On ‘respecting sex workers’

Ever since I have been writing about prostitution and the sex industry more broadly, I have been accused of one thing: not respecting “sex workers.” Often of “hating sex workers,” actually — of “whorephobia.”

Since about 2011, I have been labelled a “SWERF” (sex worker exclusionary radical feminist). While this term didn’t catch on in the same way “TERF” (trans exclusionary radical feminist) did, it caught on among leftists, third wave feminists and those advocating for the legalization of the sex trade. The intention was the same as with the term, “TERF”: to twist feminist advocacy for women’s rights, safety, and dignity and efforts to protect women from dangerous and predatory men by preserving women’s spaces and/or by criminalizing men seeking to exploit and abuse women and girls in the sex trade into some kind of “phobia” or effort to discriminate against a “marginalized population.”

This has been a defining factor of the third wave, broadly, as those challenging the supposed empowerment attached to objectification are labelled “slut shamers;” those questioning whether the normalization of violent sex and BDSM is in fact just a matter of “consenting adults” are labelled “anti-sex;” and those suggesting prostitution is not simply “a job like any other” are labelled “anti-sex worker.”

Despite my efforts over the last decade+ to explain my position, which was developed through study of various legislative models throughout the world as well as through interviewing and reading the work of countless experts on prostitution, including women who were once prostituted themselves, but had managed to exit the trade, freed to assess their situation clearly and speak the truth about the industry, the accusation remains the same.

To be clear, what I advocate is not the criminalization of prostituted women and girls. This is a common misconception lobbed at feminists who oppose the full legalization of the industry. What I advocate for is something called “the Nordic model,” which was implemented in Sweden in 1999, decriminalizing those who sell sex while criminalizing those responsible for the abuse and exploitation of women and minors in the trade (so johns, pimps, brothel owners, and of course traffickers).

I am not so naive to think it is possible to completely eradicate the sex trade — as long as there are desperate and vulnerable women and girls there will be men willing to exploit that; as long as there is profit to be made, someone will take advantage. But the Nordic model has demonstrated that it is possible to curb demand and to make paying for sex a shameful act, rather than a neutral or even positive one (what about those lonely men who simply can’t find enough girls who volunteer to fake interest and ask for nothing in return?)

While it is often posited that legalizing the industry will make things “safer” as it can operate out in the open, rather than in the seedy underground, and provide a more positive situation for “sex workers” who can operate without shame, this has not played out in places like Germany, now dubbed the bordello of Europe, and Amsterdam, widely offered as an example of an open air sex market and as a kind of amusement park for adults. Under legalization, the industry remains intricately connected to organized crime, trafficking is rife, and “stigma” remains. It turns out that, legal or not, no woman is proud to be a prostitute. She typically wants out, so registering officially as a “sex worker” is unappealing. Meanwhile, because this is such an undesirable “occupation,” women must be shipped in from Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia to meet the massive demand.

You see, trafficking doesn’t happen because women are ashamed to offer paid sex — it happens because women (and girls) don’t want to be prostitutes. Men flock to places that legalize, meaning demand for access to paid sex skyrockets, and women have to be forced, tricked, manipulated, or coerced, in order for pimps and brothel owners to meet that demand and make as much money as they possibly can.

Places like Sweden, by contrast, are not sex buying destinations, so demand decreases and trafficking becomes unnecessary (or at least less necessary). If women “choose” to sell sex in places like Sweden, they still have plenty of customers, but are in a relative position of power, as the men paying them are already doing something illegal, so there is incentive to be on one’s best behaviour, lest she call the police. By contrast, reports from prostitutes working in places like New Zealand, where prostitution is fully decriminalized, and of course in Germany and the Netherlands, men feel entitled to do whatever they like to the women they have bought and paid for, fair and square.

Needless to say, my dislike for prostitution is not rooted in dislike for prostitutes, per se, it is rooted in dislike for the industry and what it does to women and girls. I advocate for the Nordic model because it targets those doing the harm, and because it is the only legislative model that actually helps women, rather than targeting them with criminalization on account of having been victimized by a pimp or by leaving them in the hands of an industry that sees them as nothing more than commodities to be used, abused, and thrown in the trash when no longer profitable.

The truth is that no model is perfect. Prostitution is inherently dangerous, so there unfortunately will never be a truly “safe” sex trade.

After posting a brief explanation of my view on prostitution legislation, attempting to do some myth-busting around the idealization of legalizing the trade and those who oppose the industry, sparked in part by a post from podcaster Chris Williamson, I received some predictable responses.

In general, those advocating legalization don’t realize that there are more options than simply across the board criminalization or across the board decriminalization. The Nordic model offers a more complex and in my opinion more nuanced approach. Considering that most women and girls in the trade have abusive pimps and feel unable to escape, it seems unfair to throw them in jail as criminals, and of course it accomplishes nothing, as they are usually back on the street the next day, but with a criminal record, making it more difficult for them to move on to a new life if they manage to escape their pimps and traffickers. I know some exited women have told me that jail allowed them the opportunity to clean up, but I think, practically and empathetically, treating victims of abuse as criminals isn’t the right approach.

In response to my post, I received the same responses I have for years from people who tend to compare the sex trade to the drug trade, assuming decriminalization will simply make things “safer,” above board, bringing it out of the shadows into the light, able to be regulated and monitered into safety. But women and girls are not drugs. That is the point. They are not products to be bought, sold, and used. And treating them as such is why the trade has always and will always be a dehumanizing, abusive, and exploitative industry. There is no ethical way to sell human bodies. And there is no ethical person willing to pay either to access the body of someone who doesn’t want them or willing to sell access to another man, for profit.

Advocates of legalization who insist I am a “SWERF” or that I refuse to “respect sex workers” intentionally shield the real villains and criminals from accountability. They create a fantasy world wherein women and girls around the globe are “choosing” to sell sex because they simply enjoy having sex with strangers or are somehow built different than other women — better able to compartmentalize, and separate body from mind/emotion. (Why might that be? Consider the trauma response developed by victims of sexual abuse… ) If one has any knowledge of the global industry that exists outside the Instagram algorithm showering men’s feeds with happy hookers, thots, and OnlyFans entrepreneurs, they would know that the sex trade is the world’s biggest slave trade, that sees women and girls abused daily in the most horrific, unimaginable ways. I understand that it is pleasant to imagine a sanitized trade made up of empowered women making practical financial choices to market their bodies for profit, but this does not and never will exist.

I don’t say that prostitution is a disgusting, horrific, abusive industry because I hate women, I say it because it’s true. And exceptions to that rule, whether invented by utopian ideologues or women trying to sell you a fantasy because, well, selling the truth — mental health, trauma, addiction, misery, disgust, low self esteem, or lack of choice — isn’t a very good marketing strategy, only serve to comfort those who claim to care but really would prefer not to know.

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.