When we think of the word prostitute, a wave of negative connotations come to mind. A prostitute is a desperate, poor, broken woman who, throughout history, has been depicted as dirty, immoral and the ‘fallen’ woman. It is true that for a lot of sex workers, it was a last resort but equally, it was something that saved their lives and kept them from destitution. However, this isn’t always the case, but we take pity on the prostitute selling sex for £10 because we recognise, she is desperate and has nothing else. As we conjure up all these ideas and imagery, it is clear that society has made their mind up about sex workers – we are pitied women, with noting to give but ourselves.
Growing up, my aunty was a sex worker and I was told to keep away from her, ignore her and she was ostracised from the family. From a young age, it was made clear that I should be better, do better and not end up like her. The idea is that women should strive to be better, and we fought hard to have the opportunities to do so, but where does that leave the women who are deemed as ‘undesirable’?
The feminist movement has come along leaps and bounds within the past 50 years, although prostitution has been around for much, much longer. There is still a lot to be achieved, but it is safe to say that in the West, the lives of women have improved and societal views have been openly challenged. Although there is so much more to move towards, it is clear that modern feminists are struggling to achieve the same incredible achievements such as equal pay, access to the contraceptive pill, maternity leave, abortion, sexual harassment laws etc. All of which were truly historic feminist landmarks for the history textbooks in the fight for equality.
You would think women would focus on mass female incarceration, sexual, domestic and physical violence, the regulation of women’s bodies in detention centres, the vile mistreatment of female refugees, enforcement of equality laws or above all, pour their efforts into improving the rights of women around the world who are still constrained by abortion laws, gender discrimination, FGM, or archaic marriage laws. Instead, they revert inwards and begin policing women themselves, weeding out those they see as undesirable and counterintuitive to the feminist movement. One group of women who are seen as such, is the prostitutes. This is because we are deemed to be positioning ourselves to profit from the male-gaze and deliberately over-sexualising ourselves for men.
Women have fought for years not to be seen as sexual objects by men, and something they can do whatever they want to. We have fought to be seen as equals, by reducing the overt sexualisation of women’s bodies and for women to stop dressing, acting and behaving in ways to suit men. Historically, our lives have been focused on how to find the right husband, how to support him from the home, rear and raise his children and sexually please him when he comes home from work. Aren’t prostitutes the opposite of all of this? Aren’t we deliberately playing into the hands of men, and profiting from it? After all, I don’t sell pictures of my myself in favourite cashmere roll-neck, and I don’t invite men in my house for a nice knitting session.
The answer is no. Sex workers are still not sexual objects, nor something men can do whatever they wish with. We are equals, and are not overtly sexual – we don’t walk with out tits out in the high street, or whip our fannies out for fun. I am actually incredibly shy sexually, and quite vanilla. Sex work is exactly that – sex and work. We do not submit to all the whims, moans and demands of men. If we did, we wouldn’t bother screening clients, and I wouldn’t report them after arguing with them either. We do not suit our behaviours to match men, but rather, existing to survive, and earn money for ourselves just like everyone else.
There is much to say here that prostitutes are seen as devious women, especially by other women. We are the women who supposedly break up families, steal your husband and his money. We are stereotyped with not being able to have relationships, sleeping around all the time for fun and not having children. All of these things are considered unfeminine or immoral, so prostitutes are already demonised by feminists. Internalised misogyny is a thing amongst other women which we are fighting against, let alone wider society. Why would other feminists want to carry us with them, when they don’t want us included in the fold to begin with?
The feminist movement was, and is, largely led by white, middle class women. All the leaps and bounds I described are only usually afforded to such women. Black women are heavily discriminated against in the workplace, are fetishised, and have fought their own fight to be treated as equal to the white woman. The first contraceptive clinic was opened by Marie Stopes, a supporter of eugenics. She publicly opposed abortion, but privately supported it to prevent a society becoming ‘racially diseased’, believed that those she described as ‘half caste’ should she sterilised at birth, to save them from passing on the same genes. All I have to say is, good riddance. However, her views didn’t stop her serving white women, and they were happy to not say anything if it meant being able to access her services. Such attitudes would clearly exclude black women from being afforded the same equal rights to contraception.
Working class women are often forced to face the brunt of inequality. If they are dismissed for getting pregnant, which is clear discrimination, they might not have the resources or time to legally challenge this. If they are a single parent on a low income, do they really want to be taking on a court case against a company? No. They may not also have the resources to do so. Stopes also believed in forced sterilisation of women deemed unfit for parenthood and that would include destitute women, especially prostitutes. Even today, a different reaction occurs when a working class women, who may be described as a chav or loudmouth, is sexually assaulted compared to a well-educated, respectable, professional woman. Wherever there was a right achieved, working class women came lagging behind – the right to vote, the right to abortion and the right to contraception. All of which, were first afforded to married women, or those with money.
Socioeconomics is important to remember, as well as history which is deeply engrained with racism and misogyny. Not all women are the same, and we do not move as a collective. A victory for all is really just a victory for some. Equally, a harm against all is not at all, for example the benefits cap disproportionally impacted women, but not middle-class women. The feminist movement, as a result, does not care for the inequalities amongst women because it is too busy moving forward on the premise that it is an achievement and impact for all women, to which it is not. When I hear that prostitution impacts all women, it is an insult. It is my life at risk, and it is my body, mental health, home, finances and sexual health that is impacted. It is not the middle-class woman who is not impacted, and in fact, she probably doesn’t even think about me because she doesn’t see me.
The Whore with nothing more
If we see sex workers as desperate, or having nothing to give, then we recognise they are stuck. In society’s eyes, they can not get any higher, climb the social ladder, or claw themselves out of their bottomless pit of desperation because they’re clinging on. We have condemned them to lowest rung of society. It begs the question, why would anyone want to be a prostitute? It seems like a place of horrible mess, despair and truly everything that isn’t feminine. However, after a financial crisis, benefit cut or austerity, the number of us continue to rise. Does this mean there are almost 100,000 women who just have nothing going for them, and if so, how did things get so bad? No, and it isn’t our fault either.
As I was watching Notting Hill the other day, I noticed it was only after someone compared Anna to a prostitute, did William react, because it was deemed that was a step too far. It was Paramore who quipped the lyric ‘once a whore, you’re nothing more, sorry that’ll never change’, and in the future 2021 quiz, becoming a prostitute was an option because it was considered bad. It is clear that it something people see as the worst, and therefore, nothing to aspire to be. When I became a sex worker, and met other sex workers who told me they always wanted to be one, it confused me. I couldn’t believe someone would actually want to do this, and grew up wanting to? I realised I was holding onto my own misogyny and I was coming from a place of desperation and anger. Also, who am I to tell someone they are wrong for what they want?
For me, this reflection made me think that prostitutes, in the eyes of feminists, fly in the face of what they have striven towards. Women are not supposed to be in the home anymore, but we should be doctors, lawyers, politicians, respectable, equals, and work our way up in the male-dominated industries. We promote women in STEM, politics and introduce deliberate thresholds to ensure women are employed, and not just to be the receptionist and secretary. Only if we physically show ourselves out there, working with men, then we can be considered equals and it’s a big win for society. This is bollocks because Thatcher had an all-male Cabinet, and she was absolutely not a feminist. I felt I had fallen by becoming a sex worker, because I was always told to do well, get a good education and get a good job. We applaud the first female anything, because it’s considered a gain. The female CEO is just as representative of the ills of capitalism.
Where does this leave the poor women, who aren’t engaging in respectability politics? Where does this leave the sex worker? I see sex work as a failure of capitalist society, and survival sex work is the purest demonstration of the failures of state, society and the punishment of women. Radical feminists see sex work as male violence, abuse and being a victim of gender and patriachy. We are seen as the women who have fallen through the cracks, and haven’t been caught by the feminist net of respectability. It is why we are pitied because we are seen as less than, victims and almost hopeless. Most people think the best we can do is get a low income job, and we should be satisfied with this because at least it isn’t prostitution. In fact, some of us are ‘rescued’ then forced to work in factories or labour intensive jobs.
Politics and feminism
The personal is political, and sex work is absolutely personal, and political. In fact, I had no idea of the politics and debates behind prostitution – I just did it without little thought whether it was legal, moral or whatever. When I discovered it, I was both angry, engrossed and found myself confused as to why my life was being debated so much. There are very few topics that can divide women quite like sex work, and this is why it is naive to assume women’s struggles are a collective, or that we move as one. If we continue to depict women as less, or that we are better than them, then it gives way for other women to act on their behalf as they think they know better. This happens time and time again, and the reason why Julie Bindel seems to represent sex worker voices, rather than sex workers themselves.
Sex workers push for better work protections, and are extremely critical of sex work, the praxis they work in, capitalism, and are fully aware of the reasons what led to their decision to become a sex worker – often not taken lightly. In law, we push for decriminalisation for safety, so we take our bosses to court for mistreatment against us and ensure we can stop being prosecuted for brothel keeping. Above all, to stop the harms and the deportation of migrant sex workers, who are nearly always conflated with sex trafficking and as a result, have their autonomy stripped. Brothel raids and deportations are extremely traumatic and are truly life changing. We push for material support to avoid sex work even being a thing to begin with such as housing, a stable job and income, access to justice, and this is seen by the extensive mutual aid that sex workers provide for each other.
Radical feminists however, are more focused on the concept of gender, and prostitution being violence against women, whereas I see capitalism as violence against women. This can be easily shown by their fixation on female sex workers, and the complete dismissal of male or trans sex workers. Their language in politics focuses on women being submissive, and prostitutes being victims of men. This discourse doesn’t really help sex workers, and we can speak for ourselves. Also, there is a difference between sex work is male violence, and sex workers experiencing male violence. It is a privileged stance to have, where your only concept of prostitution is focused around gender rather than money, lack of housing, safety provisions, trauma or steeped in inequality or racial discrimination. Gender is not the only oppressor. Whilst you’re talking about prostitution always being exploitation, you’re doing nothing to tackle as to why you feel I’m in this position.
If you’re taking pity on women selling sex for £10, see us as victims and sex work as a desperate last resort, then how is focusing on the gender helpful? Shouldn’t you be focusing on tackling the very causes that result in survival sex work? The answer is often no because the same women who take pity on us, are the same women who don’t want to dismantle or challenge these systems because they benefit from it. Usually the same women who say things like ‘if I can do it, so can you’. There is a discussion of gender in prostitution, absolutely. It would be naive to ignore the role of gender and patriarchy in sex work. However, this is often lost in the feminist debate and rarely nuanced. For people who are so transfixed on gender and prostitution, radical feminists seem to forget that transgender sex workers exist, and their gender means they experience disproportionately higher levels of violence than cis female sex workers.
The Bad Choice
I work backwards in terms of sex work. I believe in fighting to provide the resources to avoid sex work, which impacts the present situation of many. The Nordic Model, and it’s radical feminist supporters, work forwards. They want law to prevent the trade of sex going forward, rather than working on the timeline which resulted in such. If we do not resolve the things that came behind, we can do nothing going forward and all efforts are futile. This is why tackling any social problem with criminalisation is useless, because it does not tackle the root cause and instead, punishes those caught up in the system – often victims themselves. For example, locking up those for knife crime does nothing to stop knife crime, and they are often victims of circumstance, gang grooming and by extension, capitalism and pursuit of the individual, rather than collective.
Whatever people’s reasons are for sex work, it will never be eradicated. No law, country, philosopher, male or female has ever found a way to stop it, and the Nordic Model won’t either. So, why try when it just makes it more dangerous? We must also recognise that sex work is a perfectly viable and fine option, regardless of reasons. Although I personally struggle to understand why people become a sex worker when they’re not pushed by circumstances, it doesn’t mean they don’t deserve the right to be one, or be supported and protected. Sex work shouldn’t have to stop, because as much as I am an unhappy hooker, this isn’t the experience of everyone.
To want to get rid of something means it is bad, and if it is bad, it means we give the government and society full power to legislate and morally degrade, both of which significantly harm the lives of sex workers. We do this because we want to keep it as unacceptable in society, and ensure there is reprise for those who do bad things. By saying something is unacceptable, we give power to those above us who have the power to right these wrongs and by doing so, we ignore the voices of those impacted. We can say the sex industry is bad, but that doesn’t mean workers in the sex industry are bad, and when you legislate against the industry, you negatively impact the workers.
Always remember the Nordic Model’s end goal is abolition of the sex industry, but simply with a feminist mask on. They can’t be seen to be criminalising other women, and especially victims. Instead, they strangle us out in the hope it stops, even if it does put in at greater risk. In their eyes, it’s a good thing because that should act as even more of a deterrent.
What can feminists do?
Stop pushing the idea that women must be good women, in good jobs, to be respected. We do not have to be in male jobs, be well-educated, or take advantage of our right to vote. By doing this, we turn on ourselves and where does the line stop, and who is the gatekeeper? We can be loud-mouthed, wear short skirts and call you a cunt, and still be equally respected. Include ‘undesirable’ women in feminism because women deserve the same rights just for being women.
Always include sex worker voices, rather than people sex worker’s say aren’t representative of them. I make clear, that means actively working sex workers, as they will directly impacted by any change of law or moral crusade, as they simply can’t remove themselves from it. There is nobody better than those with lived experience to be at the front, and within that group should always be black, trans, street, brothel, survival and migrant sex workers rather than just white, middle class women who sex work for the same reasons, or have it full of dommes.
Stop seeing sex workers as poor, vulnerable women who do it simply as a last resort, or are unable to do anything else. This gives way for people acting on our behalf who see themselves as a better voice, as of course, the poor little sex workers don’t know any better, and need someone else to better advocate. It also means people have little expectations of us, or think we are less than others. We do not need to be anything else other than sex workers to be respected and equally treated.
Stop seeing sex work as simply violence due to gender. There are too many complex and interwoven factors that are included in sex work and the discourse around it. These attitudes result in the exclusion of male and trans sex workers, because the focus on feminism becomes solely on cis female sex workers, because prostitution is framed in the ‘violence against women and girls’ sector. This also ignores intersectionality and material needs which are essential in sex work discussion.
Recognise sex work as sex and work, and nothing more. There is a divide between the sex worker at work and home, the two are not the same. Sex work is work and is fuelled by the same needs as everyone else – to pay bills, rent, food, feed our kids, pay for drugs and keep us clothed. If you wish to eliminate sex work or see it as exploitation, then I ask you to tackle low paid jobs, zero hour contracts and push for greater worker’s rights, recognising that exploitation in work is not unique to sex work. Sex worker right’s movement wants the same equality in law, and the right to hold our bosses to account and demand the same working rights.
Stop the conflation between sex work and sexual exploitation/trafficking. This means when we are genuinely abused, raped, exploited or trafficked, we are not believed because it is all considered the same. Also, it assumes all migrant sex workers must be trafficking victims, rather than just sex workers in another country, with the same needs as me. There is overlap between trafficking and sex work, but conflation just harms both of us. If you don’t think conflation is harmful, then think of the time when society thought victims of CSE were prostitutes, and they had to fight to make clear they were victims, and not consensually having sex. Sex workers have autonomy, and know the difference between abuse and consent.
Listen to what sex workers want and need, and recognise you do not know more than us because of a feminist you listened to, a theory you know, or a textbook you read. Theory and practice are not the same, and you should listen to those who are impacted by such. The war on drugs sounded great in theory, but it wasn’t in practice and significantly harmed the Black community and resulted in mass incarceration. The Nordic Model sounds good too, but in reality, it causes great harm to sex workers and our safety. If you’re too blindsided by text and theory rather than experiences, then remove yourself from the discussion.
Support decriminalisation of sex work, and not the Nordic Model.
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2 thoughts on “Sex Workers Have Been Left Behind by Feminism.”
A thought: If ‘prostitution’ is the name of the profession, and the title for a sex worker who choses to do sex work is a ‘prostitute’, then surely the word “prostituted” ought not to even exist: Because if the person has not consented to this form of labour then this activity is neither sex work nor prostitution – instead it can only be trafficking.