Deconstructing Sex Work In Order to Construct Feminism

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Deconstructing Sex Work In Order to Construct Feminism

Kelsey G.

Sex-positive feminism centers upon the principle that sexual freedom is an essential component to women's freedom; and thus, sex-positive feminists oppose both political and social efforts to control sexual activities between consenting adults. Gayle Rubin, a prominent sex-positive feminist, summarizes the conflict over sex within feminist politics during the 1980's:

"Because sexuality is a nexus of the relationship between genders, much of the oppression of women is borne by, mediated through, and consulted within sexuality...There have been two strains of feminist thought on the subject. One tendency has criticized the restrictions on women's sexual behavior and denounced the high costs imposed on women for being sexually active. This tradition of feminist sexual thought has called for a sexual liberation that would work for women as well as for men, The second tendency has considered sexual liberalization to be inherently a mere extension of male privilege. This tradition resonates with conservative, anti-sexual discourse." (Rubin, 35-36)

This "anti-sex" feminism that Rubin describes labels the sex industry to be both male oriented and controlled thus rendering the female participant a submissively sexualized object whose passive participation is compliant to male subjugation. I agree with Rubin that a woman's sexuality and sexual freedom are intrinsically linked, and therefore, argue that women who actively participate in a sex industry must be included into today's feminist studies. In this essay I am only referring only to women who willingly participate within the sex industry, not women, particularly those of third-world nations, who are forced into the commerce through poverty, intimidation, or human trafficking. It is in this context I argue that while it is women who are commercializing their bodies for the pleasure of men, it is also these women who are reaping the economical benefits while retaining control in self-marketing; and thus, commercialized sex must be considered a new medium for a feminist dialogue concerning female power.

In opposition to Rubin's "Sex-positive" stance lies Radical Feminism, a movement that claims pornography and prostitution to be oppressive to women. One of the most prominent leaders to these anti-sex groups is "Women Against Sex" whose goal is to eliminate female participation in the sex industry:
"All sex acts subordinate women...all actions that are a part of the practice of sexuality partake in the practice's political function or goal...Thus, all sex acts (and their depictions) mean the same thing, though some mean it more than others" (Chapkis, 18)

Catherine MacKinnon further articulates what WAS presents as the "meaning of sex acts":
"Gender is sexual. Pornography constitutes the meaning of that sexuality. Men treat women as who they see women as being. Pornography constructs who that is. Men's power over a women means that the way men see women defines who a woman can be" (Chapkis, 20)

Radical and "anti-sex" feminist groups such as WAS describes the act of commercialized sex to be a product of male oppression, and therefore, the "meaning" of women within a gender context is that of a male-constructed subjected object.

The quandary within the debate of both Sex-positive and Radical feminism is that both groups reduce the female prostitute to an imagined embodiment of sexual lust and execution. In her book Live Sex Acts: Women Performing Erotic Labour, Wendy Chapkis addresses the pragmatic obstructions within these two troupes of feminist movements:
"Within these debates over the meaning and function of sex, practices of prostitution serve as a central troupe. The prostitute thus comes to function as both the most literal of sexual slaves and as the most subversive of sexual agents within a sexist social order." (Chapkis, 12)

Here, the act of sex becomes the defining factor of a female prostitute's profession. She is labelled either a "sexual slave" or a "sexual agent," and therefore, is not viewed as a woman, but rather as a medium through which sexual acts are either executed or exploited. It is this perceived "control" that a female prostitute either holds or relinquishes to an imagined male market that has become the focal point to which her valid presence in a politically feminist discourse is judged.

This ideology of "power" within heterosexual gender relations persists throughout the discourse of both feminist scholarship and social representation. Many feminists including Carol Plateman argue that prostitution is a form of male domination. In her opinion, the fact that men are able to purchase sexual access to a female's body is evidence to the maintenance of their public and private power:
"When women's bodies are on sale as commodities in the capitalist market, the terms of the original contract (which is about men's civil power) cannot be forgiven; the law of male sex-right is publicly affirmed, and men gain public acknowledgement as women's sex masters" (Plateman, p.208)

This statement is not only contradictory to feminist criticisms of capitalist theory; it is also patronising to female sexuality. She implies that masculinity and femininity are sexual identities which are only confirmed in sex, and more specifically, heterosexual activity:

"It is then in heterosexual intercourse that men create and maintain their sense of themselves as men and as women's masters" (Platemen, p. 215).

By stating that heterosexual sex is a "male-right," Plateman is denying the existence of sexual pleasure for women, and therefore, categorizes them as non-sexual beings that are incapable of enjoying the sexual activity. Also, by speaking of prostitution in a capitalist rhetoric where men are the "powerful" consumers and women are the "weak" suppliers of sex, Platemen ignores the theory of supply and demand. Economics teaches us that the greater a product is in demand, the greater power its supplier contains over the consumer market. It is the prostitute who sets the price of the commodity, manipulates the output of its product, and retains control over how their "goods" are to be handled and negotiated; and thus, to claim that a sex worker is a sex slave who holds no bargaining power within the industry is problematic.

Furthermore, in defining sex workers as strictly female and the customer male, Platemen falsely genders this act as a female form of labour. Men also have a history in prostitution to both male and female clients; and thus, she denies their sex when claiming that prostitutes are an entirely female gendered occupation. By stating that sex work is a "male sex-right" and hence a heterosexual act that defines male control, Platemen ignores the power that the female prostitute retains over this exchange, and also dismisses the existence of homosexuality in the sex industry. Prostitution is not only a female occupation, it is also includes male participants. By refusing women sexual pleasure and male prostitutes' gender identity, Plateman narrows her argument to a representational stereotype that is simply inaccurate.

Since the 1860s, feminists have initiated numerous campaigns against the institution of commercialized sex and prostitutes. However, these protests result in contradictions that question both the sincerity and integrity of these feminist motives. For example, feminist leaders such as Josephine Butler in Britain and Rose Scott in New South Wales argued for the legalization of prostitution because the past laws only served to "punish the women and not the male clients" (Sullivan, p. 255). They maintained that the State was committing an act of violence by profiting off of women's wages while also preventing them from obtaining safer working environments. Yet, on the other hand, many first wave feminists lobbied for harsher laws and penalties for the prostitutes themselves. Believing that if they could abolish protection all together, these protesters worked to protect women from sexual exploitation and limit male sexual power (Sullivan, p.256). However, the only protection these women were offering was for the male clientele and State support. By seeking to define the prostitute as the "other", these feminists were actually creating a divisive stereotype that impeded on all women's sexual freedom.

Instead, these feminist leaders should work to educate that all women are sexual beings and therefore entitled to sexual freedom regardless of their occupation. Whether they wish to reserve their sexuality for their significant others or sell their bodies for profit, the fact is, every woman holds a right to her own body, and any move to take away this freedom is itself an act of politicized anti-feminism.

"The dichotomy between female prostitutes and non-prostitute women is a form of social control of female sexuality which makes the support of prostitutes by other women a matter of self-interest rather than moral imperative. This process of defining women as strictly asexual "good" women and sexually active "bad women" takes away a women's right to be a sexually active and moral person" (Sullivan, p. 259)

If feminist action advocates for women's rights and feminism is the study of women then how can we not include sex workers as a legitimate construct of female sexuality? It seems that her decision to sell her "sex" to a male market is what defines her as "anti-feminist." However, female sex work is indeed a form of employment, and therefore sex workers must be studied as employees instead of sexual objects in order to gain a more clear understanding of how these women function in a sexually gendered work place.
Similar to all careers, these women experience both highs and lows in dealing with customers, co-workers, and the industry itself. Yet, many people fail to acknowledge this type of work as an actual "job", instead sex work is viewed as defining a female worker's social identity. Roberta Perkins tries to explain this social mentality in her work Being a Prostitute:

"Prostitution is denied occupational status because it deals primarily with sexual matters out of what is regarded as the proper context, love or marriage, and is therefore seen as perverse, and because it is assumed to be a predominantly female participation, it stands little chance of ever gaining prestige under a patriarchal mode of society. The denial of prostitution as a form of work is the deepest insult of all to most women working as prostitutes" (Perkins, p. 216)

Judging female prostitutes as sexually submissive and dominated is a limiting fictionalized viewpoint; however, to state that these women always perversely enjoy the act of sex with a male client, and therefore are not "working," is equally false. Regardless of whether or not these women enjoy their profession, the act of prostitution is no less a combination of manual and emotional labour that a nurse or flight attendant entails; and thus, sex work but be seen as "work" instead of a sex "act."

In order to build a more open forum for feminist dialogue that includes sex workers, women must formulate a new language and understanding of sex as labor and sex workers as employees in order to integrate sex workers into the feminist dialect. As Chapkis argues:

"Such a perspective allows prostitution to be examined critically as a form of service work, with attention focused on factors enhancing or limiting a worker's power relative to clients, employers, and colleagues. When erotic labor is viewed as work, it is transformed from a simple act of affirmation of man's command over women, and instead is revealed to be an arena of struggle, where the meaning and terms of the sexual exchange are vulnerable to cultural and political contestation" (Chapkis, 57)

The reason as to why "sex as work" is such a difficult concept to grasp is due to our societies' emphasis on productivity within the capitalist market. In order to be considered a legitimate employee, one must contribute skills and labor that adds to productive society and thus helps to produce a marketable product. Although sex work is indeed a service to individuals, it is not considered a service to society since it only produces immediate gratification or the "product" of an orgasm for one person.
Perhaps the explanation as to why it is difficult for us to discuss the sex industry and its employees is due to that fact that we live in a very anti-sex country. The idea of "sex" as a commodity goes against many American's innate intuition regarding sexual morality. Rubin addresses the issue of sex as a cultural taboo in her article "Thinking Sex":

"This culture always treats sex with suspicion. It construes and judges almost any sexual practice in terms of its worst possible expression. Sex is presumed guilty until proven innocent. Virtually all erotic behavior is considered bad unless a specific reason to exempt it has been established. The most acceptable excuses are marriage, reproduction, and love" (Rubin, 14)

"Sex" as a "job" instead of an expression of love or pleasure is problematic due to the cultural models including the Church and the nuclear family that exists in our country. Since Christianity, family structures, and modest behavior are all values that are held to such a high standard in America, we tend to view the act of sex as equivalent to representatives of love, pleasure, and commitment. Rubin continues to comment to the influence of Christianity to sex:

"What I call the fallacy of misplaced scale is a corollary of sex negativity. Susan Sontong once commented that since Christianity focused on sexual behavior as the root of virtue, everything pertaining to sex has been a special case in our culture. Sex law has incorporated the religious attitude that heretical sex is an especially heinous sin that deserves the harshest punishments" (Rubin, 14)

Considering these two overpowering structures against sex work, Western capitalist theory and Christian notions of morality, then how can we as products of our culture move past these ingrained social values in order to critically analyze sex workers within feminist study? The problem is that it is impossible to deny one's influence by their social structures, and that includes aspects of morality, anti-sexual discourse, and religion. The notion of sex as a marketable trade and economic exchange is unsettling due to its "de-romanticizing" notion towards sexual intercourse. If our goal as Americans is to be productive employees to our society while maintaining family values, then sex work is the absolute antithesis to our collective cultural ideals.
My argument is centred on disproving the popular theory that female prostitution is strictly related to exclusive phallic pleasure where women are made victims to male sexuality; and therefore, I seek to combat these social institutions and their theoretical assumptions concerning notions of "moral sex." In female heterosexual prostitution, it is possible for women who willingly engage in commercial sex to view themselves as exerting feminine power. Chapkis quotes "Maryanne," a former prostitute and now practicing nurse claims:

"As a prostitute, you really do determine what goes on, you guide the entire experience. There was a tremendous power in that for me; not only was I able to say "I can make this go whatever direction I want it to" but I also got to experiment in all these different roles and see where I fit in, which ones I liked. I didn't have to be just one thing" (Chapkis, 85).

Although some feminists view prostitute women as the powerless victims of male sexual demands, and female prostitution as perpetuating this notion of phallic dominance over women, I argue this type of ideology to be the ultimate form of misogyny. Here, women are classified asexual beings that hold no control over their sex acts, nor do they possess any feeling of sexual desire. Men who seek sex are identified as sexual predators who desire control over women through heterosexual sex acts. Yet, as Maryanne articulates, it is equally plausible for commercial sex to be understood as a complete role reversal where women are in the position of power and men are made subservient to them.

In a survey conducted by McKean and Barnard involving sixty-six male clients, evidence reveals that men are actually the "victims" in prostitution because they see themselves as inferior to female sexuality. The illusion of acting out this reality through fantasy is one of the foremost reasons as to why men have persisted throughout the centuries in engaging with prostitutes:

"In the private security of fantasy, men can indulge secretly and guiltily their knowledge of women's power, while enclosing female power in a fantasy land that lies far beyond the cities and towns of genuine feminist change" (McClintock, 102)

This representation of male clients does not depict macho men who are out to "conquer" a woman and wilfully act out all of their sexual fantasies, and there is sufficient evidence to back McClintock's statement. Forty-two percent agreed that they were "shy and awkward" when trying to meet women, twenty-three percent felt physically unattractive, and twenty-three percent had "difficulty meeting women who were not exotic dancers or prostitutes" (Monto, p. 80). While the client may seek out the prostitute for emotionally sexual reasons, the female prostitute rarely ever allows herself to become romantically attached to him. Most of these women are so detached from their job that they didn't even bother to remember a client's name. Chapkis quotes a California sex worker named Cheyenne who emphasized sex work as a form of both emotional and functional labour:

"Sex work hasn't been a bed of roses and I've learned some painful things. But I also feel strong in what I do. I'm good at it and I know how to maintain my emotional distance. Just like if you are a fire fighter or a brain surgeon or a psychiatrist, you have to deal with some pretty heavy stuff and that means divorcing yourself from your feelings on a certain level. You just have to be able to do that to your job. But if you a prostitute who can separate herself from her emotions while your working everybody condemns you for it. I don't get it" (Chapkis, 79)

Although some of these men see the women as love objects, prostitutes most always view their clients as money. It is this de-humanizing ability prostitutes contain that allows them to not become psychologically dominated by the men they work for, and thus, these women constructively resist notions of male dominance and control in the sex industry.

For many feminists, female sex workers who engage in heterosexual labor are perceived as the ultimate antithesis to gender equality; and thus the act of "sex" becomes the defining factor that bridges those women who are worth fighting for and those who are not. If we are to define ourselves as feminists and therefore activists for women, then we must include all occupations of women in our quest to study gender in the workforce. To accomplish this, we must formulate a new language and understanding of sex as labor and sex workers as employees in order to integrate the image of the female heterosexual prostitute into a productive feminist study. If being a feminist today still includes a "pro-women" ideology, then it is imperative that we include all categories of women in our discourse, including those who are imagined to act as willing participants to patriarchal institutions. Regardless of our personal moral and/or religious views, we as the new "modern" feminists must learn to critically analyse and deconstruct sex workers in order to expand feminist dialogue when working to create a more complete academic study.


Chapkis, Wendy. Live Sex Acts: Women Performing Erotic Labour. New York: Routledge Press, 1997.

MacKinnon, Catherine. Sexual Harassment of Working Women. New Haven, Yale, University Press, 1979.

McClintock, Anne. "Maid to Order" in Introduction to Special Section on the Sex Trade. Social Text. 1993

Monto, Martin A. "Why Men Seek Out Prostitutes" in Sex for Sale: Prostitution, Pornography, and the Sex Industry.

Perkins, Roberta. "Female Prostitution" in Sex and Sex Workers in Australia.

Perkins, Roberta. Being a Prostitute: Prostitute Women and Prostitute Men. North Sydney, NSW: George Allen and Unwin Publishers Ltd, 1985.

Platemen, Carol. "A Patriarchal Discourse on Sex" in Feminist Studies Review, Vol. XIII, January 1983.

Plateman, Carol. The Sexual Contract. Stanford University Press, 1988.

Rubin, Gayle. "Thinking Sex:Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality." in Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. Ed. Vance, Carol. Pandora: London, 1992.

Sharp, Rachel. with Roberta Perkins, Garret Prestage, and Francis Lovejoy. Sex Work and Sex Workers in Australia. Sydney, Australia: University of New South Wales Press, 1994.

Sullivan, Barbara. "Feminism and Female Prostitution" in Sex and Sex Workers in Australia.

Summers, A. Dammed Whores and God's Police: The Colonization of Women in Australia. Ringwood: Penguin, 1975.

Weitzer, Ronald. Sex For Sale: Prostitution, Pornography, and the Sex Industry. New York, NY: Rutledge, 2000.

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