There is no feminist war on sex workers

I’ve become increasingly frustrated by what feels like a barrage of articles coming from self-described progressives claiming that feminists are the real enemy of sex workers. It seems as though some of those who position themselves as ‘sex worker rights activists’ are intent on creating rigid divisions among women, placing the prostituted woman in a category of her own and placing feminists in some illusory moralistic war against sex.

A key factor is that many writers on the left either misunderstand or misrepresent the abolitionist approach as a moralistic one, leading them to draw unfounded conclusions based on what could easily be resolved by having a simple conversation.

I’m disappointed that journalism, the left and the feminist movement has come to manipulating ideology in order to further a rather self-defeating cause, but here we are.

There are a number of recent examples of this distortion. Reason, a libertarian print and online magazine, recently published an article called “The War on Sex Workers.” The author, Melissa Gira Grant, criticizes the criminalization of prostituted women in the U.S. — a righteous endeavor, no doubt. But rather than challenge an unequal and oppressive system that offers marginalized women few viable options outside the sex industry and then criminalizes them for doing what they have to in order to survive (essentially criminalizing poverty) and a porn culture that positions stripping and pornography as empowering professions for women, Grant blames feminists.

She writes:

Not all people who do sex work are women, but women disproportionately suffer the stigma, discrimination, and violence against sex workers. The result is a war on women that is nearly imperceptible, unless you are involved in the sex trade yourself. This war is spearheaded and defended largely by other women: a coalition of feminists, conservatives, and even some human rights activists who subject sex workers to poverty, violence, and imprisonment—all in the name of defending women’s rights.

This “war on women” is not imperceptible. In fact, one of the ways in which this ‘war’ is glaringly obvious, is in the fact that the sex industry is a gendered one. Women make up the vast majority of prostitutes (statistics say approximately 80 per cent) and, beyond that, women of colour are overrepresented. In Vancouver, B.C.’s notorious Downtown Eastside, Canada’s so-called ‘poorest postal code,’ where at least 60 women went missing over about 20 years, 70 per cent of prostitutes are First Nations women. Considering that First Nations people make up about 2 per cent of the total population in Vancouver and 10% of the population on the Downtown Eastside, this number is significant.

It doesn’t take involvement in the sex trade to know that prostitution and violence against women in prostitution is the result of a very effective combination of racism, poverty, and patriarchy.

Feminists have been working against these intersecting oppressions for decades; so why are progressive writers so unwilling to cover the prostitution debates accurately?

Jacobin*, a magazine which is being credited with ‘mainstreaming Marx’ has taken up the topic of sex work a number of times. Seemingly invested in ‘sex as work’ line so many leftist publications favour, discussions of the issue either erase the abolitionist perspective completely or simply misrepresent the arguments.

Laura Agustin, for example, writes: “Most of the moral uproar surrounding prostitution and other forms of commercial sex asserts that the difference between good or virtuous sex and bad or harmful sex is obvious.” She frames dissenting perspectives as repressive and prudish – people who have limited their understanding of sex to the marriage bed — a sentiment that is the antithesis to decades of feminist work that deconstructed notions of romance and monogamy and placed sex firmly within a political context.

Agustin muddies things further by stating that “there is nothing inherently male about exchanging money for sex,” as though this has been argued. “By whom?” one might ask. Indeed this is what feminists have been arguing for decades – that there is nothing ‘inherent’ or ‘natural’ about men buying sex from prostitutes, rather it is a product of our unequal culture and male power.

By ignoring feminist perspectives on sex work and erasing the gendered nature of the industry; by focusing only on the ‘work’ aspect of sex work, women and the feminist movement are done a huge disservice, as is the reader, who is left with a completely confused and inaccurate understanding of the reality of the industry as well as the discourse.

Another piece at Jacobin follows this progressive effort to look at the issue of prostitution through the lens of ‘work.’ In his article ‘The Problem With (Sex) Work,’ Peter Frase argues that “the issue with sex work is not the sex, it’s the work.”

This is a mistake many socialists make while trying to approach the subject, as they assume that using a labour analysis will necessarily translate into a leftist one. While Frase notes that there are problems with the end of the debate “that revels in sex work as a source of independence and self-expression while glossing over its less glamorous aspects” because it “can neglect the coercive and violent parts of the sex,” he glazes over the abolitionist position (that is, feminists who want to work towards an eventual end to prostitution) as though it were irrelevant. In this effort to make prostitution just a job like any other (possibly crappy) job (as Frause writes: “it’s work, and work is often terrible”), the left abandons women to the whims of men and the market, something you’d think we who desire a more equal world would want to move beyond.

Grant also published a piece in Jacobin discussing her frustration at those “who have made saving women from themselves their pet issue and vocation, [who] are so fixated on the notion that almost no one would ever choose to sell sex that they miss the dull and daily choices that all working people face in the course of making a living.” But this argument fails to understand both that choice exists on a spectrum and within a context of inequality and that the sex industry is part of a larger system that sexualizes the oppression of women.

The argument that feminists are trying to “save women from themselves” is a dangerous one that can easily be applied to, for example, feminist activism around domestic abuse (what if she wants to stay with her abusive husband?) and extended into an overzealous defense of individual women’s ‘choice’ to objectify themselves. We want so desperately not to be victims that we try to turn oppression into empowerment.

Misunderstandings about feminist perspectives on prostitution are perpetuated explicitly by articles like Grant’s but further reinforced when other writers aren’t willing to do the work of fairly representing the arguments.

Fuse magazine published an article in their Abolition issue by Robyn Maynard, criticizing what she calls ‘carceral feminism’. She cites the Bedford case, which challenged Canadian prostitution laws as unconstitutional, as an example of ‘sex worker-led’ opposition to ‘prohibition’, as she mistakenly calls it.

Maynard claims that this case is one led by marginalized women, in doing so, erasing the fact that First Nations women’s groups across Canada support the abolitionist movement and have made the point numerous times that the prostitution of Indigenous women is as a direct result of colonization.

The Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) recently passed a resolution that supports the abolition of prostitution, stating that: “prostitution exploits and increases the inequality of Aboriginal women and girls on the basis of their gender, race, age, disability and poverty.”

NWAC goes on to state:

Aboriginal women are grossly overrepresented in prostitution and among the women who have been murdered in prostitution. It is not helpful to divide women in prostitution into those who “choose” and those who are “forced” into prostitution.  In most cases, Aboriginal women are recruited for prostitution as girls and/or feel they have no other option due to poverty and abuse.  It is the sex industry that encourages women to view prostitution as their chosen identity.

Another organization, Indigenous Women Against the Sex Industry (IWASI) states that they recognize the sex industry “as a continued source of colonialism and harm for Indigenous women and girls worldwide” and stand against “the total decriminalization, legalization, or normalization of the sex industry.”

In her piece, Maynard conveniently ignores the fact that the Bedford case is not, in fact, a ‘sex worker-led’ case, but rather was initiated by a white man, Alan Young, whose interest in terms of winning this case is not to decriminalize street prostitution but rather to legalize brothels. With the knowledge that the most marginalized women tend to be the ones working in street prostitution and that these women would likely not be offered the ‘privilege’ of working inside any legal brothel, the argument that, somehow, this case is fighting for the rights of marginalized women is simply not true. It’s worth noting that the legalization of brothels in places like Amsterdam has been a complete disaster and has only worked to increase trafficking and organized crime.

For some reason, even some feminists have begun to participate in these wrongheaded portrayals.

Laurie Penny, whose progressive, feminist analysis is generally spot on, seems to have lost the plot when she wrote for the New Statesman that feminists who were critical of the sex industry were simply anti-sex, opposing prostitution and trafficking on moral grounds:

“This is because it’s the “sex” part of those activities that really causes knickers to be twisted in the icy corridors of bourgeois moral opprobrium.”

In reality, abolitionists make a case against prostitution based on a combined class, race and gender analysis, as well as, of course, on the basis of defending women’s human rights.  This has nothing to do with either ‘liking’ or ‘not liking’ sex. That feminists are buying into and perpetuating an anti-feminist stereotype invented by sexist men — that feminists either just need to get laid or that they hate all men/sex/fun — shows the strength of the backlash. Now we are fighting ourselves. We’re buying what the patriarchy is selling.

Penny writes: “In reality, sex work isn’t stigmatised because it is dangerous. Sex work is dangerous because it is stigmatised.” But she’s wrong. Sex work is dangerous because of those who commit violent acts against prostitutes — that is, men.

A key success of the feminist movement has been to name the perpetrator. Andrea Dworkin was one of the first to do this; to say that the problem is men. In doing this, she created a foundation for legal approaches to domestic abuse, for activism against cat-calling, sexual assualt and victim-blaming. We don’t pretend as though we don’t know who sexually harasses women or that it’s a mystery who is, in large part, raping women. We know better than to blame women for their own assaults – regardless of what they wear or how much they flirt or drink. Why are we so uncomfortable naming the real cause of violence when it comes to prostitution? Why are we blaming women?

The goal of feminism is to end patriarchy. The goal of socialism is to create an egalitarian alternative to capitalism. Prostitution is a product of patriarchy and capitalism. With that in mind, abolitionists have been advocating for a model based on true equity. Sometimes described as ‘the Swedish approach’ or ‘the Nordic model’, Sweden, Norway, and Finland have all adopted versions of this feminist approach to prostitution that decriminalizes prostitutes and criminalizes those who commit the violence: the pimps and johns. The model combines exiting services with an already strong welfare system and education programs for the police that teach them that prostituted women are not criminals. It isn’t simply a change in law, it’s a political vision that has gender and economic equality as a goal. As feminist lawyer Janine Benedet told me, it’s “a state commitment to offer something better and not to use prostitution as a social safety net.”

A Norwegian study looking at rates of violence against prostituted women under the Nordic model was recently released in English. It showed that, since 2008, reports of rape and other forms of physical violence against prostituted women has decreased.

The sad truth is that, if buying sex is legal, the police aren’t likely to start going after or charging johns who rape and abuse prostitutes on their own accord. We know this. We know the police have been ignoring violence against prostituted women, particularly those who are poor and racialized, for years. We know that the criminal justice system often blames the victim, particularly if they can argue: “Well, he paid for her.” The most feasible way to address this violence is to decriminalize prostituted women, criminalize johns, and educate the police to this regard. If pimps and johns are criminalized, sex workers will at least be able to go to the police if they are raped or assaulted and the police will be able act easily.

We know that it isn’t feminists who are perpetrating violence against sex workers. We also know that feminists don’t blame the victim, meaning that this is not a debate about the morals of women in the industry. Why are progressives obfuscating the perpetrator by blaming feminists and misrepresenting the abolitionist movement?

Feminists are not the enemy. Rather, it’s men who treat women as disposable objects who are to blame. It is both unproductive and dishonest to claim that feminists advocate to criminalize prostituted women, as one of the few things feminists and those who advocate to end violence against prostitutes can agree on is that decriminalizing prostituted women is key.

The women who I call my friends and allies are women who have worked in the sex industry; they are women who work tirelessly in shelters, as outreach workers, as lawyers, as academics, and as activists. The women I admire and have learned from — women who have shaped the movement — women like Robin Morgan, Gloria Steinem, and Andrea Dworkin — are being positioned as being on the other end of some kind of ‘war’ against women.

These women deserve more than inaccurate and meaningless labels like ‘anti-sex’ or ‘prohibitionist’. These feminists don’t hold prostituted women in judgment; they are women who want the abuse, the rapes, the beatings, and the murders to end. I believe those who call themselves ‘sex worker rights advocates’ or ‘sex worker allies’ want this as well. I have no interest in creating unnecessary or dishonest divisions.

This is a movement, not a war.


*UPDATE: 02/05/2013: Some readers have been suggesting I pitch a response piece (or simply send this piece) to Jacobin. To be clear, I did pitch a response to Jacobin before writing this piece, offering an alternative perspective on prostitution/progressive approaches to prostitution law, as well as a clarification on the feminist debates, abolitionist movement, and the Nordic model. I was told by the editor that they couldn’t publish a piece of that nature because Grant and Frase told him they ‘wouldn’t have time to respond’ to a ‘dissenting’ piece written by myself.




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.