Feminist judgement of sex workers

Is sex work really anti-feminist? Is it degrading for women or empowering? Apparently this issue has been hotly debated among feminists over the years and there still seems to be no unified conclusion about it. In all my years being a feminist, I have held pretty strictly to the idea that sex work is degrading for women and they lose respect selling their bodies (even images of them) for money. We all know men go to strip clubs and blow their hard-earned cash on naked ladies; we all know women in porn get paid way more than men porn stars because, let’s face it, people want to see the women more. We all assume men have no respect for women who use their bodies for profit instead of using their minds to make a living. I’ve heard everything from “single mother” to “paying my way through college” as reasons for baring it all for a buck.

So, in an attempt to expand my views and learn more on the subject (I don’t want to just judge women and their lifestyles when I don’t even know them), I watched a documentary about the first stripper union that was formed in California in the 1990s. The woman who started it was the daughter of a single mother Jewish doctor who would go out on the streets looking for prostitutes who needed help because no one else would help them. The daughter was a comedian, a lesbian, and also a stripper because being a comedian did not pay the bills.

I watched the interviews with these women and was provoked to thinking hard when one stripper stated that she thought the point of feminism was to give women a choice. If it’s our body, it’s our choice. No one should tell us any differently. I always assumed being a stripper was just to please men and that it contributed to the constant patriarchal system we fight so hard to bring down. But let’s face it – sex is a part of life. Sex is art, erotica, and women are entitled to pleasure and power just like men. I also thought men didn’t respect strippers, but when these women organized their union and went on strike, many men came to their aid and stood up with them (much to my surprise). To one man, these were just working citizens who wanted rights, benefits and the dignity of protections that other workers received every day.

Maybe our focus should stop being on whether or not men respect us for what we do or think or how we act. Maybe making it all about whether or not men respect us is just us perpetuating the constant lie that we need their approval for validation. Maybe we should just be who we are and do what we need to do. I believe in the best of women; I personally don’t think the life of a stripper is a good life for women who are intelligent, passionate and strong. To me, it’s not living up to their potential. But then again, are WE supposed to tell other women what they can and can’t do? If we’re true feminists, our job is to fight for their right to choose, regardless of their lifestyle. After all, isn’t that what it’s all about?


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  • http://feministing.com/members/smiles/ Smiley

    I have always been struck by the opposite positions on abortion and sexwork.

    In the first instance, the feminist rallying call is ‘leave my body alone, the government should have no say in what I do with my body’.

    The argument applies to sex -” if I want to lend it to a man for a night, that’s my decision.”

    Tattooes too.

    And yet that argument – some would say principle – is not applicable to sexwork. Apparently, lending your body for the night is fine, but renting it out by the hour is not.

    I’ve never understood the distinction.

    • http://feministing.com/members/moogurly04/ Kara Citarella

      Very true! Thanks for pointing that out. I never thought of it that way either…

    • http://feministing.com/members/fledglingfem/ Bethany

      I understand what Smiley is saying but I disagree with the language of renting and lending. I don’t lend my body out when I have sex. This perpetuates the idea that even consensual sex is a business transaction because women are the goods. Men don’t lend out their penises last time I checked. It’s a part of me so I’m encouraging him to interact with my body and I’m getting pleasure from the interaction so it’s not like lending where I’m giving something up for a short period of time and not getting it back until later. My body is mine the whole time.

  • http://feministing.com/members/azure156/ Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

    I’ve know people in those industries to have a wide range of opinions on things like abortion, feminism, etc. (Only ever met one vocally anti-choice though.)

    The trouble with the “sex work is degrading/sex work is empowering” dialogue is that they’re both all or none, simplistic, and both can run the risk of discounting the stories and views of former or current sex workers who’s experiences may not support the position they want to take.

    I don’t think sex workers need to be lambasted, judged, told they’re degrading themselves regardless of what they feel about it, etc. But I also think it can be disingenuous to ignore the fact that there can be violence and coercion in those industries, from some clientele, from the police, from some club owners.

    Also, as far being a stripper being “just to please men”, more often a factor is economic hardship.

  • honeybee

    I agree with everything you say but am sad that in this day and age there are still women/feminists who haven’t come to the realization that you have. I think alot of people are blinded by emotions and don’t look at the situation rationally or through the eyes of those involved.

    I do take comfort however that your new thoughts on this subject are slowly becoming the norm throughout all of feminism. And hopefully the rest of the world too.