A Feminist's Argument On How Sex Work Can Benefit Women
Sex work has long been criticized and stigmatized in our society. While many members of society view sex work as immoral and degrading to women, I argue that sex work is essentially just work, and that it is not necessarily harmful to women. Under circumstances in which sex work is accepted and regulated in society, in which the sex worker is protected and granted the same rights as any other laborer, sex work has the possibility to be beneficial to women. Sex work can be very profitable for women, and many women may enjoy work that allows them to creatively express their sexuality. Sex work can allow human beings a way to safely explore their sexual desires in ways they cannot through the current social norm of heterosexual, monogamous relationships. The sex work industry and its workers need not be chastised by a society that clings to puritan ideals of what is “moral”. I argue prostitution should be legal.
Every human being has the right to make informed decisions about his or her own body, and laws that govern sex work are laws that govern an individual’s right to make decisions about her own body. Sex work is illegal because it is largely viewed as immoral and degrading, but morality is objective and society’s opinion on what is “right” and “wrong” is constantly shifting. Morality provides no sound basis for law, as people governed by laws can not possibly all share the same moral beliefs. My argument is that prostitution should be made legal, sex workers offered the same rights and respect as workers in any other field, and that by doing this sex work can become something that benefits women and humanity in general.
In Carole Pateman’s essay, “What is Wrong With Prostitution?”, she argues that prostitution is an embodiment of patriarchy (2006). She relates to historical societies in which men had ownership over their wives, and says that while men no longer have complete ownership of women in our society, prostitution provides a way for men to exercise ownership over women’s bodies temporarily. I disagree with this conclusion on prostitution. Men do not own a prostitute when they are paying her for sex any more than a business man owns his factory workers. If prostitutes are given the right to choose their clients and to stop sex at any point in which they feel unsafe or uncomfortable, prostitution is not a question of temporary ownership.
Another point Pateman makes in her essay distinguishes prostitution from other forms of work based on the product being paid for. Pateman argues that in other forms of labor work, the employer is paying for the product of the labor, and not the labor itself. In prostitution, the physical labor itself is the commodity (Pateman, 2006). This argument does not hold up. Workers in any entertainment field, such as stage actors, dancers, or comedians, are paid for their actual labor, not any product which is produced by their labor. In this way, one can view the prostitute as an entertainer; the root of each type of work is essentially the same: to provide a pleasurable experience for a customer.
Finally, Pateman argues that because sexuality is so intertwined with ones personality and identity, to sell sex is to sell oneself (2006). Again, this argument is unconvincing. It is true that prostitutes are paid for exerting one aspect of their personality (their sexuality). However, prostitution is not unique in this sense. Many workers earn a living by exerting a strong aspect of their personality. Managers are paid for their leadership abilities, teachers for their patience, and waiters for their extroversion. Why, then, is it wrong for a prostitute to profit from her sexuality?
Once we recognize that sex work is not inherently exploitative of women, the question becomes: under what conditions can sex work actually benefit women? Before sex work can benefit women, it must first cease to endanger women. I argue that the most essential condition to reduce harm to sex workers is to legalize and legitimize sex work, and provide sex workers with the same rights as other workers. In Priscilla Alexander’s article “Feminism, Sex Workers, and Human Rights”, she provides an outline of rights that would protect sex workers (1997). She calls first for a distinction between forced and voluntary prostitution. It needs to be recognized that not all sex workers are forced into sex work; that an individual can consciously decide to engage in sex work. In addition to this, forced prostitution and sex trafficking need to be eliminated. Next, Alexander asserts that prostitution needs to be regulated by the same occupational safety and health regulations offered to workers in other labor industries. Sex workers need protection from exploitation by third-party managers. They ask for limits on the proportion of their income that managers can take and for benefits like health insurance and sick days. Sex workers ask for “clean, safe places to work with the absolute right to refuse to engage in unsafe sex practices” (Alexander, 2007, p. 93).
They need access to training on sexually transmitted diseases, dealing with dangerous clients, and self-defense in case of an attack. Prostitutes should have the right to travel between states and countries just like any other worker. Sex workers need protection by law enforcement officers, to enforce laws against physical and sexual assault, kidnapping, extortion and fraud. Sex workers should have the right to unionize, and should be able to choose whether they work on their own, in groups, or with managers. As presented in the film Live Nude Girls Unite!, sex workers also desire protection against discrimination based on their race (Query, 2000). Even in legal forms of sex work, like exotic dancing, women of color are discriminated against. Workers of color are often given limited hours and do not have access to the most prestigious positions based on their perceived lack of marketability. Anti-discrimination laws should be enforced in the sex industry as they are in any other industry. To summarize, sex work should be legalized, and sex workers offered all the protections offered to workers in other industries. When sex work is recognized and treated as legitimate work, sex work can begin to benefit women.
Another necessary condition for sex work to be made beneficial to women is to de-stigmatize the role of the sex worker in society. Currently, sex workers are viewed as immoral, worthless people by most of society. Sex is a taboo topic in society, and women especially are not supposed to be sexually assertive. In order for sex work to be treated as a legitimate form of work, society needs to step away from our Puritan views on sexuality and human nature. When it is accepted in society that human beings are sexual, and when we are allowed to express and explore our sexuality and sexual desires, sex work will begin to be treated with respect in society.
I have argued that sex work is not necessarily harmful to women, and presented conditions that would reduce risks to sex workers. Now, I can present the ways in which sex work can actually benefit women. In his article, “Freaks and Queers”, Eli Clare relates prostitution to work in a freak show, referencing that prostitution provides a means of income to women who may not have other means available to them (1999). In society today, the majority of sex workers are lower class women and women of color who do not have other viable options. However, sex work does not need to be reduced to a last-resort option. As represented in the film Live Nude Girls Unite!, many women actively choose sex work.
Sex work can offer good pay and flexible hours. It may be an ideal work option for single mothers or college students, who do not have skills or time for a more traditional job. Similar to the hospitality industry, the sex work industry may provide people with a temporary way to raise money while preparing for a career in another field, or it could serve as a valid career choice. Many women who engage in sex work may find enjoyment and empowerment in it. Women who are comfortable with their sexuality may take pleasure in work that allows them to express it on their own terms (Query, 2000).
Carol Leigh advocates for sex work in her essay, “Inventing Sex Work.” She acknowledges that sex work is a legitimate form of work (1997). Sex work is a predominantly female trade, and many sex workers are smart, strong women. Women can benefit from working in an industry populated predominantly by women, who can provide each other with friendship and support. Leigh also asserts that sex work can be interesting and fun. She denies the myth that working in the sex industry ruins the experience of sex in ones personal life. She states: “Sex in my personal life became very exciting. Sex with clients annoyed me sometimes and interested me other times.” (Leigh, 1997, p. 228). This statement by Leigh denies another common argument against sex work: that sex work eliminates the pleasure from sexual activity for the worker and therefore impairs a basic bodily function (Schawzenbach, 2006).
In her chapter, “Contractarians and Feminists Debate Prostitution”, Sibyl Schwarzenbach presents the idea of sex workers, here specifically referencing prostitutes, as sexual therapists (2006). She asks the reader to imagine a society in which frequent, satisfying sexual experiences between consenting adults is seen as a healthy and necessary part of life. These sexual experiences could be of great variety, between men and women, two men, two women, multiple partners, or any other variation the current sexual norm: a man and a woman in a monogamous relationship. In such society, she claims that sex work would be seen as a valuable profession. Sex workers would be both men and women, who were respected in society for their expertise on human sexual needs and their ability to fulfill these needs as a service to others.Continued on Next Page »