Sex work is not only a huge part of the world we live in today but also a thriving sector of the economy. Even though the industry has experienced several changes over the years, the two fundamental truths which remain static are that most people go into sex work to meet their desperate need for money and that there are a disproportionately large number of women in the profession.
As the feminist movement is bringing more and more issues under its wing, there have been rising number of debates around the issue of sex work, and whether the feminist movement should seek to eliminate it completely or bring about structural and functional reforms. The popular belief is that no woman, or man, for that matter, goes into sex work willingly. It’s a decision that they are forced to take so that they can put food on the table. Meanwhile, it’s no secret that many young women are forced into sex work by people looking to exploit their vulnerabilities. Therefore, unsurprisingly, most feminists, especially in third world countries where sex trafficking is rife, feel that the only way to protect people in sex work is by systematically breaking down the entire industry.
However, we must not forget that sex work is not only limited to prostitution; it also includes activities like exotic dancing, pornography and working as a phone sex operator, which have all been pushed to the peripheries of society as a result of our war on sex work. This is a cause for concern because, in this era of sexual liberation, there are many people who consciously enjoy such activities and choose to engage in them without being coerced into doing so. Criminalizing sex work would mean making the lives of these already marginalized sections of society even harder.
This is why sex-positive feminists believe that the only way to improve the lives of sex workers, and further empower them, is by recognizing their desires instead of suppressing them. Moreover, the need of the hour is to curb exploitation in the industry rather than rooting out the industry itself, which can only be done with legalization as it becomes harder to protect sex workers if they fall outside the ambit of law and order.
Sex-positive feminists are also of the opinion that consenting adults must be allowed to do whatever they wish with their bodies. In a capitalist society, where a large number of people - from factory workers to models - sell their bodies for money, sex workers must also be allowed to do so without the fear of legal action or societal backlash.
Sex work is a very real part of our society, and it would be almost impossible to do away with it at this point. Therefore, criminalizing would only hamper the ability of sex workers to lead normal lives, and push them into unsafe and exploitative working conditions. Instead, if the feminist movement aims to fight for the rights of sex workers within the existing system, it would allow them to not only express themselves without being labeled as sexual deviants by society but also protect their livelihood and their way of life.