“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 modelling, and porn performing. These jobs should absolutely be decriminalised and de-stigmatised. And while people of all genders do these jobs, the matter of decriminalisation is very much a feminist political issue.
Many intelligent, well-informed self-described feminists believe sex work should never be decriminalised. In fact, the decriminalisation 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 organisations, have called over and over again for decriminalisation 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 labour. 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 decriminalising 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.