A beginner’s guide to feminism and sex work

By David Donaldson

By David Donaldson. This piece is part of our September focus on Women’s Rights. See all of this month’s articles here.

Notwithstanding the claims of various conservative commentators, feminism is, of course, not monolithic. It’s a broad range of ideas about the empowerment of women, and feminists do not always agree about what that means.

For an obvious example, we need look no further than sex work.

The radical – or “anti-sex” – feminist viewpoint focuses particularly on the idea that prostitution is a gross violation of a woman’s human rights. Activists such as Melbourne University’s Sheila Jeffreys argue that sex work is merely a form of commoditised sexism, where the woman is the object of both traditional male domination and capitalist exploitation.

Proponents of the radical feminist perspective tend to argue for solutions that will bring an end to sex work altogether. Punishing men who pay women for sex is a popular concept, and the one which Sweden has opted for. In Sweden, it is illegal to pay for sex, but not to sell it. As a result, the women involved – many of whom are already marginalised by society – are allowed to walk free by police, while their clients face fines or even time in prison.

Critics have, however, claimed that these laws continue to undermine the rights of the so-called “victim” , and have made life more difficult and dangerous for many sex workers. They claim it has made clients behave more nervously and created the need to conduct negotiations much faster, making it difficult to judge the personality and potential hazards of the men. Apart from perpetuating the stigma surrounding prostitution, such laws have effectively pushed the industry back underground.

Critics also claim that the radical feminist viewpoint fails to account for the role of male and transgender sex workers, who are not affected in the same ways by sexism.

In Australia, organisations such as Project Respect emphasise the role of human trafficking in the international sex industry, and assist women in setting up a life outside the world of prostitution.

On the other side of the debate sit those who see sex work as a legitimate job which should be regulated rather than abolished. Advocates argue that sex work will occur whether or not it is legal, and that legalisation enables the state to properly regulate the industry. The Netherlands is of course the most well-known site for this; the alleyways of Amsterdam are full of the women in windows.

Victoria and New South Wales have similar laws in place, but the prize for the most liberal sex laws actually goes to New Zealand. Whereas in Victoria brothels are legal but street-walking is not, Kiwis have the option of both. There is evidence that this empowers workers to reject dodgy clients and make their own financial choices more easily – and full legalisation of course means that it’s easier to find assistance on legal and health issues, without the worry of being interrogated by police.

In Australia, the Scarlet Alliance, which could be described as a sex workers’ union, supports decriminalisation and a strong voice in policymaking for those who actually work in the industry. They are especially active on educating both the workers and the wider public about health and legal issues to do with the world’s oldest profession.

One of the successes of the stricter Swedish model is that it has effectively put an end to sex slavery in that country, while a large proportion of the huge number of sex workers in the Netherlands are thought to be there against their will. Though decriminalisation can make it more difficult to stop the trafficking of women, leading to some European countries considering stricter prostitution laws, Australia and New Zealand thankfully do not face the same challenges as Europe when it comes to porous borders, making the issue much more manageable here.

Questions for comment:

Is trying to abolish sex work a pointless exercise?

Can sex work be recognised as just another job, or is it too inherently sexist?

The liberal approach and the “Swedish model” both contain strengths and drawbacks. Which works better?


  • Erin

    It’s difficult to see prostitution as ‘just another job’, because historically it’s been exploitative and not empowering. I think it’s an inherently sexist because the women are drastically overrepresented in the sex work industry. However, I spent some time in Amsterdam with a friend over New Year, and she pointed out the very important point that if sex work is not legalised, then it can’t be legislated about and as a result female sex workers can be put into precarious situations – if they’re abused at work, they may not be able to approach the police for fear of being investigated themselves. In this sense, I basically think that legalising sex work would be the lesser of two evils, but ideally, there wouldn’t be a market for sex work at all.

    • Andre Dao

      Erin, what do you think of sex work in the context of people with a disability?

      • Katherine

        Do you mean disabled persons seeking sex worker’s services in a situation where prostitution is illegal?

      • Erin

        Hi Andre, this is an interesting debate. I assume you’re speaking about clients with a disability, rather than sex workers who have a disability. I think people with a disability are entitled to have sex if they want to – sex is undoubtedly an important part of life, and I can understand that people want to be able to participate in life as fully as they can, but at the same time I don’t think sex isn’t a human right. (Or is it? http://theconversation.edu.au/is-sex-a-human-right-ummm-yes-no-maybe-it-depends-on-what-you-mean-by-sex-really-4491).

        Does your question imply that someone with a disability will need to pay for sex, more so than someone who doesn’t have a disability?

        • Andre Dao

          I’m not sure if sex is a human right, but sex and or intimacy are certainly vital parts of life. So I guess my question was whether or not a sex worker who works with disabled clients who don’t have alternative access to sex/intimacy is being exploited?

          Katherine – that is indeed an interesting situation. In jurisdictions where prostitution is illegal, perhaps there should be an exception for sex workers who work with people with disabilities?

          • Erin

            I think the sex worker is still being exploited in this scenario, it’s just a matter of whether we think it’s permissible because the client has a disability – if we think it’s more important that the client with a disability can access a vital part of life (sex). But then, we’re all exploited for our labour under capitalism. And I’m not sure about ‘sex/intimacy’ – I don’t think they’re that easily interchangeable. Sex has certainly become a commodity (as Sam points out below), but I think the really fantastic thing about intimacy is that it can’t be commodified – it goes beyond any kind of legal requirement or right, and beyond any monetary transaction. You can’t really buy intimacy.

  • Catherine

    I always find these conversations tend to ignore the subject of male sex workers, as they don’t fit into the arguments neatly enough (or something like that), obviously Right Now is looking at women’s human rights issues this month, but it’s still an important part of the debate.

    • Erin

      Hi Catherine, do you think that men in the sex work industry are exploited and coerced, or are they there by choice? It is an important part of the debate, but men are the minority in this industry. Why do you think they don’t fit neatly into the arguments?

      • Catherine

        And yet, in this study of almost 20,000 people (2003) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14696710, twice as many Australian men have been paid for sex than women.

        I think the reasons male sex workers are in the industry are the same as those for female sex workers, and that this has an impact on the assumption that sexual exploitation is enacted only on women.

        Prostitution is said to be the oldest profession, but I think we forget that this would certainly include male prostitution.

        • Erin

          That’s a really interesting stat and I wasn’t aware of it – that’s a fair point and maybe we are being sexist in assuming that only women are sexually exploited.

          The link you provided also found that ‘Almost one in six Australian men (15.6%) have ever paid for sex; 1.9% had done so in the past year. Of men who had ever paid for sex, 97% had paid for sex with a woman and 3% for sex with a man. Very few women (0.1%) had ever paid for sex’.

          So if twice as many Australian men are being paid for sex than women, but 15% of men are paying for sex, compared to less and 1% of women does this mean that women provide substantially more sex work – fewer numbers of women, but much more demand for them?

          Surely this stat shows that the industry (although there may be more male sex workers) exists primarily for the benefit of men – they certainly make up the bulk of the clientele.

  • Wendy Lyon

    If by “effectively put an end to sex slavery” you mean eradicated trafficking, the Swedish model has done no such thing. In fact, two large sex trafficking rings were prosecuted there earlier this year, and annual Swedish police reports confirm that the problem is growing.

    There isn’t a lot of evidence for the claims of a “large proportion” of involuntary sex workers in the Netherlands, either, although it is the case that many of those from outside the EU are in exploitative conditions. The fact that they are unable to work in the legal system undoubtedly has something to do with this.

  • Brazen Lee

    The notion that women are incapable of making their own choices is inherently sexist, not sex work.

    • Rose

      Whether a woman working in the sex industry has opted to do so by choice may be easier to perceive in a country like Australia or Sweden, where gender equality is generally good, and where living standards are generally high.

      But in many developing countries, where women and girls are not provided with the same opportunities as males, it’s more difficult, at first glance, to understand whether a sex worker has elected to engage in that work instead of the many other opportunities and career paths that should be available to her.

      But I also think it’s damaging to patronise sex workers, so agree with Brazen. If they’ve freely chosen to work in the industry, then I don’t have a problem with it. In principle I’m in favour of decriminialisation, but I’m still doubtful over whether regulating the industry would prevent women being coerced into this business, or exploited.

      On the topic of male sex workers, I think it’s true to say that sex work is gendered, but men (and boys) in the industry shouldn’t be overlooked.

  • Sam Ryan

    Fascinating topic. And a great example of where issues can be far more complex than the way they are often portrayed through ideology.

    Sex work inevitably opens the possibility for exploitation and abuse, from either party. Many women (and men) choose the profession – legally and illegally – due to circumstance. Many other women (and men) do it because they actually want to and enjoy it.

    And there are many people in society who seek out these services to satisfy a need they otherwise are unable to – or find it very difficult to – for various reasons.

    Regulation is crucial, but surely these adults have the right to consensually undertake that transaction.

    For better or worse, sex has been well and truly commodified. Genuine intimacy, however, is something else entirely…

  • Frank Delta

    let adults make free will choices, if a women want to offer sex for cash, she should be allowed with no restriction