Feminist arguments against sex work are as influential as they are dangerous.
We asked sex worker rights groups and allies around the world to discuss what works and doesn’t work when arguing for the decriminalisation of sex work. This series reports what they said.
Sex workers fight daily battles to defend our rights. The illegality of sex work isn’t a hypothetical ‘debate’ for us. It is our reality. Hundreds of women are criminalised each year under the United Kingdom’s draconian prostitution laws while rape and other violence are at epidemic levels. And, as poverty increases at a horrifying rate, we’re seeing more women – particularly mothers – pushed into prostitution to survive. It is frustrating that, against this backdrop, we must battle not just conservative forces but certain leftist feminists as well.
So-called feminist arguments around sex work are harder to dismiss than religious fundamentalism, which condemns prostitution, abortion and all sex outside marriage. Some of the women putting forward those arguments have a reputation for speaking out against violence against women. But their exclusion of sex worker voices – and, usually, of trans women – calls that commitment into question. In the UK, feminist MPs in the Labour party like Sarah Champion and Jess Phillips, who are openly contemptuous of any sex worker who doesn’t fit their description of a ‘prostituted woman’, frame their arguments as feminist. And yet they are campaigning to increase the criminalisation of sex work via the criminalisation of clients. Such a development would worsen our situation and directly threaten our lives, as any sex worker-led organisation in the world will tell you. We have no choice but to deal with them.
Here are the most common arguments we come up against from anti-decriminalisation feminists.
1. Sex work is inherently violent
This is the core argument for anti-decriminalisation feminists. We do not contest that levels of violence are high. Sex work in the UK has the greatest risk of occupational homicide for women, with a murder rate of five times that of other female workers.
But to propose outlawing prostitution on this basis is to impose a moralistic double standard. Agriculture is the UK’s most dangerous industry, with 167 deaths over the past year. No one proposes that farming be banned. Two women a week are killed by their partner or former partner, but we have yet to see a feminist hazard warning against marriage. Instead there are calls, rightly, to better protect labourers in the field and women in their relationships. Why should the route to safety for sex workers be any different?
Ask your feminist dissenter: should we be allowed to work together for safety?
Stigma and criminalisation make sex workers vulnerable. Illegality frames everything we do. The activity of selling sex is legal in the UK but everything that enables it – from sharing a flat to soliciting on the street – remains illegal. So we either work alone, in hidden spots, or risk a criminal record. Violent men prey on women in such conditions, conditions fostered by everyone who feeds stigma or supports criminalisation. So ask your feminist dissenter: should we be allowed to work together for safety? If she is unmoved or disinterested it will be a short conversation.
If you see her pause for thought, press your advantage by pointing to a real-life example. Our recent successful campaign to get the charges dropped against two women showed how the brothel-keeping and controlling laws are primarily used against women working together for safety. There’s also a mass of other evidence which shows that criminalising clients undermines our safety. According to STRASS, the sex workers’ union in France, at least twelve sex workers have been killed since the Nordic Model was introduced there three years ago. Violent crime against sex workers increased by 92%, with trans sex workers particularly targeted, after similar laws were introduced in Ireland. Amnesty International’s research in Norway found that the legal framework can compound human rights abuses.
2. Sex work is inherently degrading and exploitative
There’s a visceral horror to the arguments of some pro-Nordic Model feminists. They scour online review boards for evidence of misogyny and talk about sex work in the most lurid terms imaginable. Nordic Model Now’s gleefully disgusted take, found on a page labelled ‘FACT: Prostitution is inherently violent’, describes a situation in which:
“The punter doesn’t want her to simply tolerate his hands all over her body, his disgusting halitosis in her face, his rancid sweat against her skin, his dick ramming into her orifices. No. He also wants her to show him that she is enjoying it. Because that’s part of the deal too.”
“Would you want to do it?” they’ll ask if you’re not a sex worker. “Would you want your daughter doing it?”, they’ll ask if you are. It’s tempting to get defensive and snap back “I love sex work!”. It will get you nowhere. Being degraded is a subjective experience and without doubt some sex workers find the job revolting. Instead you can ask, “are we less degraded if we have to beg or skip meals to feed our children?”
3. So many women are trafficked
Denying the existence of trafficking is both disingenuous and exclusionary to those who most need support. However, it’s fair to say that sex trafficking statistics are frequently exaggerated. A widely touted claim that 80% of sex workers are trafficked is not credible. The most comprehensive and reliable research on migrants in the UK sex industry found instead that around 6% of its female sample “felt that they had been deceived and forced into selling sex”. Crucially, many said they prefer working in the sex industry rather than the “unrewarding and sometimes exploitative conditions they meet in non-sexual jobs”.
Again, facts may help: there is no evidence that the Nordic Model decreases trafficking. A 2014 report by the Swedish police found no reduction in trafficking in the country after fifteen years of a ‘sex buyer’ law. Conversely, New Zealand, which decriminalised sex work in 2003, has not become a hot bed of trafficking. According to the US State Department’s 2019 Trafficking in Persons report, New Zealand is in the lowest possible global ranking for trafficking.
Determined campaigning by sex workers in the Global South has furthermore uncovered how anti-trafficking measures frequently serve as smokescreens for racist, anti-immigration policies. They are primarily used to prevent women crossing national boundaries in search of a better life.
Research from Thailand’s national sex worker organisation, Empower, shows the harm caused by anti-trafficking operations. They estimate that for every person classified as a victim of trafficking in Thailand, around six to eight non-trafficked migrant sex workers are arrested, detained and deported.
They also argue that racist stereotypes of sex workers as poor oppressed victims should be unpicked.
“Sex workers in Thailand are usually the main family provider, supporting families, including children, either in Thailand or in our home country. We work hard to give our family a better life, paying for education, housing, land, farming machinery, health treatment and basic daily living for an average of five other people.”
Similarly, many sex workers in the UK are mothers. Austerity cuts which have targeted women and single mums are causing their numbers to grow. In some cities, benefit sanctions alone are responsible for a massive growth in prostitution.
Decriminalising sex work would allow sex workers to insist on the same labour rights as other workers and report violence without fear of arrest. Ending the hostile immigration environment and ensuring that women have access to money and resources so that they can feed themselves and their families would make them less vulnerable to those ready to exploit them. Criminalising them and their clients will do none of these things.
4. If sex work were decriminalised women would be forced to take jobs in brothels
This is another favourite horror fantasy of the pro-criminalisation feminists. It’s pure fearmongering. Nothing of the sort has happened in New Zealand. And in the UK, where stripping is already legal, no job centre has ever forced women to work as strippers.
5. Decriminalisation won’t end male violence
No piece of legislation will single-handedly end male violence. If it were that easy, women would be safe in domestic partnerships and walking home alone at night. What decriminalisation does mean is that sex workers are able to go to the police and ask for help.
And if money isn’t being squandered on the policing of consenting sex, we can better demand a change in priorities so that resources go towards helping victims of violence. Women Against Rape, a founding member of the Safety First Coalition which was formed after five young women were murdered in Ipswich, has made this argument elsewhere: “target[ing] men who have not been accused of violence just because they purchase sexual services, diverts police time and resources away from tackling the appallingly low conviction rate for reported rape.”
So there you have arguments and evidence. But we are not naïve. We know that rational, evidence-based reasoning won’t sway some people. Only the growing strength of the sex worker-led movement for decriminalisation – alongside a wider movement for justice – will turn the tide. Pro-criminalisation ‘feminists’ within the establishment do not represent us. Their choice to side with the state, increase police powers against us, and stay silent as we are made poorer and more vulnerable to violence, is no real feminism at all.