Feminists having conflicting views on sex work, ranging from the positive attitude of the feminist sex workers who pithily titled their anthology “Whores and Other Feminists” to the negative attitude of Andrea Dworkin who described her experience with prostitution as “gang rape punctuated by a money exchange.” However, feminists generally agree on sex worker’s right to be free from rape, physical violence, and harassment. In this post, I want to discuss why sex worker’s rights matter for all of us, whether or not we or our loved ones have ever been involved in sex work.
1. Because no one should be treated the way sex workers are treated
This is the most fundamental reason sex worker’s rights matter. No one should be gang raped at gun point and then told by a judge that what they suffered was merely “theft of services.” No one should hear a judge say that he would be "hard put" to give somebody a life sentence for picking them up, taking them to the woods, sexually assaulting them, and killing them. (Molly Ivins, Molly Ivins Can't Say That Can She? 79 (1992))*. No one should be an easy target for rape and murder because society doesn’t care or thinks they deserve it.
*This judge was actually explaining his light sentence in a homophobic murder case, but apparently saw a golden opportunity to take a swipe at sex workers as well.
2. Because of the risk of being accused of being a sex worker
The risk of being seriously accused of being a sex worker is rare for most women but does exist. It is a particular issue for women who are trans or black or both; black trans women frequently find themselves harassed by police as potential prostitutes for simply “walking while trans.” However, any women who violates female norms by going out too late at night (scroll to “curlygirl26”’s post) or carrying too many condoms may be targeted.
More common is the metaphorical accusation of being a sex worker. Women who dress the way they want, love sex too much, or marry someone “too” much older or wealthier than them risk having the “whore” label thrown at them. The stigmatization of sex workers becomes a useful tool for policing all women’s behavior.
3. Because of the risk of becoming a sex worker
Although pro and anti-sex work feminists disagree over whether forced and coerced prostitution is the norm or the exception, both sides agree that at least some sex workers do not voluntarily enter the profession. Sex workers may be trafficking victims or runaways from abusive homes desperate for a place to sleep or eat. Some may simply be people who cannot find other jobs due to sexism which pays women less and places the primary burden of raising and supporting children on them or due to transphobia, racism, sexism, classism, or ableism that makes finding and keeping jobs difficult. Whatever the reasons, as long as a significant number of sex workers aren’t in the job voluntarily, none of us can be confident that sex worker’s rights will not personally affect us or our loved ones.
4. Because our governments are complicit in the exploitation and abuse of sex workers
It’s fairly well known that the Japanese government during World War II set up brothels of Chinese and Korean “comfort women”, who the government had forcibly trafficked into prostitution. It’s less well known that the U.S. “liberators” also used "comfort women" supplied by Japan after its defeat and that the U.S. military and South Korean governments have continued to exploit Asian and Eastern European prostitutes in South Korea into the present day.
Less overtly, government efforts to prevent prostitution often simply end up harming the safety and health of prostitutes instead. Cambodia has recently come under fire from Human Rights Watch for arbitrarily arresting, beating, and raping prostitutes. Unfortunately, this type of police abuse of prostitutes is hardly restricted to Cambodia, as reports by sex workers and LGBT rights organizations in the U.S. attest.
Even when the law is applied “correctly”, without corruption, it can pressure prostitutes into remaining in prostitution when they do not wish to do so. Many prostitutes struggle to escape prostitution because they are dogged by their criminal record. This includes prostitutes who were actually trafficking victims- laws permitting such victims to erase their records are relatively recent and not universal. Then there are cases like Sara Kruzen, who was jailed for killing the man who trafficked her into child prostitution. Trafficking victims who try to escape must weigh the danger of remaining in prostitution against the danger of landing in jail, which carries its own risk of physical abuse and sexual assault.
5. Because discrimination against one group of women puts all of us at risk
Underlying the abuse of sex workers are the same sexist stereotypes that are used to justify abuse against all women. She’s had sex with men for money before, she must have consented to do so this time. She wasn’t raped, she’s just mad she didn’t get paid. It’s too bad she was raped, but what did she expect standing on a street corner all night/going to a hotel with a man/soliciting for men on Craig’s list.
Twist these justifications just a little and they easily apply to non-sex workers. She’s had consensual sex with dates before, she must have consented to sex this time. She wasn’t raped, she’s just mad he didn’t call her back. It’s too bad she was raped, but what did she expect going to that part of town/going out that late at night/letting him into her apartment/going on a date with someone she barely knew.
Justifications for abusing sex workers presume that once women cross some line of “correct” behavior, they are acceptable targets, and that line can move. As long as it is acceptable to abuse some women, all women are at risk.