Commentary by Erin Rennie
“The World’s Oldest Oppression”: An Intersectional Abolitionist Look at the Sex Trade provides a discussion on the debate of legalisation and regulation of prostitution from an intersectional radical feminist lens. This article stands in opposition to a surge of feminist activism and a growing body of feminist research and literature through a liberal lens that constructs prostitution as potentially empowering and liberatory for women (see Davina, 2017; Lebovitch & Ferris, 2021; West & Horn, 2021). Many radical feminists oppose this narrative and argue that this is a rather naive and falsely optimistic view of the sex industry. The current article presents a compelling argument against the legalisation of prostitution and concludes that the only feasible option is abolition.
The author demonstrates that the patriarchy, neo-capitalism, and colonialism all facilitation women entering prostitution. They argue that prostitution thrives in the oppression that these social systems create, and that for many women, the sex industry is a means of survival rather than an expression of female sexuality, agency, and active choice. The author evidences this argument with an array of research and statistics, including one example given by the author: ‘90% of prostituted women in Europe are impoverished immigrants’ (p.6). The author offers an intersectional analysis of prostitution and contends that due to racial fetishization and oppression, free choice is further taken away from women of colour and their journey into prostitution is characterised by societal coercion. The author dissects the capitalist logic that normalises women’s bodies as goods that can be exchanged for money and highlights the misrepresentation of prostitution as a liberatory choice rather than a form of violence against women and exploitation.
From this perspective, the article provides a strong challenge to the argument in favour of legalisation to protect women and provides evidence to challenge the effectiveness of legalisation in keeping women safe. The author instead argues that legalisation does not benefit or protect women, but legalisation offers benefits to third parties: clients, pimps, and the state. The author acknowledges that some women do enter prostitution as a free choice, however, they argue that this is rare, and therefore, argues steps must be taken to protect the majority of women involved in prostitution, who are often the most vulnerable members as society. The author concludes that prostitution is detrimental to the lives of women involved and women need to be protected from the dangers associated with prostitution. Based on this analysis, the author concludes that the only feasible option is to advocate for an absolution of prostitution as an industry to protect women as a social group.
Given the contentious nature of this topic a justification of the author’s terminology would have been valuable. While it may appear obvious given the author’s radical feminist perspective, it would have been beneficial if the author had offered a theoretical explanation of their use of ‘prostitution’ and ‘prostitutes’. While the term ‘prostitution’ works within the author’s conceptualisation of women’s exploitation and lack of choice, the preferred terms by many women involved is ‘sex work’ and ‘sex workers’ to destigmatise women involved and the term ‘prostitute’ is often considered a slur (Stella, 2013). Without addressing this issue, the article may be viewed as offensive by some and dismissive of women’s lived experiences.
The author presents an important article that dissects the normalisation and legitimisation of various forms of prostitution, while centring women’s socio-economic inequality as the driving force for entering prostitution, therefore, genuine free choice is rare, and their involvement is based on coercion and socialisation. This article provides a comprehensive challenge to the view that prostitution is empowering and liberating and as the author powerfully notes, ‘feminist claims like “my body, my decision” should serve to free women from oppressive roles and sexual and reproductive exploitation, not to maintain them’ (p.4).
Davina, L. (2017) Thriving in Sex Work: Heartfelt Advice for Staying Sane in the Sex Industry. Oakland: The Erotic as Power Press LLC.
Lebovitch, A. & Ferris, S. (2021) Sex Work Activism in Canada: Speaking Out, Standing Up. Winnipeg: ARP Books.
Stella. (2013) Language Matters: Talking About Sex Work. Montreal: Open Society Foundations.
West, N. & Horn, T. (2021) We Too: Essays on Sex Work and Survival. New York: The Feminist Press.
Reply by the author
After reading Erin’s excellent review, I want to make a short reply to their comment on the problems with my terminology.
I agree that the terms “prostitute” and “prostitution” are problematic given their connotations. However, please note that this choice of terms was not intended to support any derogatory or homogenizing representation of women in the sex business. We are currently presented with a pool of terms where none seems to be exempt from problems, and yet “sex work” in particular is diametrically opposed to the ideas presented in the paper.
The labels we use to describe phenomena matter. Every term has an underlying ideological baggage and the potential to shift our conscious and unconscious perception of such phenomena. My worry of using the term “sex work” is that it will inscribe this practice within a liberal mercantilist logic which normalizes “sex work” as an ordinary market transaction, separating it from the violent context without which it could not exist. Additionally, this term also normalizes a view of people’s bodies as a resource that can unproblematically be sold in the market as an ordinary commodity. Though all the drawbacks of these terms cannot be fully explained in this reply, the point being made is that the terms “sex work” and “sex workers” also have their share of problems and should not beused uncritically.
It is also important to note that there is not a consensus among women who are or have been in the sex business about what terms best represent them and their experiences. Just as an example, Sindy Takanashi and Amelia Tiganus are two Spanish abolitionist activists who refuse to use “sex work” terminology and instead use the terms “prostitute” and “prostitution” consistently within theiractivism work. All the above underlies my choice of terms in this essay. I finally want to thank Erin Rennie for their comment and for pointing this issue out to me.