The Trouble With Abolitionist Feminist Ideology
While some feminists call for the abolition of sex work, other feminists favour its decriminalization. As a feminist who is strongly “pro-decrim” based on the evidence, feminist principles, and listening to sex workers, I’m disturbed by what I see as the wrongheaded ideology of abolitionist feminists, such as that exemplified by feminist and prostitution abolitionist Meghan Murphy.
Murphy writes for the F Word as well as the progressive website Rabble.ca. To pick one particular example, an article of hers posted on Rabble in October prompted a number of comments from offended sex workers and their allies. (A progressive dialogue: Building a progressive feminist movement in neo-liberal times) The commenters saw this abolitionist stance as paternalistic and profoundly anti-feminist, one that doesn’t listen to most sex workers and doesn’t respect their agency, and instead presumes to know what’s good for them and speaks for them. As commenter brownstargirl said: “This writing reminds me deeply of white feminist writing about how those oppressed women of color and Indigenous women really feel.”
Former sex worker and current activist Kerry Porth said: “I too have been ‘plagued with anger and frustration’ with individuals such as Ms. Murphy who, despite the fact that she has never engaged in sex work, feels that she has the right to speak on behalf of those who have. Indeed, my transition out of sex work was made all the more difficult and painful because although I have always considered myself to be a feminist, I soon discovered that within Vancouver, the division within feminism around sex work is one of the most intense and brutal that I have ever seen in any movement. Because I do not identify as a victim of sex work or exploitation, I have been repeatedly told that I am suffering from false consciousness or that my participation in sex work somehow directly contributes to harm against all women.” (Personal communication)
The harm to women comes not from sex workers—as if they are to blame for their own murders—but from the whole anti-sex work mentality. Commenter fc said: “This kind of [anti-sex work] discourse not only backs up policy packages that harm sex workers by further criminalizing people but it also nourishes stigma which very much feeds violence.”
Obviously, we all care about marginalized communities. The negative effects of colonialism, racism, and gender oppression are precisely why most sex workers want their work decriminalized, because they recognize the criminal laws as an institutionalized part of those oppressions. As commenter brownstargirl said: “The racist, capitalist, whorephobic, colonialist, sexist, ableist society we live in… creates the criminalization that makes working conditions dangerous for sex workers.”
Murphy paints a false caricature of the pro-decrim movement as “neo-liberal feminism” – characterized by a disconnection from progressive feminism, advocacy of individualism, an abandonment of marginalized women and the commitment to fight race and class oppression, and a capitulation to patriarchy, oppression, and capitalism. But pro-decrim feminists and countless sex worker groups fight for justice and labour rights for themselves around the world. As commenter fc stated: “To try and paint sex workers who are organizing as ‘neo-liberal’ and ‘individualistic’ to discredit their work is just a tactic to silence.”
Sex worker Susan Davis expressed her frustration with the feminist divide on sex work by observing: “The most difficult part is that we all agree on addressing the driving factors like poverty, addictions, mental health, livable wages and welfare rates, but for some reason can’t make that the common ground we all fight for.” (Personal communication) Likewise, former sex worker Kerry Porth said: “Sex worker activists are just as outraged about the violence and abuse we suffer as the prohibitionists, we just differ in how to address that harm. …pro-decrim and prohibitionist activists agree far more than we disagree on how to reduce violence against women, such as an increase in welfare rates, universal daycare, increased access to detox and drug treatment, better housing and so much more. Why can we not work together towards these goals?” (Personal communication)
The main reason is probably the stubborn abolitionist belief that sex work is inherently violent, despite a strong body of evidence to the contrary. Last year, Judge Himel of the Ontario Superior Court struck down three sections of Canada’s prostitution law because they increased the danger to sex workers. Evidence presented in court showed that indoor sex work is significantly safer than street work, and that it’s possible for sex workers to take various measures to increase their safety. However, the law explicitly prohibited many of those measures, including negotiating a transaction prior to jumping in a car, using drivers or guards, working in pairs or groups, and working at a brothel. The fact that sex workers can work much more safely by having greater control over their environment and the transaction, falsifies the abolitionist ideology that sex work is inherently violent or exploitive. That doesn’t mean there won’t always be some risk attached to it—but many other jobs carry risk too. The solution is to improve working conditions and implement labour rights and safety measures, not criminalize the profession itself.
Murphy and other abolitionists refuse to admit the role that our criminal law plays in increasing the risk of violence against sex workers. One abolitionist rebuttal of the Himel decision dismisses pro-decrim arguments by presenting ideology as evidence—sex work is inherently violent and male clients are predators; therefore decrim won’t help sex workers—end of argument. But commenter CGToronto pointed out that “The vast majority of all criminal legal attacks on sex workers—ranging from arrest to police rapes to murder—are against street-based workers. The vast majority of those who stand to benefit from decriminalization of sex work are those women.” She called on abolitionists to “[join] sex workers in calling for accountability from the Canadian government for creating, enforcing and defending laws that have been demonstrated to contribute to violence against sex workers.” Instead, as commenter fc stated: “Anti-sex work ‘feminism’ could also be called carceral feminism as its champions basically push for the use of law enforcement to ‘enforce’ social justice. This is harming sex workers and all of our communities.”
Abolitionists like to tout the Nordic or “Swedish model” of legislation, which criminalizes male clients, but not female sex workers. But criminalization is criminalization—sex workers cannot work reasonably or safely when their clients are criminalized. Evaluations of the Swedish law have not provided any credible evidence that the law works to reduce prostitution or make it safer. Instead, sex work has moved to different hidden venues where women continue to be vulnerable to violence because they can’t rely on the police to help them. (Many strong critiques of the Nordic model have been published, including this one from FIRST.)
In response to Murphy’s article (A progressive dialogue), sex worker Tuulia notes: “It's very well and good to say end poverty to end the sex industry, but I have yet to see any specific plans to that end by prohibitionist feminists, who I would wager aren't opting out of capitalism personally by living off the grid. They are probably still shopping at the dollar store or buying things made in Third World countries, traveling, driving cars and eating imported food like other people who unthinkingly support the neo-liberal global order on a daily basis.” (Personal communication). Tuulia's remark is a bit facetious, but the point missed by abolitionists is that we all need to survive in the capitalist society around us by earning money.
In terms of actually addressing poverty and other social ills affecting the most marginalized sex workers, including drug addiction, mental health, and homelessness, it’s pro-decrim groups and sex worker activists—not abolitionists—who are at the forefront. Kerry Porth is the Executive Director of Vancouver’s PACE Society (Providing Alternatives Counselling & Education), an organization founded by active and former sex workers to deliver services to sex workers. Over 80% of PACE members are indigenous, and most sex worker-led organizations are similarly diverse, with memberships that are largely pro-decrim and reflect a range of backgrounds and experiences. Many offer exiting programs as well as resources and services for active workers to improve their working conditions. In the comments to Murphy’s article, brownstargirl said: “There are literally hundreds of diverse initiatives led by many kinds of sex workers speaking for themselves everywhere. … Murphy’s article ignores generations of genius, diverse theory and activism led by sex workers globally, from Kamataka Sexworkers Union in India to Different Avenues in DC and Women with a Vision in New Orleans, to Maggies and the Native Youth Sexual Health Network right here in Toronto.”
Abolitionists gloss over the diversity of sex work, focusing almost exclusively on the 10-20% of sex workers who work on the street and who are disproportionately aboriginal. But most workers work indoors, including in their own homes or as escorts for an agency, or in brothels and massage parlours. Abolitionists also pretend that prostitution is an issue of male demand for women’s bodies, but significant minorities of sex workers are male or transgendered. These workers are completely ignored and abandoned by abolitionists because they don’t fit into their “women are victims of the patriarchy” dogma. But a U.S. Department of Justice study in 2008 found that 45% of underage sex workers in New York City were boys. That same study found that 90% of underage sex workers in NYC did not have “pimps” and worked independently. Actually, most sex workers work independently, although they may rely on others to help them.
Murphy treats with disdain the idea that sex work can be freely chosen and empowering for women. But most sex workers do choose to enter the trade, including sex worker Tuulia: “I chose sex work out of several job options. Many people choose sex work under various conditions. Survival sex workers are a minority in the industry, whose experiences can in no way be said to represent the entire industry.” (Personal communication). From former sex worker Kerry Porth: “Despite the moral outrage some feminists feel about our choices, some women do actually choose to engage in sex work.” Porth recognizes that “some women will be forced by circumstances to engage in sex work,” but that their work should “enjoy the same protections as all other individuals forced by circumstances to do jobs they find distasteful.” I would add that although choices are limited for survival sex workers, even highly constrained choices are still choices, and the people who make them still have agency and deserve dignity and human rights, even if they don’t feel empowered by their work. However, sex work can be empowering for the simple reason that it allows sex workers to pay the bills and support their families, and sometimes much more. The main reason people become sex workers in the first place is to earn money, and abolitionist ideology poses a threat to their livelihoods.
Murphy speaks of women “selling their bodies to men with power,” even though the power dynamic is generally the other way around. When sex workers have control over their transactions—such as the ability to negotiate fees and services up front, refuse clients, insist on condom use, and so on, they are far safer. Currently, indoor workers tend to have more transactional control than street workers, because criminalization often prevents street workers from taking safety measures and setting their own terms and conditions.
The abolitionist view of male clients is a degrading one that demonizes male sexuality and needs. It’s reminiscent of the radical feminist trope that “all men are rapists,” based on the suspicion that sex itself is violent because the penis is like a weapon and penetration is an act of dominance over a woman. But men are human beings with legitimate sexual needs and desires. They can’t help having penises, and heterosexual women, generally speaking, enjoy penetration. The biological differences between male and female sexuality are natural and meant to be enjoyed by both cisgenders, not politicized in order to cast men as predators and women as victims. That false stance does profound harm to both.
Murphy devotes a lot of space to criticizing Slutwalk, including claiming that its participants “play to a male gaze.” But I attended the Slutwalk march in Vancouver last year and was impressed by the diversity of the crowd and the large number of men who attended—not to ogle women, but to support them. Murphy misses the point anyway—the essence of Slutwalk is to sever the link between women’s desire to look sexually attractive and feel like sexual beings, and the sexist presumption that women who do so are automatically consenting to sexual activity and therefore are “dirty sluts” and whores. Women should be able to dress how they want without it being linked to any expectation or judgment by others about their sexual behaviour. In other words, stilettos and miniskirts don’t have to be a symbol of patriarchy and female victimology, they can symbolize women’s autonomy and free sexual expression instead.
Slutwalk also emphasizes that women have the right to enjoy sex, including casual sex—with consent and respect being the issues that matter, not the way they dress. Abolitionists don’t see it that way of course, because they interpret many forms of female sexual expression as a product of patriarchal oppression. Once again, this removes women’s agency and whitewashes their sexuality. As sex worker Tuulia notes: “[Abolitionists] are shaming people, including slutwalkers, for having sex in a way that offends their sensibilities.” (Personal communication)
Many angry exchanges have occurred in the comments sections of Meghan Murphy’s articles because of her disrespect for and dismissal of any sex worker that does not fit into her victim paradigm. Such actions are decidedly not feminist. Until the abolitionist movement is willing to listen to and respect the diverse voices of all sex workers, including the majority of both indoor and street workers who want full decriminalization of prostitution, they have no business calling themselves feminists.