The Feminist Take On Sex Work, Deconstructed

Sex work should not be glorified as a freeing industry on the illusion of choice, nor should it be promoted.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

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By Sophia Li

As a young girl raised in a religious household, my perception of sex work used to be extremely conservative. I was taught that no matter the circumstances or the worker’s beliefs, sex work is always wrong and can never be forgiven by the law or the divine higher power. But as I grew up and social media became more accessible, I was introduced to the growing feminist movement. At the time, the interpretation of feminism that dominated social media argued that criminalizing sex work on the basis of religion was sexist and went against American ideals. I understood the morality behind this argument; modern American individualism and liberalism promote the idea that as long as an industry does not break any laws and its laborers consent to industry practice, it is nothing more than a means of income. But now, as an older teen, I’ve experienced the feminist movement shift into a different attitude toward sex work. This new wave of feminists argues that the previous interpretation was extremely static and built on the pretense that the female identity is a monolith. No two women will ever have the same experience in any workfield, and their experiences are dependent on factors like age, race, and financial background. After we account for these differences, the toxicity and harmfulness of all sex work environments become clear. Sex work should not be glorified, nor should it be promoted, because the industry is extremely damaging to women.

In the United Kingdom, almost three-quarters of women in prostitution are poor, single mothers. In Germany, where all sex work is legal, almost all of the women employed at brothels are displaced foreigners who lack the resources or language skills to get other work. A lack of government support, coupled with these women’s backgrounds, results in them having to resort to sex work, even if it is the last thing they want to do. In a Swiss study, 50 percent of sex workers reported suffering from a mental health issue. Furthermore, in an American study, the vast majority of workers reported at least one violent or traumatic experience (often rape, but also other acts of violence). There is also substantial overlap of drug use and sex work—about 1 million out of the 3.5 million women who inject drugs globally are sex workers. These statistics quantify the reality of women’s experiences in sex work and why women aren’t eager to become sex workers, contrary to what the media portrays.

Many sex workers start in the industry as minors. Again, the question emerges: are these girls really choosing to pursue sex work like pro-sex work feminists argue? Though these young girls ultimately make the decision themselves, the circumstances in which they do so should not go unnoticed: sex work is extremely profitable, but not for sex workers themselves. Few are able to amount to the level of success most people assume they can secure. However, it is those select few who are brandished across social media (by predominantly male managers) as the true leaders of sex work industries. By promoting such success stories and painting sex work as a worthwhile and satisfying industry—despite the high PTSD rates of prostitutes—young women are groomed into participating in what is actually a very dangerous industry.

Despite the core differences in their beliefs, pro-sex work and anti-sex work feminists agree on one thing: the criminalization of sex work would put millions of women at risk. Taking this action would put the blame for the negative effects of sex work on women, when in reality, the true criminals are those who profit off of sex work. Pimps, traffickers, and brothel owners put women in these circumstances and profit off of their pain, making hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Sex work should not be criminalized, but it also shouldn’t be glorified and promoted to naive, young girls and struggling women.