Feminist opposition to the sex industry has little to do with women's 'choices'

I feel quite certain that the reasons feminists oppose prostitution and pornography are clear. We have gone over the arguments many times and left little room for confusion.

In short, the sex industry exists because we live in a capitalist patriarchy that places men, as a class, in a position of power over women, as a class. Within this system women’s bodies are seen as and treated as existing “for men” — for their use, for their pleasure. Men’s desire is prioritized above women’s well-being. Men will often hire prostitutes to do that which they “can’t” do to their wives or girlfriends, thus creating a class of abusable women, dividing us into worthy or “good” women and unworthy or “bad” women. At the same time, these systems make all women into things that are publicly accessible — we are to be groped, looked at, cat-called, fucked. Pornography serves to sexualize inequality and the degradation of women. It turns violence, gang-rape, and abuse into maturbatory tools. It teaches the viewer that male power and female subordination is “sexy.” It sexualizes incest and pedophilia. Both prostitution and pornography are deeply racist — creating, sexualizing, and perpetuating racist stereotypes about women that are then attached to misogynist practices. The prostitution of women of colour is, as Alice Lee explains to Chris Hedges, “an extension of imperialism” and “built on the social power disparities of race and color.” The prostitution of Indigenous women and girls, in Canada, is directly connected to our history of colonialism.*

Despite all that, when liberal feminists or leftist men who have chosen to avoid criticism of the sex industry in favour of “women have agency,” “sex work is work,” or “my body my choice” -type arguments, they tend, more often than not, to erase our actual critique, instead creating caricatures that can more-easily be dismissed or trashed.

We see this in Pandora Blake’s recent piece in New Statesman. She writes:

Porn is one of the least marginalized jobs within the sex industry, but it still suffers from the same fallacy as every other discussion about sex work — the idea that it is only a legitimate choice if it is ‘empowering.’

This characterization always strikes me as odd when I come across it because I’ve yet to encounter a feminist critique of pornography that mentions anything about “legitimate choices.” Blake goes on to repudiate the notion that a job must be “empowering” in order to be viewed as a “legitimate choice,” noting that we don’t ask the same of film, in general, or really, of any job.

“Why do we only expect ’empowerment’ of sex work, and not of other jobs?” she asks.

Well, I think we do hope for “empowerment” in other jobs and don’t wish for anyone to be degraded at work, for starters… Feminists have fought sexual harassment, assault, and abuse in the workplace for decades. But also, the question of whether or not an individual feels “empowered” by sex work isn’t one we pose — rather, it’s a position taken by those who believe the existence of the sex industry is fine and good and justifiable because some women claim it can be experienced as empowering in certain ways. Now, whatever is inside your head belongs to you, but whatever a person believes or chooses to believe about their own sense of empowerment doesn’t change the fact that the sex industry does harm individual women and does impact all women.

Needless to say, feminists don’t “expect empowerment of sex work” nor do we ask whether or not a woman’s “choice” to enter into the sex industry is a legitimate one. The question of “legitimacy” should, rather, be asked of this imagined debate.

We see another example of this in a recent post by Anne Thériault, who says that “white feminists” need to stop “thinking that all sex workers are all miserable wretches who hate their lives.” She writes:

Like, this is literally what you’re saying: “I believe women have agency and can make decisions about their lives except for when it has to do with sex work, at which point I will assume that either someone is exploiting them or else they are self-hating gender traitors only interested in the male gaze.”

So just to clarify, you think that women can make choices except when it’s a choice you disagree with, at which point you’re pretty sure she’s being coerced. You also think that sex workers need to be “rescued,” even if they’re happy with what they do. You would rather see women further marginalized by anti-prostitution laws than find ways to keep sex workers safe.

Again, explain to me how this is a pro-woman stance?

Hmm, no… What we literally are not saying is that women in prostitution are “gender-traitors” or that we “disagree” with women’s “choices” to enter into the sex industry. Literally no feminist I know says that. And I know an awful lot of the women who fight, within the feminist movement, against the sex industry… Not only does Thériault erase all of the women of colour who are opposed to the racist, misogynist sex industry, but she chooses to erase our actual arguments, developed over decades and waves. To pretend as though only white women are feminist, fight sexual exploitation and abuse, and can see and care about the harm and abuse that happens in the sex industry is an appalling — but deliberate — attempt to dismiss the work and efforts of thousands and thousands of women, over decades, across the globe, and I think it is reprehensible.

It is only necessary to invent untrue and insulting caricatures if you are not willing or able to engage with the actual critiques and analysis at hand. I might ask how willfully misrepresenting the work, ideology, politics, arguments, beliefs, intentions, backgrounds, lives, and experiences of women as a means to justify telling them to shut up is “pro-woman?”

Feminists do not judge women who enter into prostitution — whether they have made some version of a choice (within the context of capitalist patriarchy) or not. Certainly we don’t see them as “gender traitors.” There is no “them,” for that matter, as many of “us” (feminists) have been involved in the sex industry in one way or another, and all of “us” live in this world. There is no clear dichotomy between “us” and “them.” Certainly we don’t want to see women further marginalized by sexual exploitation, considering that it is the most marginalized women (and also considering that women are marginalized as a group, under patriarchy, and therefore it is “us” who are affected) who already are most vulnerable to exploitation in prostitution.

We are largely concerned, though, with the choices men make to consume pornography, to buy sex, and to exploit and profit from the sale of women’s bodies. We are also largely concerned with the fact that we live in a culture that treats women as objects to be bought and sold. We are largely concerned with the fact that most women and girls grow up believing that their existence is legitimized by the male gaze and that we then internalize that gaze. This is a problem that hurts women — all women. Therefore it makes no real sense to “disagree” with women’s “choice” to be impacted by this gaze and the larger systems at work, since we (women) are the ones who are suffering under said systems. We will certainly disagree with and challenge women who defend these systems or who pretend as though they are good for women, but prostitutes are not to blame for prostitution and women aren’t to blame for the existence of porn. In short, the fight isn’t about women’s individual choices — it is about the fact that women’s choices are limited and shaped by patriarchy and, of course, that many women and girls have no real choice when it comes to the exploitation, abuse and violence they experience in this world.

What should be clear, at very least, is that we are feminists because we care about women. To say that we want to see women further marginalized is an incredibly bold fabrication. What could our motives possibly be except the well-being, rights, and liberty of women? These representations ignore and erase the truth of our movement. They erase the fact that women in this movement come from all sorts of backgrounds, are marginalized, have been prostituted and abused, work with and for women on a daily basis, and not only are impacted by the sex industry on a personal and systemic level, but care about the impact on all other women and girls as well.

Blake writes:

If you truly care about empowering porn performers, start by reducing poverty. Fight to improve our welfare state, for a citizen’s basic income, for more flexible working options for parents and people with disabilities, and for decreased tuition fees for students. It is possible to work full time in this country without earning a living wage, while others who want to work full time may not be able to. If you want to make someone more empowered, you need to give them better options, not fewer options.

Indeed. As the women (and men) I ally with are somewhere over to the left (whether or not they identify as socialist, as I do), these issues are of primary importance. But because we are fighting for a stronger welfare state and free tuition and a living wage does not mean we drop our fight to end violence against women and the dehumanization of women and girls.

A woman can “choose” to do sex work, but that doesn’t mean I think it’s ok for a man to buy her. A woman can “like” or “dislike” performing in porn, but that doesn’t make porn “good” for women, nor does it negate the fact that the sex industry reinforces male power and entitlement.

Part of the reason feminists fight prostitution and pornography is, yes, because of the violence and abuse so many women and girls suffer within it. But it is not those women and girls’ “choices” we disagree with… Prostitution and pornography are social problems that exist on a larger spectrum that includes objectification, rape culture, sexual harassment, domestic abuse, body image, self-esteem, sexual assault, incest, and more. The way we understand heterosexual  relationships, the way we understand sex, the way women and men relate to one another, the way we understand marriage and beauty and our value as human beings — it’s all connected and affected. Pop culture, film, television, advertising are all affected too. The connections are palpable to anyone willing to see.

If the point, in terms of this debate, were whether or not any individual felt they were being empowered by porn at any given point in time or whether or not one person “liked” another person’s “choice” to do sex work, then we could simply argue back and forth about who feels personally empowered by what and who personally “liked” or did “not like” any given thing or idea, divorced from a larger context, political movement, or ideology, for eternity, and get nowhere. Oh wait…

I honestly don’t know how a person can be a feminist and fail to understand all this, but if they truly don’t, the least they could do is represent our arguments fairly. Otherwise it simply appears as though you are unable to engage with the ideology at hand, cheaply resorting to red herrings and sexist tropes, which not only detracts from your argument, but does the feminist movement no good.

*Editor’s note, 03/11/2015: This paragraph was added in to clarify the arguments for those who might be unfamiliar with the feminist analysis of prostitution and pornography.

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.