It’s a tragedy of feminism that so many of us are stumped by a very easy question: Is sex work a choice? Ask any current sex worker and they’ll tell you: Sucking dick for money under patriarchal capitalism is as much a choice as cleaning toilets. But one pays a lot better. Is being a housewife a choice? If your view is that society worships motherhood and despises ambitious women, then obviously those forces will influence women’s choices. But an influenced choice is still a choice, something many radical feminists don’t like to admit. Radfems like to straw-man arguments for female autonomy as choice feminism. But when the women in question have power, suddenly the question changes. While downtrodden and oppressed women aren’t allowed to make their own choices, women in positions of power are afforded unlimited options. I find a particularly interesting example of this “choice only for the powerful” phenomenon in feminist author Jill Filipovic’s treatment of presidential hopeful Kamala Harris. While Filipovic equivocates about sex work and choice feminism, she asks for nuance when considering Harris’s choice to use her powers as a prosecutor to deprive women of the choice to engage in safe sex work.
Harris’ record as prosecutor reveals a woman who is more than happy to use the criminal justice system to keep other women from engaging in sex work without fear of violence, arrest, or imprisonment. Harris arrested Backpage.com executives and illegally charged them with pimping and conspiracy, then after a judge threw out the case Harris filed nearly identical charges in another California court; the First Amendment Lawyers’ Association described the maneuvers as “a gross abuse of prosecutorial discretion.” Harris fought Backpage and continues to support FOSTA in the name of fighting human trafficking, yet everyone from Amnesty International to the World Health Organization says that decriminialization leads to lower rates of sex trafficking. Despite this, Harris has consisently sided with prostitution prohibitionists and supported police raids of sex workers. And while San Francisco Bay Area police officers were committing actual sex trafficking, Harris and her office pretended it wasn’t happening. Jill Filipovic is quite aware of the “Kamala Harris is a cop” meme, but has a more nuanced take. In a recent op-ed, Filipovic asks readers to consider the competing interests Kamala had to take into account when making choices as a prosecutor (if Harris hadn’t defended the death penalty she risked alienating politically powerful police unions; if she hadn’t fought the California anti-overcrowding court ruling the state would’ve missed out on slave labor, etc). I’m not sure how to justify her choice to become a prosecutor in the first place; as Joe Biden pointed out in the recent Dem debate, “I was a public defender. I didn’t become a prosecutor.” Filipovic is able to see Harris’s choices through the lens of a woman navigating a minefield of racism and sexism while also balancing careerism and her own conscience, yet when it comes to sex workers, all that nuance is reduced to “choice feminism.”
In Supporting Sex Workers’ Rights, Opposing the Buying of Sex, Filipovic writes, “[In Utopia], sex would be a fun thing, a collaborative thing, always entered into freely and enthusiastically and without coercion. Of course women should have the right to do what they want with their own bodies, and of course there are many sex workers who aren’t trafficked or forced into the trade. But that smacks a bit too much of ‘I choose my choice!’ feminism, which I find to be incredibly intellectually lazy.” What’s really incredibly intellectually lazy is to spend hundreds of words apologizing for a woman who chose to arrest and incarcerate sex workers and make their jobs less safe to bolster her own career, and then dismiss the fight for sex work decriminalization as “choice feminism.” Are sex workers not doing the best job they can considering there are negative consequences to every position they could take?
A look at my own experience with sex work may be helpful in illustrating this. From the time I walked the aisle at a tent revival and confessed my sins and gave my heart to Jesus at five years old, I’ve always been a true believer. I’m not sure if I ever signed a purity pledge, but I might as well have. I met my favorite high school boyfriend at a good old-fashioned Southern Baptist abstinence retreat, and I lost my virginity at 22, on my wedding night. As I pulled away from religion, my husband drew in; by the time I said I wanted a separation four years in, he said he’d only see the pastor and his wife for marriage counseling. I studied her perfect highlights as they refused to talk about the problems in our marriage until my relationship with Jesus was fully addressed. Sometime between the divorce and today I got paid for sex for the first time, because once you see that traditional marriage is just one long, nominally exclusive mutually beneficial arrangement you really can’t unsee it; then the question becomes how long, and how exclusive, do you want the arrangement to be?
I was a sex work activist before I was a sex worker, because a feminism that doesn’t include self-ownership is no feminism at all, and women don’t own our bodies if we aren’t allowed to rent them out. Contrary to the carceral feminists, I don’t believe any kind of consensual sex should involve arrest or imprisonment. In what universe can a woman consent to cleaning a toilet for money under capitalism, but not to sucking dick? Such a conception is utterly infantilizing, superstitious, and antifeminist. It’s not despite my femimism that I support sex work decriminalization; it’s because of it. Whoring has always been one of the only ways a low-born woman could rise above her station; sex work enables more women (and men) than you’ll ever know who don’t have trust funds to pursue social justice, music, comedy, and acting. Or writing feminist screeds, in my case. I’m neither proud nor ashamed of having done sex work. If I had been a great sex worker I’d be proud, but I wasn’t; I didn’t find most of my clients interesting and I’m bad at pretending. Yet I found sex work empowering even though I didn’t like doing it; maybe it’s my libertarian showing, but I tend to believe more options are better than fewer.
I’ve been writing about feminism, sex, and capitalism for the past ten years, mostly at Sex and the State; in that time I’ve changed my thinking on everything from abortion and sex work to the social safety net. My writing is thinking aloud and learning in public. I’m honored to have learned from women like Maggie, who turns the “prostituted woman” trope on its head; far from being abused or oppressed (except by cops and an overinvolved state), no one could prostitute Maggie except Maggie herself. I’m still a true believer — evangelical as the day is long — but what I’m preaching has changed quite a bit. I invite you to join my sex-positive libertarian feminist tent revival, by subscribing to my daily email.