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feminist perspective on sex work

buffalo's picture

Feminist perspectives on prostitution 

             There are many feminist perspectives on the issue of prostitution; some think it is bad for female equality, but should be decriminalized, some think it should be legal, and others think it should be illegal. Feminists like Pateman, Satz, and Shrage think prostitution isn’t morally wrong, but given the current social and economic situation women are in, it continues giving women subordinate status. Other feminist outlooks against prostitution come from taking issue with the heavy costs sex workers pay, like risk of violence and sexually transmitted diseases.  An argument for legalizing sex work is that it lets women build careers for themselves, which can help build self-esteem and empowerment. Pro-sex workers think that saying that ‘prostitution’ is an issue for women, takes away from the reality of societies where other structures lead to oppression of women. I’ve found that there are rarely feminists who identify as purely for or against sex work; the issue is too complex so even if someone thinks that prostitution hurts the female goal of equality, they still might think it should be legal.

            Some feminists have the outlook that with the current way society in the United States and other countries are run, there isn’t a way for prostitution to be overall advantageous for women. Satz, a feminist author, doesn’t support prostitution, but doesn’t think it’s morally wrong. She, like many other feminists think prostitution is negative for women because “in our society, prostitution represents women as the sexual servants of men”. Satz’s view is troubling because by having women perceived as servants to men, it takes away from women’s integrity, and sometimes women are treated with less worth. Some feminists think that there is a direct positive correlation between prostitution and violence towards women. Melissa Farley uses Nevada as an example for this theory because Nevada is the only U.S. state which allows legal brothels (in addition to prostitution) and they have the 4th highest sexual assault crimes rate in all the U.S. states. Feminists fear that when women are seen as servants, men treat them even more unequally and this can lead to violence; this reminds of me of behavior/outlook towards slaves.

            In addition to society having a worse view of women’s worth from position, feminists also argue all the suffering individual workers go through. From a basic definition of feminism, feminists are working towards equality with men and if women are being hurt emotionally and physically in their work is it hard or impossible to move towards equality. Andrea Dworkin, an ex-prostitute said, “In prostitution no woman stays whole…and no woman gets whole again later, after” (5). Feminists against prostitution argue that it leads to detrimental long term effects like depression, anxiety, trauma, and self-medication through drugs (4). Not only are there internal effects to the workers, but also frighteningly high statistics of physical violence committed against them. A study showed that 82% of the interviewed workers had been physically assaulted since entering prostitution, 68% reported being raped since entering prostitution, and 48% of those who were raped, were raped more than 5 times (6). This kind of violence leaves women in a state of fear, where personally I don’t think they can be striving for equality.  Even though feminists that argue this points have clear objections with prostitution, some think it should be decriminalized so the workers aren’t being punished, but instead the pimps and ‘johns’. Although some feminists who consider themselves anti-prostitution think that it should be decriminalized, others think it should be illegal because they believe the argument that legalizing prostitution to reduce harm by control is the same as legalizing domestic violence to reduce harm by controlling it.

            Feminist like Nussbaum takes issue with multiple aspects of prostitution, including the negative affects of the workers’ integrity, relationships, and contribution to male-dominated social order. Sex work has much higher risks than other jobs because of the violence, and sexually transmitted diseases; this means the women have to risk their safety every time they work. Prostitution takes away from a woman’s integrity because, as Carole Pateman said “people's bodies and sexual capacities are an integral part of their identity as men and women, the woman who works as a prostitute sells her womanhood and therefore herself” (5). Prostitution can take a toll on not only the worker’s intimate relationships, but also the buyers’ relationships; all cultures have different meanings for relationships but in the United States having sex outside a marriage are reason for divorce. It must be much harder to hold a relationship being a sex worker, because of being intimate with some many other people; I can only imagine the internal problems this would cause for the workers’ psyche. Prostitution takes away females’ right to her sexuality, and yes they are making this choice, but they shouldn’t have to. Sex work contributes to a male-dominated social order because although there are females who run brothels and pimp out girls, the majority of the business owners and pimps are males, as well as clients; this leads to women taking orders from and serving men. There are all different kinds of sex work, which hugely vary between street walkers on Park avenue and young girls working in brothels in developing nations; in the later situation the pimps goal is to break the girls down, so they feel they have no self worth and will not leave; this seems like the antithesis of feminism.

            Pro-sex work feminists take issue with the fact that anti-sex work feminists think of sex work as one industry, but it is so varied so it needs to be addressed that way. It isn’t practical to try and shut down prostitution when there are so many different circumstances that lead women into this work; instead a supportive view would be more beneficial to try and help the workers. Yes feminists can theorize as much as they want about how sex work is right or wrong, but men degrading women is not an outcome of prostitution, but a result of society. It is important to note all the different circumstances that can lead women to chose sex work, and try to address the issues from all these different points of view; perhaps in some places (the U.S.) it is plausible to make prostitution illegal while still giving women a chance to survive, but in other places (like developing countries) unfortunately it may be a female’s only way to support herself. I think in situations like developing countries there should be crackdown on brothel owners and pimps, decriminalization for workers, and more support (like clinics) for the workers. Pimps and brothel owners are in the sex work business because it is profitable, but if they were given bigger fines and more surveillance the profits would drop, and presumably they would close down.

            I consider myself a feminist, and from my point of view there is not right answer. I think women should have the choice to do what they want with their bodies, but in many situations (like male dominated societies) it can take away from women’s goal of reaching equality. I think that in some developing countries sex work can be much more physically dangerous for the worker if they have a boss, so there should be harsher laws on pimps/brothel owners so they go out of business. Overall I think sex workers need support, like clinics, education, and childcare, to help give these women as many options as possible.



1. Satz, D., 1995, “Markets in Women's Sexual Labor”, in Ethics, 106: 63-85.


2. Shrage, L., 1989, “Should Feminists Oppose Prostitution?”, in Ethics, 99: 347-61.


3. Nussbaum, M., 1999, Sex and Social Justice, Oxford: Oxford University Press.






6. Farley, M.; Barkan, H. (1998). "Prostitution, Violence, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder". Women & Health 27 (3): 37–49.




Serendip Visitor's picture

I resent pro-prostitution

I resent pro-prostitution feminists telling me to support prostitution as a legitimate job. Oh, unless the whore gets raped, then "sex work" is suddenly sad and abusive? WRONG.

If you are a "sex worker" and selling the right for someone to use your orifices, then rape is an occupational hazard that should be covered by worker's comp. I feel bad for women who are raped, but not prostitutes - either it is a "job" with risks or it is a piss-poor "choice" but I sure as hell am not going to support or feel bad for someone who chooses to sell themselves as a fuckhole and then cries she is "abused". If you are a whore, then being "abused" is your job - suck it up and deal with it.

Anne Dalke's picture

Live Nude Girls Unite!


Reading about the contrast you develop between the positions of "pro-sex-workers" and "anti-sex-workers," I'm put in mind of some of the work done around the as-charged issue of abortion, in which activists have tried to find a common ground in reducing the # of unwanted pregnancies, intervening before abortion becomes an issue. Is that the view you are looking towards here? Seeing the question of sex work as embedded in larger social norms that debase women, and so make much of their work (including, but not limited to, sex work) degrading; arguing that working conditions, rather than moral questions, need addressing?

If you'd like to go on exploring this topic, I'd recommend your watching Julia Query and Vicky Funari's 2000 film, Live Nude Girls Unite! --which doesn't have an international perspective, but does trace the process of sex workers unionizing in California.

I'm wondering, too, if you and amophrast might have some interesting conversation; her project explored the intersections of feminism and pornography. Talking with one another might achieve something of what Kamala Kempadoo does in her essay, "Women of Color and the Global Sex Trade," which asks us not only to consider sex work as an income-generating activity, but also to think about women's sexual agency, needs, and desires....