The idea that sex workers are ‘used’ or that their bodies are commodities is a fallacy. But many feminists use this argument to claim that sex work is degrading, anti feminist, commodifies women or is harmful to them. Moralists (who are sometimes indistinguishable from the radical feminists) use the argument to justify looking down on sex workers or pitying them because they’re “degraded”. The radfem myths of ‘false consciousness’ and sexworkers’ lack of agency are also heavily dependent on seeing them as used bodies, as sex slaves.
But if you think that sex workers are used by clients, that idea is actually made up of several patriarchal ideas about gender and gender rules.
1) It means you think there aren’t male sex workers and that there aren’t female clients. So it’s a world where there are no LGBTQ people to sell sex or buy sex. It’s also a world where only men like sex and therefore pay for it; women are chaste so would never buy sex. They only provide it. They don’t have sex for pleasure. They only have sex for money, just like housewives or women who marry for money. The word “patriarchal” doesn’t quite cover it; words like heterosexist and double standard could be applied here, too. And of course it’s all about rigid gender norms and a non-fluid gender identity – as well as other things. So, this idea is clearly flawed because male sex workers and female buyers do exist. In the Irish Justice committee’s sex work hearing, Quinlan gave evidence that in Sweden twice as many men as women sell sex (to both women and men).
2) It means you believe in the economic model of sex. The economic model is the idea of sex which is the most misogynistic and the most harmful to women. The economic model says that women “give” sex for other things like money/financial security (i.e. housewives and prostitutes) or love. This also means that sex is something women ‘have’ that men “get”. So, a woman will always lose something (an unknown entity) through sex and the man will always gain something (sex) from the woman. This is exactly what radfems believe – that only men by sex, and they buy it from women; and that no woman would really ever choose to be a sexworker. Again, the double standard and rigid gender identities and gender norms are all connected with this, and again LGBTQ people are conspicuosly absent. Other models of sex are less misogynistic. For example the performance model would view women and men as equals, and focus on the act as “doing” rather than as one person “getting” something from the other (which makes absolutely no logical sense, anyway.) The economic model is flawed.
3) It means that you don’t believe women enjoy sex. Radfems think that no woman would choose to be a sex worker and so all sex workers are either trafficked or only doing it because they’ve got no other choice. Not some sex workers – all of them. But if women get pleasure from it, it would follow that some women would choose a job in the sex industry, or at least wouldn’t need rescuing by feminists.
4) It means you believe that women should be pure and that the sanctity of the female body isa real thing, and is precious. Or why else would uneducated women doing sex work to avoid being on benefits be such a tragedy? “Little girls don’t dream about being a prostitute,” they say. But little girls don’t dream about working in Tesco’s or Poundland or McDonald’s. They also don’t dream about doing boring jobs like being a wages clerk or hman resources personnel, but the reality of life is that many jobs are administrative and nonexciting. Most people don’t get to be princesses or astronauts or cowboys or pirates. But radfems act like women working in the sex industry is a tragedy, and seem to prefer women to be on the dole, barely able to eat and stigmatised as unemployed. Wouldn’t you rather be unreasonably stigmatised for working as a sex worker than be unreasonably stigmatised for not being able to work and being the poorest of the poor, while being harassed and bullied by the Jobcentre? Because that’s what Jobseeker’s Allowance amounts to. Radfems also only focuus on sex trafficking and talk about it as if it’s separate from all other labour trafficking/human trafficking, despite labour trafficking being a much bigger problem. So it seems that, for radfems, if it involves sex – whether it’s a job or a crime – it’s infinitely worse.
5) You think sex is degrading. Or why would radfems think sex work is degrading, but give other jobs where you have to touch peoples’ bodies (doctor, masseuse, carer, midwife, gynecologist etc) a free pass? And lots of people are degraded and dehumanized while working as waitresses, shop assistants or in any kind of employment. Casual workers and low-wage workers are particularly vulnerable. I knew a school girl who worked part-time as a shop assistant who was forced to clean toilets by the boss who hated her. I had to tell my boss whenever I went to the toilet as a waitress; my boss frequently swore and shouted at me and once docked my pay.for telling a customer the wrong price. These stories aren’t unique; my co-workers were paid £3 per hour at one job, and knew a waiter who was only allowed noodles for lunch (he had to eat on the premises). I could tell more stories, and they’re all stuff that happened to me, my friends,acquaintances and co-workers. This was clearly exploitation, but we were too young to know it or too desperate for money to care. Some employers don’t register employees, especially students and pupils, which means that these teens and young people have no rights. You can be fired on a whim, which means you’ll do anything to keep your job, like changing the bins in the toilets or sitting through 20 minutes of yelling and criticism (both of which I have done at two different jobs). Yet radfems think that if it’s not sex, it’s not as bad – even though a sex worker earns £100-£200 per hour and we were paid the minimum wage or under it. So even if sexwork is degrading, at least you’re being paid a lot to be degraded; it’s better than being paid peanuts to be degraded. But again, without sex, it’s just ordinary exploitation and the radfems don’t care.
In conclusion, the myth that sex workers are used by clients does not hold together. It’s based on untrue facts (that sex workers are women and clients are men) and all the other component parts of the myth are flawed or illogical.