Feminism and Sex Work


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In society, mainstream women’s issues that can be worked in a capitalist environment tend to be more marketable. For example, tackling period stigma while advertising for their own products is something consumer companies do. We as consumers cannot ignore the machinations that are behind propelling an issue into the mainstream. Another example: for combating body-shaming, plus-size models are hired for a more inclusive approach, but this is still centred around viewing this issue through a capitalist lens.

Sex workers’ marginalization is from the get-go itself. They have no platform to speak. They are not included in the sense of emancipation and liberation of women, they aren’t even counted into the fold. In a capitalist economy like ours, sex workers are exploited and their bodies ravaged but because these bodies are not marketable, their voices are unheard, their oppression ignored and their deaths unimportant.

Sex work is work and must be seen as a valid income-generating activity. Victimhood is easy to empathise with but somehow the idea of exchanging sexual services for money makes some feminists uneasy and there is a group of feminists who call for its abolition (abolitionists). Even feminists who advocate for sexual liberation have not viewed sex transactions as work. The dialogue between feminists and sex workers is fairly recent due to the hesitation and hostility from the feminists. The patriarchal notion that sex work debases women and sees them as objects of control is premised on the belief that the exchange of money strips the supposedly intimate act of sex of its inherent worth. The woman who voluntarily does this is seen as deceiving herself. The growing visibility of male and transgender sex workers has not led to much rethinking of this notion. Sex workers are still seen as victims bought and sold for sexual labour and who have no agency of their own.

Feminism requires listening to women and empowering them to name their own experiences on their own terms. At its core, feminism is about supporting women’s choices and control over their own bodies. If feminism supports women’s reproductive choices, and their choice to have sex(or not) with whomsoever they choose, an exchange of money should have no bearing to this. Abolitionists suppress the voices of the actual sex workers who try to give a more nuanced picture of their experience. They do not create space for sex workers to define their own experience especially if it doesn’t fit within their own narrow parameters defined by this particular feminist worldview. Even in the welfare approach, their agency is ignored. As is mentioned in Sex Worker’s Manifesto, “People who are interested in our welfare, and many are genuinely concerned, often cannot think beyond rehabilitating us or abolishing prostitution altogether. However, we know that in reality, it is perhaps impossible to ‘rehabilitate’ a sex worker because society never allows erasing our identity as prostitutes. Is rehabilitation feasible or even desirable?” In a stigmatized context like ours, the sex industry and those in it have no recourse to labour protection and employment standards. This criminalisation of their work pushes them away and creates a hostile work environment with the police leading to a massive underreporting of violence. This narrative that sets sex workers apart from other service providers is a direct invitation to the predators who want to harm them. It’s also important to notice that people who do work in the sex industry have had other jobs before joining it. They’ve worked as domestic help, as factory workers, as construction workers. Even in these seemingly dignified jobs, their bodies have been exploited. It is pointed out in the manifesto the rickshaw puller also uses his body to fulfill the demand of his customers. But he’s accorded a sense of dignity in his work that sex workers aren’t. It is difficult to view sex workers as going about their daily business of earning a living by providing sexual services for money. There is a reluctance to admit to the connection between sex and money and to look at the transactional nature of sex, and this can express itself as prejudice against sex workers, whose job is to connect the two. It also comes from a refusal to admit that sex with husbands and partners is transactional. Sex is intrinsically gendered and politicised. Many wives have sex with their husbands in exchange for food and shelter. An ideal woman is a chaste sexless being, her job is to be a good mother and a submissive wife. While the man in the throes of passion goes to the sex workers for the fulfillment of his intimate needs. Here again, the sexuality of the woman is invisibilized while the man goes out and fulfills his needs. The right to decency is also denied to them. Many undergo unsafe abortions, there is a refusal to treat them as complete human beings in the hospitals. They’re made to sleep on the floor instead of the hospital bed. Even the children they do have are born with the sting of segregation. They are mocked and harassed through life for coming out of an impure woman. And when they demand better employment conditions, the answer given to them is rehabilitation, which we know isn’t a feasible option for them. 

When abolitionists posit sex work as violence, they foreclose any discussion over whether sex work can be seen as a livelihood option. In order for the stigma of discrimination to end, fundamental rights must be extended to sex workers to pursue their livelihood in safety and dignity. Women’s movement is not a monolith, and there is a need to forge alliances between those working towards autonomy, dignity and fundamental rights, redefining these to include the most marginalized of individuals and communities.

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