Sex Work: The choice made by those who have no choice?

Alice Roberts contemplates the complex world of sex work and whether it can be deemed liberating or inherently oppressive.

Is sex work a legitimate occupation for those women who choose to engage in it, or a form of oppression against women? I’m leaning towards the latter. Within feminist literature, this question has proved particularly divisive.

Before you jump to conclusions, independent of the argument below, I support the decriminalisation of sex work to provide the safest environment for its workers. On the flip side, I am conscious that by supporting the decriminalisation of sex work, I am implicitly endorsing a dangerous profession. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that street sex workers are an extremely vulnerable group who are not necessarily liberated by their choice to be a prostitute. 

It’s important to distinguish between different areas of sex work, as unlike brothel sex work, street sex work is more likely to be an unconscious decision. The woman may be forced or coerced, due to extreme poverty or underlying social problems, to perform sexual acts in exchange for desperately needed money. Street sex workers are a marginalised group, often unable to access health care and justice services, who disproportionately experience violence, homelessness, and child abuse, independent of their occupation. It’s no wonder that sociologist Christa Wichterich describes sex work as ‘the choice made by those who have no choice’. If you are not convinced, I recommend watching the BBC documentary ‘Sex, Drugs & Murder’, set in Leeds, West Yorkshire.  It tells the raw, uncompromising stories of women sex working on the fringes of an unforgiving society. 

The sex industry is historically androcentric, built upon the male right to purchase and use women’s bodies. This reinforces hierarchical gender relations and patriarchal views of sexuality. Archetypically, the clients are men and the sex workers are women. In the industry, the sexual pleasures of the women are irrelevant, the woman’s role is to submit to a man’s sexual demands, and any intimacy is controlled by the client. Sex work cannot be considered an equal sex act. After interviewing four street sex workers for my dissertation, it was apparent that these women do not associate sex work with any liberation or pleasure. Rather, they affirmed the opposite. Due to the sex workers’ reliance on detachment as a coping mechanism whilst working, intimacy in personal relationships is negatively, sometimes irreparably, affected. The unequal relationship between the sex worker and the client creates the ideal environment for misogyny and normalising sex work engenders an oppressive patriarchal society.

“At least when you work at McDonald’s you’re not the meat”

Julie Bindel, founder of Justice for Women, makes an interesting point. If sex work is spun as an acceptable occupation, the women become ‘employees’ and the pimps are ‘business entrepreneurs’. This allows the government to wash their hands of the women who are suffering under this legislation and attitude. According to some sex workers, it’s better than working at McDonald’s. But is it? It depends on your opinion of sexual acts as a form of payment. Legalisation of sex work sends a message to society that women are a tool for sexual pleasure. If prostitution is ‘work’, are women’s bodies a work place? Now it is starting to make more sense why sex workers experience greater levels of emotional, physical, and sexual violence.

Ultimately, we feminists need to be both pragmatic and inclusive. Sex work will not end until we see the end of structural violence against women. We must protect sex workers’ rights. Crucially, it is important to recognise that criminalisation and structural inequalities shape the conditions sex workers experience. Additionally, sex workers are more marginalised than other women, thus the inequalities existing within society have the greatest negative repercussions at street level. The mainstream feminist movement largely excludes sex workers and certainly does not address the challenges they face. Before large leaps are made in the legal debate surrounding sex workers, let’s include these women in the conversation. 

At the end of the day, it’s a balancing act. In my opinion, sex work should not be promoted as a desirable and liberating profession. Yet, making sex work illegal dismisses the root of the problem – entrenched female oppression.

Artwork by Izzy Guest.

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