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?

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