Sex work, feminism, and the new moralism

A few weeks ago, I joined some revolutionary socialists at a conference on objectification, which pitched itself against ‘the new moralism’ of some, mainly radical, feminists. I was forcibly struck by that tone of opposition – it threw a problem, which I already knew existed for feminism, into sharp relief: we allow our politics to be measured by how antithetical they are to the right wing. We really need to start measuring our policies according to how they (would) affect the lives of those they concern. It’s a false dichotomy, one of the many that plagues women’s lives, that to be ant-puritanical, anti-moralistic, anti-judgemental, you have to divorce sex from any more significance than that of pulling a pint.

Sex work, any situation in which sex is bought and sold, means that sex becomes owed. To owe sex is to suffer a gross infringement of one’s right to bodily integrity – not a desirable situation. It is the traditional last resort of those failed by society – ‘illegal’ immigrants, trans people, and drug addicts would be three key member groups of that demographic. It is dangerous – it exposes people to disease and violence. Yes, there are Belle de Jours out there, but what should the feminist priority be – their right to organize their labour (which I would personally support, even though the concept of organizing labour which is also sex is problematic), or limiting the prevalence of a trade which infringes upon its workers’ right to bodily integrity, draws in those who have nowhere else to go, and exposes them to disease and violence? These occupational hazards would not cease to apply to sex work if it were normalised; would ‘illegal’ immigrants suddenly be able to unionise? Would crack-addicts suddenly be free of their pimps?

Drawing a line in the sand between radical and socialist feminists on the issue of normalising sex work is ridiculous and damaging, when there are areas which need to be addressed far more urgently than whether a feminist should celebrate a brothel at the end of her or his street. They are, in this case: the rights of ‘illegal’ immigrants, the treatment of trans people, and the prevalence of drug pushing and addiction. If these issues were addressed properly, fewer people would find themselves in the sex trade. This would meet the ends of radical feminists, who also tend to be ‘abolitionists.’ Would that be moralistic and right-wing? As measures to this effect advocated by a sex worker at the revolutionary socialist conference I mentioned, I would think not. Could the rads and socialists perhaps agree that limiting the prevalence of sex work might be a good thing?

Apparently not, because to claim that sex work is in some way different to any other form of work is to make a value judgement that sex is significant in some way. The recent spate of student virginity auctions is not a cause for concern, because to claim that auctioning your virginity is any different to auctioning your Vespa is to make a moralistic value judgement. That women are being offered work in strip clubs by the job centre is not a cause for any more concern that they might be offered work as a cleaner and feel obliged to accept it. It’s difficult to see how these could not be symptoms of an increased objectification of women and a simultaneous increase in the commodification of sex, phenomena which feed each other. The last commodity left to many a woman is likely to be the ability to open her legs and make herself a sex object. At a time when ruthless government cuts are stripping away at women’s resources, to make that seem like just another option in the fight to stay afloat is to pander to a hideous anti-woman drive which would see us the slaves of those men who believe they can entitle themselves to women via their wallets.
So, I propose three feminist priorities regarding sex work:

Firstly, to limit the prevalence of the trade so that fewer people find themselves caught up in it, fewer women feel obligated to consider it, and the insidious view of women as sex objects is challenged. That challenge is circular – it is a crucial element to limiting the prevalence of the sex trade in the first place, alongside addressing the material factors which render certain groups vulnerable.

Secondly, to mitigate the harms to those (few) who make a genuinely free and informed choice of entering the trade, by encouraging its unionisation so that, for example, use of barrier contraception becomes a peer-enforced norm.

Lastly, to move away from stigmatisation of sex work *whilst still not moving towards its normalisation, or worse, its glamorisation*by, for example putting pressure on police to drop tactics such as ‘naming and shaming,’ which undermine the dignity and personhood of sex workers and also contribute to the view of women as sex objects.

Fighting the normalisation of sex work as just another way of keeping afloat under a capitalism that renders anything a legitimate commodity from which to profit, is not in some way anti-socialist. So what if socialist feminists have to agree with radical feminists on something? The issue is not ideology, its people’s lives. The objectification of women is a creeping menace throughout society, as any victim of street harassment, nightclub gropes, and misogynistic punchlines will tell you. It must be fought on all fronts, and it must be fought with a united front.


  1. John

    A truly great article and extremely cogent breakdown of the issues. I’ve always found this issue extremely complicated and difficult, but this lays it out clearly and in a way that overcomes the binary decision that is often presented as the totality of our options.

  2. Lis

    I really, really like this post. It makes me think of a couple of pieces I read recently in Marxist-Leninist-Maoist Mayhem!: The Limits of Sex Work Radicalism and On Privileged Engagements with the Sex Industry.

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