10 Reasons Decriminalizing Sex Work Is A Feminist Issue

“Should Prostitution Be a Crime?” asked the May 5, 2016 New York Times Magazine cover story. This headline appeared in simple block letters over restrained, fully-clothed photographs of a bunch of beautiful people I’ve had sex with for money.

Bragging aside, the sex workers portrayed in this photo spread and its well-reported accompanying article are my community and my friends. I’m mostly retired from pro-domming, porn, and the many parts of the sex industry in which I worked for the past decade. But I remain involved in advocating for the human rights of sex workers in my nonfiction writing. My colleagues risked so much stigma and backlash by coming out on this international platform. Their courage makes a powerful statement: They do not deserve to go to jail for doing the job they’ve chosen to do — no one does.

“Is prostitution just another job?” This question was on the cover of New York magazine the same week. Although these are two separate publications, it was impossible not to see these two questions in conversation, as if the answer to one was a material condition of the other: If prostitution is just another job, then it shouldn’t be a crime.

Prostitution is absolutely just another job, as is stripping, pro-domming, cam modeling, and porn performing. These jobs should absolutely be decriminalized and de-stigmatized. And while people of all genders do these jobs, the matter of decriminalization is very much a feminist political issue.

Many intelligent, well-informed self-described feminists believe sex work should never be decriminalized. In fact, the decriminalization of sex work is perhaps the single most divisive subject within feminism today.

This divide is the result of a moral blind spot on the part of anti-sex work feminists or “antis.” They conflate all sex work unconditionally with rape, trafficking, and patriarchal exploitation. Ultimately, this is based on a (very un-feminist) distrust of the loud and powerful testimony of sex workers themselves, who, as individuals and organizations, have called over and over again for decriminalization to keep us safe from violence, stigma, and exploitation.

I think this comes from an inability of the antis to put themselves in the sparkly 6-inch heels of a sex worker. They can’t imagine what it would be like to wear nothing but a G-string and undulate onstage to a Prince song. They don’t understand the catharsis of a consensual sadomasochistic whipping. And they can’t comprehend how sexual and emotional intimacy can be employed strategically as labor. Just because a challenging job isn’t the right choice for you doesn’t mean it can’t be the right choice for someone else.

Sex work is a job, one for which some people are better suited than others. Those who want to do it should be allowed to; those who don’t should not be forced to. This is true of sex without commerce, and commerce that doesn’t involve sex.

Still not convinced decriminalizing sex work is a feminist issue? Here are 10 things that matter to sex workers, as well as women in general. If these things matter to you, maybe sex-worker rights matter to you more than you thought.

The gap between what we learned in sex ed and what we're learning through sexual experience is big — way too big. So we're helping to connect those dots by talking about the realities of sex, from how it's done to how to make sure it's consensual, safe, healthy, and pleasurable all at once. Check out more here.

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1. Representations of sex workers in pop culture are reductive.

Sex workers make for tidy metaphors. Whether you want to create a modern Cinderella fantasy (Pretty Woman) or portray the very real vulnerability of women to violence (like, every episode of Law and Order), a sex-work stereotype is always readily available. Just like any stereotype, these representations are usually dehumanizing, and they misinform the general public about what sex workers are really like.

Meanwhile, pop culture and advertising are filled with imagery as provocative as any strip club. Some of it is fabulous (Beyoncé’s “Partition” comes to mind), and some of it is…well, remember poor Britney at the 2007 VMAs? But all of it is used to sell products. Female sexuality is a powerful tool, and sex work is one way for women to harness that power for their own profit and control.

Stereotypes of sex workers tend to be reductive stereotypes of women, because we’re seen as easy targets. Need to convey desperation? Make her a stripper! Want to show a woman falling from grace? Have her dabble in escorting or simply hang out with escorts. These representations are lazy, and women deserve to see ourselves in complex characters, no matter what we call work.
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2. Every woman deserves the agency to choose the job that’s right for her.

Many people assume that all sex workers are exploited or coerced. The reason for this is that people can’t relate to the choice to perform sex on camera or have sex with someone for reasons other than romantic attraction. Some other well-meaning people also assume that the so-called “Happy Hooker” gets a pass as long as she has a relatable reason to go down that path (tuition, a career in the arts, or a spunky sense of adventure). But look a little closer.

Sex work might be the best choice for someone who is economically disenfranchised. That doesn’t mean she loves every second of her job; it means it was one option available to her to get something she needed, and she chose it. She should not be criminalized for simply making ends meet in a capitalist society.

Furthermore, the sex workers I know can tick off a list of valuable skills they’ve learned from their work: entrepreneurship, money management, marketing, dressing for success, and collaborating with other women on business. It’s the stigma against the work, not the freedom to choose it, that leads to shame, exploitation, and regret.
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3. Sex work stigma is a class issue.

There are so many different types of sex work: “full-service” prostitution, professional BDSM, stripping, cam modeling, and porn performing, just to name a few. Within the sex-work community, we have a word for the different ways that different kinds of work are perceived: the Whorearchy. And the stigmas associated with different levels of this hierarchy follow class lines: Think about the indoor escort who is labeled “classy,” and compare this person to the one who must work on the street who is dismissed as “trashy.” Obviously, our perceptions of class are connected to our perceptions of race. Black sex workers’ lives matter.

Decriminalization of prostitution would positively affect already legal sex work, such as porn performing and stripping, because it would destigmitize it. Less stigma leads to more — and better — options for women.
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4. Misogyny against sex workers is misogyny against all women.

Since sex workers are more disenfranchised than the average woman, they often become targets of explicit misogyny and sexist double standards. Many violent hate crimes against sex workers are really hate crimes against women. As the World Health Organization reports: “Most violence against sex workers is a manifestation of gender inequality and discrimination directed at women, or at men and transgender individuals who do not conform to gender and heterosexual norms, either because of their feminine appearance or the way they express their sexuality.”

Sex workers have fought back against this in all kinds of ways, not the least of which is in reclaiming epithets like “whore,” “ho,” and “porn star,” much in the same way that “bitch,” “cunt,” “queer,” “dyke,” and other words weaponized against women can also be reclaimed.

If you’re not a sex worker, please think twice before you utter microaggressions, like, “You look like such a ho in that skirt.” You’re scapegoating sex workers for horrible things people say and think about all women.
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5. Sex workers are scapegoats for rape double standards.

Maybe the most disturbing sexist double standard against sex workers is the idea that we can’t be raped. Look no further than the lawyers who tried to claim Christy Mack couldn’t be raped because she had consented to performing sex on camera, or the 2007 ruling by Philadelphia Municipal Court judge Teresa Carr Deni that the sexual assault of a sex worker at gunpoint was not rape but “theft of services.” Sexual assault laws are based on ideologies about sex, violence, and gender, and lawmakers will often use sex workers as scapegoats. When these standards are created, they affect everyone. After all, if a sex worker was “asking for it” by working, then any woman can be considered to have been asking for it by “dressing like a prostitute.”
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6. Women have long gone uncompensated for emotional labor.

Sex work, like sex itself, is about more than just genitals rubbing up against each other. Sex workers have to manage the egos, emotions, and moods of their clients. This kind of therapeutic support is something women have done for their partners since time immemorial.

Some of us see sex work as a way to finally monetize this valuable talent, and apps like Ohlala (a pay-for-dates online dating service) prove people are interested in negotiating rates for dating, whether sex is involved or not.
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7. Condom profiling makes policing of sex work a public health crisis.

Did you know that the police can use condoms as evidence of prostitution? For this reason, many sex workers who are vulnerable to the police don’t carry or use that form of protection.

The World Health Organization has stated that, “Sex workers, their clients, and regular partners are key populations at risk for HIV infection. Contextual factors such as stigma and poverty may further exacerbate sex workers' vulnerability to HIV.” This is one of the many reasons that Amnesty International recently released a policy for decriminalization as a way of protecting the human rights of sex workers globally.

The removal of laws criminalizing sex work will mean more people will have access to HIV prevention and care.
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8. Sex work is an option available to trans women, but they aren’t always treated equally.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, at least one in five transgender people surveyed report experiencing employment discrimination. Sex work is often an option available to them, yet they are disproportionately singled out for violence. Many advocates for trans women of color, like Janet Mock and Laverne Cox, consider sex work a key issue, and trans women are some of the most hardworking, vocal organizers of the sex-worker rights movement.

Still, many profiles of sex workers in the media focus on white, middle-class, educated cis women to tell the story of what it means to do this work. If you care about trans rights and representation, then you need to listen to the stories of trans women, particularly trans women of color, for whom criminalization can mean getting stuck in a cycle of disenfranchisement.
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9. Conflating trafficking with consensual sex work hurts trafficking victims.

This is the most contentious issue in the feminist sex-work debate. All I ask is that you consider the fact that forced labor should be illegal, no matter what the labor, and that there are many kinds of sex work that are safe, consensual labor that workers can take pride in.

Need more proof? Take it from the Amnesty International website: “There is no reliable evidence to suggest that decriminalization of sex work would encourage human trafficking. But criminalization of sex work can hinder the fight against trafficking — for example, victims may be reluctant to come forward if they fear the police will take action against them for selling sex. Where sex work is criminalized, sex workers are also excluded from workplace protections which could increase oversight and help identify and prevent trafficking.”
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10. You might actually enjoy a world in which sex work was legal and destigmatized.

Many people never considered smoking weed when it was illegal, because it was illegal. I’ll bet many people have an older relative who has nibbled a THC gummy bear or smoked a joint since marijuana has been decriminalized. Imagine: If sex work were legal, attitudes about who can hire a sex worker and what it would be like might be transformed.

Think about it. What if you could hire someone who was totally your type, who was exceptionally well-groomed and dressed, who would meet up with you exactly when you want, to listen to your problems, cuddle you, expertly make out with you, rub your shoulders, go down on you, or take you to pound town… and then never blow up your phone with the feelings they’ve caught? It doesn’t sounds half-bad, does it? Take it from someone who has been on both sides of the equation many times: Hiring a sex worker can be incredibly therapeutic and fun, and women just don’t do it often enough.
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