Sex Work and Feminism

On a muggy summer day in 1987 in a courtroom in downtown Chicago, I waited to be called by stillettothe court security officer for my chance to enter lock-up. Other women waited for their chance to get out; I was waiting to get in. I was 24 on that first day I walked into the dark cell and heard the thick metal door clang shut behind me with a frightening finality. A dozen tired, strung-out women sat or lay on the hard benches along the walls of the cell, all arrested the night before for street prostitution. My job was to let them know about services available to them and to teach them safe sex techniques. As if I had any clue about what might make these women safer.

I’d finished my first year of seminary and the fierce feminism I’d carried with me to grad school remained sharp. My summer job was part of a program called “Women, Ministry and the City,” designed and led by some of the country’s leading feminist theologians. A course for, by and about women, we dove into an experiential study of what feminism means on the streets – the reality of patriarchy and the feminization of poverty as experienced among the city’s most vulnerable populations.

It was natural for me to buy into the narrative of sex work as the ultimate example of patriarchy’s devastating impact on women. The women I met and worked with that summer were, for the most part, very young. Many had run away from home as teens; almost every single one of them had been abused long before turning their first trick. Most had been taken in by a pimp; those not drug addicted before beginning sex work usually became addicted living on the streets.

But this narrative risks further disempowering women. It makes assumption about freedom of choice – that no woman would freely consent to make a living through providing sexual pleasure to men. Inherent in this assumption is a deep anti-sex sentiment, as well as a not-so-subtle sense of superiority. I remember my shock at age 24 hearing a woman at an international sex worker’s conference say, “You may choose to sell your brains to a man and sit behind a desk for him 8 hours a day. I choose to sell my vagina. We’re both making money for using a part of our body. What makes the body part you’re selling better than the part I’m selling?”

I was reminded of all this reading Charlotte Shane’s “Men Consume, Women are Consumed” this week. In her superb essay, the sex worker shares “15 Thoughts on the Stigma of Sex Work.” Because she said it so clearly, I quote her at length (but please read the whole piece). Shane writes:

“In this mentality, sex work, specifically prostitution, is seen as the logical culmination of all other commodification/commercialization of female sexuality and physicality. It’s a loose chain that starts with Axe ads and the “Blurred Lines” video, links to Hooters restaurants and Girls Gone Wild, and terminates in massage parlors, full-service Vegas bachelor parties, the infamous scene from Requiem For a Dream. The end point is men using women’s bodies for their own sexual pleasure, violently or at least callously. Men consume, women are consumed. … It’s such a convincing nightmare that merely summarizing it leaves me momentarily paralyzed. And I know that the same emotional reaction swims underneath most feminist contemplation of the sex industry, particularly when they are confronted with a microcosm of it in the form of one night out at the strip club or a conversation with an elderly rich man who rents his girlfriends. We are all acquainted with malicious men who revel in their privilege. Catching a whiff of one can deliver us into hopelessness.

But here are some other things I know. Laws against sex work are used to control and punish already marginalized women. They are tools for enforcing poverty and state violence. Prostitution is illegal, and rape is still rampant and unpunished. Furthermore, male sexuality does not thrive on violence; it often gravitates toward tenderness and connection. Men are not monsters just because they’re paying … Women can successfully subvert systems that would destroy us, but doing so never entails demonizing another group of women in the process, or treating those women as disposable clowns.”

White, heterosexual feminists have floundered over the years in our attempts to be more inclusive of other voices – of women of color, lesbians, trans women. I’m grateful to Ms. Shane for reminding me that not only do women sometimes separate ourselves according to who we are, but also according to what we do. We are all in this together. All of us.



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13 Responses to Sex Work and Feminism

  1. Kate September 2, 2015 at 5:58 pm #

    Hmmm…thank you for writing this and bringing it to my mind. My question is do the few success stories (like that of Charlotte Shane) justify the sacrifice of so many others? Like, smoking cigarettes doesn’t kill everyone it touches (and neither do most drugs) and some argue that these are viable ways of making money. Do the few people who escape unscathed mean that we sanction something that injures most?

  2. Laura Collins September 2, 2015 at 6:14 pm #

    I suppose that hinges on what you mean by “sanction”. There are a variety of ways in which prostitution, or some form of sex work, has been either legalized or decriminalized in different parts of the world. Amnesty International recently ruled in favor of decriminalization ( To use the smoking example, it is neither illegal to manufacture cigarettes, nor to smoke them. Who can sell them and to whom, who can smoke and where, all have been regulated, but smoking is still legal. The decriminalization and/or legalization of marijuana is raising these questions in another way. I would agree with the author of the essay that most prostitution laws are unnecessarily punitive toward the seller. If you think of prostitution as a form of victimization, then arrest for it is a double victimization. I think protection of sex workers is a human rights issue. And a public health issue.

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