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Is Sex Work a Feminist Act?

This week, Bea the Bud is discussing sex work. What are the different schools of thought, and should it be legalised? How is the legal status of sex work linked to feminism?

I said in my last article how I never research for articles, but for that article I did… on TikTok… This one I’m doing real research for. I think this is an important topic in actual real life, and I think it doesn’t tend to have many interpretations available, and I really truly believe that having one interpretation, a kind of tunnel vision, can be actually incredibly dangerous in this area.

A Quick Side Note on One of My Favourite Sex Podcasts, The Sex Ed

I used to listen to a podcast a lot, it was called The Sex Ed. Liz Goldwyn is a filmmaker, artist and author and she interviews different people involved with sex somehow, so from like sex activists, sexologists (people who study sex), queer people (she interviews a lesbian Rabbi), to actual sex workers including porn stars, people who sell sex, dominatrixes, sex tantra leaders, and the list goes on and on. Listening to the stories with very different kinds of people was so interesting to me because so many people had such different interpretations of what the role sex and of a sex worker was. 

Sex work here is defined as anyone who is involved in selling some form of sex somehow, like people who actually sell sex to people who sell feet pics, escorts, sugar babies, sugar parents, porn stars, dominatrixes, stripping, phone sex and so much more. Later I’m just going to use the term ‘sex workers’ just for those who sell physical sex, but I’ll let you know when I do.

I remember the interview with Riley Reid, a very famous porn star, where she stated she wanted to make her own art forms of porn films. Something I hadn’t seen until I started going to queer film festivals where queer porn was presented as a form of activism. The image of porn not being something created for the average straight man to me was incredibly radical. 

Another interview I remember very clearly was Alice Little, she’s one of the top earning sex works in the U.S. She’s able to achieve this due to sex work being legal in the state where she lives which is a topic of her interview. She talks about how due to the legalisation in her state, she has the freedom to talk about her life as a sex worker and how she’s protected through legalisation. I thought what was the most interesting of her interview, though, was how she felt her role was more of a social worker. She said she was dealing with people who needed some human company, or felt insecure about their sexual abilities and she would help them through their issues. 

Both Alice Little and Riley Reid showed they had an active role in their professions, something which really isn’t very common when sex work is being discussed. Why shouldn’t porn be considered some form of art? Why shouldn’t selling sex be considered something where you are dealing with people who need some form of comfort and help?

Okay, now let me get into the researched part of my article. But first let me state four different ways of actually interpreting sex work and these will help show how attitudes towards sex work have changed over time.

Four Different Interpretations of Sex Work:

  1. The deviant view, meaning sex work allows for uncivilised, asocial and criminal behaviour and therefore needs to be heavily regulated, controlled and prohibited. 
  2. The morality view: sex work is a sin, a social evil, a symbol of misogyny. The female sex worker isn’t criminalised, but victimised. The female sex worker has been forced into sex work by poverty and misogyny. So, the sold sex, isn’t considered sex anymore, but rape.
  3. The sex work view: this view moves away from the idea of linking sex to poverty, money in general, and gender, and moves toward seeing sex workers as active participants in selling sex. It looks at why do people do sex work. 
  4. The labour view: this view encourages protection of sex work, like any other work. That’s the main idea: sex work is work and should be treated as such. Other jobs also use bodies such as massage, modelling, acting, professional dancing, and how do these really differ to sex work?

Also, I should state, there are different interpretations of what sex work is, especially historically, where just general sexual behaviour was deemed the same as selling of sex. My definition (from this part on) is just literal the act of selling physical sex for money.

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The History of Sex Work

So, sex work, specifically the art of selling sex, is sometimes called the oldest profession, and its probably up there with some of the oldest, maybe not the oldest though, but it’s definitely in the running. The oldest record of prostitution is from 2400 BCE. Around this era there are multiple records of prostitution and brothels and depending on the region, it could have either been male or female prostitutes. But around this time sex work wasn’t necessarily linked with crime, poverty and deviancy. 

Now, skipping all the way to the 19th century, where capitalist ideology and patriarchal ideals are more of a global phenomenon, sex work is being spoken about a lot more critically. Sex work is now more commercialised through the spread of capitalism and opposition is increased. Women are more and more victimised and sex work is more and more associated with unruly behaviour and poverty, and is generally associated with the violation of women’s dignity. In the U.K this was the time of Jack the Ripper, who killed five sex workers. This event was one of the main events that made women appear more fragile and all men as dangerous. This era created the ‘pre-modern’ view of sex work being associated with poverty, male abuse, economic exploitation, drugs, decadence and trauma. 

The idea of sex work as something inherently bad and women being completely passive in the act continued into the 20th century. Although sex work was in the centre of attention throughout this whole time, the actual opinions and attitudes of sex workers were never actually recorded, meaning that all sources from this era are completely one sided and have incredible bias. Everything written about sex work in this era was written by men, and was heavily influenced by emotions and personal views of female sexuality and intimacy. 

The idea that women are inherently passive in sex work is something that persists until today. Sweden in the 1990s was the first to apply the radical feminist thought to the act of selling sex. Radical feminism believes that sex work is rape and no person could ever agree to rape. This is the logic behind, first Sweden in the 1990s and then by the EU in 2014, in criminalising purchasing sex.

Not all countries in the EU claim sex work is rape, but many do believe women are pushed into prostitution by the mix of being in poverty and their gender. Also, different forms of sex work have different levels of criminalisation such as selling physical sex (heavily criminalised) to sex work as in stripping and sugar babies (just heavily stigmatised and considered substandard).

However, there has been a recent drastic shift in how sex work is regarded following the beginning of the sex work movement in the 1970s. Although there is documentation of sex worker’s resistance before this, they are not very documented and available. Sex workers started to demand recognition of their work as ‘real work’. Other physical labour required the workers to have physical health check ups, why would sex work not receive this? This was the first real time where sex workers were allowed to have a voice and state that many did in fact go into the sex work voluntarily. 

In acknowledging that that consent and agency are a part of sex work strengthens the view of sex work as work. When sex work becomes legalised and sex workers will gain protection. It’s important to state that sex work, the act of selling sex, is female dominated and queer dominated. I haven’t said anything about the queer voice in sex work but don’t worry, I will soon in another article. 

Summing up

I want to go back to my opening statement that having one view is dangerous. I do personally believe in the legalisation of all sex work. But, I do acknowledge that in our patriarchal and misogynistic society, sex work is at risk of being used as a means of inflicting violence on women and queer people.

Rape, sex trafficking and gendered violence are big issues in sex work. But I do believe these issues are a fault of patriarchy and misogyny, and not inherently of sex work. 

I know I talk about bias and how it has shaped the view of sex work historically, and of course my work can’t be without bias either. But I know my bias lies with the voices of a female and queer dominated workforce. My voice will always shout for the female and queer voices who have so little power in our society. I don’t believe in the stigmatisation of any form of sex work because I truly believe it endangers those who work in it. 

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