Sex work has long carried the stigma of being an “undignified” profession that robs women of agency and self-respect. It is seen as something nobody should aspire towards or even consider as a source of money-making since trading bodily services for cash apparently figures among the lowest rungs of trade. This taboo towards prostitution is so pervasively rampant that it finds its way even into the definitions of feminism. Being a movement that seeks to uplift and equalise women, feminism often disregards sex work’s contribution towards gender empowerment. This perception is neatly summed up by the term SWERF. Short for Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminist, it points out a flaw that many feminists carry, and one that must be rectified.
Turning to the Urban Dictionary for all things uncommon, this is the rather accurate definition of SWERF I found: “A person who espouses to be a feminist but who does not believe that women engaged in ANY form of voluntary sex work should be included in the fight for equality, especially in employment or salary parity. This rabid exclusion of an entire class of women is usually a belief based on misplaced uptight morality.”
Many Notable Feminists Don’t See Sex Work As Empowering
Feminism has many aspects, and not all of them agree on everything with each other. Sex work or prostitution is one of them. The argument that SWERFs give for excluding sex work from their umbrella of women’s rights is that it is essentially a way of pandering to male fantasies, and in fact, strengthens the patriarchal order in exchange for money. Noted feminist figures like Kathleen Barry, Melissa Farley, Julie Bindel, and Sheila Jeffreys, all hold sex worker-exclusionary views.
Barry, in her popular 1995 essay The Prostitution of Sexuality: The Global Exploitation of Women, mentions that “consent” cannot always be seen with a surface-level understanding. Often women have to “consent” to oppression (in this case, prostitution) since there is a lack of choice available to them, in matters of finance. The question she and others who echo her views ask is – If a woman doesn’t have any other means of sustaining herself and chooses to turn to sex work in this case, does it really count as “consent” on her end?
Feminism’s Pro-Prostitution Stance
Pro-prostitution feminists, on the other hand, feel that respecting the woman’s choice of having agency over her life is what matters above all. That she is making the decision to turn to something as taboo as sex work as a means to take over the reins of her life is evidence of a form of economic empowerment in itself. Moreover, viewing sex work through this lens will create a sex-positive aura for women who can then shed their inhibitions of having to be sexually stunted, both socially and physically.
Feminists who argue in favour of sex work include Margo St. James, Norma Jean Almodovar, Kamala Kempadoo, Laura María Agustín, and Annie Sprinkle. One of their prime concerns, however, is the legality of sex work. Prostitution is illegal in many countries around the world – including large parts of Asia and America, which women’s rights activists have pinpointed as one of the reasons why abuse, stigma, trafficking, and violence surround this industry.
I find that the pro-prostitution stance is significant, for it believes in taking a bottom-up approach towards women empowerment. Hacking off the decision-making powers of women in order to bring them in line with a common understanding of feminism is contradictory to what feminism is all about. It is not a movement where women must, under no circumstances, subscribe to men’s wishes. Instead, it is a movement that affords women the freedom to let them make their own choices.
Should women abandon their housewife status only so they become “independent”? Should a woman refrain from marriage only so she can protest patriarchy? Should a woman stop wearing a burkha? These are all choices women must make for themselves. To each her own, but with the knowledge that she has the rights and agency to even choose the alternative.
India’s Problem With Sex Work And Prostitution
SWERF is typically a British idea. In India, the problems are different. Sex work is legal, however, brothels and pimping are not. Often touted to be the “world’s oldest profession”, prostitution has been around in India for ages. It is present liberally across our historical references, most notably through characters in films ranging from Mandi, Chameli, Dev D, Talaash and Begum Jaan. Red-light districts like Delhi’s GB Road and Mumbai’s Kamathipura are known hubs of sex work.
When there are close to 800,000 sex workers in India, why then is it an industry which does not find mention in common feminist discourse? Or even “civilised” conversation? Despite its legality, it is looked down upon as dishonourable. Several avail its services, but none like to talk about it. The reason for this double standard is our false ideas of morality. One must question then – how far can legality change mindsets?
India’s surprisingly progressive legal outlook towards prostitution has not made up for the shortcomings in the public imagination towards sex work. How can change come then? With increased conversations, with public discussions on the issue, and most importantly, with feminists taking the fore in bringing prostitution into the common fold of feminism.
Image Credit: Tamasha Talkies/Samraaj Talkies
Views expressed are the author’s own.