Is Feminism Failing Sex Workers?

Why moral objections to sex work are hypocritical.

Does money make good women bad? If a woman in the street asks a man “Will you sleep with me?”, that is perfectly legal. But if he says yes and she tells him that it will cost him £20, that’s against the law.

The laws against prostitution introduced in the 1950s were based on moral rules applied to sexual behaviour, especially the sexual behaviour of women. As such they also symbolise “double standards of sexual morality that result in stigmatising not just prostitutes, but many unconventional women, as sluts or whores."[1]

But moral rules are not static. It took the courage and determination of LGBTQI people demanding their rights to win the decriminalisation of gay sex. Public opinion has already largely shifted on the issue of prostitution. As far back as 2008, 59% of people agreed that “prostitution was a perfectly reasonable choice that women should be free to make”.[2]

There is a growing movement, spearheaded by sex workers, demanding the decriminalisation of sex work along the lines of the law introduced in New Zealand in 2003 with verifiable success.[3]  But there is also entrenched opposition which comes from an “unlikely union of evangelical Christians and feminist campaigners”.[4] Both wings of this union aim for the abolition of prostitution and in the meantime press for increased criminalisation in the form of criminalising clients. Some religious groups come from an unconcealed moralistic standpoint. The Christian charity CARE, which sponsored a Northern Ireland Act to criminalise clients,[5] has a track record of homophobia, campaigned against gay marriage[6] and also opposes abortion.[7]


"Is it really only sex work that is harmful to our humanity when under capitalism we are all compelled to sell ourselves, compelled to spend our waking lives in activities which we have not chosen or designed?"

Campaigns to criminalise clients by feminist groups claim a different motivation. They exploit the obvious double standard inherent in the prostitution laws and women’s often justifiable anger at men, and in the name of equality propose that clients be criminalised as a first step to abolishing prostitution. They maintain that prostitution ““is inherently a form of abuse… a form of violence against women”, that prostitution is uniquely degrading, that prostitution corrupts the society in which we live, sabotaging any possibility of equality between the sexes[8] and therefore that prostitution must be banned.[9]

The claim that “prostitution is inherently violent because, by definition, it involves unwanted sex”[10] is insulting and demeaning to sex workers. It denies that we, like other people, can distinguish between the sex we consent to (for money or not) and that which violates our bodies and our will. Like other workers, sex workers’ consent is conditional: if we don’t get paid, it’s forced labour.

An audience member at a recent event, with apparently no qualms about defining sex workers’ experience for them, gave his view:

“The factory worker agrees to commodify their arm, a woman in prostitution is agreeing to commodify a very intimate part of her body. This causes dissociation of the self. I would describe factory work as consenting to slavery; sex work is consenting to rape. That is why we shouldn’t allow prostitution.”[11]

But does this distinction really hold? Is it really only sex work that is harmful to our humanity when under capitalism we are all compelled to sell ourselves, compelled to spend our waking lives in activities which we have not chosen or designed.

Selma James, in her gripping account of the ECP’s 12-day occupation of the Holy Cross Church in King’s Cross, London in 1982 to protest police illegality and racism, tackles the discomfort that some have with women selling sex:

“It is true that sex workers sell a service that we all hope will be connected with intimacy and deep personal feeling. But the women’s movement has been at pains to spell out that sexuality is romanticized to hide how it is sometimes a tragedy or disappointment, or danger —or all of these—for women.”

We cannot deny that the claim that prostitution is harmful to women is on the face of it backed up by statistics. Sex workers in London are 12 times more likely to be killed than other women.[12] But to propose outlawing prostitution on this basis is to impose a moralistic double standard. Agriculture is the UK's most dangerous industry, with 167 deaths over the past year[13] but no-one would sensibly propose that farming be banned. Two women a week are killed by their partner or former partner but we have yet to see a feminist hazard warning against marriage.

There is nothing inherently dangerous about sex work. Women are alone with men in all kinds of situations. It is the laws which force sex workers to work in isolation that make us more vulnerable to violence and the lack of value that is put on our lives, exacerbated by our illegal status, that makes is so hard to get justice when we are attacked. Women Against Rape, a founding member of the Safety First Coalition which was initiated in the aftermath of the tragic murders of five young women in Ipswich, warns in addition that “to target men who have not been accused of violence just because they purchase sexual services, diverts police time and resources away from tackling the appallingly low conviction rate for reported rape.[14]

The ECP has never glamorised prostitution. Sex workers don’t need to love our jobs to demand that the police get off our backs. Surveys that claim to show that many sex workers would prefer another job[15] hide the fact that most workers offered more money for less work would want to change occupation. With zero hour contracts and endemic low pay the norm, it is no wonder that a recent UK survey found that 60% of workers hate their jobs.[16] And of course, many women point to the fact that sex work is often better paid (and therefore less exploitative) than most low-waged jobs women do.

But what of the claim that prostitution corrupts society and is “a vehicle to infect a nation”.[17] Well Virginia Woolf thought that “brain prostitutes” could cause more damage:

“To sell a brain is worse than to sell a body for when the body seller has sold her momentary pleasure she takes good care that the matter shall end there. But when a brain seller has sold her brain, its anaemic, vicious and diseased progeny are let loose upon the world to infect and corrupt and sow the seeds of disease in others.” [18]

The other claim that we must address is that prostitution “is fundamentally incompatible with equality between women and men.”

The sex industry is not the only industry which is male-dominated and which degrades women, but it is an industry based on sex which tends to unleash repressive tendencies. Does it attract particular approbation because the workers are illegal and can least defend publicly their rights both to their jobs and against their employers?

Far from undermining women’s power in society, the Wages for Housework Campaign (one of the few women’s organizations which from its inception acknowledged sex workers as workers) put forward the view that “all women benefit from prostitutes’ successful attempts to receive cash for sexual work, because the cash makes it clear that women are working when we are fucking, dressing up, being nice, putting makeup on, whenever we relate to men.”

It seems that feminist credentials are earned not by addressing the neglect and disparagement of mothers, supporting breastfeeding, improving deplorable rape conviction rates or fighting for pay equity, housing and to end sexist, racist, policing, but by advocating for the criminalisation of paid for sex.

And shamefully this view prevails at a time in the UK when 86% of austerity cuts have targeted women,[19] four million children are living in poverty[20], 1.25 million people in the UK are officially destitute[21] and women seeking asylum are scraping by on £36 a week. The policy of benefit sanctions alone is recognised as the cause of massive increases in prostitution.[22] [23] [24]


"Traditionally feminists have not wanted to know whether the 'clean up' they were promoting strengthened women's hand or the State's."

What has been the impact of this crusade against prostitution? To start with there has been a “tide of misinformation”.[25] To mention just two oft quoted false facts: 80% of sex workers are trafficked (the most comprehensive and reliable research found less than 6% of migrant workers are trafficked[26]); the average age of entry into prostitution is 13 (it is in fact 18-25 years old[27]).

The other more devastating impact is that thousands of women a year face police raids and are arrested, prosecuted and even imprisoned in the name of saving victims.[28] Traditionally feminists have not wanted to know whether the 'clean up' they were promoting strengthened women's hand or the State's. Internationally, for example, anti-trafficking laws (often promoted by Christian fundamentalist groups[29]) have been primarily used to prevent women from countries of the south crossing national boundaries in search of a better life.[30] Feminists have even been ready to back (and get funding from) the most repressive and reactionary forces.[31] In the US, Bush’s anti-prostitution pledge,[32] which prevented organizations from receiving federal funds unless they explicitly opposed prostitution, was backed by prominent feminists.[33]  And the laws are used in a discriminatory way. US PROStitutes Collective has been publicising how “Nationally, Black people make up 42% of all prostitution arrests, 45% of curfew and loitering arrests and 35% of disorderly conduct arrests. Yet Black people make up only 13.2% of the US population.”[34]

Ultimately, no matter what your moral views, as Andrea Spyropoulos from the Royal College of Nursing said when speaking in Parliament on this issue, you can put them aside:

I asked the 3000 nurses at Congress to suspend just for the debate, their own personal, moral, ethical and religious values. Because once you strip those issues away from this debate, there is no debate. It makes absolutely no sense to criminalise individuals who are consenting adults having sex. The only difference is that men pay money. Well hey, I am wearing a diamond ring and diamond earrings that I can assure you weren’t paid for by me – they came from my husband, and he wasn’t even my husband at the time.”

The demand for the ‘feminism of the 99%’[35] of this year’s International Women’s Strike is an encouraging sign that times are changing. It has opened the way for us to be able to forge a feminism that attacks the violence and immorality of poverty rather than attacking the means through which the impoverished survive, a feminism that sides with sex workers against the police and with “bad” women against bad laws. In this way we can refuse to be divided from other women and other workers. As our sister organisation Empower in Thailand said:

“Sex work is our means of resistance and our refusal to remain in the places of poverty assigned to us. It is our mothers who work the land; our sisters in the sweatshops; our aunties who are the street vendors; our daughters cleaning the houses of the wealthy. We are the same women. Together we are refusing poverty and demanding a better fairer and kinder world for everyone.”


[1] Laurie Shrage, PhD, former Professor of Philosophy at the California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, was quoted in the Nov. 1, 2004 article "U.S. Feminists Split Over Berkeley Prostitution Measure" written by Kai Ma in the North Gate News Online, as having said:

[2] Ipsos MORI. (2008). Public’s Views on Prostitution. Available at:

[3] Ministry of Justice. (2008). Report of the Prostitution Law Review Committee on the Operation of the Prostitution Reform Act 2003. Available at:

[4] The Guardian, 20 October 2009. Prostitution and Trafficking – the Anatomy of a Moral Panic. Available at:

[5] Section 15: Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015. Available at:

[6] Christian Action Research & Education (CARE). Marriage. Available at:

[7] Christian Action Research & Education (CARE). Abortion. Available at:

[8] The now defunct Poppy Project received at least £6m government funding to “assist victims of trafficking”. It had a stated aim to end all prostitution on the grounds that it “helps to construct and maintain gender inequality”. It was responsible for two reports which provided the basis for some of the fabricated statistics on trafficking. The 2004 “Sex in the City” report found that 80% of women working in “brothels, saunas and massage parlours” in London were “non-British nationals” and concluded (without evidence) that “a large proportion of them are likely to have been trafficked into the country”. The 2008 “Big Brothel” report claimed to have found “indicators of trafficking in every borough of London”. This report was subsequently condemned as having “serious flaws” by academics who said the claims about trafficking “cannot be substantiated.”

[9] Kat Banyard. (2016). Pimp State: Sex, Money and the Future of Equality.

[10] Nordic Model Now! Available at:

[11] Repeated by Kat Banyard “It is not an ordinary form of work. Sex is different. Having someone you don’t know insert their penis repeatedly in to you is very different to me serving you a drink.”

[12] Ward et al. (1999), Risky Business: Health and Safety in the Sex Industry Over a 9 Year Period.

[13] The Independent, 6 February 2017. The 9 Most Dangerous Jobs in Britain. Available at:


[15] Farley, M. (2003), Journal of Trauma Practice “Nine out of ten prostitutes surveyed would like to exit prostitution but feel unable to do so”.

[16] Investors in People (IIP). (2015). Job Exodus Survey. Available at:

[17] Tony Nassif, Founder and President of the Cedars Cultural and Educational Foundation, wrote the July 19, 2005 letter posted on its website, which said:

[18] Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf, 1938

[19] The Guardian, 9 March 2017. Women Bearing 86% of Austerity Burden, Commons Figures Reveal. Available at:

[20] Child Poverty Action Group. (2016). Child Poverty Facts and Figures. Available at:

[21] Joseph Rowntree Foundation. (2016). Destitution in the UK. Available at:

[22] The Star, 19 March 2014. Support Bid for Doncaster’s Prostitutes. Available at:

[23] The Star, 2 November 2016. Sheffield Women Being Forced into Prostitution by Benefit Cuts. Available at:

[24] Hull Daily Mail. 13 August 2013. Mums 'Selling Sex to Feed Their Children as Benefit Cuts Hit Hull’s Poorest’. Available at:

[25] The Guardian, 20 October 2009. Prostitution and Trafficking – the Anatomy of a Moral Panic. Available at:

[26] Mai, N. (2009). Migrant Workers in the UK Sex Industry: ESRC Full Research Report. Available at:

[27] Churchet al. (2001). Violence by Clients Towards Female Prostitutes in Different Work Settings: Questionnaire Survey. Available at:

[28] The Guardian, 11 December 2013. Soho Police Raids Show Why Sex Workers Live in Fear of Being ‘Rescued’. Available at:

[29] “Evangelical Christian groups have secured a growing proportion of federal monies for both international and domestic anti-trafficking work as well as funds for the prevention of HIV/AIDs (Mink 2001; Butler 2006).

[30] Beyond Borders: Exploring Links between Trafficking and Migration, GAATW,  (2010)

[31] The anti-trafficking organization Demand Abolition, whose stated aim is to “eradicate the illegal commercial sex industry . . . by combating the demand for purchased sex”, has the State Department, various corporations and the anti-abortion right wing religious group Concerned Women of America on its board.

[32]  In 2002 the Bush administration declared that "organizations advocating prostitution as an employment choice or which advocate or support the legalization of prostitution are not appropriate partners for USAID anti-trafficking grants or contracts."

[33] Ahmed, A. (2011). Feminism, Power, and Sex Work in the Context of HIV/AIDS: Consequences for Women's Health. Harvard Journal of Law and Gender. Available at:

[34] English Collective of Prostitutes. (2016). Decriminalisation of Prostitution: the Evidence. Available at:

[35] The Guardian, 6 February 2017. Women of America: We’re Going on Strike. Available at:

Latest Releases
Join the conversation