Can you be pro-sex worker and anti-sex work?
My short answer is no.
The longer answer, though, requires a brief deconstruction of the argument “hate the sin, love the sinner,” anti-sex work politics, and respectability, all of which will affect someone’s viewpoint on this issue.
“Hate the sin, love the sinner” has become a lot of [mainly] religious people’s way of ducking certain issues that their religious or cultural bias doesn’t see as “normal.” In a puritanical Western culture which heavily indulges in binaries, there is the good/pure kind of sex or sexual activity, and then there is the bad/taboo kind. The bad kind tends to be anything that deviates from the perceived norm, and highly subjective. This phrase is usually an adage lodged at queer folks. Hate someone’s sexual orientation but love them? How does one even maintain that level of cognitive dissonance? Similarly, "sex worker" can be construed as both an identity and a profession. But why hate sex work as a profession? Is it shooting unarmed Black men? Is it keeping people with STDs/HIV from receiving adequate health care? Who is it harming?
At this point in the conversation people will usually begin to give some garbled explanation of their understanding of sex trafficking, prostitution and pimps. They will wax on and on about self-respect and promiscuity, or they will contend that sex workers, particularly full-service sex workers, are arbiters of STDs and HIV. When all else fails they will become “concerned” about the safety of workers, yet they will rarely consult with a wide range of workers. They will pick and choose whose stories to promote, and they will ignore the fact that independent sex workers come from a wide range of backgrounds and that it is not so simple as choice vs coercion. What they are attempting to do is paint a picture of sex workers as damaged and unfit in order to support their “cause” of saving us.
Let’s talk about the men and the feminists.
The main beneficiaries of the sex industry are cisgender heterosexual and flexerosexual men, mainly white men. They benefit both as producers/gatekeepers and consumers. They run our platforms, they control most of the porn industry, they spend their money on us, and then they enact and support the laws and tactics that prevent us from being safe and keep them profiting. These men do not want to see sex work decriminalized, they quite enjoy being Capitalist pimps and charging exorbitant percentages for us to use their platforms to market and advertise our services. Yes, sex work is a service.
SWERFs, or Sex Work Exclusionary Radical Feminists, are anti-sex work feminists who believe that sex work in all its forms is inherently exploitative to women. Anti-sex work “activists” are not all feminists though. There is a lot of money in exploiting people’s fears via propaganda about sex trafficking. Conservatives most definitely have a stake in this game as well. In the same way that white foremothers Susan B and Liz Stanton partnered with white male supremacists to achieve their suffragette dreams ahead of Black men (Black women were irrelevant to them), so have SWERFs and conservative women teamed up with white conservative men in their efforts to spread erroneous statistics and conflate sex work (a profession) and sexual violence and exploitation. Doing this obscures the very real issues with each of these--sex work and sex trafficking--and prevents anything actually being solved. It does however help misogynist men in pushing more and more laws regarding women’s bodies. It also helps to criminalize Black and Indigenous American women, both cis and trans, whose bodies are already seen as deviant. Let’s also add disabled and poor women--I know many disabled women who moonlight as sex workers in order to care for themselves or other people because they experience chronic pain/disease and their insurance and/or social security isn’t covering everything. SWERFs are usually white feminists, but there is a contingent of Black/WoC feminists that can be described as SWERFy--however white SWERFs are the dominant ones, and they are the main ones mobilizing this part of the so-called “sex positive” movement. Because only their sanctioned modes of sex are “positive.” These women also tend to be TERFs--trans exclusionary radical feminists. They focus mainly on sexual commerce between cishet men and women, which is why they are missing or glossing over the queer porn revolution going on right now.
There is a heavy preoccupation with “the male gaze” and the commodification of women’s bodies within this branch of [white] feminism, mainly because cis white able-bodied women center what affects them and tend to downplay or dismiss the clear inequalities that women of color and trans women experience--which is compounded within the sex industry. Even if we remove misogyny and the issue of the sexist commodification of women’s bodies from the picture, sex work is never going away. Fetishes and kinks are never going away. They have existed for ages, and people are always going to have varying sexual tastes, regardless of sexual orientation or cultural mores. The reason we have taboos is because we have norms, and vice versa. Sex parties and orgies are not new. Think Saturnalia. This stuff is in our blood. We are animals, and most of us derive pleasure from humping. The end.
"Sex worker” is an identity--a political one. Wearing the title of sex worker usually invites a clear amount of scorn and condescension, especially if you aren’t white. Hating sex work as a profession says a lot about what a person thinks about the women (and men) who populate this industry. There are always layers as to why they are anti-sex work, just like there are layers as to why I am anti-cop or anti-military. If you have to be anti- something, there is a reason. No one is anti-mason or anti-ballet dancer.
Being anti sex work is usually an indication of hierarchical thinking, moralism, flawed politics, trans-/misogyny/-noir, and/or classism. Being anti-sex work based in the idea that it is exploitative also has issues of hypocrisy and respectability. Who are you to tell a woman that because she trades sex and/or eroticism for money that she lacks self respect? Who are you to remove another person’s agency? If you are anti-sex work you had better be supportive of universal healthcare and childcare, extended maternity leave, equal pay and closing the wage gap, flexible employment, raising minimum wage, decriminalization of sex workers and free or low-cost education. All of these things will help women who don’t necessarily want to be sex workers or who simply want more options. But it won’t eradicate sex work. Because people like sex. Duh.
**This article was commissioned by @coffeespoonie, one of my lovely Twitter mutuals
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