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Female sex workers and feminism: liberation or degradation?

By Victoria Kallsen
On March 10, 2014

In a sex-negative society, the backlash against sex workers (those employed in the porn or sex service field) is severe. Until the exploitation of women in this field with is dealt with, an empowering sex-positive environment for female sex workers will never be fully realized. However, if entered into without causation by economic, violent and oppressive conditions, sex work can be viewed as a legitimate service complete with its own rights and protections. It all comes back to the ever important choice of the woman in question and a belief that the government shouldn't impose moral restrictions on her body. By refusing that choice, feminists are no different than those they speak out against.
Empowering or victimizing? It's this question regarding sex work that all feminists ponder. The greatest failing of feminism is the exclusivity and privilege issues even amongst women who should have a better clue about oppression. Education on the perspectives of sex workers becomes invaluable in these discussions because they've already been there. During my research for this piece, it became steadily apparent that here were the voices of women who were prejudiced against and silenced not just by the patriarchy. Their experiences were also being denied by feminists.
"There is nothing more misogynist than implying/stating that I'm selling 'myself' when I sell sex," Molly, one sex worker, said to BuzzFeed. "I am a lot more than my vagina and what I do in bed, and I expect feminists to understand that."
The myriad of reasons why the sex industry can be crippling include sex trafficking, sexual violence, the criminal status of prostitutes and the general skewing of the market as a male-only club. However, the inherent flaws in the system shouldn't prevent feminists and others from embracing sex workers. Often sex work is seen as a send up to the Patriarchy and participation in it is frowned upon. By classifying all sex workers as victims, we rob them of their agency. Simply put, non-sex workers can't impress their experiences with sex onto those who have entered the sex service field.
This matter re-emerged when Duke University freshman, "Belle Knox," divulged her story to the public. Starting in the fall of last year, Knox worked in the porn industry on school breaks to subsidize her tuition costs of over $60,000 a year. Knox has chided both sides of the aisle for slut-shaming her career profession.
"To be perfectly honest, I felt more degraded in a minimum wage, blue-collar, low paying, service job than I ever did doing porn," Knox said to Duke University's "The Chronicle."
As I previously articulated, sex work is a complicated field, and feminists should pay closer attention to how criminalization of sex workers leads to worsening conditions. Because of the shadier nature of their business, more risks must be taken so far as decisions regarding choice of client, cost and safety, according to Molly's reports to BuzzFeed.
"Sex workers are driven away from well-known, well-lit beats where they can work together and look out for each other, and into darker, quieter streets," Molly said.
As a feminist, we should work to better the choice to enter in sex work and allow those who choose the field to do so without prodding from economic concerns, sexual violence and other abuses. In other words, we should start treating sex workers as human beings.
I will borrow again from those with more experience than I and quote porn mode Minnie Scarlet speaking to RH Reality Check.
"If feminism has any role, it would be to educate people in general that women, whether you agree with their choices or not, are people who are capable of making their own decisions," Scarlet said.
We're already a part of a society that has long decided our roles for us as mothers, wives, sex objects and baby-makers (aka "hosts"). We have been feeding the fire simply because their view of sexuality isn't in line with ours. It's time to be an ally and stand hand in hand with others, even if those hands have seen more action than yours.
(Admittedly, male (particularly homosexual) and trans sex workers were neglected for the sake of brevity. It is not my intention to marginalize those experiences, but to concede that they are deserving of more attention than can be provided in this format.)

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