Is feminism excluding sex workers?
Following Elliot Rodger’s killing spree in Isla Vista, California, last month, in which the 22-year-old killed six people and injured 13 others as he sought revenge on women for refusing to date him, many women turned to social media networks to share stories of sexual harassment they have encountered, as well as tell tales of unwanted cat-calls and threats.
Using the hashtag #YesAllWomen, women across the world — and some men, too — shared stories of rape and near-rape encounters, as well as things men have said to them, like, “Hey, baby, can I play with you?” “You’d be a whole lot prettier if you smiled for me,” and, “Gonna slice up your face so no one will ever love you except me.”
While every woman told a different story, a theme that emerged was that these kinds of unwanted sexual advances are faced by, yes, all women, which is why there is so much education for women on how to protect themselves from unwanted advances in a variety of situations. As Deanna Raybourn tweeted, “I’ve spent 19 yrs (sic) teaching my daughter how not to be raped. How long have you spent teaching your son not to rape? #yesallwomen.”
Although it appeared that women had joined together to push back against the misogynistic culture that had formed not just in the U.S., but around the globe, one group of women was largely excluded from the newly-formed #YesAllWomen community: Sex workers.
Despite its long existence around the globe as a profession, sex work has been a controversial topic for many women and feminist groups, who often come to the conclusion that sex workers are far from being feminists because they choose to sell themselves and perpetuate the stereotype that women exist to please men.
As porn model and performer Minnie Scarlet explained to RH Reality Check last year, most of these feminists who contribute to the “slut-shaming” and “whore-phobia” in our culture are “white scholar-types” who fail to notice the class and racial issues associated with feminism, and fail to accept that some sex workers do their work for empowerment, liberation or fun.
The idea that sex workers can’t be feminists because of the nature of their work has been a point of contention for feminists and sex workers, like Molly, a sex worker in the United Kingdom, who argues that feminists need to recognize she is selling a service, not herself.
“There is nothing more misogynist than implying/stating that I’m selling ‘myself’ when I sell sex,” Molly said. “I am a lot more than my vagina and what I do in bed, and I expect feminists to understand that.”
Violet Rose, another sex worker from the U.K., pointed out that just because she has sex for money does not mean her vagina is penetrated by penises all day, every day.
“Lots of my clients want to chat, do some other sex acts, or do something else entirely,” she said. Since Rose says the demand for sex work isn’t going to end anytime soon, she and other sex workers deserve labor, human, and civil rights protections at work.
Siouxsie Q, a sex worker in San Francisco, agrees that many feminists groups have an apparent disregard for sex workers and do not typically tolerate prostitution — even when it’s legal. In a column for SF Weekly early this month, she argued that anti-porn and anti-sex work feminist groups are dictating choices women can make about their own bodies in a manner similar to anti-abortion groups.
In particular, Siouxsie Q called out the group Stop Patriarchy for claiming that pole dancing classes at gyms, sexting and the view that strip clubs are a place where men go to bond, all contribute to the trafficking of millions of women and girls each year around the globe.
“I have a hard time buying into the idea that pole dancing classes at 24-Hour Fitness reinforce trafficking,” Siouxsie Q wrote. “I also have a hard time buying into Stop Patriarchy’s flavor of feminism. The feminism my mother taught me championed a woman’s right to choose and not have her decisions dictated by social norms, a government body, or a moral crusade.”
She further explained that in a world where women are killed when they decline a man’s invitation to dinner, feminist organizations should not pick and choose which women they support.
“If we are going to actually end violence and oppression of women, ‘yes, all women’ cannot mean ‘all women, except sex workers,’” she continued. “Sex workers are at the front lines of violent misogyny. Dismissing the daily murder, rape, and assault of sex workers as an occupational hazard enables the kind of thinking that motivated Rodger to attack a sorority house. Violence against women, regardless of their profession, must be addressed.”
It’s some feminists’ lack of awareness for how sex workers feel about prostitution that influences some, like Rose, to keep their professions a secret until they know they are in a safe space where they won’t be judged or have their opinions ignored because they work in the sex industry.
“Feminists have driven some of the most violent and dangerous legislation against sex workers’ rights,health, and safety worldwide, and I can’t feel great about that,” Rose said, explaining part of her reluctance to trust feminists.
My body, my choice
Not all sex workers agree that a woman opting to sell sex is a form of empowerment. And as countries have debated legalizing prostitution in recent years, a trend has emerged in which feminist organizations reject legalization and push back against other parts of the sex industry, such as porn.
However, some feminist organizations such as Enough is Fucking Enough are now rejecting what Siouxsie Q calls “the anti-porn feminist rhetoric” by considering the needs and desires of sex workers in their mantra, in order to ensure all women have their voices heard.
While many feminists feel conflicted when it comes to sex work, some such as Jill Filipovic argue that while they would prefer a world where women were not seen as sex objects and prostitution didn’t exist, the decriminalization and legalization of sex work is a crucial step in building a social safety net for women working in the sex industry, so they can have the same physical, legal and financial protections as their peers in other industries.
“[M]ost sex workers face very real barriers to basic rights like bodily autonomy, workplace safety, and freedom from violence,” Filipovic wrote last year, explaining that this is why feminists need to include the voices of women in the sex trade in their push for a safer world for women.
Darby Hickey, a sex worker and transgender rights activist, agrees that it’s time for feminists listen to sex workers before pushing certain types of legislation or assuming that all women have no desire to be in the sex industry.
“At the end of the day,” she said, “the people directly involved need to have their rights protected, have their choices respected, and get support to increase their self determination in whatever ways they deem necessary.”
“By closing down websites, increasing criminal penalties, or telling people they have to identify as victims to receive help, people are reducing the options available to those engaged in sex trade, and that is the opposite of what feminism should be about.”