Talking to Sex Workers About Fighting for Their Rights, Feminism, and More

Few issues are as contentious within the feminist movement as prostitution. This is certainly not a new divide—in fact, it dates back to radical feminists Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon’s fierce opposition to pornography in the 1980s. But the issue continues to split feminists, and thus we lack a unified response in support of the human rights of sex workers.

Some radical feminists maintain that prostitution is inherently harmful and exploitative, regardless of the circumstances under which a woman enters the sex trade. Equality Now, a radical feminist organization that focuses on “ending violence and discrimination against women and girls around the world,” has a campaign to combat the United Nations recommendations that sex work be decriminalized.

Meanwhile, sex-positive and intersectional feminists emphasize the importance of agency and a deeper understanding of how class, race, and gender identity intersect in prostitution and openly advocate for sex workers’ rights. This conversation is an important one, yet it all too often ignores the voices and perspectives of actual sex workers themselves. If we as feminists claim to be about elevating marginalized women’s voices, why do many feminists continue to talk over and speak for sex workers?

RH Reality Check recently spoke with Minnie Scarlet, a porn model and performer; Darby Hickey, a sex worker and transgender rights activist; and Violet Rose, a sex worker from the United Kingdom, to hear about their experiences with feminism, what role they think feminism can play in sex workers’ rights, and more. Below is a lightly edited version of that discussion, which took place via email.

RH Reality Check: Many people have a preconceived notion about what “sex work” is or looks like. What do you want people to know about the kind of work that you do?

Darby Hickey: I think what is really important is to listen to people with actual experience in sex trade, because those experiences are extremely diverse (just like many other activities in life!) and do not conform neatly with ideological assumptions about empowerment, abuse, gender equity, etc. Doing sex work is not just like any other job, but sometimes, for some people, it is, or it’s even better. And sometimes, for some people, it is nothing at all like a job. And a million other variations in between and beyond. At the end of the day, the people directly involved need to have their rights protected, have their choices respected, and get support to increase their self determination in whatever ways they deem necessary. By closing down websites, increasing criminal penalties, or telling people they have to identify as victims to receive help, people are reducing the options available to those engaged in sex trade, and that is the opposite of what feminism should be about.

Minnie Scarlet: I love that I’m in a position where people listen to me. Granted, with the stigmas in our society, some will immediately write me off as some “porn slut” ([porn actress] Bree Olson herself called me that one time—the inner misogyny is so real), but it has given me an audience that I would not have had otherwise. Growing up a conventionally attractive woman, I realized quickly that there were many things I could use my looks for and could really take advantage of it. I know that people will always speak badly on women who use their looks or girls who are too focused on their aesthetics, but as a woman, it’s the best bet you have to be heard sometimes. Kind of like the double standard of teenage girls taking selfies, yet the selfies are what get the most likes, if that makes sense. I realized I had a lot to say at a young age, and using my sexuality and job, I have an amazing fan base that appreciate what I have to say about specific issues. I love the work that I do, but I love when my followers can really appreciate me, aside from the content I have out. I love when they realize the work put into everything and the tribulations women in this industry endure. That’s what makes me love my job and makes me want to shoot more scenes and keep going.

Violet Rose: Having “sex” for money does not mean I do [penis-in-vagina] penetration all day every day. Lots of my clients want to chat, do some other sex acts, or do something else entirely. BDSM isn’t weird or wrong. My clients mostly aren’t creepy, old, unattractive men. Clients differ as much as the rest of humanity (but financial privilege to afford to see sex workers still tends to rest with the most privileged). Sex work isn’t going to end. Policies to end demand cannot work. And in a world where opportunities to work are increasingly small, policies to end demand are violence against the most marginalized. Doing my work doesn’t prevent me from having a valid opinion (I don’t have false consciousness), and I deserve labor, human, and civil rights at work. I call my work a feminist act.

RHRC: What has your experience been like as a sex worker in feminist spaces?

VR: I have had diverse experiences. Some feminist spaces I go to are full of sex workers, which is awesome. Sometimes I have been to feminist spaces and been talked over, ignored, othered, patronized, demeaned, and insulted. Since I am not fully out, I can inhabit political spaces without outing myself if I want to, so I can check the temperature of a gathering before I make myself vulnerable by exposing my identity as a sex worker. Sometimes though, it is good for me to out myself before people even start. Sometimes I prefer they say stuff behind my back rather than to my face unknowingly.

Mostly though, I feel unsafe. Feminists have driven some of the most violent and dangerous legislation against sex workers’ rights, health, and safety worldwide, and I can’t feel great about that. I have to wait for someone in a feminist space to not only declare themselves in solidarity but also to show they are a good ally with certain behaviors before I feel like I can trust them not to be oppressive to sex workers.

MS: I have mixed experiences with feminist spaces because the different feminists I have met all tend to have different views on the sex industry. There is nothing inherently comforting to me about the word “feminist.” I used to see or hear that word and think it was someone I could feel a tiny bit safer with or at least relate to on a basic level. Unfortunately, I’ve been told by some feminists that by being in the porn industry, I was degrading and hurting women. Most of those feminists have been white scholar-types, which made it hard to notice that feminism has extreme class and race issues. Feminism without intersectionalism is nothing, especially when we’re talking about sex workers’ rights, considering a lot of sex workers do sex work for survival, not for empowerment/liberation/fun.

There have been feminists who have spoken over my sex worker peers and myself about how degrading porn is because you can’t prove what is consensual and not. They know this because of things they have read and they “know a couple of girls in the porn industry.” Hello! I’m a sex worker who works in porn! And I happen to know reputable companies generally give you a release to sign—a form that says you aren’t pressured to do anything you don’t want to—and even film you saying that before you do anything.

Obviously, there are flaws because the industry is run by humans, and I will never deny the incredible amount of terrible things in porn that need to be reformed. My point is, I have felt dismissed and silenced by feminists who thought their research was more credible than my first-hand experience. There is room for both opinions and both things to be talked about, but the moment their research is given more representation than my voice, it’s a problem. That’s my main concern.

The feminist spaces that have made me feel completely safe as a sex worker are usually accepting of trans/queer peoples and have little to do with what mainstream feminism focuses on.

DH: My experience with feminist spaces predates my involvement in sex trade/sex work, and it was already complicated. As a trans woman who grew up poor, the many ways in which what we are calling “mainstream feminism” failed me and my communities were obvious. On the other hand, like Minnie alludes to, feminism, feminist spaces, feminist individuals (whether friends/colleagues or writers/activists) helped me develop my own analysis a lot and changed how I look at the world.

There have been times when I have disavowed the label feminist, but I also used it to help organize a conference in D.C. that centered the intersectional feminism we are discussing here, that centered the experiences and thoughts of women of color, trans folks, and sex workers (shout out to Visions in Feminism). I was recently at a multi-generational gathering of academics and activists reflecting on the history of reproductive and sexual health and rights, and some of the speakers introduced me for the first time to the idea of “power” or “governance” feminists/feminism [Ed. note: “governance feminism” refers to the strategy of implementing feminism through the law.] I like this term better than “mainstream” because it really highlights how one set of folks in the feminist world prioritize gaining specific types of power and using the tools of that power (for example, government) to further their agenda. I think that stands in stark contrast to the more complicated approaches that many of the feminists who I stand with, feminists who focus more on dismantling power and creating alternative structures for holding those in power accountable. It is governance feminism that got us “feminist groups” advocating war in Afghanistan, for example, as well as of course anti-sex trade laws.

RHRC: Given that you’ve all had such diverse, and often contentious, experiences with feminists, what role, if any, do you think feminism can play in sex workers’ rights and advocacy?

MS: My wishes are for people in general to gain the knowledge necessary so that women wouldn’t have to elaborate their choices to such an extent, or at all, anymore. Most of the slut-shaming, whore-phobia, and other problems that contribute to the stigmatization of sex work manifest because of ignorance. Feminism has always been a learning process for me. My personal feminism stems mostly from wanting to understand normalized sexism and how it affects the big picture. In this situation, the normalized sexism can be something as common as casual slut-shaming, but in the bigger picture it adds to a problem that actually makes it physically unsafe for sex workers in certain situations.

If feminism has any role, it would be to educate people in general that women, whether you agree with their choices or not, are people who are capable of making their own decisions. By teaching people that, it would show people that things like calling a girl a “slut” actually is detrimental in ways that are much bigger than just the word. With that mentality, I think it’s easier for other changes in the industry to happen like better treatment to women on sets, better representation for what women want, less hate for the industry.

Feminism has so much power to change the industry by changing things that affect the industry. Feminism is about women’s rights and is much bigger than just how porn girls are treated, but I feel it definitely has an indirect place in the industry.

VR: Mainstream feminism has power—much more than the sex workers’ rights movement, and I think more political power than the sex industry itself, regardless of the financial disparity. I think feminism has the capacity to evolve an understanding of how power, sex, and gender affect people in an intersectional way, and I hope that when it does, the only acceptable standpoint within feminism will be for sex workers’ rights. I feel like feminist ideals like the right to vote are part of a wider understanding that minority groups need to represent their own interests. Feminists could support sex worker organizing and help amplify sex worker voices for their own representation at policy level.

DH: I think that Minnie and Violet really hit the point here already: In as much as some feminists and their sectors, organizations, and movements have more resources or credibility than those of us working for social justice for people in sex trade/sex work, they really need to step up. They are the ones better suited to go toe-to-toe with the anti-prostitution forces who cloak themselves in feminism. But I also am disillusioned that the “governance” feminists would ever change their tune, so I think we need to focus more on the sectors within feminism that are committed to grassroots movement building and alternatives to the current power structure, as well as seek cross-movement allies in the fights around immigration, criminal justice, or LGBT issues.

I think I would also disagree slightly with Violet—I think some of the most dangerous legislation regarding sex work has actually been driven by people who are not feminists, who are anti-feminist even, but who jump at the opportunity to work with “governance” feminists when they can. For example, the “anti-crime” or “social cleansing” people push for increased punishment for sex workers, “prostitution-free zones,” and so on, whereas the “feminists” push for increased punishments for clients, which we know also affects sex workers. But I do see a difference there. And while I’m not sure that one is worse than the other, if I had to choose the lesser of two evils, I would say that the law that claims to penalize clients is the lesser of the evils. It’s still not good by any means, and I want to fight it against such laws, but we should have a complex analysis.

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  • DeadCowGirl

    LOVE this discussion. I’ve been a sex worker for twenty years and it was a great way to raise kids as a single mom and the perfect way to put myself through college. It can be a very rewarding career. I also don’t identify with feminism because my choice of career is such a volatile hot button.

  • antipropagandamachine

    The tags on this include “criminalization of sex work”, “sex work”, “sex
    worker” “sex workers”, “sex worker rights”. Laura Rankin uses the term “radical
    feminist” three times and the interviewees make reference to them and their
    politics several more times, but Rankin didn’t feel a “radical feminist” tag
    should accompany the 5 (some redundant) tags listed above.

    Because it is radical feminists who ignore and erase women, obviously.

    • Arekushieru

      Why would acknowledging a group that does indeed ignore and erase women, help to keep women from being ignored and erased, hmmm? Thanks.

  • belgianchic

    How do laws that penalize clients hurt sex workers? I am genuinely asking.

    • sakaly22

      This is in regards to prostitution mostly, but one example is how strict laws make clients need/want to meet in more secretive locations, forcing sex workers into more potentially dangerous situations. Another example is that some clients feel that if they’re going to risk getting arrested, they’re going to make it worth their while and do more to a sex worker than what a normal client would, including rape, steal from, or beat her. Also, some men already have angry or misogynistic views about women, and if they’re arrested as a client, it may exacerbate their anger or feelings towards women, and they could lash out at the next sex worker they meet.

      Not to mention that aside from areas in Nevada, prostitution is still illegal, so even though laws are said to be penalizing clients more, they actually penalize sex workers more, too. Case in point, the local police in my area did a “human trafficking operation” with the intention of rescuing underage victims of trafficking and arresting both clients and pimps. How they went about doing their sting operation led to the arrest of 4 adult prostitutes, but NO clients and NO pimps. Not a single minor trafficking victim was rescued either. Sometimes it is indirect how these laws affect sex workers, but they do affect them.

      • Arekushieru

        That was a good response. I’m glad that it outlined the effects from the bottom up rather than the top down, as most responses to that sort of question usually seem to do.

        As for my question, what ideas do you have, if any, of problems that may arise from a proposal where sex-workers would be granted a license, free of charge, they would be able to access supports for health care, protective services, sanitation and childcare, etc… also free of charge (of course, in my vision of the world, *all* childcare and healthcare would be free, but supports like protective services would only be free for them, due to the heightened levels of danger involved), they would have full privacy, but clients would still have to pay for the things they need out of pocket, including, and this is where the illegal vs legal determination would come in, vetting of marital status, mental health, etc… etc…. And if the client had performed none of these steps, they would be charged with a crime.

        • sakaly22

          The problems could be many, depending on how a system like that is rolled out, but if you look to Nevada’s bunny ranches and Australia’s brothels, you’ll find that allow there are still problems, these women are given the security and healthcare they need. In a few studies i’ve read lately, researchers looked at levels of violence and incidents of sexually transmitted infections and found that both were very low in places where women have access to healthcare or are under the protection of a government run brothel. I don’t know if legalizing sex work os the right answer, maybe just decriminalizing it to start, might make it easier for these sex workers to conduct their business in safety and seek out health care, since they would not fear being penalized. Unfortunately, this is such a complex issue, there is no one right answer for everyone and definitely no easy solution.

          As far as the client’s payments, if sex work is decriminalized, then so is paying for it, so clients would not face penalization either. This could make sex work safer for all involved. I do know that in the Netherlands, the government is currently trying to pass legislation that would require sex workers to be registered, and that any client who wants to pay for sexual services would need to verify that the workers has a valid registration. The article I read outlined a few issues with that requirement, but it was proposed that way because the Dutch government has various laws about sex worker, depending on whether the worker is a minor, an adult citizen, a legal immigrant, or an illegal immigrant.

          • Arekushieru

            But, I wasn’t talking about legalizing, and WAS talking about decriminalizing, sex work. The way they do it in the Netherlands isn’t even close to what I was suggesting, in other ways, either. The main one being that the women do not ‘own’ their services. The services are still something done TO them.

            And that is where my confusion comes in with your last paragraph. If decriminalizing sex work means that clients would not face penalization, then why would a sex worker face penalization (have something done TO them) if she/he does not have a valid registration (I mean, what would be another reason to mention that point, other than to recommend penalization if she/he does NOT have it)? And, not only does it contradict the impossibility of penalizing the clients, but it also puts the onus back on the sex-worker to rectify a situation THEY did not create. Unfortunately, it’s much like victim-blaming. And reinforces the idea of inherently disempowered sex-workers.

            If we applied the way you are using the adage, “There is no one right solution.” to everything else, we would be saying that the right to bodily autonomy is not the right solution for everyone. Because the right to bodily autonomy and what I’m suggesting are both starting points. It’s everything ELSE that comes afterwards that cannot be applied to everyone equally. For example, in the case of the right to bodily autonomy, parenting, adoption and/or abortion and completion of a pregnancy are ALL solutions that are not right for everyone, *every time*.

  • belgianchic

    I’m not sure if you realize this, but it was a purely academic question because I had never had that explained to me before. I have not ‘directly mess’ed with sex worker’s income in the slightest, ever. I simply want information surrounding this complicated issue, no need to be condescending.

  • cvxxx

    Many women and men choose sex work. This article does not approach the issue of human trafficking. It is about the many who choose to enter into sex work.

  • Melanie Victoria

    I appreciated this article greatly. As someone who is interested in gender/sexuality issues, I have been curious about how sex workers view themselves and their work. The conversation regarding sex work is more often than not railroaded into a discussion of the brutality and oppressive nature of the work. Although I do not mean to minimalize this, enough already. There are people who are exploited and abused in every sector or work and yet we do not consider work in and of itself to be illegitimate. However, where sex work is concerned the brutal experiences negate any possibility of positivity and agency. Enough of this already. Any human being with the most basic understanding of social justice issues knows how horrible trafficking is and how dangerous sex work can be. I am more interested now in hearing about sex workers agency and how they negotiate working in a profession which most people consider taboo. In addition, if sex work was legitimized and sex workers treated as human beings, I think there would be a decline in the violence and abuses of that industry.