Really? The Feminist Case Against Prostitution

Some feminists celebrate women who sell sex, claiming they are the pinnacle of self-determined empowerment. If that were true, millions of men would be queueing up to go in the game. Those who defend sex work are missing the point.

A woman stands at the entrance of a brothel in Frankfurt, Germany
Marlen Hobrack


BERLIN — As an outspoken feminist, from time to time I find myself in opposition to the movement's popular discourse. But among the apparently unimpeachable tenets of today's mainstream feminism, there is none that I find more questionable than its vehement defense of sex work. Certain feminists have even coined a phrase to refer to feminists who are opposed to sex work: SWERF (Sex-Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminist). It's meant as an insult.

But criticizing the sex industry does not equate to disparaging or patronizing sex workers. Quite the opposite. It also doesn't mean painting all sex workers as victims of abuse and violence. It is possible for well-intentioned people to support sex work and mistake this stance for liberalism. But it's not possible as a feminist, without getting tangled up in a web of contradictions. Feminists who support sex work ignore the fact that this industry is indisputably gendered and exists within a patriarchal framework.

Die Welt columnist Teresa Bücker is one of those supposed liberal feminists who in reality are turning a blind eye to the patriarchal power relations surrounding sex work. She recently criticized an attempt by the Women's Union to ban women from working in the sex industry while pregnant. In her article, Bücker claimed this showed a conservative ideal of pregnancy, which sought to deny pregnant women's sexuality. She casually equated sex with sex work, sexual satisfaction with a physically demanding job.

While protecting pregnant women from harmful working conditions was one of the central achievements of the women's and workers' movement, the Women's Union's suggestion was met with criticism, based perhaps on a simplistic interpretation of Foucault's politics of the body. Is it possible that middle-class women don't actually care about the rights of the true working class? It wouldn't be the first time in the history of the women's movement.

But what are the feminist arguments in favor of sex work? There is only one: self-determination. Whatever a woman freely chooses must be good, according to popular feminism. It's clear, however, that this argument relies on a twisted logic, because women can of course make choices that are damaging.

The suggestion of freedom is even more problematic. Doesn't feminism constantly remind us that we do not live in a vacuum? That there are forces, pressures, expectations and societal gender roles acting on us at all times? And let us not forget the basic economic forces at play.

Why are there so few female clients?

If sex work was really a dream job, there would be millions of straight, middle-class men lining the streets of our big cities. Having regular sex and getting paid for it, what a win! So why isn't this the case? Because most men don't want to "demean" themselves (and that is how men would view it) by having to have sex with any client? Because the idea of having to service an unwashed, unattractive, obese or older woman might not be so "awesome?" Because they aren't subject to the same economic pressures as women, as there are more jobs open to men in traditionally masculine industries?

And why are there so few female clients? Is it down to a lack of provision? Or cliches about female sexuality, which claim that, for a woman, sex is only good if the man really finds her attractive?

Many feminists would counter that other industries are also highly gendered (although they admit that is problematic). As Laurie Penny writes in her book of essays Bitch Doctrine, all forms of work are exploitative, so we can only criticize sex work when every form of work-based exploitation has been done away with once and for all. With all due respect, that is not only an oversimplification of Marxism; it's downright cynical.

Let's think back to the #MeToo movement. We saw how actresses, musicians and ballet dancers who were harassed and assaulted and then portrayed as helpless victims of powerful men. But when it comes to sex workers, who — unlike actresses — really can only say no in certain circumstances, because they have to earn their living, suddenly there is no subordination, no power dynamic. There's only freedom and self-determination. Elsewhere, intersectional feminism teaches us that a complex web of patriarchy, capitalism and racism produces power relations, but these hegemonic structures apparently cease to exist between male clients and overwhelmingly female sex workers.

Members of the anti-human trafficking organization Femen dismantle a privacy screen in Hamburg, Germany's red light district — Photo: Carina Lue/DPA/ ZUMA

Critics like to accuse feminism of making women into victims, but when it comes to sex work, the opposite is true. For strident lobbyists and their feminist defenders, the "whore" embodies the ideal of the self-determined woman. "Most of the colleagues I've met are confident women who know exactly what they want," says sex worker and activist Undine de Rivière.

Maybe contemporary feminism has a blind spot around sex workers because they — unlike the widely acknowledged victims of male abuses of power — exhibit so much confidence that everything evil (which feminists agree appears in the form of cis-men) simply rolls off them. In a breath-taking about-turn, the courtesan is transformed into a powerful, disruptive figure within the patriarchal system. This is strange, however, when we consider that prostitution has "always existed" and that for thousands of years it fitted so neatly into patriarchal power structures.

It is not for nothing that the image of the "hetaera" is so often invoked in conversations about sex work (especially by the older generation of sex workers). In ancient Greece, a hetaera was a free man's companion. She is seen as the counterpoint to the grumpy wife who lies in wait for her husband, naked, sexually inexperienced and frustrated. While the wife complains about the uneven division of domestic labor and a lack of sexual satisfaction or desire (which often go hand in hand), her husband can buy a few moments of peace with his hetaera, perhaps even enjoy a good conversation — because it's well known that men like to talk to sex workers.

When sex workers invoke the image of the hetaera, they participate in putting down those women who also serve men — for example by managing their family lives on an unequal footing. The hetaerae achieve an equal footing through insisting on a simple capitalist exchange — sex for money — while in a bourgeois marriage, this exchange is blurred by romantic notions.

Anyone who speaks out against prostitution is dismissed as a dried-up, sex-negative old hag.

As the hetaera serves the penis, but expects nothing in return except for payment, she is able to appropriate some of its phallic power. Sex workers like Salomé Balthus and Undine de Rivière play with the image of the phallic woman, which fuses symbols of desirable femininity with masculine power in a very interesting way. Stark red lipstick and leather accessories, high heels and gelled hair, which is a descendant of the 20th-century bob, also an appropriation of masculine symbols — together these form the image of the phallic, powerful woman. Feminism has still not found another embodiment of powerful femininity.

Proponents of sex work claim to be on the side of sex positivity, libertinism and a progressive worldview. Their positive attitude towards sex work radiates from their disciples: young, hip and cool writers such as Ronja von Rönne and Katja Lewina are rhetorically getting into bed — or into the bathtub — with Balthus to shed their stuffy bourgeois image.

Anyone who speaks out against prostitution is dismissed as a dried-up, sex-negative old hag, with sexist, anti-feminist and ageist invective weaponized against them. The reason is clear: There is a lot of money at stake, a whole industry.

Sex workers protest against the COVID-related closure of brothels in Berlin, Germany — Photo: Imago/ ZUMA Press

If we are to take seriously the argument that sex work is simply another kind of work, then we must talk about what belongs to the world of work: safety regulations and employers' responsibility to check their workers' documentation, for example. Complaints about bureaucracy are a regular refrain among freelancers and businesspeople. If the "oldest profession in the world" wants to step out of the shadows, it must also be subject to this bureaucracy.

The final, most cynical argument often levied against opponents of prostitution is that they talk about prostitutes, not to them, but this is also the case for many of its supporters. Portraying sex workers as entrepreneurs who make use of their bodies in a radical, free manner transforms them into the ideal neoliberal subject. This liberated sex worker is a fantasy of white middle-class women who want to prove their open-mindedness and progressive worldview, but who aren't confronted with the consequences of their unequivocal support of sex work, because they're not the ones waiting for clients on street corners.

It's a shame that feminism seems unable to find a better use for women's newfound freedom than claiming it is the height of "self-determination" to do what women have been doing for centuries: being of service to men.

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Merkel's Legacy: The Rise And Stall Of The German Economy

How have 16 years of Chancellor Angela Merkel changed Germany? The Chancellor accompanied the country's rise to near economic superpower status — and then progress stalled. On technology and beyond, Germany needs real reforms under Merkel's successor.

Chancellor Angela Merkel looks at the presentation of the current 2 Euro commemorative coin ''Brandenburg''

Daniel Eckert

BERLIN — Germans are doing better than ever. By many standards, the economy broke records during the reign of outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel: private households' financial assets have climbed to a peak; the number of jobs recorded a historic high before the pandemic hit at the beginning of 2020; the GDP — the sum of all goods and services produced in a period — also reached an all-time high.

And still, while the economic balance sheet of Merkel's 16 years is outstanding if taken at face value, on closer inspection one thing catches the eye: against the backdrop of globalization, Europe's largest economy no longer has the clout it had at the beginning of the century. Germany has fallen behind in key sectors that will shape the future of the world, and even the competitiveness of its manufacturing industries shows unmistakable signs of fatigue.

In 2004, a year before Merkel was first elected Chancellor, the British magazine The Economist branded Germany the "sick man of Europe." Ironically, the previous government, a coalition of center-left and green parties, had already laid the foundations for recovery with some reforms. Facing the threat of high unemployment, unions had held back on wage demands.

"Up until the Covid-19 crisis, Germany had achieved strong economic growth with both high and low unemployment," says Michael Holstein, chief economist at DZ Bank. However, it never made important decisions for its future.

Another economist, Jens Südekum of Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, offers a different perspective: "Angela Merkel profited greatly from the preparatory work of her predecessor. This is particularly true regarding the extreme wage restraint practiced in Germany in the early 2000s."

Above all, Germany was helped in the first half of the Merkel era by global economic upheaval. Between the turn of the millennium and the 2011-2012 debt crisis, emerging countries, led by China, experienced unprecedented growth. With many German companies specializing in manufacturing industrial machines and systems, the rise of rapidly industrializing countries was a boon for the country's economy.

Germany dismissed Google as an over-hyped tech company.

Digital competitiveness, on the other hand, was not a big problem in 2005 when Merkel became chancellor. Google went public the year before, but was dismissed as an over-hyped tech company in Germany. Apple's iPhone was not due to hit the market until 2007, then quickly achieved cult status and ushered in a new phase of the global economy.

Germany struggled with the digital economy, partly because of the slow expansion of internet infrastructure in the country. Regulation, lengthy start-up processes and in some cases high taxation contributed to how the former economic wonderland became marginalized in some of the most innovative sectors of the 21st century.

Volkswagen's press plant in Zwickau, Germany — Photo: Jan Woitas/dpa/ZUMA

"When it comes to digitization today, Germany has a lot of catching up to do with the relevant infrastructure, such as the expansion of fiber optics, but also with digital administration," says Stefan Kooths, Director of the Economic and Growth Research Center at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW Kiel).

For a long time now, the country has made no adjustments to its pension system to ward off the imminent demographic problems caused by an increasingly aging population. "The social security system is not future-proof," says Kooths. The most recent changes have come at the expense of future generations and taxpayers, the economist says.

Low euro exchange rates favored German exports

Nevertheless, things seemed to go well for the German economy at the start of the Merkel era. In part, this can be explained by the economic downturn caused by the euro debt crisis of 2011-2012. Unlike in the previous decade, the low euro exchange rate favored German exports and made money flow into German coffers. And since then-European Central Bank president Mario Draghi's decision to save the euro "whatever it takes" in 2012, this money has become cheaper and cheaper.

In the long run, these factors inflated the prices of real estate and other sectors but failed to contribute to the future viability of the country. "With the financial crisis and the national debt crisis that followed, economic policy got into crisis mode, and it never emerged from it again," says DZ chief economist Holstein. Policy, he explains, was geared towards countering crises and maintaining the status quo. "The goal of remaining competitive fell to the background, as did issues concerning the future."

In the traditional field of manufacturing, the situation deteriorated significantly. The Institut der Deutschen Wirtschaft (IW), which regularly measures and compares the competitiveness of industries in different countries, recently concluded that German companies have lost many of the advantages they had gained. The high level of productivity, which used to be one of the country's strengths, faltered in the years before the pandemic.

Kooths, of IfW Kiel, points out that private investment in the German economy has declined in recent years, while the "government quota" in the economy, which describes the amount of government expenditure against the GDP, grew significantly during Merkel's tenure, from 43.5% in 2005 to 46.5% in 2019. Kooths concludes that: "Overall, the state's influence on economic activity has increased significantly."

Another very crucial aspect of competitiveness, at least from the point of view of skilled workers and companies, has been neglected by German politics for years: taxes and social contributions. The country has among the highest taxes on income in Europe, and corporate taxes are also hardly as high as in Germany anywhere in the industrialized world. "In the long run, high tax rates always come at the expense of economic dynamism and can even prevent new companies from being set up," warns Kooths.

Startups can renew an economy and lay the foundation for future prosperity. Between the year 2000 and the Covid-19 crisis, fewer and fewer new companies were created every year. Economists from left to right are unanimous: Angela Merkel is leaving behind a country with considerable need for reform.

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