"Sex Work Is Work": What Progressive Feminists Get Right (And Wrong) About Decriminalizing Prostitution

Prostitution is degrading, and no regulation can change that, but to argue against decriminalizing all aspects of the industry is often met with “right-wing,” “fascist” name-calling.

By Rebecca Hope6 min read
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Darya Chacheva/Shutterstock

The nature of sex work is demoralizing and dangerous, with violence rife throughout all parts of the trade. Progressive feminists have created a convincing argument that decriminalizing prostitution will create a safer environment for women, allowing sex workers to take back control. However, in reality, this isn’t what we’re seeing in the countries that have legalized the buying and selling of sex. 

Thankfully, there is a better alternative – one that legalizes the selling of sex but genuinely works for women, enabling them to leave the industry if they wish.

The Argument for Legalizing Prostitution

In the U.S., the buying and selling of sex are illegal in most states. Despite this, prostitution still occurs. Because it’s a crime, it’s an underground operation, which makes the industry so much more dangerous for women. There is no regulation, and sex workers are put in danger, unable to report harmful or threatening behavior from clients to the police because of the illicit nature of the industry they work in.

By decriminalizing sex work, a sex worker’s right to legal protection and their ability to exercise other key rights will be maximized. Their choice of occupation will be seen as equal to any other career path, allowing them more protection and dignity. 

The industry will be regulated, putting power back into the sex workers’ hands and enabling them to take back control of their work. Plus, by decriminalizing the buying and selling of sex, the trade will be destigmatized, ensuring sex workers are treated fairly and equally. 

The Problem with Decriminalizing Prostitution

One of the problems with decriminalizing the buying and selling of sex is that it encourages the idea that sex is a commodity. 

Progressive feminists often argue “sex is just sex.” That it has no inherent value, and as such, it can be bought and sold just like any other commodity. If this is true, why, then, has the sexual revolution and glorification of hookup culture become such a disaster for women?

Progressive feminists want women to treat sex as meaningless while their instinct tells them otherwise.

Why is the #MeToo movement not only filled with stories of genuinely criminal behavior, but also sexual encounters that were consensual, yet nevertheless left women feeling confused? Progressive feminists have asked women to treat sex as meaningless while their instinct tells them otherwise. This is perfectly displayed in this woman’s casual sex encounter:

“He slid inside me and I didn’t say a word. At the time, I didn’t know why. Maybe I didn’t want to feel like I’d led him on. Maybe I didn’t want to disappoint him. Maybe I just didn’t want to deal with the ‘let’s do it, but no, we shouldn’t’ verbal tug-of-war that so often happens before sleeping with someone. It was easier to just do it. Besides, we were already in bed, and this is what people in bed do. I felt an obligation, a duty to go through with it. I felt guilty for not wanting to. I wasn’t a virgin. I’d done this before. It shouldn’t have been a big deal – it’s just sex – so I didn’t want to make it one.

I stared at the ceiling the whole time, occasionally flashing him the fake smile reserved for people you accidentally make eye contact with in the grocery store. I don’t think I moved the entire time, and I didn’t care if he noticed. I just wanted it to end, and I knew it wouldn’t be long. I just had to suck it up for a few minutes, let him do his thing, and it would be over. When it finally was, he smiled at me, kissed my forehead, and asked how it was. As we cuddled, I realized that what we had done was no different to him than the sex he’d had with anyone else. Overnight, I convinced myself it was no different to me, either.”

If it’s “just sex,” why did this encounter feel like so much more to this woman? Why was it such a big deal? 

“It’s just sex,” she tells herself, no doubt having heard it one hundred times before from the feminists who claim to care for women. But if it’s “just sex,” why are women’s magazines littered with guides for women to avoid “catching feelings” while engaging in casual sex? If sex can ever be casual, of course. (Spoiler – it can’t. Whether it’s pregnancy, contracting an STI, or catching feelings, our biology simply doesn’t allow sex to be casual. Sex, by its nature, is an incredibly intimate act that can have both beautiful and devastating consequences.)

It’s clear to see that our natural instincts are telling women otherwise – that sex isn’t just sex. That it is meaningful, and now, the progressive feminists are having to work twice as hard to hide the truth. They constantly perpetuate an ideology that doesn’t stand a chance against our biology. Although women have been misled for many years, we aren’t stupid. As this new wave of feminism begins to pick up pace, so many young women are beginning to turn their backs on hookup culture.

Does Decriminalizing All Aspects of the Sex Industry Help Women?

In 2003, New Zealand changed its law to decriminalize all aspects of the sex industry, meaning neither the buyer nor the seller of sex will be criminalized. The Prostitution Reform Act (PRA) was passed, and those who voted for it believed that it would improve the lives of the women involved. At the time, there were provisions for the impact of the law and the number of women participating to be monitored.

However, academic research by Helen Johnson and Tony Pitt into the operation of the PRA found that the benefits of the Act have been largely exaggerated, and its downsides have been “ignored, denied, and hidden.”

Legalizing prostitution in New Zealand only further enslaved women.

The police aren’t allowed to enter a brothel without a warrant, even if they suspect there are trafficking victims inside. Not only that, but if a police officer suspects a person working at the brothel is a child being sexually exploited, they aren’t allowed to ask for the person’s age. This results in most sex trafficking going undetected.

Despite the Act providing women the right to say no to individual clients, an official study in 2008 found women were still coerced into taking clients and engaging in dangerous, unpleasant interactions against their will. In practice, the industry is rife with coercion by punters, pimps, and brothel owners. Plus, 85% of the women interviewed said they wished they could leave the industry. 

Although the PRA requires regular inspections, Johnson and Pitt’s research found that no brothel inspections were carried out in New Zealand’s three major cities – Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch – until 2015. As there isn’t public funding for inspections, it’s highly unlikely there have been any inspections since.

The NZPC is supposed to gather data on complaints, referrals, and concerns raised by women in prostitution, and the New Zealand government almost entirely relies on this data. However, Johnson and Pitt’s research found that the NZPC hasn’t carried out these duties. Plus, the NZPC receives more than a million dollars in government money annually. 

The PRA was supposed to help women leave prostitution if they wanted to; however, the NZPC provides no services to assist women in leaving the industry. As there is no publicly funded exit provision in New Zealand, the vast majority of women who wish to leave prostitution must do so on their own. As many are forced into prostitution out of poverty, the path to leave becomes incredibly difficult.

Despite progressive feminists’ best efforts to portray legalized prostitution as a liberating move for women, we can see that in practice it only further enslaves women. 

We know that in societies where all aspects of prostitution are criminalized, the industry will continue to operate, which is why we need a better alternative. This may be the Nordic Model – an approach that works for women, enabling those who wish to leave the industry a way out.

What Is the Nordic Model?

The Nordic Model deems prostitution to be harmful to sex workers and all of society. Its aim is to change social norms and men’s behavior.

Firstly, it legalizes the selling of sex, so prostitutes aren’t criminalized. One of the reasons it’s so hard for women to leave the industry, even if they were forced, coerced, or trafficked, is that many hold a criminal record as a result of prostitution, so finding an alternative way to make a living is difficult. By decriminalizing the selling of sex, one obstacle to leaving the industry is alleviated. Support services to help prostitutes leave the industry if they want to are also provided, ensuring there are genuine, reliable alternatives for work. 

The Nordic Model deems prostitution to be harmful to sex workers and all of society. 

The Nordic Model also strengthens laws against trafficking, brothel keeping, and pimping. And finally, all prostitution-buying becomes illegal. This approach can now be found in Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Northern Ireland, France, Ireland, and Israel.

A New Zealand Survivor’s Thoughts on the Nordic Model

Chelsea Geddes, who was a prostitute for 20 years in New Zealand, said this about the Nordic Model: “I’m a prozzie myself, and I have never met another one who wants our pimps and johns to be decriminalized, or who wants to be made to pay tax on top of what the pimps already take, and to be given zero social services that help us to exit, rehabilitate ourselves, get an education and a real job for the future and instead to just be told it’s perfectly acceptable for us to stay right where we are. None of us want that, even those of us who are here by ‘choice’ because we need the money. We all want it to be temporary. We would leave immediately if we could.

Most of us are uninformed about government policies and have never heard of the Nordic Model, so we might support decriminalization but only because we think the alternative is for us to be criminalized and arrested along with our abusers. Everyone who knows about the Nordic Model supports it. I would give my life to bring the Nordic Model to my country, not that it’s much of a life to give.” 

Closing Thoughts

We women were once treated as commodities – a bargaining tool for families to unite, up their status, and obtain greater wealth. We were sold to men we did not know or love to ensure we, and our families, didn’t end up homeless, fighting to survive. Today, most of us can choose to marry who we desire. We aren’t forced to satisfy the needs of the most undesirable men in society because we have the right to educate ourselves, earn our own money, and choose the men we sleep with.

This is what I find most peculiar about the progressive feminists’ “sex work is work” argument. Our history is littered with the commodification of women – and today, in the Western world, we don’t have to do that anymore. Yet progressive feminists fight for the right for women to be sold to the most undesirable men for a night. Any man who thinks he can rent a woman’s body for a few moments of pleasure doesn’t respect women, because men who love and respect women understand the harm this “work” does.

Progressive feminists turn a blind eye to the thousands of women who live with PTSD following work in the sex industry, which is often double the rate you would expect to find in soldiers returning from active service in a war zone. These kinds of feminists care more about ideology than women, continuing to perpetuate lies and creating double agents for the patriarchy that they supposedly hate. Legalizing all aspects of prostitution doesn’t work for women – it only works for the lowest levels of men in society.

You can learn more about the Nordic Model here.

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