All in a day’s work?

This article originally appeared in T&S Issue 36, Winter 1997/98.

According to some feminist analyses, prostitution should be regarded as ‘sex work’: a job like any other. Here Ruth Swirsky and Celia Jenkins question the assumption that prostitution is only a form of labour, and not a system of sexual exploitation.

The logic of the position that prostitution is sex-work, an occupation comparable to any other, would be to offer jobs in the sex industry to the unemployed. This is exactly what has happened. Last year JobCentres advertised work in massage parlours, escort agencies and strip clubs. Following complaints from the unemploy­ed expressing fears that they might lose their jobseeker’s allowance if they turned down such jobs, the Employment Service has banned such adverts (Guardian 6 February 1997). Yet this is the logic of constituting prostitution as sex-work, little different from other gendered female occupations.

There are broadly two major feminist approaches to prostitution. The first views prostitution as epitomising the use and abuse of women by men, to be resolved by changing male sexuality. The second views prostitution as a legitimate form of labour which is freely chosen by women who earn their living as prostitutes. Those who subscribe to the latter position argue that their starting point is the experiences and needs of women working as prostitutes, in keeping with the feminist principle of respect for the realities of women’s lives. There is, however, no necessary and inevitable progres­sion from seeking to understand the experiences of prostitutes and supporting their needs as women to viewing prostitution as a legitimate form of labour.

We want to expose the implications of promoting prostitution as sex work, to question whose interests are being served and to reinstate a definition of prostitution that extends beyond individual women’s experiences to challenge the institution of prostitution as exploiting women. In short, we are against prostitution and for the rights of women in prostitution. Nonethe­less we recognise that a feminist analysis of prostitution needs to face up to the contra­dictions which are inherent in criticising the institution of prostitution whilst supporting the civil and human rights of prostitutes.

In defining prostitution as the sexual exploitation of women, we attempt to keep the definition broad and inclusive at the same time as recognising different women’s experiences of prostitution in a way that defining prostitution as sex work does not. For example, it may be pragmatic to define child prostitution as abuse but only insofar as it allows for harsher legal sanctions in terms of child abuse against the offender/client. However if child prostitution is defined as abuse, it seems to imply that at some notional age prostitution is transformed from coercion into free choice. It is this connection between age and choice which has to be severed to promote an effective feminist analysis of prostitution which acknowledges the different constituencies of women and children involved, without losing sight of the exploitation entailed in any prostitution encounter.

Prostitution as work

The perspective on prostitution as work is exemplified by Mary McIntosh’s argument in a paper ‘Feminist Debates on Prostitution’, that it is ‘an activity with its own skills and ways of operating’. The preferred concept of ‘sex worker’ means ‘that these are women who are paid for what they do, who earn their living by sex [and] that what they do should be respected as a skilled and effortful activity’. This view is gaining widespread currency, not only among some feminists; for example, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) recognises prosti­tution as work. This idea is developed to suggest that sex work simply entails using different parts of the body to other workers. In the February 1994 issue of New Internationalist, which was devoted to prostitution, a prostitute is quoted by Nikki van der Gaag as saying, ‘You might sell your brain, you might sell your back, you might sell your fingers for typewriting. Whatever it is that do, you are selling one part of your body. I choose to sell my body the way I want to and I choose to sell my vagina.’ This is a particularly specious argument which side-steps any analysis of the relationship between gender, sexuality and power. Only by denying the potency of sexuality in gendered power relations could one equate physical, mental and sexual activity in this way.

The conceptualisation of prostitution as a form of ‘legitimate’ work in some ways comparable to service work, structured and conditioned by women’s general economic disadvantage, depends on a distinction between ‘enforced’ and ‘free-choice’ prostitution. Within this framework, enforced prostitution is narrowly defined as trafficking in women and especially child prostitution, while British (and other Western) prostitutes would fall into the ‘free choice’ category. In support of this position, there is a tendency to draw upon the views expressed by individual prostitutes to legitimate the argument that women freely enter prostitution and to challenge any denial of ‘free choice’ prostitution. So for example, a prostitute is quoted by Sanders in New Statesman and Society, in 1990, as saying, ‘I want to work with feminists who understand that I have a right to do what I wish with my body’.

Advocates of ‘free-choice’ prostitution focus mainly on women in the elite forms of prosti­tution, working in escort agencies, massage-parlours, hotels and flats. An article by Watson in the same issue of New Statesman and Society suggested a leakage from public sector work into prostitution, with women claiming to prefer prostitution, not only because it paid better but also because of the greater fun, freedom and autonomy they enjoyed. These women said they felt less exploited and more in control than in their former professional work. In particular, ex-nurses pointed out similarities between nursing and sex work, both in terms of physical contact with men’s genitals and emotional labour in humouring them.

In tandem with the international movement towards the rights of prostitutes, decriminal­isation of prostitution is favoured (where it is treated as a matter of free choice) for two reasons. Firstly it is argued that all that differen­tiates prostitution from other work is the way in which it is perceived. For example, in her book Vamps, Virgins and Vampires, Robin Gorna contends that the lives of prostitutes are rendered more complex than other women’s only (our emphasis) by factors that influence their work as prostitutes (such as drug use, for some) and the stigmatisation they experience from the ‘moral’ minority and also feminists. Secondly, public resources (including police protection and funding) are less accessible to prostitutes because they are seen as less deserving. Prostitution is not prioritised when it comes to allocating public funds for health projects, except in relation to the perceived threat to male clients of transmittable diseases, in particular HIV. The positive advantages of treating prostitution as work are stressed by health-care professionals who constantly struggle for funds to support projects with prostitutes. It was for this reason primarily that the Royal College of Nursing voted to decrimi­nalise prostitution at their annual congress in 1995. Experiments in zoning in Holland have been presented as a means of providing a safer environment for prostitution where health services can be provided and the area can be policed — though in fact, it seems that these areas have become no-go areas for the police, and women are harassed entering them. Alternatively, zoning may be seen simply as a measure to keep prostitution away from ‘respectable’ residential areas, without any concern for the safety of the prostitutes.

The phrase ‘commercial sex work’ has been promoted by prostitutes’ organisations in response to the stigmatisation of prostitutes. Indeed the preferred terms for prostitutes and prostitution in much contemporary sociological literature are ‘sex-worker’ and ‘sex-industry’. Robin Gorna argues that these terms are helpful, not only in focusing on the fact that these activities are work, but also cutting across moral judge­ments of the women who work as pros­titutes. However, by concealing the words ‘prostitute’ and ‘prostitution’, these terms also obscure the exploitative nature of the institution of the prostitution and the experiences of prostitutes. We therefore oppose the sanitisation of prosti­tution through the use of the more innocuous concept of sex workers and prefer to talk about ‘women involved in prostitution’ as a means of focusing critical attention on the institution.

Prostitution as exploitation

Although it was a contentious issue, the Beijing conference made the distinction between free and forced prostitution, viewing only the latter as a violation of the rights of women. This lends some urgency to the need to re-examine the arguments on prostitution as work. The notion of prostitution as ‘free choice’ is hugely problematic in a capitalist economic system characterised by patriarchal institutional and ideological relations. And choice is rendered increasingly less free in a worsening economic and organisational climate. In any case, as Janice Raymond argued at the international conference on Violence, Abuse and Women’s Citizenship in Brighton, November 1996, how could force be proved in court and how feasible would it be for women to prosecute pimps and traffickers?

Raymond argued that there are significant dangers in the redefinition of prostitution as commercialised sex work, which implies professionalisation and dignifies the work. On the contrary, she argues, professionalisation doesn’t dignify women but the sex industry, which is controlled by and benefits men. The deregulation of prostitution in the Netherlands, Germany and Finland paved the way for trafficking in women and the exploitation of women by the international sex trade. Clearly, the transformation of prostitution into commer­cial sex work benefits business which is controlled by men, enables governments to factor the profits into national accounting systems and relieves governments from the responsibility to expand women’s employment opportunities. It legitimises the sex industry as work, a business, a way of making a living — without empowering the women. Prostitution is part of the international sex industry, including pornography, strip shows and sex tours from the West to Third World countries. It entails the display and appropriation of women’s bodies thus reinforcing for both men and women, what Carol Pateman, in The Sexual Contract, calls the patriarchal right of access to women’s bodies. Prostitution is a market for men; women are paid for sexual services performed on/with/for men to satisfy their sexual needs, while the prostitute herself experiences no desire or satisfaction.

Prostitution-as-work supporters argue that the worst thing about prostitution is the stigmatisation. Norma Hotaling, an ex-prostitute who addressed the Brighton conference on Violence, Abuse and Women’s Citizenship asked how we are trained not to see the harm done to the women involved in prostitution. What women in prostitution endure would be described as abuse or harassment in any other work setting. The exchange of money apparently transforms sexual harassment/sexual violence into work. Given the physical, psychic and emotional damage wrought in the necessary transformation into a prostitute’s role that has been so well documented by feminist research into the experience of prostitution, the question remains as to whether it is worthwhile for women to treat their bodies as capital and realise their assets. Cecilie Høigård and Liv Finstad’s study of street prostitution in Norway, Backstreets: Prostitution, Money and Love, describes the impoverishment and destruction of the women’s emotional lives. The emotional costs involved in being a prostitute are not so much the fear and experience of physical violence — though that is considerable — but the loss of a sense of self. Women describe the various strategies they employ in attempting to protect themselves against this, strategies which essentially revolve around maintaining a split between the ‘public’ and ‘private’, dissociating themselves from their bodies. This is exem­plified by Lisa saying, ‘Ugh, the whole thing is sickening. I close my eyes and ears. I cut all my feelings off. It’s never, never okay.’ But in the longer term, these strategies cannot be wholly effective, as Anna indicates, when she says, ‘My body isn’t mine when I work there. Anyway I’m a dirty slut. When I myself feel so dirty there’s nothing okay about having a relationship.’ Or when Inga says, ‘I’m bitter, I think I’ve been misused. I’m getting more wasted and worn out.’ Høigård and Finstad conclude that ‘regaining self-respect and recreating an emotional life is … as hard as reconstructing a hundred crown note from ashes.’

Prostitution has to be understood within a context of the privileging of heterosexuality premised on an inequality of power between men and women, in a capitalist economic system developed in articulation with patriarchal relations. In the context of the pervasive ideology of hierarchic heterosexuality, when men purchase sexual services from prostitutes for money they transform female sexuality into a commodity. Although far less research has been done on male clients than on prostitutes, a New Zealand project undertaken by Elizabeth Plumridge and her colleagues, in co-operation with the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective (NZPC), provides fascinating insights into men’s self-serving interpretations of how they benefit from patronising prostitutes. These men posit such encounters as emotional relationships while at the same time asserting that all obligations associated with relationships are discharged by payment. The ability to engage in this mental juggling which enables men to construct such a fantasy onto an economic transaction is dependent on the power inequal­ities of hierarchic heterosexuality. Payment apparently absolves them from responsibility for the emotional damage to women wrought by prostitution.

Prostitution and marriage

One of the curious features of the new discourse on prostitution as legitimate work is the way in which the familiar juxtaposition of prostitution and marriage in the formulation of sex as a form of currency on a continuum from marital obligation to commercial sex is being used. Twenty years ago in a different political climate this same juxtaposition was used by feminists as part of a critique of marriage as an institution. Today in a climate of ‘moral indifference’ this analogy is used to legitimate prostitution as not so different from other contexts in which women engage in sexual activities, a clear reversal of more familiar feminist analysis.

Becoming either a wife or a prostitute might be seen as part of an economic, social and sexual bargain. It is a familiar argument that in marriage, a man acquires rights to a woman’s body and to her labour for open-ended usage, whereas in the prostitution transaction (in Britain, at least) sexual services are generally sold by the piece, in a commercial exchange which involves an explicit agreement to perform a specified and limited service or task. Indeed male clients frequently complain of the cold-bloodedness of the transaction when they would prefer to believe they can buy a brief relation­ship involving women’s emotions and desire. In a sense, both prostitution and marriage are ways in which women can look to gain some measure of economic security. But in neither case is economic security guaranteed. The wife may find herself beaten, raped and thrown out, while violence is endemic in prostitution. The prostitute constantly risks rape and violence, and it certainly isn’t a career with security and a pension. And in both marriage and prostitution, it is men who benefit.

The point here is not to criticise either group of women — those who marry or those who enter prostitution — but to consider points of continuity between the two institutions. Treating marriage and prostitution as analogous is of course not a new argument. One can trace that argument right back to Mary Wollstonecraft who called marriage ‘legal prostitution’ in 1790. Just as any analysis of marriage must distin­guish between the relation of any one particular husband and wife and the structure of the institution of marriage, so the relation of any particular prostitute and client must be distin­guished from that of the institution of prosti­tution. Kathleen Barry makes this point in The Prostitution of Sexuality, when she argues, ‘Marriage and prostitution are experiences of individuals but they are also institutions.’

If we stick with the analogy of marriage, one of the great achievements of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s was to develop a trenchant critique of violence against women and the institution of marriage in general. Feminists set up refuges for women escaping domestic violence and campaigned for legal recognition of rape in marriage. In fact, these early critiques of male violence described the experience of battered wives in terms that contemporary research would recognise as consistent with the experience of prostitutes. Among those women who have sought refuge from the violence they experienced from their husbands and partners, some returned to the men they had left. Those women apparently made a ‘free’ choice. However, those choices they made did not invalidate feminist critiques of marriage and male violence. Similarly, many women who have chosen to work as prostitutes may have decided pragmatically that this was the best, or least worst, option available to them. That individual women have made these choices does not itself close the debate.

Campaigning against prostitution as work

The debate about whether prostitution should be seen as sex work or as exploitation has different political ramifications for feminist activism. Prostitutes’ rights organisations such as the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) and the NZPC represent the former position and campaign vigorously to improve the working conditions of prostitutes. Their perspective is informed by prostitution-as-work arguments, preferring the term ‘sex work’ to dignify prostitution with professional status. The logical consequence of this is to support the decriminal­isation of prostitution. It is clear that histori­cally, the main British laws addressing prostitu­tion serve to punish prostitutes, especially street prostitutes, who would not be doing what they do were it not for the demand from male clients. Even the Sexual Offences Act of 1985, aimed at kerb-crawlers, rarely hits its target. In fact, it causes real problems for the women working on the streets who are more likely to get into cars quickly so that clients are not prosecuted but this reduces the time they have to assess the risk of going with a client. Nonetheless, any attempts to decriminalise prostitution need to be carefully scrutinised to find out whose interests are served. However, moves to reduce the intrusive controlling strategies directed at women in conjunction with greater regulation and punish­ment of male users of prostitutes would be welcomed by feminists opposing the institution of prostitution too. Critical analysis of prosti­tution has been attacked as being inconsistent with the commitment of feminism to reflecting the reality of women’s lives and listening to women’s own versions of reality. Confrontations between feminists opposed to prostitution and prostitutes’ rights organisations are legendary and, coupled with accounts from women who claim they are better off in sex work than other professional work available to women, the effect has been to silence feminist critiques. But for every woman who may feel empowered by her experience of prostitution, there are many others for whom it is not empowering — which calls into question which women’s accounts are privileged.

Feminist activism opposing the institution of prostitution and its legitimisation as work must resolve the contradiction inherent in this position by also finding ways of supporting the rights of those women working as prostitutes. Norma Hotaling, speaking at the Brighton conference as an ex-prostitute, argued that if we promote prostitution, we ultimately endorse trafficking in women. She stresses that male perceptions of women change as a result of using prostitutes and that many men using adult prostitutes eventually go on to pay for sex with children. Hotaling asks whether in supporting prostitutes’ rights we aren’t supporting pimps and punters’ rights to abuse, exploit, damage and kill women. As a survivor, she emphasises firstly the importance for women in prostitution to have access to the same services as other women and to have support to exit from it, and secondly for a shift in focus onto men’s engage­ment in the abuse of women in prostitution.

One effective US example which focuses on men is the SAGE project (Standing Against Global Exploitation), which contributes to a programme for men prosecuted for using prostitutes; ex-prostitutes (such as Hotaling) give their perspective on the prostitution encounter to effectively counter male fantasies of their own power and women’s enjoyment of it. The project is funded by the fines men pay and used to assist women to exit from prostitu­tion. The strategies to exit prostitution include safe houses, alternative training and employ­ment prospects as well as medical, social and emotional support. In the Midlands, an example of successful feminist activism by a voluntary organisation, Prostitute Outreach Work (POW), was described in the Rights of Women Bulletin in 1994. Women in prostitution played a crucial role in developing multi-agency services which more effectively meet the needs of and support women in prostitution, facilitate exit strategies and promote useful, women-centred research and activism to change the laws surrounding prostitution.

Following the Brighton conference, there have been two feminist initiatives in relation to prostitution in 1997: a national conference on violence against women and children in prostitution organised by the Research Centre on Violence, Abuse and Gender Relations (based at Leeds Metropolitan University) and a national network, Women Against the Prostitution of Women (WAPOW), formed to provide a national voice against the institution of prosti­tution whilst supporting the rights of women in prostitution. Both initiatives attempt to break the silence and drown out the clamour for prostitution to be seen as a job like any other whilst trying to bridge divisions between women working as prostitutes and feminist activists. In its first newsletter, WAPOW has identified its general aims as promoting the safety of, and services for, women and children in prostitution; developing exit strategies; opposing legalised brothels; removing the life-long labelling of women as ‘common prostitutes’; campaigning for the prostitution of young people to be treated as a child protection issue.

It is claimed that the advantages of treating prostitution simply as work are that it removes the stigma attached, decriminalises prostitutes, recognises the skills women bring to their work and attributes employment status and attendant rights to welfare services and benefits. However the disadvantages are greater because in the first place it depends on the distinction between ‘free’ and ‘forced’ prostitution. In defending a notion of prostitution as a freely chosen occupation, the burden of proof is shifted onto women working in prostitution to demonstrate that they have been forced into it. The reality for women in prostitution is likely to be somewhere between the kind of force that might be recog­nised in a court of law and truly free choice. Moreover the impact of this spurious distinction between free and forced prostitution is to the detriment of campaigning against trafficking in women. Secondly, the reduction of prostitution to an economic transaction involving women’s labour effaces the exploitative and emotionally damaging effects of prostitution on those women. The sale of sex to men by women cannot be understood separately from the wider patriarchal organisation of socio-sexual relation­ships. The transformation of female sexuality into a commodity necessarily entails an exploit­ative use of those women. This analysis of prostitution as exploitation is informed both by awareness of women being damaged by prostitution and the wider feminist goals of eradicating prostitution and its causes on a global scale.


Kathleen Barry The Prostitution of Sexuality (New York University Press, 1995)

Robin Gorna Vamps, Virgins and Victims. How can women fight AIDS? (Cassell, 1996)

Cecilie Høigård & Liv Finstad Backstreets: Prostitution, money and love (Polity Press, 1992)

Mary McIntosh ‘Feminist Debates on Prostitution’ In Lisa Adkins & Vicky Merchant (eds) Sexualizing the Social. Power and the Organisation of Sexuality (Macmillan, 1996)

Maggie O’Neill et al Rights of Women Bulletin Autumn/Winter 1994

Carol Pateman The Sexual Contract (Polity Press, 1983)

Elizabeth Plumridge et al ‘Discourses of Emotionality in Commercial Sex: The Missing Client voice.’ Feminism and Psychology (Vol. 7 No. 2 1997)

Claire Sanders ‘Tis Pity she’s no whore.’ New Statesman/Society 9 February 1990

Nikki van der Gaag ‘Prostitution: Soliciting for Change’ New Internationalist No 252, February 1994

David Watson ‘Birmingham is second sex city.’ New Statesman/Society 9 February 1990