Contributor Catriona Morton is the founder of the online space Life Continues After, a communal space for survivors of sexual trauma. She is writing in response to this piece on the criminalisation of prostitution.
The patriarchal and heteronormative organisation of most modern societies perpetuates and worsens oppression and harm towards sex workers. The direct dangers of sex work – the harm, bodily danger and exploitation involved – are caused by the patriarchal assumption that women are there solely to be used as objects for male pleasure. This is a general assumption in gendered society about normalised heterosexuality, but it is even more apparent in situations where women are selling sex to the men. The reason there are more male clients buying sex from female providers is due to the societal conditioning of men to hold power over and to control their ‘submissive’ female counterparts. The current cultural construction of sex work sees the women stereotyped in a dichotomy of ‘dirty wh*res’ or ‘passive victims’, both of which must conform to the norm of gendered, sexual domination of women by men. This often translates into violence from male clients, or from male procurers that manage and control workers. On top of this threat from the men involved, prejudice and stigma against sex workers is further perpetuated, quite ironically, by SWERF’s (Sex Worker exclusionary radical feminists: radical feminists who exhibit ‘wh*rephobia’ and promote conservative sexuality) – who see sex workers as solely tools working within patriarchal mechanisms. When such feminists aim at eradication of sex work due to its sustenance of male dominated society, there is little regard for the actual lives and experiences of sex workers, especially those from a lower-class background. By ostracising sex workers from spheres of feminist discussion, SWERF’s create further stigma, in turn leading to further criminalisation, meaning lack of implementation of essential protections for the women. Seeing the women sex workers as ‘dangerous’ to feminism and reducing them to pawns in the patriarchy assumes a lack of agency that most women who choose to be in the industry for economic gain indeed still have.
The problem with excluding sex workers
The view of feminists such as Pateman of prostitution being morally condemnable becomes self-defeating, as it solely reduces women and their sexualities to male domination. In reality, women who sell sex come from diverse, multi-dimensional backgrounds, whereby their motivations, satisfactions and experiences within the sex industry vary greatly – with many of them being positive/neutral.
NB: I take for granted that, following my explanations from economic pressures and patriarchal effects, women can have negative experiences selling sex. Furthermore, I take for granted the existence of kidnapping and trafficking of women for sex as always necessarily wrong.
Arguments such as Pateman’s reduce women’s sexuality to solely being about male pleasure and leave no room for sex positivity and the power and pleasure women feel during sex, even if they are selling that sex. Furthermore, the victimisation and lack of choice presumed in the women’s situations is problematic for feminism’s key aims of empowerment and elevation, by means of trusting women’s choices. Many sex workers choose to be in the industry because they wish to be in that profession and, as previously mentioned, choose it over other forms of work. To have no discussion of this in Pateman’s and other such condemning pieces about sex work makes their feminist motivations somewhat self-defeated, even more so in today’s modern feminism. Pateman’s strict maintenance that prostitution is always necessarily oppressive and singularly functions as a form of domination over women wrongly assumes the submissive nature and essential heteronormativity of sex work. Although it could be protested that these were more common features of sex work during Pateman’s time of writing in the 1990’s, it is seen that now, as well as historically, sex work is a dynamic and often empowering profession for the workers involved. From dominatrix’s, to self-employed sex workers running their own businesses, to non-heterosexual forms of sex work, selling sex can and should be seen as beneficial, at least when the conditions and social atmosphere surrounding it is appropriately positive. This further shows that selling sex is not inherently wrong.
The need for decriminalisation
The aim to keep prostitution illegal, based off both general societal and feminist stigma of its inherent ‘wrongness’, only serves to further exacerbate harmful situations for sex workers. Laws vary globally, but most countries still hold prostitution as illegal or partially illegal. The countries that have legalised and regulated it unfortunately still end up criminalising marginal groups (e.g. migrant and poor women) who cannot fulfil the requirements of these legalities. This fact is what contributes to harmful working conditions for the women – from lack of safety regulations like protective contraception, to abusive procurers controlling the women, to workers’ fear of their own criminalisation leading to their avoidance of reporting crimes. When a woman gains a criminal record through sex work, it prevents her from getting any other form of work, making her return to sex work necessary for survival. To argue for criminalisation as a preventative method to protect women in the industry is a naïve approach, as it has been shown that criminalisation only perpetuates the harm to the women, and the women actually being affected relentlessly advocate for the decriminalisation of their work (see: http://prostitutescollective.net/).
I may have touched upon the potential empowerments and benefits held within sex work for women, but regardless of this potentiality, as Tilly Lawless states, ‘empowerment is not a pre-requisite for human rights’. No matter what realities take place within the industry, the act of criminalising the sex workers excludes them from any means of workers unions or human rights’ protections. Lawless sees that no matter the justifications, and no matter if individuals or groups still prescribe that selling sex is morally wrong, the allocation of human rights and workers’ regulations for sex workers is necessary in any society that generally advocates human rights. Trying to push for ongoing criminalisation of prostitution is not helping any woman actually in the industry and is thus achieving the direct opposite of what feminists strive towards.
Carole Pateman. “What’s Wrong with Prostitution?” Women’s Studies Quarterly 27, no. 1/2 (1999): 53-64. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40003398.
Christine Overall. “What’s Wrong with Prostitution? Evaluating Sex Work.”
Juno Mac. ‘The Laws that Sex Workers Really Want.’ Filmed January 2016 in London, UK, TED video, https://www.ted.com/talks/juno_mac_the_laws_that_sex_workers_really_want#t-995441
Tilly Lawless, ‘Sex Work is Integral to the Feminist Movement.’ Filed 6 September 2017 in Sydney, Australia, TEDxYouth@Sydney Video, https://tedxsydney.com/talk/sex-work-is-integral-to-the-feminist-movement-tilly-lawless/