than halt the conversation. Some women, including the author of the article I respond to in this piece, who advocate for decriminalization or legalization prefer the term “sex worker” as it removes the implication that all prostituted women are victims.
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.