WHY DECRIMINALIZING PROSTITUTION IS NECESSARY FOR THE FUTURE OF FEMINISM
I didn’t always feel this way.
I used to think working in the industry of sex diminished women, our worth and sexuality. I used to think that it furthered the treatment of women as objects and led to increased violence. Some of this thinking came as a result of my personal experience.
Being upfront here, I worked as a stripper in clubs and for parties in my late teens and early 20’s. I was an actor and dancer anyway, so it wasn’t really difficult. It was another form of acting for me, but mainly a way to strongly hide my fragile-feeling heart. We were burlesque and art — hiking boots and pointe shoes and lot’s of scarves. We didn’t take any nonsense from anyone, like when someone tried to grab us, we could kick them or the woman behind the bar would grab her rifle. Also, the money was really good for the 1980’s in rural America. Life wasn’t as complex then, and looking back on it, I actually enjoyed the work. It was theater. It was a form of holding power. But I hated the shame and judgment attached to it, and there was more than plenty of that.
I came into the industry through the door of being a sexual assault survivor as a young teen and prior to that experiencing childhood sexual abuse. This unfortunate backdrop of a scenario gave way to a cultivated hardness of heart with which I was once quite pleased. Protection, or so I thought. No one was concerned about childhood trauma then, or if they were, they did not speak of it. No one thought about therapy for girls like me. They just ignored it and figured we’d get pregnant and disappear. Some of us did. Other survivors made the industry work in their favor, and many stayed silent and found other ways to work out their pain, or not.
The tricky thing about this issue is that it is incredibly easy to fall prey to generalizations and a one size fits all approach. It’s those generalizations that have created a fracture in the fabric of people standing together in solidarity around safety, even agreeing to disagree.
Feminism is the full humanity and mutuality of women.
In its finest connotation, feminism sees women (both cis and transgender) deserving of equal protection under the law and the ability to support themselves in their chosen work in a manner equal to males. It takes into account that all of us live in a patriarchal, white male dominated worldview that is so prevalent as to simply be the air we breathe each day.
There is nothing radical about this notion.
Women’s economic choices are often limited, especially in today’s economy of low wage jobs, and an extremely competitive job market for the best positions. Sex work is a viable option for many women, and unfortunately, sometimes the only option that a woman might see out of a bad situation. For that very reason alone, it needs to be safer. Discussion on the economics of sex work, and how difficult the government makes it to leave the industry will wait for another time.
Feminism precludes autonomy and freedom to decide what is right for oneself. The lack of resources, both economic and social, to change your life when you are struggling to survive is very real. Sex work can provide an escape for some women, and if it were decriminalized, then women in the industry would have more agency to choose or reject clients and/or situations without fear.
People who have chosen sex work need to be protected under the law.
When prostitution is criminalized, all women are in danger.
The internalized hatred for strong feminine sexuality comes out in the desire to control women’s sexuality through defining some women as “good” and others as “bad”. Bad women are disposable objects in this worldview. They don’t receive the same police protection, often are abused by the police, and when they are killed or injured, they have at times not even been considered human. (This is unfortunately very true!) The only redemption offered them is to admit to being “victims” and confess their harlot ways. Still then, there is little chance to be seen as more than a whore. If you don’t choose this path, then you are an outcast and a deviant by the cultural norms deserving of whatever befalls you. It’s simply a no-win situation.
In addition, the system that polices the bodies of women, especially women of color, continues to disproportionately punish women leading to incarceration and imprisonment for crimes against no one.
Objectification and devaluing of females is what has led to domestic and sexual violence worldwide. Men commit violence because they can and they are, more often than not, not held accountable. The #MeToo movement is beginning to change this, but that movement is still long removed from sex workers, or women of low socio-economic means. Once again, ignored or silenced. Check out the damage already done by the President of the United States. He’s embodying a worldview of white, privileged, male culture behaving in a manner that would never be tolerated if demonstrated by anyone else.
Consent is critical in all situations.
Some radical feminists have argued that sex work is inherently exploitive and oppressive, stating that consenting to one’s own “violation” is a fact of oppression. But hooking up with random strangers can also be exploitive, as can walking down the street in any city in America.
Like it or not, consenting adults engage in transactional sex regularly. In the situation of decriminalization, I am only speaking of consenting adults engaging in the industry of sex with autonomy and choice.
The high number of unreported and reported sexual assaults that occur each year are extremely exploitive. The silence around sexual assault is often so much easier than exposing oneself to endless blame and slut shaming. Consent is always questioned.
I remember the feelings well that emerged listening to Anita Hill’s testimony in 1991. I was writing my graduate thesis in feminist/womanist theology and I felt absolute outrage, pain, and sorrow! Being young, I was shocked by the treatment of this polished, professional woman by a bunch of older, white senators. But I also heard the implicit message. Better keep your mouth shut. Surely, it was a warning to American women heeded still today.
Decriminalizing prostitution means that those who are sex workers, whether working through the internet or on the street, are afforded protection under the law.
The law should be expected to protect sex workers and keep them safe. They should have the ability to unionize and work autonomously. It would lead to a decrease in pimping culture as a result. It would protect worker rights and safety. It would protect basic human rights and dignity. Decriminalization is NOT the same as legalization.
People who commit violence against sex workers should be prosecuted in the same way as anyone who commits a violent act. Decriminalization fosters autonomy, self-determination and responsibility. It, in time, would take the stigma out of trying to leave the profession and offer more options to all women, not just the most privileged.
Decriminalizing consensual sex work would leave resources and time to focus on stopping the trafficking of minors, child sexual abuse, and sexual violence against all people. It would create the ability to assist those who are truly trafficked and not target those who are trying to survive as best they can.
Womanism is the new feminism
Alice Walker coined the term “womanism” stating, “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.”
It’s time for white feminists to understand that operating within a historical feminist lens does not acknowledge the lived experiences of all women, especially those who have typically been seen as “other”. It’s damaging not only to women of color, but to all women. For many, womanism is not new, however, it is necessary for all of us — especially white women.
When ideologies shut out voices that disagree, they become part of the very fabric of oppression they seek to overcome. Audre Lorde taught us that, “Difference is that raw and powerful connection from which our original power is forged.”
Whether sex work is degrading to women or not is not the issue. Let each woman decide for herself. What is at issue is how we value each other’s choices, acknowledge the differences between us, and figure out how to make them strengths.
So what made me change my mind?
Working with those who’ve been directly affected by intimate partner violence and sexual assault for the majority of my career has informed my understanding of the complexities of oppression. But it was my work with girls in the juvenile justice system and victims of human trafficking, both minors and adults that led me to this conclusion in the end.
The conflation of sex work with human trafficking is so extremely problematic these days and seems to originate in a cultural sense of sexual shame. If adult consensual sex work were decriminalized, then more focus and resources could be centered on domestic minor human trafficking and adults that are trafficked into this country for labor, sex or both.
The inability of the abolitionist movement to take into account voices that offer another point of view was the last straw for me. My friends working in the sex industry, as well as those who have left, are marginalized further by an almost militant refusal to acknowledge their wisdom or experience. Race, class, poverty, gender, homophobia — — all play a part in this important discussion. The voices of those most affected should not be ignored, shut out, or minimized — and yet, they are.
The voices of the ones removed from the conversation need a place at the table. In fact, they should lead the discussion. And maybe it’s time for the rest of us to listen.