Can a Feminist Be A Prohibitionist?

Part two in an ongoing series re-writing mainstream feminism.

In an alternate universe, Katha Pollitt asks:

Is there such a thing as prohibitionist feminism? In January, a reference to supporting sex workers’ rights was briefly removed from the website of the Women’s March on Washington.  “Intersectional feminism is the future of feminism and of this movement,” said Bob Bland, one of the event’s co-chairs. “We must not just talk about feminism as one issue…” Leaving aside the question of whether Bland understands what intersectionality means—sex work prohibitionism is a political stance, not an identity or a social position—can feminism, a social-justice movement for women’s equality and human rights, encompass the belief that women should be prohibited from engaging in sex work through the brute force of the criminal law, no matter the consequences?

Let’s also set aside the fact that the sex work prohibitionist movement’s leadership is heavy on conservative evangelical preachers, and that the movement is allied to Tony Perkins, who promotes the propaganda homosexuality and bisexuality are “unhealthy and destructive” and that families must be headed by one man and one woman, married. Hard to see the feminism there.

It is probably true that many women would support stricter anti-sex work laws than now exist on paper… It is probably also true that some of those women support other feminist goals, like equal pay, more women in political office, and stronger action against domestic violence and rape. But does that mean the women’s movement should soft-pedal or even drop its support for decriminalizing sex work?

Like it or not, sex workers’ rights are at tremendous risk right now. A political movement that doesn’t defend them and promotes instead some vague notion of “unity” is bound to be weak tea to the women who are the movement’s strongest activists. After all, nothing prevents prohibitionist women from being active in other feminist and progressive causes…

My own view is that people are complicated and mix up their politics in all kinds of ways. A woman can believe that women are equal to men and also that no woman should ever sell sex. She can be anti-sex work for herself, in other words, and many pro-sex workers’ rights women are. But rights and personal ethics are not the same. I just don’t see how restricting and criminalizing sex work, bullying women out of the business, and pushing lies—that sex work will always give you post-traumatic stress disorder, make you diseased, or lead to a life’s worth of misery—are compatible with respecting other women’s right to make their own moral decisions in an area where people disagree strongly and probably always will.



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