Some people are of the firm conviction that sex work is always exploitative, degrading, and undermines any attempts being made elsewhere to secure women’s place in intellectual and professional spheres. If you get your boobs out in a bar or for a lads' mag, or work as a prostitute, you are labelled as a slut and it’s assumed that you have no self-respect.
This idea of sex work as degrading doesn’t sit right with me, because for all the work that has been done to give women choices and rights, some women who proudly declare themselves feminists slut shame and body police when it comes to those who work in the industry.
This version of feminism is more than a little uncomfortable, because sex workers are systematically victimised, criminalised and shamed for expressing their sexuality in a way that doesn’t conform to the ‘acceptable’ version of sex we’ve created in our minds. Our defence against the proverbial ‘man’ who is out to get us and lock us in the kitchen falls down at the point where we need it most. “Your body does not belong to them!” they cry. The last time I checked, it doesn’t belong to you, either.
Feminism is nothing more than the belief that woman are deserving of equal rights and opportunities. No bra-burning, man-hating or body hair-cultivating is required, and sex work, when it is willing and consenting, is not ‘anti-feminist’. Sex workers haven’t raised a white flag and said ‘oh alright then, use my body as you please, it’s not like I wanted to be treated like a human being anyway’. It’s just sex work, and regardless of what economic and social circumstances surround a woman’s choice to enter the sex industry, she should be allowed the dignity to feel empowered by her choice, not labelled a victim of her circumstances.
Sex work is not without its dangers, and the sex industry has its fair share of coercion and abuse, but when sex workers get assaulted or raped, or even murdered, they are not treated with the same empathy as other female victims of assault. Because they have ‘put themselves at risk’, they are told they ought to ‘expect’ men to treat them badly. This puts the onus of rape onto the women who experience it, rather than those who commit it. It’s toxic and damaging, and women in sex work are not the flood gates holding back the tide of male desire to protect ‘other’ women from rape and assault. They are not ‘asking for it’ by placing themselves in that position.
This opposition to sex work doesn’t liberate women, it strips them of their voice and turns them into bodies, which as far as I can tell is what feminists who oppose sex work are so angry about in the first place. To tell a women what she can and cannot do with her body smacks of – gasp – misogyny.
We rightly defend a woman’s right to say ‘no’, but we must equally defend her right to say ‘yes’. You can be a feminist and like male attention. You can be a feminist and shave your legs. But above all else, you can be a feminist and be a prostitute. And it’s about time we stopped limiting female experience to a set of purist ideals under the guise of feminism, and started empowering women from all walks of life to make their own choices without judgement.