Arguing against the industry of prostitution: Beyond the abolitionist versus sex worker binary


Prostitution has long been a contentious issue in the Women’s Liberation Movement, splitting feminist individuals and groups. This is largely because the debate is often reduced to an either/or argument between what is called ‘harm minimisation’ in a legal ‘sex industry’ – the legalisation argument – and on the other side, arguments for the abolition of prostitution. Those veering towards the latter view are often accused of moralism, conservatism and, worse, of a disregard for women’s safety. It is perhaps timely then to revisit the feminist understanding of prostitution as a cause and consequence of inequality, and this post will attempt to address some of the contemporary challenges to this political stance.

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[1]. 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[2]. 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.

What is the so-called legalisation argument?

This is the argument for prostitution to be viewed as a legitimate business and for the whole of the ‘sex-industry’ to be able to operate legally, for example in legal brothels. It is an argument usually made by groups referred to as sex-worker lobby groups, sex-worker rights groups or ‘sex-positive’ groups. These groups usually view prostitution as work like any other. These groups are usually opposed to abolitionist groups. They often argue that only the full legalisation of the whole of the ‘sex-industry’ can make women – and all people – in prostitution safer.

‘Legalisation’ is an unfortunately misleading term, as prostitution is not currently illegal in the UK anyway, so arguing for ‘legalisation’ confuses matters. It is perhaps better referred to as an argument for brothelisation – for the establishment of legal brothels operating as businesses. While prostitution is not illegal, advertising prostitution is – soliciting or loitering; kerb crawling, running a brothel and living off the earnings of a brothel are also illegal. Exchanging sexual acts for money, goods or any other kind of gain – including in return for accommodation, food or drugs – on an individual basis, is not technically illegal.

The argument that prostitution is work like any other is usually followed by the assertion that the decision to enter this industry is a matter of individual choice, with which the state or anyone else should not interfere, but should only facilitate that choice to be enacted as safely as possible. Groups like the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) (part of Wages for Housework) are calling for what is known as brothelisation, the state legalisation of brothels, similar to that in Australia and New Zealand. They describe prostitution as: “consenting sex”, which: “should not be the business of the criminal law”.[3] Groups like the International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW) also advocate the New Zealand model, and promote prostitution as a legitimate business.

What is harm-minimisation?

Sex-industry lobby groups see no need to reduce or end prostitution, and believe it should be a legitimate business – just made safer than it currently is. This is where what is called harm minimisation comes in. This term refers to practical interventions, such as CCTV and other security measures, better police responses to crimes against those in prostitution, free contraception, specialist sexual health care etc.

Do Feminists support harm-minimisation approaches?

Yes. There is probably agreement, regardless of political stance, that those in prostitution have a right to protection and support. People in this country are entitled to their rights as citizens generally, and to their human rights whatever their immigration status, regardless of how they make an income. This is where what is called harm-minimisation can play a role. No Feminist is arguing against harm-minimisation – against CCTV cameras in areas where prostitution is known to commonly take place for example. Nor are feminists arguing against a better police response when prostituted women report crimes, including rape. All women deserve a better police response when reporting rape. Everybody has the right to support after rape, including support to prosecute if they so choose. Feminists are not arguing against services such as free contraception, drug and alcohol counselling, access to safe legal abortion, benefits advice, housing, laundries, refuges, needle exchanges etc.

All these examples of harm-minimisation services are sadly vital as long as prostitution continues to exist. But importantly, the feminist argument highlights that we must always and also look towards harm-ending, alongside harm-minimisation. Society cannot, and should not, be satisfied for ever more with placing tiny sticking plasters over the huge wounds that prostitution leaves on our society and on the bodies of those chewed up within it: the women murdered, missing, raped, battered, scarred[4]. To do so is to merely maintain a whole class of people in sexual service to the other half of the population and thus sustain this fundamental injustice; an injustice which makes a mockery of claims to equality in our country[5]. And while these debates go on, tonight on our streets up to five thousand young people will be exploited in prostitution[6], to fulfil a demand we are told to accept as inevitable. Children continue to be groomed and pimped, with the average age of entry into prostitution worldwide estimated at around only fourteen years old[7]. Women children and men in this industry continue to be disproportionately affected by violence, including sexual violence, with Canadian studies suggesting that women in prostitution face a homicide risk forty times higher than the national average[8].

What is wrong with defining prostitution as work like any other?

Abolitionist feminists view the industry of prostitution as a cause and consequence of inequality, not as work like any other[9]. There is of course, the familiar anti-capitalist argument that all of us are coerced to work, regardless of what job we are in. This argument asks what choice or consent any of us can really have or give, in a world blighted by inequality, by sexism, racism and homophobia. Ours is a world scarred by the masculinisation of wealth and power, where all too often women and children pay the highest price. In such a world there is certainly a question over the extent of our agency, when the vast majority of us have to work for a living at best and survival at worst, whether we like it or not.

Some sex industry lobby groups that subscribe to this valid anti-capitalist stance then use this argument to classify prostitution therefore as work like any other. They argue that all workers sell their labour, whether they are journalists, waiters, academics or prostitutes. To argue in this way removes any gendered analysis from debate about prostitution; which is wrong, because prostitution is markedly gendered. The vast majority of those in prostitution are women, and the vast majority of punters are men. This, and other signs of the symptoms of structural inequalities, cannot be overlooked.

What is the difference between selling one’s labour to earn money or being in prostitution to earn money?

It is worth exploring further this common refrain that prostitution is work like any other. Feminist arguments against the industry of prostitution hold that there is a difference between selling one’s labour, and selling access to one’s body. Survivors of prostitution often say the same[10]. A builder or plumber labours with his or her body, she sells her labour which is a product of her physicality, including her mind. A journalist or academic labours with their body too, thinking, writing, delivering lectures, travelling to conferences etc. But this is not the same as selling access to one’s body. Goods are produced by labourers through the labouring of their body – their body is not the good itself. Some would then point to dancers, or artists who use their own bodies in their art. But the same argument can apply, as dancers produce dance, and artists produce art with their bodies – their body is not the good in itself.

The boundaries of the body are enshrined in law, our bodily integrity is universally understood; everywhere but in debates about prostitution it seems. Most of us would understand that there is a difference between being punched in the face and being raped. Our law treats these two violent assaults differently, because the latter is understood to have breached bodily integrity, it is a violation of bodily boundaries. This is partly why labouring with one’s body and making one’s body into a good itself, are two very different things. To put it bluntly, being a builder does not involve making one’s body sexually available to one’s employers; the same is true of journalists, academics, waiters etc.

Are Feminists saying that people in prostitution don’t work?

No. Feminists are not saying that earning a living through prostitution does not involve labour of the body and mind, it certainly does. It is probably one of the most difficult ways to earn a living – and many people struggle to even earn a living in this ‘industry’, many experience it as merely survival[11]. But debate around prostitution cannot and should not be shut down by turning to the refrain that all work is like prostitution – because it patently is not; and the great majority of people understand this. I remember one survivor summarising this argument well, when she was asked if prostitution wasn’t just a job like any other that nobody particularly likes but does for the money, as with cleaning. She replied that perhaps prostitution was a little like cleaning – if all cleaners were forced to do their cleaning work with only their tongues[12].

Are Feminists stigmatising people in prostitution?

No. Patriarchal society, obsessed as it is with a fear of and fascination with women’s sexuality, attaches a stigma to those in prostitution. It is a form of what Mary Daly would call a ‘patriarchal reversal’ that this stigma is not also attached to those who buy sexual services in prostitution – punters, men. Within patriarchy men’s sexuality is not degraded by buying sexual access to others, whereas women in prostitution are degraded. Patriarchy has constructed women generally as object to men’s subjectivity, and associated women with nature, with the body and with sex. Women in prostitution are forced to bear the brunt of this dualism. This is not a construct of feminists. Feminists oppose such patriarchal constructs. Feminists do not support campaigns that stigmatise or attempt to shame women in prostitution. Feminists do not think that being in prostitution or having once been in prostitution is anything to be ashamed of.

Men who choose to buy access to women in prostitution are stigmatising people in prostitution by commodifying another human being. In fact, punters themselves often report feeling ashamed of buying sexual services in prostitution[13].

Are Feminists suggesting that women in prostitution should be criminalised?

No. Feminists are not arguing for those in prostitution to be criminalised. This is just one matter on which I’m sure there is agreement, regardless of political stance. I’m sure we can all agree that those involved/exploited/working in this industry should not be criminalised. Feminist groups are calling for decriminalisation of those in prostitution; for the crimes of loitering and soliciting to be removed from the statute and for any records for these offences to be wiped, as having such a record only further inhibits women from entry into the formal labour market, training or education and unfairly brands them a criminal. Feminist groups are not calling for women in prostitution to be criminalised, and feminist groups do not support the fining or imprisoning of women or the serving of anti-social behaviour orders on women in prostitution.

If those in support of the ‘sex-industry’ are ‘sex-positive’ or ‘pro-sex’, are Feminists anti-sex?

No. Feminism has never been anti-sex. In 1975 the UK Women’s Liberation Movement agreed the following demand at one of their annual, National Women’s Liberation Conferences: An end to discrimination against lesbians and for the right of all women to define their own sexuality.

Feminists have been at the forefront of campaigning for the right of all women to explore, express and enjoy their sexuality freely without fear of violence, exploitation or stigma. Radical feminists in this country during the 1970s and 1980s established lesbian communes, practiced non-monogamy as a political act, critiqued the nuclear family, challenged heterosexism and analysed their own sexuality in Consciousness Raising or CR groups. These women were not anti-sex! Feminists are the most vocal in challenging the sexual double standard which aggrandises men for sexual activity but attempts instead to shame women for the same.

Abolitionist feminists are not against the industry of prostitution for moralistic or religious or conservative reasons. We don’t have a problem with sex; we don’t think the industry of prostitution is really about sex, we think it’s about power, inequality, poverty, survival and exploitation[14].

Are feminists trying to say that everyone in prostitution has been forced or coerced into it?

No. In her blog post, Strinkovsky rightly pointed out that it would be nonsensical to suggest that all those people – women, young people, men – earning an income through prostitution are forced or coerced. I wonder though, who is arguing that? Certainly no feminists that I know. Having said that; that there are probably some people successfully navigating the ‘sex industry’, without any negative experiences, for both the love and the money of it – should not negate the fact that research suggests this is far from the experience of the majority[15].

For example, it is possible to be against sweatshop labour but still acknowledge that countless families depend on an income from it; ditto with child labour. It is possible to be against the global illegal trade in body organs, but acknowledge that for too many people, this illegal industry sometimes becomes a choice in an environment of very limited options. Presumably we wouldn’t seriously argue that an illegal trade in body organs is fine, as long as people are operated on with sterile instruments. The fact that people find ways to make money when they need it in our imperfect world, does not render those ways unquestionable – the exchange of money does not make everything ok.

What do trafficking and prostitution have in common?

Demand. Trafficking continues to exist, internally and externally. Trafficking is not only women being brought into this country from another country and forced into prostitution. Trafficking also describes women or young people being taken from one city to another and forced into prostitution. It is worth pointing out that it is the same demand that fuels both prostitution and trafficking. If men in Britain did not wish to buy access to women, children and young men, then nobody would be trafficked into the ‘sex industry’ in this country.

Wouldn’t legal brothels make everyone safer?

It can be enlightening to study the local newspapers of towns and cities in countries where brothels have been legalised, to see what is happening on the ground. In Queensland for example, local papers recently reported on complaints from legal brothels regarding being undercut by the illegal sector, resulting in the closure of three legal brothels[16]. There are also concerns about trafficking and links to organised crime and about safety in both sectors[17].  The legal sector is not a panacea, it does not guarantee women’s safety; for example, a woman is reportedly suing a legal brothel in Victoria, Australia after being threatened with a gun for refusing to have unprotected sex[18]. A survey in Australia found physical safety still the highest concern for women in legal brothels[19]. Women are still raped, assaulted and attacked in legal brothels and tolerance zones[20]. And, in countries which have legalised, this happens behind the closed doors of legal, profit-making brothels paying a licence fee to the state, therefore making the state a pimp. There have also been suggestions that the numbers of young people exploited in prostitution increases under legalisation. The charity ChildRight in Amsterdam reported an increase following legalisation, and ECPAT also documented an increase in Australian states that had established legal brothelisation[21].

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.

What are exit services?

It is possible to implement both harm minimisation and exit services, this is not an either/or argument, though it is often reduced to such by proponents of the sex industry and by groups such as the IUSW, who have been described as an industry lobby group[22]. It is not necessary to legalise and normalise the whole of the sex industry in order to provide exit and harm minimisation services, and we should be wary of those groups who frame the debate in this way and threaten such an ultimatum. Exit services are interventions aimed at supporting those who want to get out of the ‘sex industry’ to get out. Interventions can provide support with housing, education, training, benefits, counselling, family mediation, police support to prosecute abusers be they pimps or punters etc.

As stated earlier in this blog, citizens in this country have a right to welfare benefits, health care, to a police response to crimes committed against them, to training and employment, to education, to support with housing and child care, to support with drug and alcohol addiction. People have these rights regardless of what they do to make money to survive and everyone should be able to access and benefit from these entitlements. Not that this is easy for anyone, particularly for refugees and asylum seekers, and especially in the current economic climate, where we are witnessing devastating ideological cuts to our welfare state and to essential services that are vital for the most disadvantaged.

Exit services are important and necessary because the so-called ‘sex industry’ is an industry built on the inequality of women, it is built on the deep fissures of inequality that in fact characterise society at every level, inequalities of class, race and wealth. It cannot be coincidence that evidence suggests that the majority of those in prostitution around the globe are women, are poor women, are Women of Colour, are migrant women, are young women, are mothers, are homeless women, are First Nation women, are women without papers. The ‘sex industry’ is an industry that harms those in it, which damages those in it and it is not surprising then that global research finds that around 90% of those in it would leave if they had the economic freedom to do so[23]. A 2007 study in Germany also found that most of those surveyed in the prostitution industry said it was only a temporary solution to a difficult financial situation and they wanted to get out as soon as they possibly could[24]. Securing this economic freedom must then be one element of all feminist campaigns against the industry of prostitution.

Don’t feminists understand that people have to earn a living?

Yes, but the answer to poverty and marginalisation is not to negate our social responsibilities and hand over this authority to the multi-billion dollar ‘sex industry’. Brothels and strip clubs in our communities are not providers of drug rehabilitation, of rape trauma counselling, of housing. Lap-dancing clubs in our communities are not providers of higher education and they are not providing a public service by recruiting young student women struggling to pay the high fees and expenses now associated with completing a University education. The answer to the latter situation for example, is to unite together and fight for the return of the student grant and for free education for all – not to turn to the often criminal ‘sex industry’, as if it is some sort of safety net for women, when it is usually the very opposite[25]. Many feminists are socialists and many are anti-capitalist, many abolitionist feminists view the industry of prostitution as the ultimate form of commodification and the natural end point of capitalism; which is another reason why they campaign against it.

Isn’t prostitution the oldest profession?

No. Apparently agriculture is actually the oldest profession. Abolitionists view prostitution as one of the oldest oppressions. The length of time an oppression has been in existence is not grounds for its continuation; it is even more reason to try to overcome it.

If there are legal brothels, wouldn’t that get rid of ‘underground’ prostitution?

If the UK were to follow the example of legalised brothels, such as in New Zealand, Amsterdam and Australia, what do we expect would happen to this so-called ‘industry’? Is it not common business sense to assume that when an industry is legalised and promoted, when it can freely advertise and set up anywhere in our towns and cities, that it will therefore grow, that it will expand? And, if the industry grows, who will fill the new ‘vacancies’ that will be created? More women, children and men in prostitution; we have to ask ourselves if that is the sort of outcome we want?

There is also the argument that wherever there is a legal sector there will always be an illegal or so-called ‘underground’ sector, and this has indeed been found to be the case, everywhere that has legalised[26]. There will always be those that do not wish to register as sex workers, those that don’t want to or can’t pay taxes, those that are working illegally without papers, those who are immigrants or trafficked, pimped or underage[27].

What are abolitionists campaigning for then?

It is time to envision a society, and a world, without prostitution. This may sound idealistic, but the theory matters, the direction of travel matters, the aspiration matters; because if we can’t envision such a society, then we cannot even begin to build it.

For those of us who accept that prostitution is not a positive feature of society, those that agree that it is not a positive career option for women, children or young men, must then tackle and reverse the social and economic conditions that enable prostitution to thrive. Our society has failed people who need refuge, who need safe housing, who need food, who need health services, who need money to survive, who need child care, who need justice to be served on rapists and abusers. We have raised girls who think their worth is based on their attractiveness to the opposite sex, we have reduced women to nothing more than sex objects; we have brought up boys to believe that women are second-class. Thus, we have created a conducive environment for prostitution. This is not natural, it is not inevitable, and it can be reduced, maybe ended; at the very least it can be challenged, rather than glamourised, normalised and condoned.

The real question about prostitution is the question of men’s rights; and, whether we as a society believe that men have a right to buy and sell women’s bodies or whether they do not. We know that people will do what they have to do to survive and to make money, this isn’t rocket science, it isn’t a feature of people’s sexuality or sexual identity. People make desperate choices to provide for their children, to keep a roof over their heads, to feed their families or just to make an income – and they should not be criminalised for doing so when their situation and/or vulnerability is exploited within prostitution. But why do men choose to buy women’s bodies, men who are often in full time employment, in relationships and in a position of relative privilege[28]? And why do we as a nation protect and condone that choice as if it cannot be helped, as if it is a feature of our human biology that some of us are born with a price on our head and others with a birth-right to buy us?

Imagine if our country stood up and said that this is not acceptable, as Sweden has done, stood up and said that every woman is worth more than what some man will pay for her and that we will criminalise rather than condone men who assume a right to buy the body of another human being. If our laws are lines in the sand, if they define collective aspirations, then ours are clearly lacking on this issue. This is despite the changes in the Policing & Crime Act 2009 under the last Government, which were indeed a step forward; for the first time directing the eyes of the law onto those who fuel prostitution – punters[29]. This victory was a result of tireless campaigning by women’s groups, led by the Feminist, abolitionist ‘Demand Change’ campaign[30]. Nevertheless, these changes did not go far enough and those exploited in the ‘sex-industry’ are still being branded as, and treated as, criminals, with all the increased vulnerability that engenders.


Rather than simply throw our hands in the air and legalise the whole of the ‘sex-industry’, some genuine vision and ambition is needed here. It is time to choose which side we’re on, because the multibillion dollar ‘sex-industry’ is doing fine and well, it does not need our support, it certainly does not need our protection. But around the world, exploited in prostitution, there are women, children and men who do, many of whom can see no end to their situation; so we must. We must make it happen; we must end one of the oldest human rights violations our world has known and relegate this blot on our humanity to history.


For more information and to get involved in campaigns see:

Demand Change

Coalition Against Trafficking in Women


Survivors Manifesto from CATW:

Survivors of Prostitution and Trafficking Manifesto
Author(s): Various

Survivors of Prostitution and Trafficking Manifesto
Press Conference — European Parliament

Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation
“Who Represents Women in Prostitution?”
October 17, 2005

We, the survivors of prostitution and trafficking gathered at this press conference today, declare that prostitution is violence against women.

Women in prostitution do not wake up one day and “choose” to be prostitutes. It is chosen for us by poverty, past sexual abuse, the pimps who take advantage of our vulnerabilities, and the men who buy us for the sex of prostitution.

Prostitution is sexual exploitation, one of the worst forms of women’s inequality, and a violation of any person’s human rights.

Many women in prostitution have been severely injured, some have died, and some have been murdered by their pimps and customers.

Physical violence, rape and degradation are often inflicted on us by customers, pimps, recruiters, police and others who gain from prostitution. The public either judges us as “whores” or thinks we make a lot of money.

The condition of women in prostitution is worsened by laws and policies that treat us as criminals and the scum of society, while customers, pimps, managers and sex business owners are not made accountable. Our condition is also made worse by giving licenses to prostitution enterprises and legal protection to pimps, customers and the sex industry

Most women are drawn into prostitution at a young age. The average age of entrance into prostitution worldwide is estimated at around 14.

Victims of prostitution and trafficking have almost no resources to help them exit. Programs that provide alternatives for women in prostitution are very few.

Women in prostitution dream of a life free from oppression, a life that is safe, and a life where we can participate as citizens, and where we can exercise our rights as human beings, not as “sex workers.”

We, survivors from Belgium, Denmark, Korea, the UK and the United States declare:

1. Prostitution must be eliminated. Thus, it should not be legalized or promoted.

2. Trafficked and prostituted women need services to help them create a future outside of prostitution, including legal and fiscal amnesty, financial assistance, job training, employment, housing, health services, legal advocacy, residency permits, and cultural mediators and language training for victims of international trafficking.

3. Women in prostitution need governments to punish traffickers, pimps and men who buy women for prostitution and to provide safety and security from those who would harm them.

4. Stop arresting women and arrest the perpetrators of trafficking and prostitution.

5. Stop police harassment of women in prostitution and deportation of trafficked women.

6. Prostitution is not “sex work,” and sex trafficking is not “migration for sex work.” Governments should stop legalizing and decriminalizing the sex industry and giving pimps and buyers legal permission to abuse women in prostitution.

As survivors of prostitution and trafficking, we will continue to strengthen and broaden our unity, help any woman out of prostitution, and work with our allies to promote the human rights of victims of trafficking and prostitution.


[2] ‘Prostitution & Trafficking in Women’, Regeringskansliet, (Swedish) Ministry of Industry, Employment & Communications, July 2004




[6] Paying The Price, 2004

[7] M.H. Silbert and A.M. Pines, 1982, “Victimization of street prostitutes, Victimology: An International Journal, 7: 122-133; D.Kelly Weisberg, 1985, ‘Children of the Night: A Study of Adolescent Prostitution’, Lexington, Mass, Toronto

[8] Special Committee on Pornography and Prostitution, 1985, Pornography and Prostitution in Canada 350














[22] see also: Bindel Julie (2013) ‘An Unlikely Union’, Gaze – A Modern Review, Issue 1


[24] Report by the Federal Government on the Impact of the Act Regulating the Legal Situation of Prostitutes (Prostitution Act), by Bundesministerium für Familie, Senioren, Frauen und Jugend, 2007.




This article was originally published on the FWSA blog and has been cross-posted with permission from the author.

Finn Mackay is a PhD student at the Centre for Gender & Violence Research, University of Bristol and a FWSA Executive Member.

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