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.

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“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.

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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.


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.
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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