Sex Work: Liberation or Oppression?

Amber Marino 24 March 2022
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sex work is work. It is sexual liberation. It is a subversion of patriarchal power. These conceptions of prostitution have started to drip into public discourse. The SU has even published a document, albeit only four pages long, endorsing that sex work is a job like any other. Consistent with other higher education institutions like the University of Leicester, who have published a Student Sex Work Toolkit, prostitution is being promoted as a legitimate, safe and inconsequential way of earning money. To suggest that a woman can engage in this type of work and emerge unscathed is at best misleading and at worst barbaric.

Asserting that prostitution is a dangerous practice has become controversial. This might seem surprising to a lot of people, given the increased prevalence of murder, STDs and mental health problems among prostituted individuals, as well as the alcohol and drug abuse which is necessary for women to dissociate enough to bear the experience.Not to mention their predisposition to rape and sexual assault. Indeed, given the slippery grasp of consent that so many men have even in the absence of a monetary transaction, the notion that paid sexual services can ever be fully consensual is laughable. Yet, feminists who express concern for the safety and wellbeing of prostituted women have been labelled as patronising by pro-prostitution activists, such as Julian Marlow, and been accused of disrespecting women’s sexual freedom. Efforts to dismantle the sex trade have even been dismissed as ‘white feminism’ which, as Julie Bindel points out, is especially ignorant given the disproportionate number of prostituted individuals who are women of colour. For some reason, the danger of prostitution has been located in its stigmatisation rather than the power relations that the vile practice is built upon. Apparently, stigma is a better explanation for the murder of prostituted women than male violence.

Agency feminism underlies much of the pro-prostitution discourse. ‘It’s my body, I can do what I want with it.’ As we know, having a very limited set of options somewhat muddies the concept of choice. Selecting one marginally less crap alternative than another hardly constitutes agency. And, as feminist philosopher Anne Phillips notes, adopting an overly narrow focus on individual agency neglects the impact that prostitution has on exacerbating gender inequality in wider society. The practice reinforces that women exist to satiate men and seems to accept the male right to sex as an unequivocal truth. As Kathy Miriam argues, in the context of prostitution, women’s agency is only exercised to the extent that she chooses to indulge a man’s entitlement to sex by allowing him access to her body. And we’re supposed to think that this is liberation? Beyond theoretical concerns, material realities also undermine women’s agency. In Canada, 96% of women enter prostitution before they are 17, costingthem their education and opportunities to work in jobs that could offer them more transferable skills, thereby locking them into the industry. Not to mention the 32% of prostituted women in India, who were brought into prostitution by family members, and indeed the children who are born and raised in brothels.

But let’s return to prostituted university students in the UK. Fully informed, they serve their respectful, good-willed clients who pose no threat to them whatsoever, the experience is fully consensual.They get a kick out of exercising their agency, are rewarded in money for their entrepreneurship then proceed with their studies, funded by said client, unmarred and fulfilled. Idyllic and utopian. It has been said that using our bodies to sell sex is not qualitatively different from using our bodies to engage in any other kind of paid labour. But, as Phillips argues, selling sex represents the extreme of charging others for the use of our bodies, and just because this is acceptable at smaller degrees, like in manual labour or other service jobs, this is not sufficient to legitimise prostitution.

Though this might present like common sense, invoking the body to object to prostitution is somewhat complicated. Since the (rightful) rejection of biological essentialism forms the basis of modern feminism, meaning that female anatomies do not consign us to being reproductive vessels, this has made any mention of women’s bodies in feminist thinking contentious, and problematises arguments against prostitution which appeal to the protection of women’s bodies. This might be why radical feminism, which primarily seeks to eradicate violence against women, has not gained as much traction as socialist feminism in the international politics of prostitution. As Sheila Jeffreys writes, socialist feminism lends itself well to the ‘sex work is work’ position since it conceives of prostitution as a workers’ rights issue. As such, prostitution should be decriminalised so that ‘sex workers’ can reap the same benefits as any other employee. But while this reasoning seems compassionate and well-motivated in theory, Julie Bindel points out how in practice it normalises prostitution, removes support for leaving prostitution, and any alleviation of police brutality it brings about is outweighed by an increase in abuse and violence from clients which is facilitated by a completely unregulated system.

What motivates the pro-prostitution position? Honestly, I don’t know. On a good day, I think it comes from a genuine desire to offer support to women who are otherwise ostracised and slut shamed by all of society. More cynically, I fear that the patriarchy has pulled the wool over our eyes and has us sending our sisters to the slaughterhouse.