The Divide Over Prostitution on the Feminist Left

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

An American-British university student, Sarah Fletcher, defends the Swedish model criticized by an earlier reader:

As a lefty, I want to condemn a lot of liberals’ un-nuanced support of prostitution that’s justified by vague notions of “choice” and criticize how many aspects of third wave feminism erase the voices of the most vulnerable in prostitution.

Sex work is not work. This isn’t a fashionable statement these days, especially in those corners of the internet where sex positive feminism collides with confessional journalism, where college students who work as camgirls, sugar babies, or panty sellers can pen think pieces about vague abstract concepts like “empowerment” or “reclamation.” These women—who most of the time are involved in the most privileged type of sex work, sex work in which they can carefully choose their clients, if they interact with their clients in real life at all—often advocate for decriminalisation of prostitution.

But for most of the women in prostitution, “sex work” is not an abstract symbol of empowerment or exercise in intersectional feminism. It’s something they need to do to survive or to support their families.

In the UK, 70 percent of women in prostitution are single mothers who do not receive benefits. The 63 percent of women in German brothels, where prostitution is legalised, are foreigners who lack the resources or German language skills to get other work. Miranda Farley interviewed prostitutes across nine countries and found that 89 percent wanted to escape [pdf]. These are women we seldom hear from; they lack the educational means to write blog posts about their experiences. They go against the “happy hooker” narrative that’s so popular in the media.

“Sex work”  is a purposely vague phrase that disguises the realities of the job, where rape is a common workplace risk and the threat of murder weighs heavily on the minds of working women. Prostitutes are not killed because they are stigmatised, despite what people in the pro-decriminalisation lobby believe. They are killed because men hate them. They are killed because Johns know no one likely will be looking for them.

The answer here is to decriminalise the women who are pushed to these desperate conditions and create easier exit strategies—no woman should be criminalised for poverty, for wanting to eat, for wanting to provide for her children—and criminalise the men who exploit this desperation.

In today’s world, it’s easy to be blasé and believe the selling of sex is no different than waitressing or serving coffee. I can see why so many millennials—including myself—have bought this narrative: pornography is widespread (the average viewer starting at the age of 12) and hookup culture is common on college campuses. Feminism fought hard to dispel the “he’s a stud, she’s a slut” double standard, and in doing so, has implicitly encouraged young women to view sex with the same broad brush of “no big deal,” just like their male counterparts. It’s old fashioned these days—almost prudish, perhaps—to believe that sex is somehow not inherently linked to your emotions or necessarily intimate. Supporting decriminalisation and the sex industry also goes against the liberal support of enthusiastic consent laws: How can enthusiastic consent be achieved when money is the sole motivator for consent?

This approach clearly isn’t working. The PTSD rates of exited prostitutes shows that this is false. The disassociation from their bodies that exited prostitutes describe should show it’s not a job like any other. It’s time to stop buying into this narrative that “sex work is just work”—a trojan horse of misogyny infiltrating the political left —and stop punishing the most vulnerable women of society.

Are you a feminist and disagree? Have you ever been in involved in sex work? Drop us an email. Update from a reader:

I don’t really want to get into my own views on this issue right now; I just want to push back on the reader’s claim about 89 percent of women wanting to escape sex work. The linked-to surveys are all from places where sex work is still criminalized. If person argues that “prostitution wouldn’t be as bad if it were totally decriminalized,” you can’t refute that argument with a poll showing how unhappy sex workers are in places where it is still illegal. You should compare satisfaction rates between places where it is legalized, places where it is partially legalized, and places where it is outright banned.