Often regarded as ‘the world’s oldest profession’, sex work is an integral topic to past and present feminist discourse. Up until, and including, the start of second-wave feminism, sex work was rightfully regarded as exploitative, dehumanising and primarily driven by capitalism. Contrary to this view, liberal feminists – who compose the majority of third-wave feminists – argue that sex work is ‘empowering’ and ‘freeing’. This article aims to argue why this is not the case when the first-hand experiences of sex workers are examined.
Take into consideration the demographics of feminists who are arguing for sex work and you will find that they are overwhelming privileged, white, Western women. This is important to consider, as the vast majority of sex workers do not share these traits, but are rather most often poverty-stricken, uneducated, women of colour. If sex work is a free choice, why are the women with the fewest choices the ones most often found doing it? (MacKinnon, 2007). Sex work reinforces every ideal that feminism originally aimed to disempower; that women are objects to be traded and sold, that men are dominant over women, that consent can be gained in coercive sex. Money acts as coercion in sex work as physical force does in rape, therefore the validity of consent in sex work is highly problematic, and most likely not even possible (MacKinnon, 2009). No person can truly consent to their own oppression (Barry, 1995). You cannot view an industry as inherently feminist or empowering when up to 70% of workers have experienced sexual abuse as children, 65% have been raped before the age of 15, 82% have been physically assaulted since entering the profession, and 46% have been raped by clients (Silbert, 1982; Farley, 1998). It is obvious that these women are the most vulnerable, on the fringes of society, and should not be subjected to further victimisation in this way. When so many have experienced such serious oppression and abuse before they have even begun working, it is clear that these women are not choosing sex work out of free will, but because they feel they have no other choice.
Argue this view-point however, and you will often be labelled a ‘prude’, or ‘sex negative’, or even a ‘SWERF’. The use of any of these ad hominems displays a clear misunderstanding of radical feminist theory; we do not oppose sex workers, we oppose the victimisation and oppression they experience that is inherent in participating in sex work. Many radical feminists argue for the ‘Nordic model’, arguably the only solution to protecting impoverished women without punishing them for the work that they participate in. The Sex Buyer Law – as it is known in the countries in which it is enacted – decriminalises all those who participate in sex work, provides support to help them leave the industry, and decries the purchasing of sex as a criminal offence. This model enables women to seek help without the fear of persecution that they often face in countries without such laws.
Sex work is especially prevalent in South-East Asia, where an emerging industry known as ‘sex tourism’ has become prevalent. It is common for struggling families in rural areas from these regions to sell their children to human traffickers, who take the children to cities to perform sex work for the tourism industry (Samarasinghe, 2008). 11% of Thailand’s gross domestic income is from the sex industry, showcasing just how widespread this phenomenon really is. Even here in Australia, 70% of sex workers are migrants, of which 44% are from Thailand specifically (Renshaw et al., 2015), showing that even when these women flee their home countries, their oppression follows them, and without access to support, they are left without other options to obtain income. To make matters worse for these women, unprotected sex is the norm, which has led to preventable sexually transmitted diseases becoming the second most important risk factor for disability and death in developing countries (Glasier et al., 2006).
If sex work was truly empowering for women, then we would not see the correlation that we do between sex work and drug abuse, physical abuse, rape, suicide attempts, and poverty. 67% of sex workers in one study met the criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD from experiences related to their profession. 92% stated that they wished to leave the profession, but felt they had no other options (Farley, 1998). 86% have used illicit drugs, with the majority using in a way that further exacerbates the risk of related diseases, especially HIV (Potterat et al., 1998). How can anyone deny these statistics and chose to support this cruel and dehumanising industry? It could not be clearer that, from the first-hand experiences of sex-workers, it is an industry that does not belong in a post-Universal Declaration of Human Rights world. Articles 4 and 5 of said document specifically boycott all forms of slavery and servitude and proclaim that no person should be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment (United Nations, 1948). Therefore, sex work is inherently incompatible with human rights, as these violations are fundamental to sex work. It stands to reason then, that if you support sex-work, you are not only anti-feminism, but also anti-human rights.