We Need To Include Sex Workers In Feminism

Sex work has been a controversial issue within feminism(s) for a long time. The mainstream feminist movement since the 60s and 70s has left out of a lot of folks, including sex workers; we are still fighting the same fight and differences that we have been for decades. One recent prominent example of this was with The Women’s March on Washington. Originally, the Women’s March included Janet Mock’s statement that was in solidarity with sex workers on their website, but then her statement was edited several times in a ways that did not express true solidarity with sex workers. Mock, TV host, writer, activist and one of the organizers of the march spoke out, “I know sex work to be work. It’s not something I need to tiptoe around. It’s not a radical statement. It’s a fact.”  After Mock, sex workers and their advocates spoke out on social media urging The Women’s March organizers to include sex workers, they came back with a statement that read that they were including sex workers, but didn’t reissue Mock’s original statement. The struggle to include sex workers and stand in true solidarity with them is real.

We talk about intersectionality including race, disability, sexuality, gender, class, and what about sex workers who fit into these intersections of oppression? Why are sex workers left out of the conversation around feminism and the fight for social justice? Sex workers are a hugely forgotten and marginalized group. Melinda Chateauvert, author of  “Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to Slutwalk” reminds us that sex workers have been “fighting for their right to work, for respect and justice, for a very long time.”  Sex workers have been dehumanized, demonized, and made invisible. Conversations about them rarely include them or take their best interests into consideration. It’s time that we start waking up to the reality of sex work, the fact that most sex workers are women, and often women of color and queer; and that if we don’t include sex workers in our feminist movements and fight against oppression, then we are not fighting the good fight.

Charlie, a San Francisco Bay Area sex worker I interviewed, says that she fights everyday to be a sex worker. Since sex work is still criminalized in the U.S. and highly stigmatized, sex workers do fight to perform sex work. There is a war on sex workers. The FBI has been targeting sex workers and shutting down their advertising options for years, and conservatives and feminists support it. According to the Vice article The War On Sex Workers Escalates With FBI Shutdown Of Redbook, in 2010, Craigslist shut down its erotic services after a woman “lied to Congress about the average age of entry into prostitution being 13 and the Women’s Funding Network falsely told lawmakers that underage prostitution advertised on the site was exploding and had increased by 64.7 percent in a period of six months.” In 2014, we saw the FBI shutdown MyRedBook, a popular, free advertising site for sex workers, one that allowed more marginalized sex workers a safer and affordable way to attain clients and survive. Then, in 2015, there was the shutdown of RentBoy, a male-escort site. MyRedbook and Rentboy were sites that also provided forums and ways for sex workers to connect with each other to help keep each other safe. The shutting down of these services takes away income that sex workers depend on for their livelihood, and it pushes more marginalized workers onto the streets, away from safety resources, putting their lives more at risk.

And, more recently, there was a shutdown of adult services on Backpage. When MyRedBook was shut down, more sex workers flocked to Backpage for low cost advertising.  An advocate for sex workers’ rights, Melissa Gira Grant, points out in What’s Behind The Backpage Prosecution? “Each time a site is targeted, sex workers-if they can-move to another website, knowing it, too, is likely to be targeted in the future. In the meantime, federal investigators raid offices, courts preside over the seizure of assets, and prosecutors issue press releases and use the media to reinforce their claims that all this is meant to protect vulnerable people.” Gira Grant mentions that after each shutdown and prosecution of a sex worker advertising site, sex work continues to go on but at a greater risk of safety and livelihood.

The government shuts down sex worker advertising sites and services in the name of child trafficking. By doing this, sex work and trafficking continue to be conflated with each other, which continues to demonize and dehumanize sex workers. The stigma of sex work gets perpetuated even further, and sex workers continue to be unnecessary targets of violence and shame putting their lives more at risk. Sex workers of color, trans and non-binary workers face an even greater risk of harassment, imprisonment and violence. The war on sex workers isn’t new and sex workers have been active in fighting for their rights for a long time. The stigma of sex work is real and it runs deep.

Photo from London Slutwalk: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d3/Sex_Worker_Rights_-_London_SlutWalk_2011.jpg

Photo from London Slutwalk: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d3/Sex_Worker_Rights_-_London_SlutWalk_2011.jpg

The decriminalization of sex work received more attention when Amnesty International’s policy took a stance to protect sex workers globally. Celebrities like Lena Dunham and Meryl Streep protested this protection for sex workers because of the taboo of sex work. Keeping sex work criminalized further perpetuates the stigma and violence against sex workers. Sex work in the United States is still criminalized and has a large stigma attached to it, thus the struggle that sex workers face is an important one. Decriminalizing sex work is a feminist issue, and needs to be treated as such.

Sex workers have been and are invisibilized. If we truly want to be intersectional and inclusive, we must undo this stigma, and fight for the rights of sex workers as part of our feminism.

How Sex Workers Are Challenging The Stigma & We Can Too

I spoke with sex worker activist and host of The Whore Cast podcast, Siouxsie Q, who talked about the importance of being OUT, and how this helps normalize sex work, which challenges the stigma. She mentioned that it is a luxury to be able to tell someone about her job as a sex worker.  While she acknowledges that it is hard to be OUT in every interaction or situation, she believes it is important in reducing the stigma. Another sex worker I spoke with, Charlie, says “There’s risk of being shamed for being a sex worker, and that’s a huge risk. How do you protect yourself? How do you know when you are going to encounter a lot of shame that you might not have the bandwidth for, and that you also aren’t deserving of?”

Even in liberal communities, especially feminist circles, the stigma of sex work pervades. One might think that they are on the path of liberation from oppression, and, yet, still engage in whorephobia and “whore stigma.” As Gira Grant, in her book “Playing The Whore”, points out “If woman is the other, whore is the other’s other.” Whore stigma makes sex workers “illegitimate women” and dehumanizes them. As women, including feminists, we’ve all engaged in perpetuating the stigma and have internalized whorephobia. Feminists have been vocal about preventing slut shaming and can embrace a woman who is in charge of her sexuality and has promiscuous sex, but cannot embrace a woman who charges for sexual services or performs a service in the sex industry? Women have been and continue to be socialized and pressured to be a certain kind of woman. Women, themselves, have bought into this notion that they need to be a certain kind of woman in order to be a woman or to be human, which perpetuates the stigma and whorephobia. The stigma keeps “her” autonomy, or even her humanity, as still not fully reached, which is something we need to confront and heal.

What can we do to undo and liberate ourselves from whorephobia and discontinue perpetuating the stigma against sex workers? Pay attention to the language that we use. We need to stop using sex worker terms like “stripper” as adjectives or nouns with negative associations, as Siouxsie Q urges, and instead to simply refer to sex work as a job because that is what it is. We need to listen to sex workers tell their stories, validate their experiences, and pay attention to what they are saying when it comes to issues of sex work. There should be no panel about sex work without sex workers as part of that panel, and if we see that happening, then we call out the organizers. We must support the safety and rights of sex workers, and organizations that are putting in the work to do that, like Amnesty. It’s important for us to confront and heal our own shame and fear around sex work. Confronting this shame will likely raise deeper feelings of shame around sex, women, and society. It’s no comfortable task, but it is one that it necessary to fight for the rights, liberation, livelihood, and humanity of all women, trans, non-binary folks, queers, people of color, disabled people, and all people in general (there are disabled sex workers and plenty of cisgendered men that do sex work too). We must include sex workers in our social justice feminist movements if we want to truly be inclusive and intersectional, and want justice and liberation for all.

(To learn more about why Amnesty wants to protect sex workers, this is a great Q&A.)