Sex & Gender

supporting sex workers is as feminist an issue as any

May 30, 2017

There is a lot of misguided squeamishness around sex work in feminist circles. A common source of reluctance is the fear or confusion that sex work is the exploitation of women’s bodies and/or sexuality. But that’s a misnomer and the people who say such things tend not to point out that football players, day laborers, businesspersons with exceptionally stressful jobs, firefighters, and so on, are also exploiters of their bodies. In reality, using your body in to make money, or making money to the detriment of your own health, is anything but inordinate. So why the heavy emphasis on exploitation when it comes to women and femmes making money?

Misogyny! You guessed it! But sex work isn’t—just like any other job—for everyone. While most if not all of the sex workers I know are independent femmes, some with disabilities, just making a living or providing for themselves in addition to saving money for general and transition-related healthcare, there are so folks for whom sex work is part of a cycle of abuse or self-destructive behavior. And, let me be perfectly clear, in the context of this conversation, “sex workers” are consenting adults performing a service through an independent business or through an agency with healthy and ethical business practices. Sex trafficking of adults and minors is not sex work. It’s sex slavery and rape.

By Erin White*, AFROPUNK contributor

But assuming that every femme who works in the sex industry doesn’t know what she’s doing or is harming herself, is problematic and it minimizes the abilities and awareness women have when it comes to running their own lives. So, if you trust the judgment women have when it comes to making their own decisions and we recognize that having the ability to do so is crucial to one’s ability to thrive, supporting sex work becomes real simple.

I understand that it’s hard in our puritanical society to evade buying into the stigmas that shroud sex work in shame and misinformation. And these negative perspectives of what sex work is and means is so often wrongly interpreted as an act of feminism. “We want to liberate women from the tyrannical male gaze!” We do, but not when we don’t want to. Is “gaze” the problem or is the real problem patriarchal dominance over female autonomy enabling violence and socioeconomic oppression?

When sex worker grab that gaze and, in turn, exploit it, that’s a certain kind of liberating power in itself. And we should trust women who take that power back. Trust that they know what’s best for them and we should create a culture where they can sound the alarm when something’s up.

Legalizing sex work would help reduce crime rates and criminal activity against sex workers and keep them safer. “Whenever you have an industry that is held to be legal or decriminalized, there is a safety net for those who are victims of crimes to report criminal activity,” said Kristen DiAngelo, head of Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP)-Sacramento in an email to “When you don’t, many fear they themselves [may] be arrested or targeted if they step up and report a crime.”

If we trust women and want to support their safety and access to opportunities, we can all do so by lessening the stigma of sex work and pushing towards its legalization. A feminist endeavor if there ever was one.

Photo: Justin Tallis/AFP

*Erin White is an Atlanta-based writer and AFROPUNK’s editorial and social media assistant. You can follow her on Tumblr or friend her on Facebook. Have a pitch or an inquiry? Shoot her an email at