‘Everybody’s doing it!’ and other bad arguments in defense of prostitution

caitlin stasey

Hello old friend, it’s been awhile.

Sometimes I think a day will come when I won’t need to respond to Hollywood-fueled delusions that imagine prostituted women are all rich nymphomanics driving Benzes, living large on all their sex trade green. But thanks to media and sex industry propaganda, privileged Westerners seem particularly attached to ignoring the reality of the sex trade in favour of a rosier picture.

Actress and happily-married-to-a-man “lesbian,” Caitlin Stasey, shook up the internet this past week with some rather unhelpful claims about “sex work,” including the notion that we would “all be much happier” if prostitution was legalized.

All of us! Fact.

The conversation brought up pretty much every misconception and bad argument that exists about the sex trade, which I’m choosing to see as an opportunity, rather than a burden. As such, I have created a handy listicle that responds to the most common myths and arguments often well-intentioned but ignorant young liberals offer in defense of prostitution. Enjoy!

1) Stop controlling what women do with their bodies!

Possibly the most popular response to feminists who argue against the sex trade is this classic reversal: Feminists who oppose men’s exploitation of women are dictating what women can and cannot do with their bodies.

This is a confounding conclusion to come to, considering that the sole reason the sex trade exists is because hundreds of thousands of men across the planet want to dictate what women do with their bodies…

Here is how prostitution works: men buy sex so that they can force women cater to their desires and fantasies. If prostituted women were freely deciding what to do with their bodies, men would not need to use money to coerce them into engaging in sex acts with them or accepting abuse from them.

Another way of putting this is, as Kajsa Ekis Ekman points out, when two people want to have sex with one another, they have sex. The only reason to pay is if one person does not want the sex.

What feminists have a problem with is not what women “choose” to do with their bodies (we will get to the problems with the “choice” argument later) in prostitution, but with men’s choices. Men choose to abuse and degrade women in prostitution — something liberals appear adamantly opposed to discussing (because talking about women’s “choices” in prostitution allows them to ignore reality and avoid holding men to account for their behaviour — an ever-popular practice in patriarchal society). It is men’s behaviour we have a problem with — not women’s efforts to survive (though we do want to create better options for women).

Feminists believe men should not have the right to pay for sex or to otherwise coerce women into having sex they do not desire (i.e. the basis for prostitution). We see the payment as a form of coercion.

Indeed, those who are concerned about women’s ability to have bodily autonomy should probably discuss that with the men who are selling women in brothels for profit (and demanding they perform certain sex acts for x amount of dollars) and the men who are coercing desperate, marginalized women into performing sex acts they would not otherwise engage in with strange men, voluntarily.

In other words, prostitution is for men — it is a “service” for men. It is explicitly about men deciding what they want to do with women’s bodies. If that were not the case, men wouldn’t need to pay — women would just voluntarily do exactly what they wanted to do with their bodies and everyone would be happy.

Feminists have no say over what women do with their bodies in prostitution. Men have a lot of say, though! It’s funny that those who defend the industry never have anything to say about them, though, isn’t it?

2) Legalization is magic!

People like Stasey like to believe that legalization will resolve everything problematic about the sex trade. “Fair regulation leads to safer work environments for all workers. Sex work should be no different,” she announced to about 100,000 people on Twitter. Stasey also told me, “Regulating sex work, demanding accountability of customers and law enforcement will help prevent [rape/abuse].” Many will also argue that legalization brings prostitution out of the shadows, thereby making it safer, allowing women to work independently and legitimately, and say that criminalizing men will only drive the industry “underground.”

The thing about these claims is that they are patently untrue. We need only look to countries that have legalized prostitution and (attempted) to regulate it in order to see what an abject failure this has been. In Amsterdam, for example, organized crime has taken over the sex trade and the “underground” industry thrives. Julie Bindel reports:

“A third of Amsterdam’s bordellos have been closed due to the involvement of organized criminals and drug dealers and the increase in trafficking of women. Police now acknowledge that the red-light district has mutated into a global hub for human trafficking and money laundering.”

Likewise, in Germany, where prostitution is legalized, organized crime groups like the Hells Angels, Mongols, Bandidos, and the United Tribuns control red light districts.

Places where prostitution is legalized are trafficking destinations. In Germany, most women in the industry are foreign. Many of those women are Roma —  Europe’s largest and most vulnerable ethnic minority group — who are tricked into coming to Germany for “jobs,” then put to work in brothels, rarely even allowed to leave their rooms. Andrea Matolcsi, the program officer for sexual violence and trafficking at Equality Now tells reporter Nisha Lilia Diu:

“For a trafficker it’s much easier to go to a country where it’s legal to have brothels and it’s legal to manage people in prostitution. It’s just a more attractive environment.”

Violence continues under legalization, mostly unreported. In Germany, where prostitution is legal, 70 prostitutes have been killed by pimps or buyers (this is only what has been reported — there are likely more than that). Prostituted women in Germany and the Netherlands are frequently raped, robbed, abused, and threatened. By comparison, not one prostituted women has been murdered by a john since the Nordic model came into effect in Sweden.

An expansive report on Germany’s experiment with legalization at Spiegel tells the story of Cora, a young woman who was put to work in a brothel in Frauentormauer, one of Germany’s oldest red-light districts. Her pimp demanded that she work a 24-hour shift, and then he stabbed her in the face with a knife when she refused.

The bulk of the women who work under legalization are not empowered “entrepreneurs.” They still have pimps and are barely getting by. Women who work at Pasha, one of Germany’s “mega-brothels,” pay 175 euros to use a room for 24 hours. Men pay about 50 euros for half an hour, which means women have to see four men just to break even. Surely you can imagine how hard this is on a woman’s body…

The goal of legalization in Germany was to do exactly what people like Stasey suggest: to treat prostitution as a job like any other, allowing those who sell sex “to enter into employment contracts, sue for payment, and register for health insurance, pension plans and other benefits.” None of this happened — there is a no record of any prostituted woman suing for payment, and only 44 out of an estimated 400,000-1,000,000 prostituted people in Germany have registered as prostitutes in order to access benefits.

Under legalization, the government, the pimps, and the brothel owners get rich off of the sex trade, not the women. Germany has experimented with this model for 15 years and it has been a disaster. We can no longer pretend legalization works. It doesn’t.

3) Women are objectified so women should be objectified

This argument is possibly the strangest one of all. Essentially, it says that because misogyny exists, misogyny is acceptable.

But simply because the world has decided women’s bodies are commodities does not mean that is a good thing. People often use things like objectification in media, the general sexualization of women, or even marriage as a kind of “gotcha” card against feminists, as if we aren’t also critical of the way women are sexually objectified in ads and movies and as though the idea that a woman can be owned, through marriage, hasn’t been criticized since the first wave. We know that women are taught from the time they are young that they should be sexually desirable and that their main source of “power” is in desirability. We know this all exists on a continuum — and this is exactly why we argue that prostitution harms all women and girls, not just the prostituted.

If we say that women are things that exist for men, that we can be bought and sold, that our primary value lies in our fuckability, this hurts all of us, and impedes women’s liberation on a global scale. Simply because an idea is accepted by society-at-large does not mean it’s right.

4) All of us use sex as currency

Where do we draw the line? All of us use our sexuality as currency in some form, so why do we criminalize and humiliate those who use theirs to survive? Sex workers do not sell themselves anymore than a store clerk does. Your body is a vessel and your actions are a service, whether you fold expensive sweaters or clear dirty dishes or give blowjobs. The argument that sex work devalues all women and heightens the sexual expectations men have of us, is rooted in an anti sex rhetoric. The issue is not with the work or worker but the system. Treat sex workers with dignity. Tax them. Regulate their industry. Provide resources. Implement understanding and respect into your narrative of them. YOU alone are responsible for how you treat women, STOP using sex work as a smoke screen for your hatred of us.

A photo posted by Baby Lady (@caitlinjstasey69) on

Uh, no, actually not “all of us use our sexuality as currency.” But it makes me feel incredibly sad that people believe that everything about them is and should be commodifiable.

I realize that it is popular, these days, to pretend as though the ability to profit from our own subjugation negates that subjugation, but “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” is not how liberation is achieved. Capitalism has done a very good job of convincing the marginalized that capitalism is the only way to escape marginalization, but that is a lie.

Feminism is about pushing back against oppressive systems of power like patriarchal capitalism, not embracing them. Besides, women’s bodies and sexualities have been commodified since forever — clearly this has yet to liberate us. Turning sexuality into a thing — currency, for example — ensures men can separate “sex” from people, which in turn ensures men will continue to dehumanize those they want to or have sex with. Sex is not something women should have to trade for safety, money, housing, power, respect, or food. Again, I don’t care that much if society believes sex is a product, totally disconnected from humans. Society is wrong on this one.

5) Naming systems of power is condescending and patronizing

I know that Americans in particular have been convinced that pretending everyone has full agency and autonomy over their lives will lead to everyone having full agency and autonomy over their lives, but it won’t.

We’ve turned “victim” into a bad word because neoliberalism says that marginalization is a personal failure, rather than a systemic one. Individuals are said to be responsible for empowering themselves in the U.S., so if you are poor, if you are raped, if you are abused, if you are jailed, or if you can’t find a good job, it’s all your fault and has nothing to do with being racialized, working class, or female. This message has convinced us that to even acknowledge that some people have power and others do not is an insult to the disempowered. To be victimized or marginalized simply means you are weak, we are told.

This puts feminists in a tough position, because any time we point out that men have power over women in society, we are accused of insulting women who have Full Agency and Make Empowered Choices all the time! I know it doesn’t feel good to acknowledge that you don’t have full control over your life, but you don’t. Like, most of us don’t. Our realities are shaped, whether we like it or not, by things like class, race, and sex. And we aren’t going to be able to change any of that if we don’t acknowledge those systems of power exist, understand how they work, and then fight back.

6) (Speaking of which…) Free will! Choice! Agencyyyyyy!

I don’t know how many times Lucas Neff, star of Raising Hope and husband of Caitlin Stasey, has rented a room in a brothel and been penetrated by ten or so men in 24 hours, but I recommend he try it before assuming this is something women enjoy.

While perhaps there are a few women who truly enjoy selling sex, 85 to 95 per cent want to get out of the industry. Indeed, if women were “voluntarily” entering the sex industry in droves, trafficking wouldn’t exist. As Ekman explains:

“Trafficking comes in when there isn’t a large enough supply of prostitutes for the demand that exists — if you’re talking in market terms. In the Western world there are never enough women who enter the sex industry voluntarily — there’s always a shortage, to put it that way.”

Most women are in prostitution because they have no other choice. To base an argument about the sex trade on a tiny minority of people, rather than on the vast majority, is obviously flawed. But in any case, while the Nordic model decreases (and will continue to decrease) rates of men who buy sex, it won’t stop the purchase of sex entirely (not for a very long time, in any case), which means that those few women who are truly in the industry by choice will be very busy, indeed, and therefore need not worry about going broke under the Nordic model.

7) The Nordic model is “reactive and anti-woman”

So, the Nordic model was developed after 30 years of research. This was the first time people in prostitution were interviewed on a large scale — the first time anyone studied the reality of the sex trade, and the people in it. The Nordic model is literally the opposite of “reactive.”

It is also the only feminist model of law that exists, with regard to prostitution. The Nordic model criminalizes only those who do harm: the pimps, brothel owners, and johns, and decriminalizes those who sell sex (largely women). It’s aim is not only to deter traffickers, pimps, and men who buy sex, but to change social attitudes about men and women. It has been very successful, in that sense, as a majority of Sweden’s population now understands prostitution to be a product of gender inequality. Men and women alike see buying sex as wrong and 80 per cent of the population support the law (which was not the case when the law was first enacted — even the police didn’t support the law at first). “What we’ve seen in 17 years is a huge change in the mindset of the Swedish population,” says Simon Haggstrom, head of the Stockholm Police Prostitution Unit.

The entire purpose of the Nordic model is to support women and treat them with respect, while holding men accountable for their behaviour. That’s as pro-woman as it gets.

It does strike me as “reactive” and “anti-woman” to make a bunch of claims based on misinformation and assumptions, particularly when those assumptions support the idea that women are things that exist to be penetrated by penises.

8) Feminist who oppose the sex trade are “moralizing” because of personal feelings

Oh, but aren’t all things women are concerned with just silly? Women and their irrational feelings are always getting in the way of their ability to do Real Politics!

This argument leads me first to wonder why so many people are opposed to “morals” (i.e. ethics) in the first place? I guess they don’t have any? Which explains why they are defending an abusive, racist, violent, misogynist system like prostitution?

But in any case, while there truly is nothing wrong with having either morals or feelings, feminists’ opposition to the system of prostitution is political, not personal. We fight prostitution on the basis that it supports male entitlement and the idea that women exist for men’s use and pleasure. We also understand prostitution to be a product of colonialism that reinforces racist stereotypes about women of colour and preys on the most marginalized in society (i.e. poor women of colour — in Canada, for example, Indigenous women are overrepresented in the sex trade). Indigenous feminist Cherry Smiley argues that prostitution is a system that was imposed on aboriginal communities by colonizers. Indeed, in what is now known as Canada, prostitution did not exist until European men came over and put Indigenous women into brothels. Jackie Lynne explains that, as a result, “First Nations women became Canada’s first prostituted women.”

Without capitalism and patriarchy, the sex trade would not exist — as feminists and socialists, it is politically necessary to oppose it. If you want to call that a “moral position,” you may, but that means every single progressive movement that as ever existed is too.

9) The Nordic model is ‘anti-sex’

If you believe that sex is something that should only be desired by one party, not both, then I guess the Nordic model is “anti-sex.” But I tend to believe that sex should happen on the basis of enthusiastic consent — that is to say both parties involved should desire the sex. If one person wants sex and the other person doesn’t, then the sex happens anyway, that’s… what do we call it again? Oh right. Rape.

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.