Feminists, we need to listen to sex workers

Phil Roeder/Flickr (CC-BY)

Stop belittling their rights.

Shortly after online personals website Backpage was shut down by the federal government this month, the Women’s March defended sex workers’ rights on Twitter. March organizers insisted “sex workers rights are women’s rights” and vowed to share “more about sex workers rights to uplift this critical issue.”

The critical issue sex workers are currently facing is FOSTA, which was just made federal law and takes aim at consensual sex work more than it does at actual “sex-trafficking,” like it was branded. It has shuttered sites like Backpage and forums on Reddit, where women could vet clients for their safety. It has left sex workers scared for livelihoods and for what awaits them if they instead have to work on the streets. It has also served as a reminder that society still treats sex workers as lesser-than beings who need to be punished.

Some feminists, however, weren’t ready to heed the call from the Women’s March.

“Wow usually I stick behind the women’s march but this is utterly disgusting,” Twitter user EmilySpieth wrote. “The page was taken down to reduce modern-day slavery that happens online. If you were real feminist you would consider that 73% of trafficked victims are sold on backpage and lives are being saved. Fuk u.”

The Women’s March proceeded to face backlash from feminists on r/GenderCritical, one of Reddit’s most notorious communities for transgender-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs). That’s because while r/GenderCritical is known for its endless transphobic talking points, the subreddit also has another sizable “radical feminist” population: sex-worker exclusionary radical feminists, or SWERFs.

“‘Sex workers rights are women’s rights?’ That is such a sick way of thinking,” one person wrote on the site. “It sounds like she’s saying that being a whore is fundamental to being a woman. The women’s rights movement is about reclaiming control of our bodies and our lives.”

SWERFs pride themselves on the belief that sex work is inherently wrong because it enables the patriarchy. Therefore, they argue, sex work cannot be divorced from women being objectified by men. Most act as if they personally know what is best for sex workers, even though many (albeit, not all) SWERFs have zero experience with sex work themselves.

“Let’s say there really are women who enjoy stripping, as it makes me grimace to think it, I am sure there is a minority of female exhibitionists,” r/GenderCritical user wxxitchy wrote on the site. “At that point men would still operate under the thinking: Some women’s bodies are for sale.”

However, SWERFs miss the critical point that women’s bodies are their own—and to call yourself a feminist is to understand it is a woman’s choice to do with her body as she pleases.

SWERF theories grew in prominence particularly during the second-wave after feminists like Andrea Dworkin, Catharine MacKinnon, and Julie Bindel repeatedly claimed sex workers are inherently victims and their trade is invasive. Even Gloria Steinem, who served as an honorary co-chair for the Women’s March on Washington in 2017, is known for her belief that “prostitution” is “commercial rape.”

“Prostitution involves body invasion and so it is not like any other work. So how can you call it sex work?” Steinem said in 2014, India’s Statesman reports. “Prostitution is the only word you should use.”

There’s a lot about SWERF beliefs that encourage double standards toward sex work. For one, this so-called “body invasion” is set up to be consensual. It also happens in plenty of work environments. Doctors and nurses regularly engage in examinations that involve a foreign object—like a finger or a thermometer—being placed into another person’s body. Police officers and firefighters use CPR to help resuscitate victims. Even construction workers expose their bodies to dangerous chemicals and work conditions for payment. Yet radical feminists never complain that a prostate exam is “body invasion.”

SWERFs seem to believe bodies that undergo any work under a sexual context are automatically exploited. While it’s true that a client may have some ingrained entitlement to a woman’s body, that doesn’t mean all sex work is automatically based on coercion and sexual abuse. In fact, in many circumstances, consensual sex workers are the ones feeling empowered. These sex workers have the power to decide whether they want to have sex with a client and where their limits are. Plus, many adult film performers are regularly running their own productions, whether by camming on the internet or hosting clip stores on their own websites.

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Of course, that’s not to say all sex work is consensual. Like any workplace, sexual assault also happens in the sex industry. Pornography, in particular, has a troubling history with exploitation, as powerful directors or actors in mainstream porn world regularly force performers to engage in scenes without consent. Even sex workers themselves admit that the industry is an incredibly difficult one to work in as a woman, and some feel less empowered by it than others.

But sex-worker-exclusionary beliefs aren’t about protecting sex workers or standing up for their safety. Instead, SWERFs are hyper-fixated on shaming women for their sexuality and how they use their bodies.

“While loudly proclaiming that they are feminists, these women ignore our agency and insist that we are traitors to the sisterhood,” sex worker Cathryn Berarovich wrote in 2014 for TheGloss. “When we reclaim pejoratives like ‘whore,’ ‘hooker,’ and ‘harlot,’ they insist that our use of such words shows a disrespect for ourselves and our fellow sex workers.”

It’s absurd to believe that simply criminalizing sex work will cause sex workers to give up their careers. That is like saying criminalizing abortion will stop abortion; it’s simply not true and only punishes women for their choices.

Feminism is about equal rights, it’s about the right to your own body, it’s about undoing the damage done by the patriarchy—and that includes shaming women’s sexuality.

Ana Valens

Ana Valens

Ana Valens is a reporter specializing in online queer communities, marginalized identities, and adult content creation. She is Daily Dot's Trans/Sex columnist. Her work has appeared at Waypoint, Truthout, Bitch Media, Kill Screen, Rolling Stone's Glixel, and the Toast. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.