On the Frontline of Sex Wars

On the Frontline of Sex Wars

by Carol Leigh

©Photo by Merwelene van der Merwe. Design by The Telegraph Company

Prostitutes are “the only street fighters we’ve got,” wrote radical feminist Ti-Grace Atkinson in her 1974 book, Amazon Odyssey.

The prostitutes’ rights movement of the early 1970s evolved directly from the women’s movement. As feminists developed an understanding of the mechanics of our oppression, so prostitutes among them recognized the dynamics of our oppression and saw the criminalization of prostitution as another manifestation of sexism and misogyny.

I’ve been living in this war zone, on the front lines in the battle of the sexes — and the feminist sexuality wars.

Historical Brushes With the Women’s Movement

The women’s movement in the U.S. has always been ambivalent about prostitutes. The historical record has been filled in by scholars like Ruth Rosen, author of the The Lost SisterhoodProstitution in America (1982); Judith Walkowitz, author of Prostitution and Victorian Society (1980), and Gail Pheterson, editor of A Vindication of the Rights of Whores (1989). Their research shows that, although the welfare of prostitutes was addressed by 19th century feminists who resisted the invasive medical checks in Britain’s Contagious Disease Acts, early 20th century feminists in the U.S. ultimately promoted repressive prostitution policies. As suffrage was achieved in the U.S., politicians catered to a new female electorate through punitive prostitution laws.

In the 1970s, Margo St. James, founded COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) as the first U.S. prostitutes’ rights organization. The prostitutes’ rights movement in the U.S. grew aligned with sex positive feminism and sex radical feminism.

Still, a schism existed. Some feminists considered sex work to be a labor issue. Others, most prominently represented today by the Coalition Against Trafficking of Women, regarded sex work as a form of violence against women. Today, feminists in countries around the world align with these factions to one degree or another. While the former group of sex worker organizers sought to decriminalize prostitution, the latter group of feminists moved to expand criminalization of prostitution and quash decriminalization efforts.

Changing Landscapes

Now, prostitutes’ legal status is at another pivotal point. Several ongoing waves of activity are impinging on their lives, and the historic ambivalence among women’s rights activists about prostitution is in a particularly hostile phase.

Increasingly punitive approaches seek to lock up those who turn to prostitution, whether for survival or other reasons, with additional laws and stiffer penalties permitting arrests based on the barest suspicion. For example, in 1986, California made it a crime to agree to receive money for sex. Police decoys may now offer money for sex and immediately arrest someone who agrees to have sex for money, but does nothing more. Previously, the “crime” occurred when the sex worker offered the exchange. The California law extends even further. A person need not even offer or accept a sex-for-money exchange to face arrest. As of 1996, individuals can be charged in California with “loitering with the intent to do prostitution.”

The sex wars are also erupting in policy discussions about anti-trafficking laws, revealing deep rifts among feminists. Some feminists, allied with the religious right and conservative groups like Concerned Women for America, have revived the framework of early 20th century and seek the abolition of prostitution.

Feminist abolitionists, such as the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, aim to increase the criminalization of the sex industry and to use anti-trafficking laws to target commercial sex in general.

They define “sex trafficking” as encompassing all commercial sex, even if voluntary or consensual, and not limited to those who are forced into prostitution against their will. (See more here)

Other feminist groups advocate for anti-trafficking laws to protect persons forced into any type of labor — whether farm laborers or sex workers. This broader emphasis on addressing all labor sectors in anti-trafficking legislation was developed by three groups: the Foundation Against Trafficking in Women (STV), the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW), and the International Human Rights Law Group, now known as Global Rights. They prepared “Human Rights Standards for the Treatment of Trafficked Persons” as the basis for an anti-trafficking movement combating all labor exploitation and not simply focusing on “sex trafficking.” A recent GAATW report, Collateral Damage, outlines the violations that have occurred from misdirected anti-trafficking efforts that extend beyond those human rights standards.

Policies That Hurt

The anti-trafficking laws in the U.S. also took another frustrating turn in 2002 when the Bush administration declared that “organizations advocating prostitution as an employment choice or which advocate or support the legalization of prostitution are not appropriate partners for USAID anti-trafficking grants or contracts.” This “anti-prostitution loyalty oath” became part of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2003 and was incorporated into HIV-AIDS funding.

This type of restriction on what policy organizations may or may not do with funding follows the pattern of the “global gag rule” applied by the Bush administration to limit family planning funding. Under the “global gag rule,” organizations receiving funds may not provide or refer for legal abortions; under the “anti-prostitution loyalty pledge,” organizations may not advocate for sex workers’ rights.

The “anti-prostitution loyalty oath” resulted in a severe reduction in services to sex workers and exclusion of sex workers from providing services to their own communities. In 2003, Brazil turned down 40 million dollars in AIDS funding rather than comply with this discrimination.

Finally, the U.S. government has pressured some countries to criminalize all prostitution, a proposal that has resulted in disastrous conditions for women in Cambodia with evictions, detentions and reported police abuse.

Sex Workers Organize

The recent escalation of punitive prostitution policies is taking place at the same time as a growing sex worker rights movement around the globe.

The goals of these sex worker organizations are diverse, focusing on local issues including police abuse, corruption and health advocacy. Cultural festivals and observances, such as International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, are shared by organizations from Thailand to the UK. Rights advocates look toward model laws in New Zealand, receiving high marks in a May 2008 report. for improving the health and safety of sex workers. A self-regulatory system was developed by Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a forum of 65,000 sex workers based in West Bengal, India, with a credit union, anti-violence program and a wide range of cultural and political programs.

In the U.S., sex workers organize for decriminalization and regulation based on occupational health and safety standards. Sex Workers’ Outreach Project-USA, a national organization of sex worker rights groups launched a ballot initiative campaign for decrminalization in Berkeley in 2003 and a similar initiative is likely in San Francisco in 2008.

This is a very new movement, struggling against centuries of stigma and mistreatment. These efforts mark the beginning of an uphill battle. Decriminalization is the only the first step towards social justice for sex workers. When sex workers are no longer criminals, we can begin to advocate for rights in the workplace, to fight discrimination, to protect ourselves and find recourse when violence is committed against us.

Of course, it takes much more than decriminalization of prostitution to bring sexual choice and justice. As a sex worker activist, I have come to understand that economic and social justice is an intrinsic part of the equation. It is clear that poverty and violence lead to the most abject conditions in prostitution. Solutions to the violence and abuses in our industries are the same as solutions to ills in society in general: ending war and violence, achieving social justice and economic equity.

Sex for sale is part of the fabric of society, the complicated relationship between genders and the realities of economics on this planet. The moralistic suppression or condemnation of sex work is reductive.

Future of the “Sex Wars”

The sex wars between the feminist movement for sex workers and feminist abolitionists still go on.

This spring, I spoke at the Feminism & Pornography Research Cluster at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The young women there were eager to find common ground among feminists, asserting the right of women to engage in sex work if they choose, while still acknowledging the aspects of the sex industry that reflect sexism and misogyny. So what can I say to these women — pensive and intent — who are striving to reconcile the feminist “Sex Wars”?

Maybe one of them will help repeal the anti-prostitution loyalty oath. Maybe one will become a labor organizer and fight the corporate bosses who run the strip clubs. Maybe one will keep police and prosecutors from using condoms as evidence against prostitutes.

Yes, there is common history. But, I’ve been angry and miserable that feminism, which had been the source of my strength, was a source of judgment and rejection for prostitutes’ rights.

I finally told the young women that the first step toward finding common ground is for activists in the women’s movement to face each other and acknowledge the role that feminists have played in the current criminalization and stigmatization of sex work.

The young women listened: I entertained a glimmer of hope.

Carol Leigh has been working as a prostitute, artist and activist in the sex rights movement in the San Francisco-Bay area for more than 20 years. She performs political satire as “Scarlot Harlot” and is the author of Unrepentant Whore: The Collected Work of Scarlot Harlot (Last Gasp 2004). She is a spokesperson for the Bay Area Sex Workers Advocates Network (BAYSWAN) and the founder and director of the San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Video Festival More information here.

See by Carol Leigh: No Mandatory Testing! A Feminist Prostitute Speaks Out On The Issues Magazine, Vol 10, 1998.

Also see: Erotic Laborers Find Outlet in $pread by Nicole Witte Solomon in this edition of On The Issues Magazine