19 Sex Work

Rebecca Yoshizawa

If feminism supports people’s right to bodily autonomy, including the choice of whether to have sex or not, it must be the case that sex work is of central concern to feminism. Feminism typically also supports the right to work, regardless of sex or gender. It seems to follow, then, that feminism would support the idea that “sex work is work,” and that supporting sex workers’ right to do their work safely would be a clear feminist point of advocacy.

However, sex work, and its relationship to feminism, is complex. Some feminists argue that sex work is inherently misogynistic and can never reflect women’s autonomy, empowerment, self-determination, or independence. They variously argue that women only turn to sex work due to vulnerabilities that are structured in patriarchy, that sex work is degrading, that paying for sex is exploitation; feminists may also address sex work as immoral. For the latter argument, feminists can find abundant support in religious, state, and other cultural understandings of family and sex, where sex outside monogamy is typically considered to be deviant. As such, some feminists support the criminalization of sex work by making it a crime to solicit clients and accept money for sex, and/or to purchase sexual services. The worker and/or the client may therefore be variously penalized.

"A person holding up a sign that reads 'my body = my business'"
Image by Juno Mac on Flickr. licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND.

There are several issues with this form of sex-worker-exclusionary feminism. One is the assumption that only cisgender women do sex work. Sex work is not only a women’s issue, and not only circumscribed by patriarchy. Men, non-binary, and trans people also do sex work. Another issue is the assumption that criminalization deters sex work and clients from exchanges. The assumption suggests that criminalizing sex work protects women and those vulnerable to the sex trade and human trafficking. However, other feminists argue that criminalization is in fact an ironic cause of the dangers of sex work. Because sex work is criminalized, there are no occupational health and safety protections. Negotiations and services are rushed and secretive. There are few safe spaces to do sex work. Sex workers are made vulnerable socially and structurally in this way, and those vulnerabilities can be compounded with the structural violences of racialization, colonialism, and poverty. Another issue is that sex workers can report enjoying their work and finding fulfilment in it. They can be described as sex positive, and critique the slut-shaming that comes with negative understandings of sex work. Where the term “prostitute” is dehumanizing and carries derogatory historical and cultural denotations, “sex work” suggests that sex can be a normalized and legitimate service provided by workers in a society.

Words to Try
Sex work
the exchange by consenting adults of sexual services for rewards such as money
Sex positive: an open and celebratory attitude towards sexual activity
Slut-shaming: a negative attitude toward behaviours that are perceived to be promiscuous or sexual



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Gender in Canada: A Companion Workbook Copyright © 2023 by Rebecca Yoshizawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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