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Decriminalization of Sex Work: Feminist Discourses in Light of Research

Abstract

Three main ideological stances exist regarding sex work issues: abolitionism, sex-positive feminism, and decriminalization. We argue for decriminalization based on decades of research results. Research on female sex workers is most often done through feminist theory and focus on gender relationships and on the experience of oppression and/or agency. Such studies examine the motivations to do sex work, the experience of being objectified, the stigma related to sex work, and, finally, the impact of this kind of work on self-esteem, on couple relationships, and on social relationships. Research on male sex workers examines power dynamics, representations of masculinity, self-perception, and the socioeconomic conditions that lead to sex work and influence safe-sex practices. Usually, feminist approaches do not take the experiences of male sex workers into account. However, taking these experiences into consideration would give a broader perspective to the understanding of sex work, as the experiences of male sex workers show many aspects similar to those of female sex workers. We contend that a woman’s sexual experience has been socially constructed as being part of her identity, in such a way that she becomes socially devalued whenever she does not comply to norms, thus making sex work a ‘degrading’ experience even though it is not intrinsically so.

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Notes

  1. International organization promoting abolitionism, http://www.catwinternational.org.

  2. As well as feminist political instances or lobbies that are active in many countries. In the province of Quebec, where the author lives, it is the case regarding the ' Conseil du statut de la femme du Québec' (2012). A few more examples among many others : Women's Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution, in Canada (http://www.rapereliefshelter.bc.ca); Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (http://www.catwinternational.org/), which is international; Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (http://caase.org), in the United States; Poppy Project (2008), in the United Kingdom; National organization for Women's and Young Women's Shelters ( http://www.roks.se/about-roks-1) in Sweden; and Sanlaap (http://www.sanlaapindia.org) in India.

  3. Radical feminism sees the oppression of women by men as the foundation of the system of power under which human relationships are organized in society. Following this, women have to fight against the patriarchal system until the whole system changes and frees them from oppression. Contrasting with this radical current, there exists a moderate feminism that simply aims for the amelioration of the condition of women by means of legislation changes.

  4. This is the term coined by Jeffreys (2008) to “give the buyer the status of perpetrator in the practice of prostitution”. By the same logic, the woman involved in prostitution in not a prostitute (and even less a sex worker!). Rather, she is a prostituted woman, a term showing that “somebody must be doing something to the woman for her to be prostituted” (Jeffreys 1997:5).

  5. Decriminalization means that all articles related to (adult) prostitution are deleted from criminal law; legalization means that certain activities related to prostitution become legal while others remain illegal (see Corriveau 2010).

  6. The first structured one, COYOTE (stands for Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), was created by Margo St-James in San Francisco in 1973. Nowadays, more than 100 of them exist all around the world. A list of these organizations and information about the sex workers' rights movement can be found at the website of the organization 'Sex Work Activists, Allies and You' : http://www.swaay.org.

  7. International organization promoting the view that there are differences between forced and voluntary prostitution as well as between migration for sex work and trafficking; their aim is to promote the rights of women migrant workers and trafficked persons. Their website : www.gaatw.org.

  8. However, categories are not mutually exclusive, and some of the referenced research also interviewed working class sex workers, as well as ones who worked on the streets, and found that many of them also freely chose sex work and were working without pimps.

  9. Stigmatization and criminalization are also experienced by sex workers in many developing countries (Ditmore 2008; Global Commission on HIV and the Law 2012). However, the author will only discuss findings related to sex work in western countries.

  10. Obviously, as these studies used convenience samples, they cannot be generalized to all dancers or porn actresses. However, they do give examples of the experiences some sex workers have that contradict abolitionist claims about a necessarily negative impact of sex work on one's life.

  11. See Weitzer (2007) for a thorough discussion of this alliance and the core claims that are being made in the joint moral crusade they pursue.

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Acknowledgment

The literature review that is behind this paper was supported by a scholarship received from Fond Québécois de Recherche sur la Société et la Culture (FQRSC).

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Correspondence to Jacqueline Comte.

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Jacqueline Comte is Sexologist (Master’s Degree) and PhD student in Sociology of Sexuality.

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Comte, J. Decriminalization of Sex Work: Feminist Discourses in Light of Research. Sexuality & Culture 18, 196–217 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12119-013-9174-5

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Keywords

  • Sex work
  • Feminism
  • Abolitionism
  • Decriminalization
  • Identity