Sex Work and Class

Emily O’Sullivan is a third year Religion, Philosophy and Ethics student who has written for Breaking the Glass Ceiling.

Anne Bilson, 2012

The issue of sex work is one that still divides many feminists. Whilst some argue that sex work is a tool of the patriarchy to commodify the female body, others maintain that this attitude stigmatises sex workers, and that safety, not moralising, should be the feminist concern. Nevertheless, this is a discussion that sex workers themselves have largely been left out of, and as such their lived experiences are misrepresented in favour of sensationalised images. As a result, sex work is presented as a mysterious underground profession, the ‘prostitute’ an ultimately intangible figure.

Those who are in support of ending the stigma of sex work, then, surely squirmed when reading the tweets of Sophie Walker, the leader of the Women’s Equality Party. What began as a proclamation that sex work is ‘neither sex nor work’ ended with Walker stating that ‘Pathetic arguments from sex bots [are] oddly not changing my mind on this’. She concluded that she would fight to ‘criminalise the purchase of sex to remove demand’, leaving many wondering whether the irony of her position in the Women’s ‘Equality’ Party was, perhaps, lost on her.

The disconnection with the realities of sex workers displayed by Walker can be found throughout feminist theory. One example of this is the feminist theorist Carole Pateman, who argues against sex work on the basis that women are commodities under patriarchal capitalism, and the exploitation faced by the sex worker is on par with the exploitation faced by the coal miner, or the builder (Pateman, 1988, p.194). Yet the feminist theorist never tells the working-class sex worker what she should do whilst she is confined to a capitalist framework. Should she take up a low-paid job with long hours: a job where she is still commodified by a man, but this time remains a ‘chaste’ figure?

‘Deeds not Words’ projection by the Women’s Equality Party / Chris J Ratcliffe, 2018

The issue here is clear. Many men and women alike cannot overcome the idea of sex work as a dirty profession that delegitimises the woman involved, who is seen as violating traditional notions of sex: the sanctified act. Nussbaum reminds us that it is implausible to suggest that a woman is a commodity simply because she sells sexual services (Nussbaum, 1998, p.714). Just as a domestic worker can cook for her own family, and clean her own house, the sex worker still has her sexuality outside of the confines of her work (ibid.). She has not given any of her clients ‘a monopoly on these services,’ and as such, she cannot be reduced to a commodity (ibid.).

Women such as Walker seem to ignore the opinions of ‘sex bots’ because of this perceived uncleanliness. From the comfort of Walker’s profession, it is easy to look upon it as such. Yet sex workers tell us again and again: in the interests of their safety, they want sex work to be decriminalised. The English Collective of Prostitutes have even put forward reports detailing evidence for decriminalisation to the House of Commons, with pieces from sex workers’ organisations, academics and MPs. It seems, then, that many feminists simply lack an interest in the lives and rights of sex workers.

This is manifest in the ‘feminist’ idea that the female body – rather than a sexual service – can be ‘sold’. This notion is maintained by the very women who also claim that they object to the commoditisation of the body. One could argue, then, that anti-sex work feminists objectify women by ignoring their voices, suggesting that the autonomous use of their sexuality is unclean, and claiming that they are simply victims who need to be rescued. Under the guise of this ‘rescue’ attempt, many so-called feminists deny working-class women the right to make choices over their own bodies, precisely because of their social standing.

As Emma Goldman once pointed out, there is a disparity here influenced by the class of the woman in question. This is most apparent in the fact that many women deplore sex work but uphold the idea of marriage, where a woman ‘is paid less, gives much more in return in [labour] and care, and is absolutely bound to her master. The prostitute never signs away the right to her own person, she retains her freedom and personal rights, nor is she always compelled to submit to man’s embrace.’ The debate comes back to pure and impure notions of submission: that is, the esteemed married woman vs. the ‘tarnished’ woman.

The issue of trafficking is also used regularly by anti-sex work feminists to justify their position, and they often conflate the two. Yet they ignore the lack of trust in the police under criminalisation – wherein raids are carried out and women are arrested – and use this as a guise to further oppress sex workers. Under the Sex Buyer Law – where the purchase of sex is criminalised – the profession would undoubtedly be driven further underground, as clients fear being arrested. It is not difficult to see why this presents safety issues: where a man cannot be found by the police, a woman cannot receive their help.

If feminists really care about sex workers, then, they must fight for decriminalisation. Despite the many disagreements in opinion, moralising will not get rid of the demand for sex, but rather endangers and isolates sex workers further. ‘Equality’ will only exist when all women are afforded the same basic rights, and those who are now ostracised are put at the forefront of the conversation. The commodification of the sex worker by the feminist is not a new phenomenon, and women such as Sophie Walker must recognise that they, themselves, are at risk of becoming the real perpetrators of female oppression.



Nussbaum, M. C (1998) ‘“Whether from Reason or Prejudice”: Taking Money for Bodily Services’ in Journal of Legal Studies. Vol. XXVII (January 1998). Chicago, University of Chicago.

Pateman, C (1988) ‘What’s Wrong with Prostitution?’ in The Sexual Contract. pp. 189-218. California, Stanford University Press.


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