The contemporary cult of the ‘sex worker’

Image: Stuart/Flickr

In certain social circles, praising “sex workers” has become fashionable. How has prostitution — an outdated, slavery-like industry — been made to look so modern?

A BBC Three video making the rounds on social media features a number of self-identified sex workers who either work independently or who profit from employing others, explaining that prostitution is a job like any other. Prostitution is not about the violation of women’s rights it is a woman’s right, they argue. It is not socially harmful, because it is merely a transaction between two consenting adults. If prostitution was decriminalized, negative features associated with it would soon disappear. Prostitutes enjoy sex with johns, and hey, what’s not to like about being paid for pleasure? We can even think of prostitutes as akin to social workers and the johns as harmless guys who merely seek a service. Indeed, more sexual servicing of men could contribute to “world peace!”


This video seeks to reassure us that prostitution has nothing to do with patriarchy, exploitation, trafficking, or pimping. It is simply a personal business deal made by sassy, sex positive women (and some men) who are brave enough not to give a shit about outdated morality. Prostitutes are strong and independent entrepreneurs who have simply chosen a more viable career, instead of working at the local superstore for a fraction of the wage.

This narrative tells us the sex trade enhances the feminist cause. It goes hand in hand with the idea that pornography is sexually liberating. This notion was first conceived in the late 1960s by aspiring sex industry moguls. These men cleverly stole the revolutionary idea that women, not men, should control women’s bodies from feminists and claimed it as their own. From that time to the present, the narrative of women’s liberation has been evoked by the sex industry to advance its own interests, by men who defend buying sex and by lobbyists invested in legalizing the trade in women.

Critics of this narrative point out it renders many issues invisible: the capitalist industries that drive prostitution; the johns who lobby for the “right” to pay for sexual consent; the prostitutes who are physically revolted and hurt by the sex; the abuse and violence perpetrated by the johns (often enacting pornography scenarios); the voices of exited prostituted women raised in opposition; and the inextricable relationship between prostitution and trafficking.

Some tolerant, sophisticated and urbane folk — even those who bang the drum of human rights — get angry when faced with empirical evidence that demonstrates prostitution is not harmless. Defenders of prostitution often attack ad hominem. On social media, critics are variously described as “hairy legged-lesbians” (apparently lesbians are only cool when pro sex-work), “whorephobic,” “sex-negative,” “man-hating,” “fundamentalist feminists.”

Academia does not necessarily protect from vitriol. I attended a conference in 2014 at Middlesex University entitled, “Feminist Whores? Exploring Feminist Debates Around Violence, Sex Work and Pornography.” The conference aim was “to present alternative ways of looking at women’s involvement in, and engagement with, both sex work and pornography, especially within the context of contemporary feminism”. However, I discovered to my cost, only certain feminist voices were acceptable.

Above the conference stage an iconic image from a 1970s porn magazine loomed large. It was during the 70s that the feminist fight against the expanding sex industry was in its heyday, and this image was, then, analyzed as misogynistic. In contrast, 40 years later, we were invited to see this pornographic representation of a woman’s body as harmless, even ironic. Rather than the pornography itself, the conference organizers claimed this feminist analysis was the real impediment to women’s sex equality. The new feminism allows us to get down and dirty with the lads; we too are permitted sexual arousal at watching “whores” and we can playfully claim the term for ourselves.

Image featured at “Feminist Whores? Exploring Feminist Debates Around Violence, Sex Work and Pornography.”

But “whore” isn’t a term like “gay,” which homosexual men have given themselves in order to define their own identity. “Whore” is term given by men to women, and it is part of the old patriarchal morality. The idea that “whores” actually exist functions to divide women into two groups – those who men can “legitimately” sexually use without troubling their conscience, and those they can’t. However, there is no such thing as a “whore.” It is a male desire transformed into a female characteristic. What divides women is economic and social and personal circumstance. It is the lack of cultural recognition of the political conditions of prostitution which fosters the stigmatization and objectification of women.

The entire sex trade rests on this fantasy — that women can be “whores.” The contemporary “cult of the whore” has done little to free women and girls. The internet buzzes with shaming girls and women for crossing the boundaries they’ve been incited to transgress. Despite the fact it is the man who drives the demand for prostitution and pornography, no such derogatory label adheres to him.

The cultural equivalent of “the cult of the whore” is “sex workers’ rights.” Through this language, prostitution is fetishized as transgressive. But it is the converse — prostitution endlessly erects the very patriarchal divisions between women that it allegedly destroys. It is the dissolution of boundaries which has real revolutionary potential.

The BBC Three video asserts that decriminalization renders prostituted women safe from abuse and violence, as if it is the law, not men, who hurt them. But the legalization of prostitution in Germany is testament to this misinformation. Decriminalization is not about women’s rights, but is, as Sarah Ditum argues, about “penis rights.”

However, hope is on the horizon: there is a growing European resistance to the dominant narrative. Mainstream media are beginning to document the scandal of German brothels. In February 2017, Ireland followed France, Canada, and the Nordic countries in passing a sex buyer law that decriminalizes the prostituted, but criminalizes men who pay for sex. These countries have opted for this model because “sex work” isn’t a job like any other. The term “sex work” conveys neutrality and, in doing so, desensitizes us to violence and disguises the exploitation of women in the UK and globally. As long as prostitution exists women and men will never be free from patriarchy.

Dr. Heather Brunskell-Evans is a social theorist, philosopher, and Senior Research Fellow at King’s College in London. She is a National Spokesperson for the Women’s Equality Party Policy on Ending Sexual Violence, a trustee of FiLia, and co-founder of Resist Porn Culture.

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  • Lucia Lola

    I spend a lot of time with friends/acquaintances/family members who love to remind me I used to defend the “choice” of being a sex worker. They perceive it as an opportunity to point out my hypocrisy. An aha attempt to show this millennial how shallow we supposedly are. However, I welcome these “gotcha” opportunities to educate, inform and a few times luckily interact with people who are more knowledgeable than I am on the subject. First hand and otherwise. Not a day goes by that I’m not grateful for having stopped my stupidity and blatant self imposed ignorance.

    Another fantastic article. This site is brilliant.

    • FierceMild

      It really never ceases to confuse me how some people cannot distinguish between metanoia and hypocrisy.

      When I was five I told my parents I’d NEVER brush my teeth when I grew up, but I do. Sometimes three times a day, I feel compelled to confess. what an effing hypocrite I am!

    • Rachel

      Exactly – it does take a strong person to self reflect, open their mind and admit they were wrong. Really all they’re doing is pointing out your strength and personal growth! That’s awesome you use the opportunity to educate them too. This site is so brilliant, I agree. FierceMild – that’s a really good analogy also. I think if someone’s values and attitudes don’t change much as they grow older, and presumably wiser, then they really aren’t growing at all.

    • lk

      “Not a day goes by that I’m not grateful for having stopped my stupidity and blatant self imposed ignorance.”

      Me too! I used to be a believer in legalizing prostitution and spent a bunch of time reading pro-sex work blogs, articles, twitter and etc.

      I’ve mentioned a few times on this site that I used to be pro-sex work because I think its important for the people who critique the industry to know that their words and stories do really change minds and have an impact.

  • Kathleen Lowrey

    I think the film “Merchants of Doubt” is relevant here. It doesn’t talk about the sexual exploitation industry, but the pattern it documents about tobacco, pharmaceuticals, and climate change (pump out authoritative sounding research; when you start to lose, at least create an atmosphere of doubt if you can’t keep dominating the conversation with lies) looks exactly like what has happened in the popular and academic discussion of “sex work”. The business interests involved are enormous, and they fund fake grassroots (astroturf) organizations and research that really do fool people. For a while.

  • PFP

    I cringe when I hear that “transaction between consenting adults” thing. Did the john’s wife consent to being exposed to stds? No, she did not. When you show up to your “session” with a notarized statement from your wife saying she gives HER consent, then it’s a transaction between consenting adults.

    • Wren

      It’s not consensual sex because the woman is being financially coerced. The wife is betrayed, but that has nothing to do with the inherent violence of prostitution.

    • FierceMild

      Nope. The entire culture is built around a sense of male entitlement that has many women willing to consent to anything in order to make it stop.

      A john’s wife might very well consent to him fucking someone else in the ass while slapping her and calling her names…spot the problem yet?

    • susannunes

      “Consenting adults” and “victimless crime” were the biggest loads of b.s. ever. They stem back from at least the 1960s with the so-called sexual revolution. Of course prostitution is not “consent” or “victimless”–it destroys lives.

    • Katie MunchmaQuchi Smith

      I am a reformed sinner on this, lol. I naively believed that nobody had the right to interfere in the lives of two consenting adults (which I still believe) but I didn’t really understood the dynamics of power, privilege, class, etc. I didn’t realize the sex industry was, well, an industry. I thought prostituted women were all just independent “party girls” and the ones who weren’t making good money just made bad choices.

      I got better…so I have hope that liberal feminists who are otherwise intelligent can make the crossover. 😀

  • Sarahbeara

    If you don’t mind me asking, why is she engaging in what can only be construed as blatant propaganda?
    Not trolling. I just wonder what makes someone engage in a lie like that. Cognitive dissonance? Wanting it to be true?

  • oneclickboedicea

    Brilliant analysis of sex industry as a cult, bang on the money, tobacco industry 2.0

  • Wren

    Perfectly stated. I may borrow it 🙂

  • Sarahbeara

    I can understand that.

  • Yisheng Qingwa

    True and well-spoken, thank you.

  • Aylune B. Papyrus

    Excellent point. It’s true ”sex workers right” advocates keep comparing it to low-paying jobs like being a waitress, or a factory worker. It’s very telling, indeed.

    • Katie MunchmaQuchi Smith

      Even if you believe the “sex work is just work” nonsense, whenever they compare it to low paying jobs like Walmart or fast food places, I say, “Yeah, and if people working at Walmart or fast food joints got robbed, raped, beaten, murdered, denied pay, coerced into drug use, etc. at the same rate as prostituted women, we’d be outside every last one of those stores with torches and pitchforks demanding change NOW.”

      I often consider how people who rightfully complain about the deplorable conditions and wages for women in sweatshops, box stores, and fast food places can then turn around and tout “sex workers’ rights” to be treated like garabge…..

      I’m also sick of them finding some random rich, white woman who fucked her way through a PhD to be the spokesman of “sex workers’ rights.” Like she has a fucking clue about the struggles of, say, poor black women or LGBT kids whose folks threw them out or people sold by their own families or partners.

      “Teehee, sex werk werks fer meeee so it are okayz fer EVERY11111111!”
      -barfs forever-

  • Meghan Murphy

    What are you talking about?

    • Katie MunchmaQuchi Smith

      I think the person used some sort of translation software. It reads a lot like a bad translation.

      • Morag999

        When liars lie, they often sound as if they’ve been badly translated. That’s the way liars like it, because then they can claim they’ve been misunderstood.

    • Grope_of_Big_Horn

      My comment is directed to the claim of Dr Brunskell-Evans that the recent law change in the Republic of Ireland decriminalizes the prostituted. She implies that it is a meaningful change for them. I disagree, as do those who are currently prostituted; the law change in Ireland does not decriminalise those who are prostituted who are caught earning money in the same building, and their money can still be taken off them by the police.

      • Meghan Murphy

        Prove it.

  • Katie MunchmaQuchi Smith

    One of the WORST things I’ve seen lately was everyone whining about the shutting down of Backpage saying, “Butbutbut now you’re denying an income to the most marginalized people out there! These people need to do sex work and they need to advertise and getting rid of Backpage is making life harder for them!”

    Oh, ok so let’s continue to enable an evil system just because we can’t think of any other way to help the most marginalized people in the world….that makes sense…..NOT. I bet these would have been the same people who would have said, “Don’t outlaw child labor! Those kids NEED to make money or else they and their families will go hungry and life will be harder for them.”

    I bet they also would have said, “Don’t outlaw slavery! This would make a lot of slaves homeless and that would make life harder for them!”

    It’s strange and telling to me that people would understand that THE MOST MARGINALIZED PEOPLE are the ones that have to “turn to” sex work, but then they also want to turn around and pretend that having a 20 strangers’ unwanted dicks up your ass is the same as flipping burgers or filling out spreadsheets or being yelled at by a customer…… I really need to explain the fundamental difference?

  • Katie MunchmaQuchi Smith

    Liberal Feminist: LISTEN TO SEX WORKERS!
    Me: OK! -reads Paid For and Girls Like Us-
    Liberal Feminist: Not like that….

  • ExceptionallyAnonymous

    Oh those comments are heart-warming!

    What gets me the most is people vindicating an intersectional, class-aware feminism, they insist on using all those lovely terms constantly repeatedly (maybe to convince themselves) and YET defend prostitution! Like yo! Hi! Hola! Que tal?? Prostituted women epitomise class and global inequalities. Who is prostituted in Italy? Clandestine Nigerian women! Who is prostituted in Germany? Eastern European poor women! Who is prostituted in Turkey? Syrian refugees! I could go on and on like this. WAKE UP! Women are dying!

  • Reese

    The location of oppression exists outside of men’s pants, it is in the political structure and social inequality. In really poor countries for example there is not a surplus of prostitution because nobody has any money and neither is there mass rape either, why is it that ? because wealth inequality emerges before prostitution emerges as a form of work.

    (I don’t mean that there is not misogyny and sexual abuse in impoverished countries )

  • Nowaves

    I think another point that gets missed is whether, even under the pro-sex work terms, it’s actually a good choice for the majority of young women.

    If you look at the risk/reward of sex work, it’s disproportional. Risks include potential physical and psychological harm at the hands of “clients” as well as STD’s. The earnings are actually nothing to be impressed by: the average teenaged “porn star” usually only earns a few thousand dollars over the course of her short career and an escort/prostitute type sex worker may garner four figure sum for a few hours of work but it’s a very inconsistent source of income and women who put themselves in positions where sex work is their sole means of income have to compromise and work for lower rates.

    While many jobs have risks and most require the worker to invest some degree of their personality into their work, I can’t think of another industry where a person’s identity and their anatomical boundaries weather such constant abuse.

    I think many of the so-called “sex positive” feminists are speaking for others theoretically and would never engage in sex work. It’s the gender politics equivalent of people who advocate military action as a political solution yet would never serve in the armed forces themselves.

    There are other pundits who profit from the sex industry who use the feminist angle to further their business. Even many of these exhibit negativity toward their fields (eroticized rage being a key trait on display).

    Overall, perhaps sex workers shouldn’t be subject to criminal penalties and shouldn’t be shamed for their choices, but the harsh realities of even voluntary sex work should be under high scrutiny as part of this debate.

    “A job like any other” doesn’t mean it’s a good career choice that young women should be encouraged to pursue. And certainly anyone who brings these issues to light shouldn’t be decried or dismissed as a “swerf” by the pro-sex work camp.

  • meh