Sex work, commonly known as prostitution, typically demands a variety of interpretations concerning its meaning. One of the most common definitions that most of us would probably recognise is: ‘legalising and regulating sexual services for income or other material necessities’.
Some female writers such as Overall and Alison Jaggar, both of whom use a Marxist theory in their interpretation, disagree by instead seeing prostitution as an institution allowing certain powers of command over one person’s body by another (Sloan and Wahab 2000). From these rather broad definitions, it could be argued that what it means to be a ‘sex worker’ can include various genders and various different professions: including erotic dancers, strippers, models and actors/actresses in the pornography industry, and phone sex workers.
The term “sex work,” was coined in 1980s by Carol Leigh, an activist based in San Francisco, who used sex to generate income. She politically defined sex work as a “legal way of making income for survival”. Advocates for sex-workers-rights believe that people who are involved in this should have the same basic human and labour rights as other working people.
Sex work has been considered a form of employment by many female activists since the 1970s. Furthermore, many activists have deemed working as a sex worker a choice and therefore a form of empowerment. Not only that, it has also been long-believed that sex work can be an effective empowerment tool for women in that it allows women to creatively express their sexuality against a patriarchal society that has long endeavoured to repress it.
The view held by the second wave of feminists concerning prostitution has, however, been opposed by activists like Carol Leigh. For example, Laurie Shrage, who has contributed by sharing a fair amount of her own personal experience in sex work, claimed, “The sex industry, as other institutions in society, is structured by deeply ingrained attitudes and values which are oppressive to women” (Sharage 1989). Largely extending and institutionalising the injustices that women faced due to the ills of patriarchy, many of those who are pro-prostitution (or, rather, pro-choice concerning prostitution) have been criticised by second wave feminists owing to the fact that sex-work is seen as inherently reactionary and disempowering to women. What is more, the second wave of feminists have also been criticised owing to the fact that those who engage in sex work only reinforce the power that men can wield over women, and thus reinforcing the hegemonic position that men occupy in society.
The second wave of feminists who oppose prostitution believe women are being used in a negative way by men – a demographic who are, they argue, the consumers (and thus cause) of prostitution. They often point to the fact that it is commonly known that the vast majority of prostitutes’ clients are males and the way men use women’s bodies is a form of commodification.
However, what about the third wave of feminists? Interestingly, it would be incorrect to say that the third wave of feminists are either proponents or opponents of prostitution. Both of these statements are true owing to the fact that the principal concern of this wave of feminism centres on the threats to women’s rights and issues that impact women.
However, the third wave of feminists typically believe the decision to be a prostitute is one that can be a voluntary choice, a choice that a woman can be proud of owing to the fact that they have the rights to enable them to be a prostitute in the first place. For example, Angela Bonavoglia thinks that prostitutes are the ones who are in charge because they are taking advantage of men’s sexual needs. Furthermore, she argues that, contrary to misconceptions, many females actually enjoy working as prostitutes – a line of work that neither creates grievous social problems nor economic issues. In fact, many in this wave of feminism claim that women take much satisfaction that comes with such a line of work (Sherman 2008).
Therefore, the dominant perspective on prostitution held by the second wave of feminism stands in opposition to the (generally) dominant perspective of the third wave of feminism. Indeed, unlike the third wave, the second wave, at least principally, see prostitution as violence against women, and therefore they deem prostitutes as victims. Not only do the second wave of feminists deem prostitutes victims of male oppression, they also deem them victims of violence in the complex structure within the sex industry. After all, they argue, there is no denying that forced prostitution, sex trafficking, and sexual exploitation are violent acts against women. The second wave of feminism have created the impression that most women are forced into prostitution, and thus making women take notice of the fact that violence against women is much more common than what they might otherwise think.
The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) supports and encourages the view held by the second wave of feminists – namely, that prostitution is a form of violence against females. Due to the vast influence that CATW has had (amongst others with similar views), the United Nations Commission for the Prevention of Crime and Penal of Justice has taken it upon itself to try characterising, on a legal level, sex trafficking and prostitution as an offence that falls under violence. If they succeed, prostitution would thus be classified as a crime and eventually banned (Sherman 2008).
Another point to mention here is economy. The Marxist analysis of sex work takes into consideration the political and economic effects in which sex work occurs with its analyses on class and labour. However, it does not consider some factors such as sexism and male desire as part of the reasons for why prostitution emerges and continues (Sloan and Wahab 2000).
Some recent analysis of prostitution has showed not just the negative effects but also the economic benefits to the development and the study of sex work – while others focus on bad issues surrounding it. However, for those working in women’s rights in prostitution, prostitution is seen as a huge institution in which women are used as slaves. Nevertheless, the feminist view of prostitution does show an economic analysis of sorts: not only do they discuss and argue the point concerning commodity, but they point out the important role that class structure plays in prostitution. The terms of class that appear in the feminist writings and thinking on prostitution are those of capitalism and slavery.
Whilst socialist-feminists have argued that prostitutes do not form a similar group in class terms, they argue that prostitutes can be differentiated in the most extreme case of exploitation and disadvantageous to women who own and manage a brothel. If, say, individuals who work as prostitutes are classified as ‘sex workers’, they will experience class discrimination and thus difficulties obtaining equality in their wages within the industry, and thus ‘sex capitalists’ and ‘sex workers’ are treated in a radically inconsonant way to each other. Another disadvantage of characterising prostitution as work is that a sex worker is subsumed under the analyses of prostitution thereby rendering them invisible. This means that the sexual desires and aspirations of a male client and the way it reflects on cultural practices and masculinity remain both unaddressed and assumed as natural male sexual needs.
It is important to mention that, in my impression, agreeing in large part with the position endorsed by the second wave of feminism, no woman in her right mind should want to be a sex slave because they should know that it is not a job. The significant element of physical danger has led some to compare it to high-risk jobs dominated by men. Indeed, the risks are similar: injuries, infections and psychological stress.
Importantly, there is a growing international trend to define prostitution as a form of violence, in particular as ‘violence against women’ and detrimental to gender equality. Many people believe that prostitution is not compatible with notions of human dignity or human rights. On the other hand, in some societies, especially Muslim societies (such as Turkey, Tunisia and Palestine), the sex worker is not acceptable even if many of them have brothels, sexual night-clubs, cabarets, etc.
In Iran, prostitution is widespread under the religions grab of what is known as muta-aa – a so called temporary marriage that gives men the right to hire a female for a time period that ranges from ten minutes to ten years. Nevertheless, in Muslim societies prostitution is still severely taboo for women. In this culture, to allow one’s daughter to become a prostitute means they have hit dirt bottom. If they reach such a position and she is also known as a prostitute in her society, the effects are so severe that none of her sisters, if she has any, will be able to marry. If there is any public knowledge of this, her whole family will be tarred with the inexorable colour of shame. The shame can even lead to “honour killings” in which women are slain by their husbands or relatives for tainting the family name.
Overall, C. (1992). What’s wrong with prostitution? Evaluating sex work. Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 17, 705-725.
Sharage,L. (1989) Should feminists oppose prostitution [online] 2(1),347-361. Available from <http:// links istro.org.htm> [Jan 1989].