Why “Sex Work” Is Not Work

This article is a response to a series of articles published by Feminism in India, titled “Why is Sex Work Not Seen As Work? – Part 1” and “Why is Sex Work Not Work? Lessons Learnt From Sex Workers’ Rights Movement – Part 2”

Earlier this year, a panel of survivors of prostitution spoke at the launch of Julie Bindel’s book, The Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Work Myth. One of them was Sabrina Valisce, from New Zealand, a woman who had exited the sex-trade. Rahila Gupta, covering the event for the Feminist Current, wrote,

“During the panel, Valisce explained that she rejects the term, “sex worker,” because it glosses over the “sucking and fucking” she had to do. She described her daily routine of standing around for 12-17 hour shifts, wearing only lingerie and six-inch heels, waiting to be chosen by men who would come in bellowing, “Which one of you cunts wants to suck my dick?” This was in New Zealand, where prostitution has been decriminalized since 2003, and is held up as a model of good practice by the pro-prostitution lobby, even though women continue to be killed by johns and pimps.”

FII defines sex work as adult consensual provision of sexual services for money. Consent, understood as passive permission, is in itself a concept which plays into unequal gender relations. Feminists have instead proposed the idea of ‘enthusiastic consent’. The monetary exchange required in prostitution makes the sexual activity inherently coercive and creates a power dynamic which makes ‘consent’ meaningless. What happens in prostitution is that a buyer (statistically almost always a man) pays a person (statistically likely to be a woman) to gain unrestricted access to her body. He is not paying for a service, but rather, renting her body. Although some women in certain sections of the industry may be able to decline to take part in certain acts, most women in the industry are not able to do so. Further, the man is also paying for the woman to pretend to enjoy the act, which if she is not convincing about, can lead to him becoming extremely violent. Attitudes of buyers demonstrate that prostitution is not an equal exchange by any means. The men do not care if the exchange is consensual, they do not care about the woman’s boundaries, and they do not care that the woman is doing it for the money. In fact, prostitution involves the man’s right to treat the woman as he pleases, say what he pleases, be in control as he pleases, and to have her give him the reaction he wants the entire time. The consequences of this are that women face immense psychological trauma and are forced to dissociate themselves from their experiences of disgust and pain- leading to PTSD and forcing them to turn to drug abuse or alcoholism.

The need to recognise sex work as work, claims FII, comes from the fact that the stigma attached to prostitution is the root cause of all violence against them and is also the reason for prostituted women not having access to their rights. In doing so, FII deliberately conflates moral arguments with radical (which they use interchangeably with conservative) feminist perspectives- a conflation that has been used to disregard feminists from time immemorial. The reason radical feminists have rejected the term ‘sex work’ is not to take away from the dignity of prostituted women but to refuse the normalisation of prostitution as an employment option. The logical conclusion of that normalisation in terms of policy would be, not decriminalisation, but rather, legalisation. That legalisation does not remove stigma is clear from accounts of prostituted women in countries which have adopted that policy. The stigma inherent in prostitution is not because of the public/private divide or the binary of good and bad woman, as FII claims. Rather, the sex industry very much depends on that binary. The existence of a ‘bad’ or a ‘public’ woman is what justifies the unrestricted access to her body in return for money or the entitlement to her body as a product. Prostitution relies on the existence of a class of women to bear the brunt of male entitlement to women’s bodies. Further, the stigma in prostitution often arises from the secrecy that is essential for a business that routinely abuses women. Jaquelline Gwynne who worked as a receptionist in a high end brothel in Victoria, Australia, writes,

“The women are still ostracised and marginalised, and most of them live a double life where they keep their life within the sex trade secret – to the extent that many cut themselves off from family and friends outside of the industry. Some don’t tell their partners and pretend they are working as a night cleaner or packing shelves, or they invent an elaborate identity as an entrepreneur, complete with fake business cards and a website. The stigma exists because prostitution is degrading and no regulation can change that.”

Further, we contest the claim that the removal of stigma or the acceptance of prostitution as a ‘normal job’ is in any way good for women. What this does is effectively erase the right of women to not choose prostitution. For instance, in Germany, where prostitution has been legalised, women run the risk of having their employment benefits cut if they choose to be unemployed rather than start working as a prostitute. Sara Torosdagi, a woman from Germany, recently wrote in a facebook post,

“The problem with Germany’s policy on prostitution is not just the fact that it has increased trafficking and criminal gang involvement, and STDs in the general population, nor that it has made the sale of sex so competitive that many women only get a few euros per fuck. The biggest problem is that it harms the status of all women. Johns are emboldened to ask a woman offering childcare if she’ll suck their dick because hey it’s just a job and money is money, right?

All women suffer in a culture that treats us as things, objects, marketable commodities. And women will never be equal as long as we pretend that prostitution is work rather than exploitation.”

What is essentially being justified when ‘sex work’ is normalised as ‘work’ is the availability of a women as things that can be bought or sold. In the same way that the existence of slavery meant that there could be no equal relations between a white person and a black person, as long as a class of women exists to account for male entitlement to female bodies, women as a class cannot be part of equal sexual relations with men.

The sex work lobby would perhaps claim that the analogy between prostitution and slavery is faulty. They claim that women may choose to be in the sex industry and this framework effectively takes away their right to do so. Radical feminist ideology does not deny that there may be a small but vocal minority of women which, in fact, does choose to be a part of the sex industry. However, choices are never isolated from the larger context they are made in. Not only are countless women forced to ‘choose’ to be in prostitution because of economic and social vulnerabilities, but many privileged women may also choose to be a part of the sex industry, under a context of unequal gender relations. Even when the women are economically empowered to call the shots in their profession, it cannot be denied that they are part of a larger industry where it is impossible for all women to claim that kind of ‘empowerment’ and which inherently supports a system of oppression.

FII claims that the violence against prostituted women is ignored because prostitution is conflated with trafficking which is seen as inherently violent, again deliberately conflating feminist perspectives with conservative ones. The disregard for violence against women comes from a perspective which seeks to criminalise prostituted women for taking part in what it deems to be an immoral activity. The conflation of prostitution with trafficking comes from a radical feminist perspective which acknowledges that the boundaries between the safe, sanitised, sex industry that many claim will exist after decriminalisation/legalisation and the unsafe, coercive trafficking industry are murky to say the least. As many radical feminists have pointed out, trafficking as an industry is driven by the demand created by the prostitution industry. The demand for prostituted women is such that there are never enough women who opt for it by choice, and as a result, women and children have to be trafficked from across the world to create a supply. It is almost impossible to seperate the two, and as Meghan Murphy writes, “Prostituted children become adults, trafficked women work in “legal” massage parlours and in the windows of the red light district of cities like Amsterdam, and illegal prostitution is rife in places that have legalized or fully decriminalized the industry.”

The approach taken by FII is that of harm-reduction, of accepting prostitution as an inevitability, as what it calls “a way of life”. It prioritizes the right of certain women to be in the industry, or to not be rehabilitated, over the right of thousands of women to not be coerced into selling their bodies. In doing so it frames radical feminist perspectives as restrictive and moralist. It stresses multiple times on the fact that these have been derived from a sex worker’s rights movement, and tries to say that the sex work lobby is the only one which listens to prostituted women. This blatantly disregards the fact that abolitionists have been working with victims of prostitution to help them access their rights not from a perspective that merely makes their work less dangerous but which helps them increase their choices and exit the sex industry. Various accounts from prostituted women and girls such as in magazines like The Red Light Dispatch are testimony to the violence inherent in the industry. The fact that ‘sex workers’ by definition include pimps and brothel owners has raised questions about the legitimacy of this kind of discourse in the West.

In India, TARSHI, the organisation which first published this series, says on its website, “We work on sexual and reproductive health and rights, without restricting it to a disease-prevention, violence against women or sexual minorities framework, but rather approaching issues of sexuality from a broader and an affirmative, rights-based perspective.” The notion that a ‘violence against women’ perspective is restrictive to sexuality perhaps suggests that there is something violent against women in that sexuality. That a feminist media house would endorse such a perspective is extremely disappointing and as Dorchen Leidholdt wrote in When Women Defend Pornography about this “restrictive framework” that we call feminism,

“If you understand that sex is socially constructed— which we do— and if you see that male supremacy does the constructing— which we see— and if the sex in question is the sex men use to establish their dominance over women, then yes, we’re against it.”

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