Future of Feminism: Sex Workers Deserve Dignity and Care

There’s no doubt that sex work in its various manifestations, ranging from stripping to prostitution to pornography, remains a contentious issue. It’s one on which even feminists notoriously disagree–a “fracture in ideology,” according to Kate Holden–with discussions veering back and forth between victimization and empowerment.

Of course there’s a substantial difference between becoming a sex worker by choice and, say, being sex trafficked by force, and I doubt anyone would argue that forced prostitution is empowering. However, “sex slavery,” as popularized in films and on shows such as Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, represents a more extreme scenario, with many sex workers–at least in the U.S.–falling somewhere on a spectrum between choice and circumstance. One thing isn’t really up for debate, though: A sex worker, woman or man, cis- or transgender, shouldn’t be deprived of rights, protection or access to health care due to the social stigma that weighs on their profession. Today’s post features projects and organizations recognizing that no one should be left behind in our continual battle for equality.

Washington, D.C.-based HIPS (Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive) works on a “harm reduction model … to address the impact that HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted infections, discrimination, poverty, violence and drug use have on the lives of individuals engaging in sex work.” HIPS’ initiatives include both emotional and practical support structures: peer education, support groups for transgender and women workers and a mobile outreach program that offers STI testing, syringe exchange and access to contraception.

The Sex Worker’s Project, run out of the Urban Justice Center in New York City, also works with individual sex workers, but its main focus is on advocacy to protect sex workers from violence and undue prosecution. For example, a recent campaign involved a recommendation from the UN that the U.S. acknowledge the “special vulnerability of sexual workers to violence and human rights abuses,” which the U.S. government officially endorsed in March 2011.

And then there’s the collaborative blog Tits and Sass, which offers a socially conscious, open-minded space for sex workers to write about their experiences and bust public misconceptions of their profession. Founded in 2011 after the demise of the sex work magazine $pread, the blog’s aim was to fill a “void when it came to witty commentary on the public image of our industry.” Contributors make the point that common stereotypes of sex workers can “have an impact on the realities of [their] lives as sex workers every bit as strong as the law.”

Even if our opinions on the sex work industry diverge, we can all agree that being a sex worker–whether by choice, circumstance or force–should not disqualify someone from basic human dignity, care and respect.

Part Fifteen in a Women’s History Month series celebrating organizations and ideas that represent the future of feminism.

Photo from Flickr user Gwydion M. Williams under Creative Commons 3.0


  1. I do agree that those in the sex industry deserve dignity, care, and respect. However, I notice while this article mentions prostitution is a “contentious issue,” the author does not link to even one organization that challenges prostitution, which has presently seeped into a porn culture.

    To that end, I would like to tell you about Stop Porn Culture (SPC). SPC is hosting a conference to discuss how to create a feminist movement that challenges porn culture. Here is a description of the conference for those interested:

    Contemporary Radical Feminism in the Age of Porn
    University of San Diego
    June 18-19, 2012

    Porn has moved from the back street to Wall Street, and is now a multibillion dollar global industry and a leader in technological innovation. As porn seeps into the mainstream economy, and softcore porn migrates into pop culture, the porn industry has become more hardcore and cruel. Porn images increasingly shape our visual landscape, and the pornification of the culture is played out on the bodies of younger and younger women who have grown up in a culture awash with hypersexualized representations of femininity. At the same time, much of mainstream popular and academic feminism has embraced a neo-liberal ideology that celebrates individual empowerment and agency while de-emphasizing the structural realities of gender, racial, and class inequality. In place of economic, legal and political liberation, we are supposed to be happy with individual “empowerment” in the form of stripping, waxing and hooking up.

    Our goal is to rebuild a vibrant, radical, unapologetic feminist movement that energizes and mobilizes women and pro-feminist men into fighting the porn industry, and fighting for real liberation. Presentations will explore how to make radical feminism timely and relevant in the lives of young women, and how to build activist movements on the local, national and global level.

    Topics include

    The Pornification of Representation in Pop Culture
    Heterosexuality and Hook Up Culture
    The Political Economy of Porn
    Sexualized Racism in Pop Culture and Porn
    How “Queer” is “Queer” Porn?
    Radical Feminism and the Right
    Men, Masculinity, and Radical Feminism
    Porn and the Culture of Humiliation
    Organizing Against a Global Industry

    Please visit http://www.stoppornculture.org for more information about the organization and/or to register for the conference. I hope to see you there!

  2. Goldmarx says:

    While I can’t speak for the author, I’ll make an educated guess and say that since SPC is not concerned about the “dignity, care and respect” of any sex worker who wants to remain in the sex industry, that it would therefore not qualify to be on her above-mentioned list.

    After all, if you want to abolish an entire industry, any stopgap reform to improve conditions for its workers would bolster the legitimacy of that industry and make it harder to eradicate.

    • Anyone that is using my grooming habits, sexual history, or past work experience as a sex worker to publicly debate how I am reinforcing rape culture and the sexual objectification of women, I would like to kindly ask that you please stop. I don’t know you, and it makes me feel really uncomfortable for you to debate, let alone solely focus the judgement of my gender, feminism, and liberation on my vagina.

      If the personal choices I make with my vagina that are really nobody’s business but my own, actually are hurting the woman who choose to blame the oppression of all women kind on the possession of my female anatomy, then why should we be treated with equality? If my choice to wax the hair off my vagina is causing men to disregard a woman’s right to choose not to have sex with them, then rape really is the victim’s fault. If my choice to consensually hook up with a guy I just met (even if I only consented after choosing to get drunk and lose certain inhibitions) is the reason the gender wage gap exists, then how can we argue that our anatomy doesn’t hinder our ability to decide that making significantly less than men is actually wrong? If my decision to have voluntarily worked in the sex industry is why women can’t voluntarily choose the clothing they wear without threat of sexual harassment or assault, then who do we have to blame but ourselves for violence against women?

      Politics, be it legislative or cultural, affect everyone, but we must not forget, the personal is political. By forcing my vagina to be subjected to public debate, not only are you objectifying and exploiting me, but reinforcing the notion that this is acceptable. If self-identified feminist state that female genitalia is not the basis for female oppression, but a cultural structure that devalues a woman’s worth, but continue to validate (and support) hatred against women, then why should we support equality? If a woman’s personal choice threatens all womankind, then why are we fighting?

      You discredit the value of individual empowerment, on the basis that it ignores the structural realities of inequality. As individuals we are discriminated and oppressed by others choices, but as a community we ban together to say “this is not okay.” It is not the individual decisions that we make on a daily basis, but the accepted cultural judgement that certain personal choices our not ours to make solely because of gender (and/or gender identification, sexuality, race, class, creed, etc) that support the structural realities you speak out against.

      I choose to wax my vagina, but more importantly, I choose not to make this public information. By speculating about my vagina, my sexuality, my oppression, not only are you attempting to discredit and disempower me in an attempt to push your own agenda onto the world, but forcing me to publicly defend myself against the same oppressive structure that I thought feminism was fighting against. Instead, you are acting under the false guise of empowerment as you use the same tools as the the politicians who use my anatomy to impede on my right to choose, or the men who believe my choice of attire demotes me to nothing but a sexual being ripe for exploitation.

      As a feminist, I feel the need to remind you that I do not assume to know the oppression you face as an individual, so to assume you know mine is just as wrong as assuming that it doesn’t exist. But so long as your choices do not impede mine, be it the right to choose how I groom my vagina, the right to not choose how you groom yours, or the right to choose to focus on more important issues, I support you and your right to choose for yourself. And as an ally, all I ask is that you support my same right, even if that impedes you of the opportunity to choose for me how public or how private my vagina remains.

  3. sophie rose says:

    I am a sex worker, I am also a feminist as is my mother.

    While I find the arguments raging about sex workers ridiculous, my mum is outraged. Her argument being that feminism is about women having both a voice and choice, and feminists who want to shut down sex workers are doing what men did to feminists in the 70’s.

    I choose to do sex work, and I choose to be a street-based sex worker. I like my job – I like the freedon it gives me, I like being my own boss, and yes I enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that someone will pay me to provide a service.

    While it’s all well and good to quote organisations that get funding off our backs, why not talk to actual sex workers about how we feel when we are attacked for our choices by other women.
    Or told by feminists that because we are sex workers we can’t be feminists.
    In the 50’s the argument was agianst lesbians – the lavender menace – and the arguments raged about whether lesbians should be ‘allowed’ to be feminists, now it’s sex workers.
    Feminism shouldn’t be an elitist group, strutting around like a school-yard bully loudly proclaiming who gets to be in the club.
    Feminism either embraces ALL women, or it doesn’t.
    If is doesn’t then maybe that should be made clear – maybe a campaign along the lines of “you too can be a feminist – but only if you are acceptable”

  4. So you forgot us, the actual workers located here in San Francisco at the Erotic Service Providers Union-where our actual voices count.
    We all know how important it is for actual women to represent actual women’s concerns, right ladies?

  5. This post strikes me as rather disingenuous. Either the author is simply pretending to not be biased on the issue or is really out of her league on the topic. There is no hard and fast line between “choice” and “force”. Prostitution exists because of patriarchy and poverty and while the author notes a “fracture in ideology”, she doesn’t link to or reference anything that accurately describes this “fracture”. Of course everyone deserves “human dignity, care and respect” but doesn’t that require and end to patriarchy? Sex work isn’t something that exists inside a bubble and it would seem that this post simply erases the context of inequality upon which prostitution and the sex industry at large thrives. I echo womanonajourney’s concern that “the author does not link to even one organization that challenges prostitution, which has presently seeped into a porn culture.” Tits and Sass isn’t a feminist blog and, yes, it does represent the voices of *some* sex workers – but when pretending to accurately depict a debate or, at very least, a nuanced position, one would expect that there be a link to a/some feminist perspectives on the issue. Otherwise just make your position/argument clear from the get go – it is pretty clear from this post that the author either doesn’t have much respect for or didn’t bother to do the research on feminist critiques of the sex industry.

    • Why isn’t Tits and Sass a feminist blog?

      • It doesn’t describe or represent itself as such. It is focused on describing the experience of *some* sex workers. “Tits and Sass is a group blog run by sex workers who saw a void when it came to witty commentary on the public image of our industry.”

        • Why don’t you represent the alleged feminist critique of sex work as the philosophy of SOME feminists? Why do you presume it represents the majority of feminists?

          • I suggested the author better represent feminist critiques of the sex industry. I’m not sure what it is you are asking?

            All that aside, feminism is about questioning and challenging patriarchy and the status quo – if we weren’t providing a critique of the sex industry we wouldn’t really be doing feminism now would we?

    • Just a quick response, Anon. Although I see where you’re coming from, my concern with this post was discussing how sex workers should be treated (with care, with respect) and profiling several (certainly not all!) organizations that do so. Obviously, feminist critiques of the sex industry bear mentioning, which I do, but spending a long time discussing how the sex industry is critiqued would have diluted my main argument about dignity, care and respect. As for my personal opinions, they are very complicated and were not meant to be the central focus of this post, as I think that we should be able to occasionally put aside our own opinions in order to advocate for those working within the sex work industry.

      • Thanks for your response, Aviva. What confuses me is that there has never been any debate, within feminism, about whether or not women deserve respect. That is something universally agreed upon. Feminist critiques of the sex industry are not about disrespecting women, but rather critiquing patriarchy, misogyny, and capitalism. These arguments certainly don’t dilute the central focus of your argument. The fact that feminist critiques of the sex industry are marginalized in the post perpetuate untrue assumptions and stereotypes that say feminist critiques of the sex industry are critical of individual WOMEN in the industry – rather it is about critiquing a system, power, racism, classism, and of course, sexism, as well as the often oversimplified concept of “choice” that comes up a lot in these debates. Because these arguments are often marginalized within mainstream feminist discussions of the sex industry, as well as here, in this space, it makes clear to me, at least, what your opinion on the issue is. This is a feminist blog and yet the only organizations and sites linked to are not feminist ones. Don’t feminists who are critical of the sex industry want respect, dignity, and care for women?

        • Um, for as long as I have been an advocate for women, amongst the times I and my fellow allies have encountered radical feminists, exactly that is all that has been said, that sex worker’s rights are subordinate to how they disempower other women. And, quite frankly, THAT has been the mainstream feminist discussion within the radfem community, itself, as well as the broader spectrum of feminists, encountered by myself (and fellow allies), not the other way around. Whereas the less mainstream discussion within the same broader feminist movement actually DOES focus on deconstructing the patriarchy, but here’s the major difference, without, as lily, above, said: forcing me to publicly defend myself against the same oppressive structure that I thought feminism was fighting against; So, if you can answer the following question, please do: How can you deconstruct patriarchy by using the very same methods that are a tool the patriarchy uses to oppress?

          The fact that you are even attempting to introduce a strawman into the conversation in order to distract from and derail it, kinda proves that point. This was, after all, not a blog about feminism, per se but about the sex-workers themselves. Which is *probably* why Aviva didn’t introduce feminist discourse from any particular side, in the first place. If you remember, you, yourself, said it, too. Tits and Sass is not a feminist blog. And the reason for that should be simple enough: because it wasn’t meant to be. So, trying to make it about feminists vs feminists, simply makes it seem like you are trying to gain back the major ground you believe yourselves to be losing. Thanks.

          In fact, Aviva herself made the point that one can be critical of the sex industry while still wanting respect, dignity and care for women. So, reiterating that point as if contradicting her just makes your motives suspect.

        • As an addendum to my first paragraph; I am hoping you can answer the question, because, like you are falsely accusing others of doing, you are actually ignoring the work of less mainstream feminists in order to toot your own horn, so to speak. Which, like the rest of the points I listed in my previous post, kinda lead me to believe that much of your advocacy has ignored that most important part, too; namely feminism cannot accomplish its goals by using the tools of the patriarchy.

  6. It’s so wonderful to see Ms. discussing sex work in such balanced and reasonable terms. When I first started gathering ideas for my book, Are They Bad Girls or Brilliant?, it was back in the late nineties. At the time, Ms. wouldn’t even respond to the inputs of thinking sex workers. Wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole.

    Sex workers, whether victimized or empowered, are the women at the eye of the storm. Feminism, for all of them, even the ones who love what they do, should be the comfortable refuge from the storm. Too often, for sex workers, feminism has been the hurricane itself.

    Thank you Ms. for starting to end that!

  7. Whatever happened to the women’s movement fighting sexual exploitation? I don’t even think the problem is totally economic – there’s been prostitution and pornography in the communist/socialist countries, like East Germany and Czechoslovakia. I think it’s because the female victims were sexually abused as children/teenagers or sometimes as adults. What’s so wonderful about a profession (pornography/prostitution/strip clubs) tied to drugs and organized crime? Our society seems to agree that it’s awful for children/teenagers to be abused in pornography/prostitution. Well, I don’t think just because a woman is over 18 (or 25 years old, or whatever) that she deserves to be exploited. Last time I went to a fundraiser for a rape crisis center, there was a belly dancer there. I was told she was “expressing herself.” Pretty bizarre.

  8. After reading this article again, I am really offended. How can someone “willingly choose” to be sexually exploited? It’s just a class difference – women from poor countries are considered exploited, trafficked and forced into sexual exploitation; poor “immigrant” women and homeless women are considered victims – but middle-class women who get hooked on drugs “choose” willingly to be exploited. Pamela Anderson is “choosing” exploitation but women in Russia are exploited. It’s interesting that no class distinction is ever made with domestic violence – it’s wrong whether the woman is poor or rich. Where are the economics anyway – prostitution existed in the communist/socialist countries and some white men become prostitutes. There is another issue here as well – it’s not a good idea to go around supporting an industry that is tied to organized crime and drugs. Women, whatever their class distinction, cannot willingly choose to be exploited – they are victims of patriarchy.

    • I am offended that those who purport to want to deconstruct the patriarchy *choose* to ignore the very divides that it creates, that being the very reason they want to deconstruct it, and *prefer* to group all women in the same category as if they are all some homogenous entity untouched by the divides the patriarchy creates, before turning around to *claim* that all women are victimized by it. Seriously, which is it? You can’t have it both ways, after all. Wealthy, and middle-class, women have more privilege than poorer women. It’s that simple. Really.

      It’s sad that you can’t see the difference between domestic violence in its relation to either poor or wealthy women and sex-work in its relation to either poor or wealthy women, all the while you are ignoring the similarities between sex TRAFFICKING and domestic violence, with regards to the same economic distinctions. But, I’ll try to explain, anyways: If we are going to say that everything the patriarchy influences is exploitation (of one kind or another), and, therefore, not of our choosing, we’d best stop doing everything. Altogether. Everything is influenced by the patriarchy, after all. So, now you might ask, how do we make decisions within this structured reality, then? By making choices with whatever (limited) options our privilege, or lack thereof, grants to us. For a wealthy (or middle-class) woman who often has more capital (as well as other resources) at her disposal and is less limited by the patriarchy to ACCESS it than a woman living in poverty would be, she certainly has fewer fettered choices than the poorer woman would, now doesn’t she? But, by conflating a poorer woman’s more limited availability of options with the wider availability of a wealthier woman’s the way you do, you are saying that the choices a poorer woman makes are less valid than those of the wealthier woman, simply because the ones you deem invalid are the ONLY options the poorer woman has. That is much the same with sex-work (in this case, referring to the given meaning for the phrase, sex-work, specifically) . A poorer woman may be limited to only two options, neither of which may be viewed favourably through a patriarchal lens, sex-work (A) or starve (E), while a wealthier woman may have options A, B, C or D, with either option viewed a little more favourably through the same lens. And, even though BOTH women have been made to believe that their only appeal within our patriarchal society lies in their sexiness, removing options A and E (that unfavourable lens, again) puts only the poorer woman at a disadvantage. The reverse holds true for sex-trafficking and domestic violence, as they are both inherently given to refer to a choice made FOR the victims ENTIRELY by ANOTHER party. In this case, for the wealthy women and the poor women, the economic distinctions between those two don’t matter, because it is not THEIR choices that come into play. Kthx.

  9. Then we should not be concerned about white wealthy women who are battered wives / either upper-income women are oppressed as women, or they aren’t. Pretty bizarre that everyone cried when Dorothy Stratten was murdered, but when Anne Nicole Smith (sexually abused as a child) and Margeaux Hemingway (sexually abused as a child) committed suicide, no one seemed to care. Everyone knows that white wealthy women are also oppressed, and this is why domestic violence is not condoned even if the victim is wealthy. As for this so-called wonderful sex trade, it existed in the Communist countries and that suggests it’s not totally economic. There’s another issue too – once it’s legal, you can’t get welfare or employment benefits because you are supposed to take sex work. If you ask me, “sex work” is sexual abuse, so it shouldn’t matter if the victim is rich or poor.

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