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On Feminism and Sex Work

ssherman's picture

Sarah Sherman

Due 12/19/08

Critical Fem Studies

Professor Dalke



On Feminism and Sex Work

"If I can't dance I don't want to be part of your revolution."

-Emma Goldman



When the sex industry is talked about, the first aspect of it that most people think of is prostitution, and along with that the industry itself is quite often only perceived negatively. Not only is prostitution not the only thing that is being talked about when sex work or the sex work industry is referred to, the sex work industry is not a negative part of our society. Prostitution and sex work have intrigued me for awhile. We are always taught that prostitution is bad, that the people who do it can't find another job, are drug addicts, etc. Along with that, people who work in strip clubs and participate in porn have a stigma about them, that they are dirty and are doing this job on the side, maybe for fun or maybe because it's the only way they can pay the bills. I feel like we take these things we are taught and just believe them without doing our own research and making our own opinions about the matter. Should prostitution be illegal? Should it be shameful to be in a pornographic film or to work in a strip club? I don't think it should be. If these women choose to work in this industry, this is their choice and we should respect that. But how do feminists feel about this? Are they appalled that these women are working in an industry that has commonly been viewed as one that oppresses women or are they empowered that these women are deciding to use their bodies to their advantage?

I don't have a personal connection to this subject at all. I don't know anyone involved in the sex work industry, I have never gone to a speaker about this, though in my criminology class this semester, we had a guest speaker about prostitution and sex tourism in Asia, but that does not really connect to what I plan to discuss in this paper. I plan on focusing more on feminism and its views about prostitution and other parts of the sex industry, mainly focusing on America. I will also use examples from feminists from other countries and their opinions on prostitution and the sex work industry in their own country. There is so much work done about how American feminists feel about prostitution in third world countries, how we should help them, and how they're all being forced into it and being made to prostitute against their will. I think it's easier to remove yourself from the situation in this country by talking about other countries, and to not address the problems we have here with prostitution and how they can be fixed. As we have learned in this class, there are many different definitions of feminism for people of certain countries, religions, and ethnicities, and along with that they have different problems with feminism and what needs to be fixed. This is the same with prostitution. In Thailand they have different issues with prostitution than we do here, and therefore we need different ways of addressing the issues and we cannot have the use the same things to solve the "problem" with prostitution as they do in Thailand. It is much more effective to have Australian feminists talking about prostitution in Australia, rather than American feminists talking about prostitution in Australia or another foreign country.

Feminists strongly disagree on the issue of prostitution. The significant amount of literature about prostitution is mainly written by second wave feminists, who are commonly referred to as "radical feminists." Third-wave feminism is still rather recent and doesn't have much literature about prostitution yet, especially not academic literature. Though as might be expected since we are talking about third wave feminists, a majority of the literature out there is in blog form, which can be hard to use, especially since you do not always know the bias that the writer has and they are not always writing for a general audience. Sometimes they are writing for personal use or for a small audience that they may already know agrees with them. Second wave feminists tend to work for freedom for all women and to help out the people/groups who they believe to be oppressed, which includes themselves as women. (Three Waves of Feminism) Third wave feminists on the other hand are more concerned with threats to women's rights and issues that really affect women, but along with that, there really isn't such thing as one definition of third wave feminism, there are many definitions and many different goals that third wave feminists work towards. (Three Waves of Feminism) With the clear fundamental differences between second and third wave feminists, it is no surprise that they have differences on their beliefs about prostitution.

To further locate myself within this paper, I feel that it is necessary to say that I consider myself to be a third wave feminist. It was really only when I started writing this paper that I decided that I should somewhat place myself within a category of feminism, which seems quite contradictory to what we discussed in class, that everyone has their own definition of feminism. It also seems ironic since we had quite a long discussion about what we felt it meant to locate ourselves in an essay and whether it was necessary. But in an essay on a controversial topic, and one in which I plan to challenge the beliefs of second wave feminism on prostitution, I feel that it is necessary to state where I stand. Though I hope it will not seem like this, if it does; this is in no way a vendetta against second wave feminism. Second wave feminists achieved so much which allowed me and so many other women in my generation to grow up with rights and privileges that they did not have. I simply strongly disagree with how second wave feminism views prostitution and the sex work industry. I plan to present the views of second and third wave feminists about prostitution and the sex industry, as well as trying to get some part of what seems to be the view of the public about prostitution in the discussion. I also would like to somewhat define prostitution, so it is clear what is being talked about it, along with what the current implications of being a prostitute or in the sex industry are. I would like to pursue the point that second wave feminists view prostitution as an inappropriate, one that we should be ashamed of, one that furthers the oppression of women, and one that could even be considered violence against women, while third wave feminists believe that prostitution is not an inherently dirty act, that prostitution can be empowering for women, and can help overthrow the patriarchal system.

There are quite a few terms that come up when talking about prostitution and the sex work industry, and in order to have a productive discussion about how feminists feel about prostitution and the sex industry, what they're talking about needs to be defined. For the terms of this paper prostitution will be defined as sex acts for money or some other type of material award/gain. Sex work will be referring to work that is done in the sex industry, such as being part of porn and stripping. In this paper when prostitution is referred to, it will not be discussing forced prostitution, sex trafficking, and/or sexual exploitation of any kind.

Prostitution and sex work are not regarded well in our society. Prostitutes are viewed as dirty women, who don't have other jobs or job options, they may be addicted to drugs, they may have STDs, they are just are not viewed as a good group of people. There are also beliefs that many were forced into prostitution, that they had negative family experiences while growing up and perhaps were sexually abused. While some of these ideas may seem completely plausible, they don't line up with the statistics that are out about prostitution. From looking at statistics, it is seen that many prostitutes did not have good family backgrounds while growing up; they had single parents, had domestic abuse in their family, and some addiction to drugs or alcohol by parents or other family members, as well, most prostitutes say they were sexually abused as children. (Prostitution) But at the same time, there was study done that shows a majority of prostitutes said that while they now lived in poverty, they came from families of average or higher incomes. (Prostitution) There was also a study done that reported more than three-quarters of prostitution said they came from families that regularly went to church. (Prostitution) That really can't be much of telling point though. There would have to be an argument made and statistics that show that people who regularly attend church as a child are more likely to end up being good, law-abiding citizens for this statistic to really mean something, because then all these prostitutes who attended church regularly would be an anomaly.

We also get some of our views on prostitution from the media. Sometimes we see prostitution glorified, like in the movie, Pretty Woman. But for the most part prostitution is not the focus of most stories in the media. It is sometimes seen in movies or TV shows, usually on the side, and it is never portrayed in a positive light. Typically it is shown in the media as something done in the complete middle of the night, by unattractive women usually wearing something much too tight for them or by transvestites. In crime shows, they sometimes use prostitutes for information, and they always show them running from the police and only cooperate with the police when they assure the prostitutes that they won't be arrested.

Not everyone has a formalized view on prostitution, but quite a lot of people do. Since this paper is my only thing left in finals week, I have been talking about it a lot. So I asked my friends who I was at dinner with on Tuesday night what they thought about prostitution. And something that may seem shocking but surprisingly didn't faze me at all was when one of my friends said it was definitely something she thought about, in the way of considering doing something like that. Another one of my friends said that she had thought about it but wasn't nearly attractive enough to do it. They even said they had heard about a Bryn Mawr student who had worked as a prostitute one summer and made thousands of dollars. We just discussed how you could choose what exactly you would do, you wouldn't have to be a prostitute, you could be a stripper or work for an explicit fetish and it didn't have to be humiliating, and you can make a lot of money. And it didn't sound like something any one of us would be really ashamed to do. If you can control what you're doing and you only do things on your terms, then you're doing it because you want to and because you're comfortable with the situation and your decision.

Second wave feminists have a lot of issues with prostitution. A lot of their issues with prostitution mainly stem from the issue they were fighting the most against, which is the oppression and/or subordination of women. Laurie Shrage, a second wave feminist who has written a fair amount about feminism's view of prostitution believes that, "the sex industry, like other institutions in our society, is structured by deeply ingrained attitudes and values which are oppressive to women." (Shrage, Ethics 348) Since second wave feminists were fighting so much against the oppression of women and the patriarchy in general, it is not surprising that the biggest issue that they take with prostitution is that they feel it reinforces the power of men and their place in society. Kamala Kempadoo suggests that the way that second wave feminists feel that the female's body is controlled is the main issue with prostitution. (Kempadoo, 35) Since by common knowledge, we know that the vast majority of prostitutes' clients are male, the way that men are using women's bodies is just reinforcing the oppression of women. Even though the prostitutes are the controllers of the interaction, men can easily put themselves in control of the situation very quickly. Shrage goes on to say that "the prostitute's actions, and the industry as a whole, serve to perpetuate" the patriarchal system. (Shrage, Ethics 352) The idea that men are in control of society, that they are the ones in control of women and their actions, that women are serving them, prostitution only supports this, especially with the vast majority of prostitutes being female and the vast majority of their clients being male. "Male dominance" is another main issue having to do with subordination of women that feminists have with prostitution. Shrage points out how the whole sex industry is basically catered completely towards males. (Shrage, Ethics 354) Not only is that an issue, but she says that since prostitution involves money or some other material award, that is even further reinforcing the dominance of males. (Shrage, Ethics 354) By paying for sex, it becomes a service. By women being almost the sole providers of this service for men, we are just reinforcing the idea that women are here to serve men and to make them happy, and to keep the patriarchy going.

Second wave feminists view prostitutes in a different way than they are normally viewed. Second wave feminists often view prostitutes as victims. Not only are prostitutes considered victims of male oppression, but they are also victims of violence. There are second wave feminists who believe that prostitution can be viewed as violence against women. (Kempadoo, 34) There is no denying that forced prostitution, sex trafficking, and sexual exploitation are violent acts against women. But can you consider those who enter into prostitution voluntarily to be victims of violence because they are prostitutes? Second wave feminists would argue that yes, you could. Yes, there is definitely the possibility of being abused, sexually assaulted, or raped if you are a prostitute, even if one's job is to provide sex, there can be terms which are defined to protect the prostitute, or things that they refuse to do, and if their client goes against their wishes, then of course that is a crime. But as Sarah Bromberg, who spoke at the 1997 International Conference on Prostitution, pointed out, many second wave feminists think that abuse is much more common than it actually is, and therefore, many more women have to endure these violent acts. (Bromberg) Also, second wave feminists seem to think a lot more women are forced into prostitution than actually are, so they think the abuse and violence against women is much more prevalent than it actually is. The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) supports the view of second wave feminists that prostitution is violence against women. This group lobbies the United Nations Commission for the Prevention of Crime and Penal Justice to try to connect sex trafficking and prostitution, and along with that to identify both of them as crimes that fall under the violence against women category. (Agustin) If they were to succeed in this, then prostitution would be further criminalized, but not in a way that would make the punishments heavier for the women, the prostitutes themselves. Rather it would make every part of the act of prostitution a crime, and make it more likely for the clients to get penalized.

This brings us to the policy implications of prostitution. Looking at a chart of the federal and state laws regarding prostitution and related punishments shows that prostitution is illegal in every state in the US, as well as DC, and there are punishments for every participant in prostitution; the prostitute, the client, the pimps, and the brothel owners. ( While there are no statistics out there about the amount of prostitutes that are arrested versus the amount of clients arrested, or the amount of pimps/brothel owners arrested versus prostitutes, from random news stories and common sense, it is easy to figure out who would be more likely to be arrested and who wouldn't be. Of the four parties who could be punished by being involved in a prostitution act, the one that would be the least likely to be arrested/prosecuted would be the client. Yes, they are supporting this criminal act, but unless they are abusing the prostitutes who they are engaging in sexual activity with, they are the lesser of the evils. Sometimes the clients are used to gain information about the prostitutes, but the clients are really the smallest part of the crime when it comes to the police's opinion. While police want to make arrests and fill their quota, they don't want to just keep punishing the same people for the same thing over and over again, nor do they want to keep arresting prostitutes if they know even if they get those prostitutes off the street that the pimps they work for will just put more prostitutes on the streets. The police want to try to prevent crime. So it is better for them to gather information about the pimp or brothel owner and then prepare a sting and take down their whole operation, from the top. But sometimes police don't follow through with their plans to do a sting, so my guess would be that more prostitutes are arrested than any of the other groups, which isn't fair, as they are by no means the only ones committing a crime.

In continuing with the discussion of the policies surrounding prostitution, there is a disagreement about what the legal status of prostitution should be. Prostitution is on a whole illegal in the US, with the exception of some counties in Nevada and there are specific rules in Rhode Island as to what aspects of prostitution are illegal there. ( So if we were to try to progress from how prostitution is dealt with in the US now, we have three options: abolition, decriminalization, and legalization. All three options are self-explanatory; abolition would attempt to abolish prostitution in all forms, decriminalization would make it so it was no longer a crime to be a prostitute, and legalization is making prostitution legal. One of the strongest arguments for decriminalization and legalization is the right to privacy; that one has the control over their body and can choose to sell it if they want to. (Shrage- Sex Markets) Many feminists and sex workers think that decriminalization is the best way to approach the situation. A group called the International Union of Sex Workers, which started in England, but is really trying to become an international union said, "We call for the immediate decriminalization of all aspects of sex work involving consenting adults. Our bodies are our business!" (Lopes, 152) The fact that sex workers want decriminalization and not legalization is very telling and shows that they will clearly benefit the most if sex work and prostitution are decriminalized. Some people feel that one of the biggest pluses about decriminalization is that it will prevent prostitutes from getting arrested. (Abraham) Maybe that way, since prostitutes won't be afraid of the police, they can develop a good relationship and work together, especially if someone is out hurting prostitutes.

It would be incorrect to say that third wave feminists proponents of prostitution, but they are definitely not opponents of prostitution. As was stated before, third wave feminists are the most concerned with threats to women's rights and issues that affect women. Third wave feminists believe that being a prostitute can be a voluntary choice, and you can be proud of that choice, and proud that you have the rights to enable you to be a prostitute. (Bonavoglia) Third wave feminists believe that prostitutes are the ones that are in charge, that they are taking advantage of men's need for women to be sexualized. (Crawford) Lots of women actually enjoy working in the sex work industry. They chose to work in the sex work industry, whether it was mainly motivated by economic issues doesn't matter. They didn't quit because they don't hate it, they like it, they like the power they get from it, they like how empowered they feel.

These third wave feminists who are also sex workers are also activists. They want to achieve better rights, healthcare, and working conditions for those in the sex work industry. (Shrage- Sex Markets) A perfect example of this is the women who worked at the Lusty Lady in San Francisco in the middle of the ‘90s, when Julia Query was working at the club to make money to pay her rent. While the employees of the club were in the midst of disagreements with management, she decided to make a documentary to record their experience, which ended with the Lusty Lady becoming a unionized nude club, and appropriately named it, Live Nude Girls Unite. Everything to follow comes from the movie; much of which shows that these women are third wave feminists. None of the girls working there were forced to be working there, they chose on purpose to work in the sex industry, for the flexible hours and the good pay, and also they specifically chose to work at the Lusty Lady because it was a strip club and they didn't have to have physical contact with the clients. These women felt empowered working this club, one said that she loved working there and felt that being paid what she was worth and one said that some of the strongest women she had ever met worked in the strip club. One dancer said that feminism enabled them to work at the club by choice, and to anyone who had an issue with where she worked, she made it clear that it was her body and her reproductive organs and she could do whatever she wanted to with them. But at the same time, these women considered themselves to be very different from prostitutes. One woman commented that prostitutes are women who allow a man into their bodies who they have not chosen and do not care about. Another said that they worked with their minds, not their bodies, sending a backhanded insult to prostitutes.

In Live Nude Girls Unite, the dancers of the Lusty Lady decided that they wanted to unionize their club because of all their issues with the management, and the fact that these issues were not being solved. They had no job security; being a minute or two late to work could send them back to base salary, or could lose them shifts. There were explicit rules about who could replace them if they couldn't come in, and those were racist and the way the shifts were scheduled was also racist; they only had one dancer of color on each shift and they were never scheduled for the private room. They also had problems with customers sneaking cameras in and filming them and then posting the film online, and the management was making absolutely no attempts to stop them. So they decided to get serious and try to get the club unionized. So they went to their local service employees union, and got a negotiator for the contract proposals, and they were well on their way. There were a lot of things that went back and forth between the dancers and the management many times, but in the end they both compromised, and the Lusty Lady ended up becoming the only unionized strip club in America. Word of what they accomplished spread and dancers in strip clubs all over the country asked for their help to do the same sort of thing in their club. So not only by doing this were they empowering themselves, they were empowering other women as well.

The sex work industry is something that everyone knows exists, but that they don't always understand. As a kid, one is guarded from it because it isn't appropriate, and even as adults some people are still too uncomfortable to talk about it or deal with its impact on society and on women. People are ashamed to know someone in the sex work industry and if they are working in the industry, it is not a commonly shared fact. Feminists have disagreed about the sex work industry since third wave feminism started. Some feminists think it's a despicable act, they think it's a crime against women, something that the majority of the people who are working in the industry are forced into. At the same time, there are feminists who embrace those who work in the sex industry. They understand that these women feel empowered by what they're doing, that they chose to do this, and that they're in control. And while feminists may agree on one thing about prostitution; that it isn't handled well in this country, they disagree about how to proceed; whether to abolish it altogether, whether to decriminalize it, or whether to legalize it. I hope that this paper shed some light unto the sex industry in the eyes of feminism, and how something that has so much to do with the rights of women could be viewed so differently by a group of people who all identify as feminists.


Works Cited


Abraham, Yvonne, and Sarah McNaught. "Prostitution Theory 101." The Boston Phoenix. 23 Oct. 1997. 15 Dec. 1997 .


Agustin, Laura. "Sex workers and Violence against Women: Utopic Visions or Battle of the Sexes?" 11 Sept. 2008. 15 Dec. 2008 .


Bonavoglia, Angela. "Of Victims and Vixens--The Feminist Clash Over Prostitution." On The Issues Magazine. July 2008. 15 Dec. 2008 .


Bromberg, Sarah. "Feminist Issues in Prostitution." 14 Dec. 2008 .


Crawford, Bridget. "The Limits of Applied Third-Wave Feminism: The Case of Prostitution." Weblog post. Feminist Law Professors. 8 July 2007. 16 Dec. 2008 .


Kempadoo, Kamala. "Women of Color and the Global Sex Trade: Traditional Feminist Perspectives." Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism Vol. 1, No. 2. (Spring 2001): 28-51.


Live Nude Girls Unite. Dir. Julia Query and Vicki Funari. VHS. 2000.


Lopes, Ana. "Sex Workers of the World Unite!" Feminist Review: No. 67. (Spring, 2001): 151-53. 14 Dec. 2008 <>.


"Three Waves of Feminism." 10 June 2005. 16 Dec. 2008 .


"Prostitution." 17 Dec. 2008.


Shrage, Laurie, "Feminist Perspectives on Sex Markets", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), .


Shrage, Laurie. "Should Feminists Oppose Prostitution?" Ethics: Vol. 99, No. 2. (Jan. 1989): 347-61. 14 Dec. 2008 .


"US Federal and State Prostitution Laws and Related Punishments." 15 Dec. 2008 .

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Serendip Visitor's picture

There are major "Push

There are major "Push Factors" that in essence, force girls into prostitution worldwide.

No Outsider will ever understand why.