The dystopian place ‘sex work is work’ takes us

The rallying call, “sex work is work” should have resonated with me, a young socialist raised in a union household to be less inspired by O Canada than Solidarity Forever. But when I first heard the phrase, I’d guess around 2010, it was too late — I knew better than to buy what the sex industry and its dutiful lackey, third wave feminism, was selling (and it sure was selling this).

I’d already found women like Catharine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, and Sheila Jeffreys, who had allowed my discomfort with modern, Hugh Hefner-inspired “feminism” some assurance. Radical feminism tied with the opportunity to speak to and hear from exited prostituted women via my radio and journalism work had demonstrated to me that the mantras attached to “sex work” and “decriminalization” were shallow and existed specifically to manipulate people like me — leftists schooled to support “workers,” young women seeking “empowerment” through supposed “sexual liberation,” and progressives taught that legalizing an illicit thing and bringing it above board to regulate it will make it safer.

The Same Drugs is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.

And I do support workers, but sex isn’t work (or it should not be, in any case), no matter how many red umbrella’d signs claim it. Nor were we talking about an illicit drug, made illegal while the pharmaceutical industry is permitted to sell equally as addictive and life-destroying legal drugs for profit. (The idea that legalizing drugs will make them safer is another debate, but the point is that we are talking about humans, not sellable products.) We are talking about sexual exploitation, abuse, and trafficking. We are talking about the trade of human beings and selling access to the bodies of women and girls.

No matter how much men who pay for sex might like to see this as a mere transaction, for the human being being penetrated it is her body at its most vulnerable. One does not separate the vagina from the being nor the verbal and physical abuse inherent to the sex industry from the soul. The standard progressive, feminist view that having sex with someone against their will is rape is mysteriously disappeared when money exchanges hands, as though payment nullifies trauma or the fact that a man knowingly having sex with someone who doesn’t want to be there is a reprehensible being.

Framing prostitution as a form of “work,” and therefore subject to labour laws and open to unionization, was the first step, not in protecting women and girls in the sex trade, as presented, but to normalizing and expanding the industry.

Belgium decriminalized prostitution in 2022 — a move celebrated by the left, libertarian, and liberal alike. What some might not understand is that “decriminalization,” in the context of prostitution, means not only decriminalizing prostituted women (the “product”), but also decriminalizes pimping, running a brothel, and paying for sex. To my mind, “keeping women safe” need not entail rubber-stamping the bad guys, but the decrim lobby likes to skip over that aspect in their ever-successful efforts to woo supporters with conscience-easing slogans.

Women like myself, Kajsa Ekis Ekman, Janice Raymond, Julie Bindel, and Rachel Moran, have long advocated an alternate model first adopted in Sweden in 1999 commonly referred to as the Nordic model which decriminalizes those selling sex but criminalizes those doing the exploiting: traffickers, pimps, johns, and brothel owners. This model disincentivizes exploitation and empowers the prostituted, upending the typical power dynamic and presenting a cultural norm that says paying for sex is wrong. The “sex work is work” faction likes to wax poetic about “ending stigma,” but I see no reason to destigmatize men who wish to abuse women and children guilt-free, or the men who profit from that practice.

In 2022, Belgium’s Federal Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborn called the move to fully decriminalize the sex trade “historic,” explaining, “It ensures that sex workers are no longer stigmatised, exploited and made dependent on others.”

The idea that prostituted women and girls are no longer “stigmatized,” exploited, or dependent on pimps under full decriminalization, though, is nonsense. The problem of “stigma,” in relation to the prostituted, is unresolvable, to start. Women and girls don’t want to sell sex. This is not a desirable occupation. This is why trafficking exists: to fill the massive demand for bodies impossible to provide via willing volunteers. The shame attached to doing a thing you don’t want to do then having to live with it may be undesirable but should speak to the practice itself (not necessarily the woman’s character). But also, as evidenced by other places that have attempted full decriminalization, like New Zealand, the exploitation and abuse of women in the trade only gets worse once its treated as legitimate and above board. What is a woman supposed to call the police about, after all, if what is being done to her is part of her job description? How do labour laws protect women from sexual harassment and abuse if she is being paid to be sexually harassed and abused?

“Sex work is a regular, economic activity, provided it involves adults who choose to do so for themselves,” Van Quickenborne told Belgian lawmakers in 2021. Oh ok. That’s weird because I could have sworn buying and selling bodies was in fact an illegal “economic activity” (albeit arguably a regular one, considering trafficking and slavery remain booming industries throughout the world).

An anonymous “transgender sex worker” quoted in Reuters in response to the 2022 law said, “It’s the freedom to be me … the freedom to decide the conditions of my work, to refuse a client.”

Many feminists around the world have warned that a result of full decriminalization would be that women would lose the ability to say “no,” and lo and behold they were right.

Just last week it was announced that Belgium has become the first country in the world to approve a labour law on employment contracts for sex workers.

Under the new labour law, if a prostitute refuses a john or sex act more than 10 times over six months, a pimp can trigger an intervention by a government mediator. This aspect of the law is blanketed in a caveat which is that the pimp can’t “fire” her — instead, she gets to stay and work, in exactly the way he demands.

This all is framed as a positive development, as the new law also says prostitutes can receive health insurance, a pension, maternity and vacation leave, as well as unemployment benefits. But what is framed as “empowerment” is not. What is glossed over is that these women will be punished if they invoke their new rights too many times by turning down clients or interrupting or refusing sex acts.

Not to worry, though. Whatever your mind, body or soul tells you about allowing any old man to have his nasty way with you will surely be comforted by the fact your benevolent pimp will provide you with a “safety button” in the case a john abuses you, which is of course expected, hence the button.

Around the world, the result of legalizing prostitution has been more prostitution. More demand means more trafficking and more exploitation, as observed by Germany’s “mega brothels,” which include “flat rate” deals so men can abuse women to exhaustion, and which are strangely not full of eager German women, but much more poor and desperate Romanian or Nigerian women.

And I know, I know, “prostitution isn’t going anywhere.” Sadly, the common refrain is true. I’m not naive to this. But the answer to a dark reality is not to open the doors even wider to accomodate the devil.

This new law does nothing for women, and everything for brothel owners, pimps, and johns, who now truly have their way, both profit and penis-wise.

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.