Examining where fourth wave feminism has fallen short of protecting sex workers
Third wave feminism has ushered in several huge breakthroughs for American women: the right to choose, Title IX, and more opportunity for employment in previously male-dominated fields. But one of the biggest issues the third wave concerns itself with is sex positivity. According to Everyday Feminism, sex-positive feminism is defined as the feminist rhetoric encouraging women to feel comfortable engaging freely with their sex lives, whatever that means for each individual woman. If a woman wants to have casual sex, that’s fine. If a woman wants to be celibate, that’s fine, too. But one group of women that sex-positive feminism has historically ignored is sex workers.
Sex workers have been around since the beginning of civilization, but there has been hardly any increase in their rights. Prostitution is still illegal in all states except for Nevada, where it’s allowed on a very limited scale, making it incredibly hard for sex workers to seek justice when they are violated. Generally, when sex workers report rape or abuse, they run the risk of being arrested for prostitution rather than having their perpetrator arrested for sexual assault. According to the Open Society Foundation, “Criminalization makes it difficult for sex workers to report the rights violations, especially by the police, because they are vulnerable to arrest and retribution. This situation perpetuates stigma, violence, and impunity, which further endanger their health and safety.” And the numbers of abuse are high. A Huffington Post article written by Katherine Koster cites that, especially in states where it is completely illegal, sex workers face abuse at the hands of their clientele. “Phoenix, AZ 37% of prostitution diversion program participants report being raped by a client, and 7.1% report being raped by a pimp.”
To make matters worse, many sex workers are mocked or ignored when they report rape, because according to popular belief, sex workers always want sex, right? Wrong. Sex work is work, just like any other job. If you saw a Target cashier at a Walmart, you wouldn’t ask them to start scanning your items just because that’s what they do at Target. The same logic should easily apply to sex workers, but unfortunately, it doesn’t. According to the Huffington Post, in New York City, 80 percent of street sex workers report having experienced sexual violence; the number is 46 percent for indoor, or brothel-based, sex workers. The stats are even higher when pertaining to women of color or trans women. This sounds more like something you would see in the 70s film Taxi Driver or even the film Les Miserables, set in the 1800’s, but these statistics are from this very decade.
And a lot of the reason that law enforcement is less likely to be notified about these incidences of sexual violence is because sometimes they’re the ones perpetuating it. “In a Chicago study, 30% of erotic dancers and 24% of street-based sex workers who had been raped identified a police officer as the rapist,” writes Katherine Koster for Huffington Post. “Approximately 20 % of other acts of sexual violence reported by study participants were committed by the police. In Bolivia, police regularly arrest sex workers and either extort money or force them to engage in coercive sex.” How is it possible for sex-workers to feel safe when the people they would usually go to for help, may actually be more involved than anyone would like to imagine?
So, while sex work has been normalized to some extent, it’s still incredibly stigmatized and unregulated. There are so many popular cam-girl Twitter accounts now that it’s easy to forget there are still women, many women of color or trans women, walking the street with no protection by the law. We’ve all joked about dropping out of college and becoming strippers, but it’s not a joke to women whose livelihoods depend on sex work. Just because some Twitter account co-opts the sex worker aesthetic and publicly sells nudes, that doesn’t mean sex work is safe or lucrative for most women.
If fourth wave feminism is all about sex positivity, why have we forgotten all about the sex workers? We’re all profiting off the slightly more liberated sexual environment for women while pushing sex workers aside completely. It’s amazing that we can get free condoms in school or that we feel comfortable going to the gynecologist, but sex work is a frontier of feminism that has been left largely un-forged. Considering a lot of these women were the ones advocating for sex-positivity in the first place, it’s time to uplift their voices into the feminist movement. And not just cis white sex workers either — trans women and women of color, too. It’s time to start looking for solutions instead of posting the thousandth nude to your black and white Tumblr porn blog — not that you can’t do both.
The easiest solution to this problem is the decriminalization of prostitution. Human rights organization Amnesty International spent three years conducting research and working closely with sex workers to find a solution to the many problems facing those who do sex work right now; the unanimous conclusion was that decriminalization would make sex work safer and more lucrative for everyone involved. Rather than being afraid of reporting assault to the police, decriminalization would allow sex workers to file reports without fear of detainment.
According to a Rolling Stone article by Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International, our current model is not working to protect sex workers or clients alike. “Such laws wound up putting sex workers in even more dangerous situations. Sex workers are often forced to put the protection of their clients above their own well-being,” Huang said. “This pushes sex work further underground, making it difficult to seek help when needed. Sex workers are also forced to meet clients in hidden places where the risks to their safety are higher, rather than places where they know they will be safe.”
Decriminalization would also allow sex workers to seek housing without being evicted or discriminated against. Many sex workers report a hard time staying in one place due to aggressions they face from suspicious landlords; if sex work was decriminalized, this would no longer be a problem. Sex work can already be hard enough. Dealing with aggressive clients or street harassment is troublesome already. Finding housing shouldn’t be another stress added onto sex worker’s plates.
The main argument against the decriminalization of sex work — discluding moralistic, archaic ones — is that it will lead to an increase in human trafficking. This is a fallacy. In countries where sex work is legal, it’s actually harder to engage in human trafficking; if prostitution is not swept under the rug and done in secret, it illuminates the underground, suspicious behavior adopted by human traffickers. “Removing criminal penalties for sex work does not remove penalties for exploitation, forced labor, violence, trafficking, rape or sexual assault — including of minors,” Huang said. “All of these are grave abuses, and anyone who commits these crimes or any other form of human trafficking or exploitation for labor must be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”
Since coming to college, I’ve realized that the world of feminism is larger than my privileged, straight, white viewpoint led me to believe as that fifteen year old who got her hands on a copy of a Gloria Steinem biography. If we’re not using our privilege as college-educated feminists to fight for the rights of all women — including sex workers — then it’s not sex-positive feminism, or feminism at all.
Alex Coburn is a second year Cinema and Photography Major. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Donate to help sex workers receive legal assistants by going to Sexworkersproject.org.