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.
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.