Sex Work – Exploitation or Empowerment??

On 26th March, it was announced that Iceland had banned stripping and lap dancing, and had done so for feminist reasons rather than religious reasons. The politician who first proposed the ban, Kolbrún Halldórsdóttir, told the national press: “It is not acceptable that women or people in general are a product to be sold.”

The Guardian reported this news by labelling Iceland as “the world’s most feminist country”, and its reporter gushed about how much of a boost this was to feminists worldwide, describing the sex industry as “both a cause and a consequence of gaping inequality between men and women”.

However, feminists are divided on the issue of sex work, and this news has sparked a lot of discussion in feminist circles. It is a tired cliché to assume that feminists are vehemently anti-sex, as the stereotype often suggests. In fact, sex work – which includes, but is not limited to, pornography, stripping, lap dancing and prostitution – is a source of debate among feminists and non-feminists alike. To put it simply, the debate centres on the following question: is sex work exploitative or empowering?

Those who agree with Iceland’s decision argue that sex work is degrading and exploitative; a vocation which no woman should be encouraged to enter. Some cite the dangerous and demeaning conditions in which sex workers are expected to work – the job discrimination sex workers suffer based on their appearances (the ideal is an attractive, thin, able-bodied woman), the lack of benefits and job security, the social stigma attached to sex work, and the risk of sexual assault and rape (shockingly, many people believe that one cannot rape a prostitute, since being paid means they consent to any type of sex). However, many of these reasons are due to societal attitudes towards sex work rather than a result of the work itself. Perhaps if the sex industry were regulated as other industries are, we would be able to eliminate such dangers, and provide sex workers with decent legal, medical and police protection. Many have criticised Iceland’s decision to outlaw sex work, arguing that it will drive sex work underground and put sex workers at risk. Sex workers will not report violence or abuse at work if they are at risk of being arrested themselves.

Others argue that sex work is degrading for the female population as a whole, and that the existence of sex work sends out a message that women are a commodity to be bought and sold. It is important to note that the vast majority of sex workers are female, and are often working for the pleasure of men. If sex work was a non-gender-specific vocation, perhaps the problem would be less obvious. However, as it stands, it is an area that primarily consists of young, attractive women, and one can understand the general message that legal sex work sends out: women are there for male sexual pleasure. Some also argue that this places an unrealistic expectation on women to look, dress, and act a certain way – like porn stars.

Although it seems obvious that women should not be viewed as mere sex objects that exist for male pleasure, it is not so obvious whether the banning of strip clubs will actually reduce the bodily objectification and oppression of women, or send the message that women’s bodies aren’t for sale. You cannot ban these things – laws are easier to change than public attitudes.

Many sex workers find stripping and prostitution enjoyable and empowering, and have discussed the benefits of entering their line of work, arguing that it makes them feel great about their bodies, and is a great source of income. One can certainly see the financial benefits, especially for female students desperate for some extra cash to fund their studies – a single night of sex work will earn you the same amount of money as an entire month of part-time shop work, in most cases. Sex work is among the best-paid work young women can get. And if a woman fits into a certain definition of beauty, then it is easy to see how sex work can be empowering for her – who wouldn’t be flattered by hordes of men staring at you with looks of unadulterated lust?

However, despite the fact that many sex workers feel good about themselves when working, we cannot be naïve and assume that all sex workers have such positive experiences, and that empowerment negates the aforementioned problems of sex work, namely discrimination, social stigma, and sexual assault. It is also important to remember that not all sex workers are there by choice – many are forced into it for financial reasons such as debt, homelessness, and low wages in other professions. The law in Iceland does not address these issues, and will make it harder for women living in poverty to survive if they cannot turn to sex work. Any discussion of outlawing sex work must consider more employment options for women, and encouragement and accessibility of higher education, so that women are never forced into sex work by poverty.

Sex work is a complex social issue with no easy answer, and passing a law will not solve the problem as easily as we’d like. Prescriptive feminism is problematic, and like many paternalistic laws, Iceland’s ban will end up harming the group it was designed to benefit. We can outlaw things that are clearly and inherently harmful, but it’s difficult to tell whether sex work falls into that category.

Catherine Elms

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3 Comments on this post.
  • Laura
    18 July 2010 at 11:36
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    excellent piece, very well written and you balanced important factors from both sides of the argument, I enjoyed!:)

  • Cath
    1 August 2010 at 14:44
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    Thank you! 🙂

  • Rosie
    8 August 2010 at 21:56
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    Agreed. Great article Cath.

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