What Feminism Can Learn From Sex Workers

“I am a lot more than my vagina and what I do in bed, and I expect feminists to understand that,” says one sex worker.

Emmanuel Foudrot / Reuters

A masked activist attends a demonstration against a proposed anti-prostitution law in France, July 2012.

“I think sex work is incredibly problematic. And I also support the rights of sex workers,” wrote Jill Filipovic in a Feministe post last week. (Filipovic is also a BuzzFeed contributor.) Her statement launched a new salvo in the debate over what’s become an increasingly vexed topic in recent years: what the relationship of feminism to sex work should be.

Feminism and sex workers’ rights have come into conflict a number of times, from feminist support for the protests against Village Voice’s Backpage sex ads (protests with which many sex workers disagreed), to Gloria Steinem’s anti-trafficking efforts in India (which, some alleged, ignored what actual sex workers wanted).

It’s not surprising that some feminists feel conflicted about sex work, given that feminism has long stood against the commodification of women’s bodies. But Molly, a sex worker and blogger, says she’s selling a service, not herself: “There is nothing more misogynist than implying/stating that I’m selling ‘myself’ when I sell sex. I am a lot more than my vagina and what I do in bed, and I expect feminists to understand that.”

She acknowledges that not all sex workers agree — and indeed, debates over the exact status of sex work with respect to women’s sexuality and autonomy are likely to rage for some time. But those debates may need to take a back seat to more practical concerns.

As Melissa Gira Grant, a frequent writer on sex workers’ rights, says, “Those are important conversations and they should be happening, but you have to understand that while you’re having that conversation, people are going to jail.”

Grant and other advocates argue that anti-sex work laws as they currently stand — including those that focus on people who buy sex — end up hurting sex workers. She cites research in Chicago showing that legislation ostensibly targeting buyers had the effect of dramatically increasing felony convictions for sex workers instead: “When you have these crackdowns to go after [buyers], it’s sex workers who go to jail.”

Molly, who works in the UK, says laws against street solicitation there actually make sex workers less safe: “Outdoor workers have less time to assess the client, because he’s jumpy and wants to be off; they have less time to negotiate costs/acts/safety precautions, so they have to sell more sex, in less safe environments; sex workers are driven away from well-known, well-lit beats where they can work together and look out for each other, and into darker, quieter streets.”

And Grant says making it impossible for people to do sex work (not all of whom, of course, are women) without providing them an alternate social safety net doesn’t do them any good.

Not everyone agrees with decriminalization, but everyone — especially feminists — should at least pay attention to how laws against sex work affect the workers themselves. Feminism aims to support women’s self-determination over their work and their bodies, and it shouldn’t swoop in to tell sex workers how to feel about either.

Gabriela Leite, sex worker and congressional candidate in Brazil, and subject of the documentary A Kiss for Gabriela.

Some would counter that not all sex workers freely choose their work — and of course feminists and anyone with a conscience should oppose forced sexual labor (much as they would oppose any forced labor). But, says Sienna Baskin, co-director of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center, “people in the sex industry have a wide variety of experiences. Some people do feel exploited by what happened to them in the sex industry, and some people feel the exact opposite.”

And ultimately, non-sex workers shouldn’t make assumptions about what sex workers want, or decide what they need. Baskin says the first step for feminists and anyone else who wants to support sex workers is to “listen to people that have real life experience in the sex industry and believe what they say and think what they say is important.”

Feminism has gotten into trouble in the past when it attempts to speak for (or simply ignores) marginalized women rather than listening when they speak for themselves. Grant offers one example: “I learned how to critique the women’s movement from seeing how women of color have critiqued the women’s movement.”

That movement can also learn from its mistakes, and its emphasis on treating women as subjects rather than objects can be a strength. Laura Murray, director of A Kiss For Gabriela, a documentary about a sex worker and activist who ran for congress in Brazil, says that everyone needs to be able to see sex workers “as the protagonists in their own lives.” Too often, non-sex workers instead see them as “as victims who don’t have any control of their lives” or as “completely irresponsible and lost.” But neither is accurate, and in order to understand what they need, feminists and everyone else need to listen to what sex workers actually say.

They can start by listening to voices within their midst (in some cases they already have, as Filipovic did when she highlighted writing by sex workers and advocates in a followup to her post). Says Molly, “We’re not the enemy. We’re not even a different thing — we are already in feminism, whether we’re out [as sex workers] or not.”

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