Why do so many feminists want to legalize sex work?

Of the many aspects of contemporary feminist discussion that might shock and horrify a 19th century suffragette (or perhaps even more so, a veteran of 1970s Second Wave Feminism), the strong feminist support for legal/non-criminal sex work on the grounds of protecting sex workers’ rights might stand out as one of the most shocking.


Historically, the most sympathetic mainstream attitude towards sex workers has viewed them as victims of circumstance in an inherently exploitative situation. As sex work is disproportionately practiced by women, it has been assumed that protecting women from sexual exploitation demands the eradication of prostitution. Sex workers themselves must be “rescued” from their own lives, according to this mentality. Such an attitude continues today, with laws relating to prostitution being framed with the elimination of sex work as an ultimate end goal.

One of the most basic problems with this approach is that it assumes sex work is at best a necessary evil resorted to out of desperation, framing sex workers as passive victims of circumstance or even coercion. It fails to recognize sex worker’s agency and self-awareness about their work, or that sex work can be a legitimate choice of labour. Leaving aside the complexity of personal motivations, the balance of agency and coercion involved in all labour under capitalism, and the range of activities which can be considered sex work, sex workers of all stripes identify this paternalism as a barrier to their safety and well-being on a very practical level.

It’s perhaps not particularly shocking to suggest that arresting someone and giving them a criminal conviction is probably not the best way to help them improve their lives and find “legitimate work.” What is more of a difficult concept for some is the demand by sex workers’ rights activists that sex work itself be legitimized in order to protect workers. It is very ingrained in sex-phobic, misogynistic culture to view prostitution as the most deeply degrading and dehumanizing work. Consider that we say a prostitute “sells her body”, while an agricultural labourer simply uses his body to do a job. Now consider that if sex work is perceived as inherently exploitative, abusive, and demeaning, how that might affect a sex worker’s ability to report actual instances of abuse and assault, or to avoid truly exploitative circumstances, without endangering her entire livelihood. Respecting sex workers’ agency, recognizing the existence of non-exploitative[*], non-abusive sex work, and removing the dehumanizing stigma of sex work is necessary for the empowerment of current and former sex workers, and the prevention of actual instances of violence and exploitation.

Approaches to removing legal threats to sex workers include the Nordic model, legalization, and decriminalization. Decriminalization is the approach typically supported by current and former sex workers and sex workers’ rights advocates, as well as Amnesty International, but seems to be the most difficult for governments and the general public to accept. Decriminalization means the removal of current laws relating to sex work without the introduction of new regulations. The Nordic model makes it legal to sell sexual services, but criminalizes and continues to target the buyers of sexual services, and often anyone acting as a “pimp”, in other words anyone participating in or materially benefiting from the sale of someone else’s sexual services. The Nordic model is criticized for forcing sex work further underground and forcing sex workers into more dangerous circumstances in order to protect their clients (and their livelihood!). The Nordic model does not respect sex work as legitimate work because it attempts to eliminate demand for sexual services and characterizes buyers of sex as criminals.

Laws related to pimping in this model often do more harm than good because they can be too broad. For example, multiple sex workers working together for mutual benefit and security could be prosecuted under some pimping laws. Other forms of legalization can be similarly problematic when they are informed by sex-phobic attitudes and continue to treat sex work as inherently undesirable. While theoretically freeing sex workers from the danger of arrest, stringent regulation can inhibit their ability to work and organize for mutual benefit and security, and may open them to closer legal scrutiny and harassment. Many sex workers under legalization may remain criminalized if they cannot conform to stringent regulations, and therefore remain vulnerable to prosecution, abuse, and harassment.

For these reasons, decriminalization is a favoured approach for many sex worker’s rights activists. It is an approach that demands the recognition of sex workers’ agency and that sex work is labour. What decriminalization does not entail is the weakening or repeal of laws against trafficking[†], exploitation, rape, assault, or the decriminalization of prostitution of minors. If anything, a safer, more open environment for the practice of safe sex work should make the targeting and prevention of these crimes more possible.

In 2013, a number of Canadian laws pertaining to prostitution were struck down as unconstitutional because it was determined that they threatened sex workers’ rights to life, liberty, and security of person. The laws that were struck down included bans on keeping or being in a “bawdy house”, or brothel, on “living on the avails of prostitution”, and on communicating in public for purposes of prostitution. These laws endangered sex workers by effectively making it a crime for sex workers to work together, in addition to making the work itself a crime. Within a year these laws were replaced by a new set of laws. Selling sexual services remains legal in Canada, although “sexual service” is undefined. However, the buying of sex continues to be criminalized. It is illegal to discuss the sale of sex except in certain areas, it is illegal to gain “material benefit” from the sale of sexual services by another person, and it is illegal to knowingly advertise another person’s sexual services.

While sex workers may advertise their own services, the platform which publishes such advertisement may be subject to prosecution. Much like the previous prostitution laws, these laws impede sex worker’s ability to organize, communicate, and work together, leaving them vulnerable. While the striking down of unconstitutional laws in 2013 seemed like a victory at the time, Bill C-36, which introduced the replacement regulations has been criticized on the exact same grounds as the previous laws. It was also explicitly referred to an “anti-prostitution law” by a Conservative MP.

So why is the decriminalization of sex work a feminist issue? The most basic reason is that sex work is disproportionately practiced by women, trans* people, and queer people, so sex workers’ issues are automatically feminist issues, whatever your opinion on those issues is. Feminisms that prioritize women’s agency, empowerment, and choice must give priority to sex workers’ voices on issues of sex work. From the practical standpoint of protecting women and other people engaged in sex work from violence, decriminalization or lenient legalization make the most sense as starting points. Decriminalization is not a complete solution to violence against sex workers, but it makes way for other necessary measures.

Support for sex workers who want to leave sex work is of course important and useful, but initiatives which focus on or limit themselves to getting people out of sex work are not making sex work itself more safe. Reluctance to accept the need for decriminalization, or at least a variety of legalization, when based on general condemnation and suspicion of sex work as harmful to women puts abstract moralization before real lives. And a moralization that ought to be re-evaluated, at that. Consider that it is puritanical attitudes towards sex and female chastity, and misogynistic ideas about the proper expression and use of female bodies and sexuality which underlie the stigma around sex work, which frame sex work as inherently degrading and dehumanizing, and that this stigma has a significant influence on the circumstances which make sex workers vulnerable.

For more on the impact of Canadian anti-prostitution laws and other resources regarding law reform.

[*] Or minimally exploitative, depending on your attitude towards capitalism.

[†] Contrary to the lurid image painted by some anti-trafficking initiatives and held in the popular imagination, sex related trafficking makes up only a portion of forced labour world-wide. Out of the 21 million people thought to be victims of forced labour, only 4.5 million are victims of sexual exploitation. According to the International Labour Organization, domestic work, agriculture, construction, manufacturing, and entertainment are among the sectors most implicated in forced labour.

lizElisabeth came to Edmonton to do a Masters degree in History at the University of Alberta after completing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Art History at the University of Victoria. Her research interests include medieval and early modern social and cultural history, especially issues around medical history and persecution. In the first year of her Masters degree, Elisabeth received the Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, followed by the Walter H. Johns Fellowship, Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship, and the Field Law Leilani Muir Graduate Research Scholarship.She  presented at the HCGSA Conference at University of Alberta in 2016 and will be writing the entry on Leprosy in World Christianity for the De Gruyter’s Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception (forthcoming). She has worked as a Research Assistant at the University of Alberta, and as a contract researcher and writer for the Government of Alberta’s Heritage division. In addition to her work as a writer and researcher, Elisabeth works with the Art Gallery of Alberta.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: