You may have never heard of term Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminism, or SWERF, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a type of institutionalised sexism that you have in fact been socialised into. Institutionalised sexism is a type of unjustified negative behaviour against women or men as members of a social category, and sex worker exclusionary radical feminism is the type of institutionalised sexism and oppression that women (and men) face in the sex industry. It affects prostitutes, escorts, strippers, sugar babies, webcam models, and porn stars, amongst any other sex related profession.
NOTE: I have used the word sex to describe any intimate or sexual activity that may be performed by a sex worker, not always the act of sex itself. Also, although SWERF is an issue for both male and female sex workers, being a female dominated industry most of the information provided focuses on the issues women in the sex industry face.
What exactly is SWERF?
The term SWERF was coined to match that of trans exclusionary radical feminism, because their ideologies both overlap. They are both feminism subgroups that follow a prescriptive, normative approach to feminism: while trans exclusionary radical feminism is associated with judging women and telling them what to do with their gender, sex worker exclusionary radical feminism is associated with judging women and telling them what to do with their body (generally in exchange for money). Although both men and women work in the sex industry, it is still a female dominated industry, so women are mostly the target of sex worker exclusionary radical feminism.
It’s not really “radical” at all…
The actual term sex worker exclusionary radical feminism often causes a dilemma, since many people who would be considered “SWERFs” aren’t actually radical, but are in fact more conservative in their values and actions towards sex. Although the term contains the word “radical” in its name, sex worker exclusive radical feminism is more reactionary than it is radical. Reactionary positions are ones which intend to revert society to more traditional, conservative values. It is a commonly held view by most feminists (particularly third wave) that women should be free to have an interest and partake in whichever sexual acts they please. SWERFS however, take their own perspective on sexuality one step further by dictating what sexual activity is acceptable or “morally right/good” for others to perform. Nonetheless, I don’t believe getting caught up in SWERF rhetoric will actually do any justice to the issue.
What are the signs of SWERF?
Sex worker exclusionary radical feminism is a type of oppression that can be manifested in several ways. Simple comments made to your friend along the lines of “wow, you look like a prostitute,” is an oppressive statement since in this context the word “prostitute” is given a negative connotation, which in turn devalues those women who choose to work as prostitutes. If you have any preconceived negative beliefs and attitudes towards sex workers, you are probably showing signs of SWERF. Beliefs that sex workers are dirty, they are exploiting themselves, objectifying themselves for money, or they are somehow less deserving of rights than a person working in any other industry, are all types of sex worker exclusionary radical feminism. Everyday instances of SWERF can also encompass bullying and oppression that is known as whorephobia.
How do these “feminists” justify SWERF?
Many people who show signs of SWERF otherwise consider themselves feminists. Most feminists who object to the rights and notion of sex work usually claim one (or both) of two arguments to justify their discrimination towards sex workers. The first of these objections to sex work is based on the belief that sex work is sexual objectification of women, and the second is that it perpetuates sexual violence towards women. Although I will address these issues in more detail below, it is important to note that SWERF doesn’t actually address either of these issues that it claims to stand for. Instead of individuals exercising their right not to sexualise themselves by partaking in sexual activities that they wouldn’t feel comfortable doing, SWERFs take it one step further by telling others that they should feel/do the same, and instead of focusing on the sexual violence that human trafficked people in parts of the world may face, SWERFs neglect this and and instead try to prevent (an often non existent) sexual violence towards sex workers who have freely chosen their profession.
Common Misconceptions About Sex Workers
Before I really delve into the issues associated with SWERF, I would first like to address some of the common misconceptions that people have towards those who work in the sex industry. If you have any preconceived negative ideas about sex workers (don’t worry, that was me once upon a time too,) this might help you get a clearer understanding of what sex work is actually like. Many of these misconceptions are based on outdated moralistic views that no longer apply in contemporary societies, but have somehow managed to persist and be socialised from generation to generation.
Sex workers don’t have a choice?
It’s a common misconception that women or men work in the sex industry because they “don’t have a choice,” they “don’t have any other skills,” or they’re “forced to sell their body,” but for a vast majority of sex workers in the developed world, this certainly isn’t the case. Sex workers work in the sex industry because they want to, for a huge array of reasons, including but certainly not limited to: they enjoy the art of sex, they enjoy the money, or they enjoy the flexibility and lifestyle that comes with being a sex worker. Pretty much any reason that people work any kind of job can apply to sex work. For many sex workers, sex work is a means to an end, so they are only in the industry until they achieve a certain goal, whether it be a financial goal or a personal goal. But for many women and men sex work is a career, that like any type of career involves skill, talent, dedication, and years of experience.
Note: If someone is coerced to work in the sex industry or forced to, this is an issue of human/sex trafficking, which is not the same as being a sex worker.
Sex workers “sell their body” for money?
If you think that sex workers “sell their body” anymore than a man who does labour or construction work sells his body, then your view of labour is clouded by an outdated and oppressive moralistic view of sexuality. Carpenters sell their bodies for labour. Models sell their bodies to be photographed. Lawyers sell their body for their knowledge. If you have a job you are essentially selling your body. What part of your body you are selling shouldn’t matter, whether it’s your brawn, boobs, or brains.
Sex work is “wrong?”
Sex work is a legitimate job in both the legal and moral senses of the word. There’s nothing wrong with providing a service and getting paid for it (that’s what all jobs do) and there’s nothing wrong with having sex (we are all products of sex.) Suddenly when the two things are combined it’s “sad” “disgusting” or “wrong?” What is it about sex work that is apparently so much worse than any other kind of work? (I’ll address the ethics of sex work in more detail below.)
Sex work is dirty?
There is a belief that sex work harms people through the risk of spreading disease, and while STDs are a very valid problem, it isn’t an issue for sex workers since sex work is safe, clean, and regulated.
Sex workers ruin relationships?
Another common misconception is that sex workers ruin relationships/marriages, since many committed or married men get involved with sex workers, often without their partner knowing. According to Lana Jade, a high end Sydney escort in her Daily Mail interview, “men see sex workers for no one particular reason, some are lacking intimacy in their relationships, perhaps their wives don’t want to have sex or don’t have the time, but they still love their wives so to fill the sexual quota they need they choose, a no strings attached paid encounter.” To blame a sex worker for “ruining a relationship” is ridiculous. When a sex worker interacts with a client, whether it be sexually, intimately, or even just emotionally (no one of these is any better or worse than the other,) they are simply doing their job. Their job is to provide a service to the client, regardless of the client’s own situation. That client’s relationship isn’t ruined by the sex worker, that relationship was ruined when they made the conscious decision to go behind their partner’s back and hide something from them, regardless of whether a sex worker was involved or not.
Problems with SWERF
Now that we have addressed some of the most basic and common misconceptions that people have towards sex workers, we can delve into the problems that are associated with sex worker exclusionary radical feminism, and why the discrimination and oppression of sex workers is wrong. In order to move forward from our ways of SWERF and into a future where sex workers are treated with the same rights and respect as all workers, we first need to address a few problems with SWERF:
Sex workers aren’t objectifying/exploiting themselves
Sex worker exclusionary radical feminism is strongly based on the view that sex work should be frowned upon because it objectifies and/or exploits women. While I was doing some research on SWERF, I came across an article on a popular feminist blog refuting the validity of sex work, for the reason below.
“First, there is no such thing as “sex work.” Prostitution and pornography are not “work,” insofar as “work” does not involve exploiting people’s bodily integrity (and any job that does is just as evil). Therefore using the term “sex work” assumes as its premise the validity of the exploitation of women’s bodily integrity.”
This immediately set alarm bells off in my head. Now, as I addressed earlier, sex workers don’t “sell their bodies” anymore than any other worker sells their body. But when it comes to the sexualisation of women’s bodies, I think there are a few important distinctions that needs to be made.
There is nothing inherently wrong with the sexualisation of a woman. Nothing. Problems with the sexualisation of women arise when the healthy sexuality of a woman is turned into objectification or exploitative sexualisation. According to the American Psychological Association (APA) there are four factors that set objectification or exploitative sexualisation apart from healthy sexuality.
1. A person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behaviour, to the exclusion of other characteristics;
Often when women are sexualised, they are seen as less intelligent, but this isn’t actually the case. There is no correlation between how much a woman chooses to sexualise herself and how intelligent (or any other characteristic) she is, this is an outdated belief that we as a society need to abolish. When someone else imposes the value of a woman based solely upon the degree to which she sexualises herself, this becomes exploitative (not by the woman herself, but those who are imposing this value onto her.)
2. A person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;
The sexualisation of a woman becomes unhealthy and objectifying when we begin to equate physical attractiveness to notions like being sexy. This is a problem for two reasons, firstly, it suggests that a woman’s appearance is the only thing her sexiness should be based upon, rather than her intelligence, or other characteristics of her personality. Secondly, it suggests that women must have certain physical traits in order to be considered attractive and sexy. In most cases, sex workers rely on good communication skills, intelligence, and other personality traits to be successful with their clients, and sex workers are all incredibly diverse in both appearance and personality, so sex work avoids being exploitative in this sense.
3. A person is made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making;
This is, at its core, sexual objectification. Sexual objectification in any situation is never okay, and it is a misconception that sex workers objectify themselves, but we now know this isn’t true. Sex workers are not forced into anything, and they have complete autonomy over decision making, activities, and situations that affect them.
4. Sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.
There is a fundamental difference between an autonomous woman who chooses to sexualise herself (like a sex worker) which is okay, and the nonconsensual sexualising, objectifying or exploiting (of women collectively,) which is not okay.
So, provided that sex work is practiced in a way which avoids these factors (which most sex work does,) one cannot argue that sex work is in any way objectifying or exploitative of women.
Why society doesn’t like sex work
On a micro scale, it is commonly viewed that many women dislike sex workers because they see them as a direct competition, particularly against their own partners and husbands. Many women also feel threatened by the fact that someone else is making a profit selling something that they often give away for free. Men dislike sex workers because they don’t like the thought of paying for something that they wish they could achieve naturally.
But on a macro scale, why do we as a society dislike sex work? From a sociological perspective, it is clear to see that sex work poses a threat to the values that our society was once built upon. Sex work predominantly challenges our views and values toward sex, and the institution of family.
Sex: Sex work challenges the traditional views of the role that sex should play in our lives. The views that sex should be between a man and a woman, it should be between people who love one another, with the ultimate goal of a sexual relationship to raise children to carry society forward.
Family: Our society was built upon a strong notion of family, and more specifically, the nuclear family. Father’s had a duty to provide for their family, and mothers had the role of creating and raising children in a stable family environment.
Today, many people practice sex for reasons other than creating a family and raising children. We partake in sex because it is enjoyable, it’s a part of human nature to have sexual desires and there is nothing inherently wrong with pursuing pleasure. When sex work becomes widely accepted, it means that as a society we are moving beyond and leaving behind some of these traditional views and values. A man partaking in paid sexual services is expending effort outside the expectation of being a husband and father, since he is not spending all of his time and resources creating, providing for, and raising his own children. A woman turning to sex work is is expanding beyond her role of being a wife and mother, and as a sex worker she becomes one less young woman in the marriage pool for men. The acceptance of sex work certainly doesn’t mean that these things aren’t valued anymore, but it means that they aren’t as important as they once were.
Furthermore, accepting promiscuity within society defeats many sexist assumptions towards women that we may still have in our society. A woman who can have an emotionally healthy relationship with multiple sexual partners means she can make choices for herself, which goes against women being the sexual property of or belonging to a single man. It suggests that like men who have strong, animalistic sexual desires, women have strong sexual instincts too. Promiscuity and the notion of “slut shaming” has often been an easy tool for members of society to silence women, but that statement “what a slut!” doesn’t actually have any moral groundings to be considered an insult.
Sex work is not immoral
Provided that sex work remains non exploitative and non coercive as discussed above, there are no logical reasons to support the claim that sex work is immoral. The only way sex work can be considered immoral is if the notions of “sex” and/or “work” are considered to be morally wrong… and most people would agree they aren’t. Any views that sex work is immoral probably arise from outdated moralistic views of sex and sexuality, that originate from our once theocratic past.
Even though secular views on sex are now commonly accepted, let’s dispel a few misconceived arguments as to why sex (and related activities,) in the context of sex work might still be considered wrong:
Sex should be between two people who love one another: Let’s assume that having sex with someone that you are not committed to is wrong, at most what follows from this is that sex with multiple partners is immoral, and this becomes an argument against sex, not sex work itself. Let’s face it, unless you’re strictly religious, there is no reason you should have to prescribe to the belief that having multiple sexual partners is wrong.
Sex work harms relationships/marriages: As discussed earlier, sex work doesn’t harm relationships. People being deceitful to their partners is what harms a relationship, not the actual sex; sex is just a byproduct of lying and deceiving.
Sex work encourages using sex as means to fill an emotional void: This belief is based on an unjustified belief that it isn’t possible to have multiple sex partners and be emotionally healthy. Although this claim isn’t actually based upon any philosophical/psychological research, if we do in fact assume it to be true, there isn’t any reason for us to moralise such behaviour. There is no reason on which to base the belief that using sex to fill an emotional void is inherently any less moral than taking up knitting to fill an emotional void.
Overindulgence in sex is wrong: There are no valid arguments to support the claim that an overindulgence in sex is wrong. Sex isn’t in short supply, so an overconsumption of sex can’t be considered wrong for fear that a shortage might ensue. Any other claim that overindulging in sex is wrong must be based on the premise that sex should be between two committed people, it shouldn’t be used to fill an emotional void, or that the act of sex is sacred, which we now know aren’t morally sound claims.
Moving forward into a world without SWERF
In order for sex work to be considered a valid profession, we need to understand why it is so important:
Need: Intimacy and sexual desire is a part of human nature. We are biologically designed to find sex pleasurable, and there is nothing inherently wrong with pursuing things that bring us pleasure.
Partake: Many of us partake in the services of sex workers, even if it is as simple as watching porn. Sex work offers a release for people who may not have any other means of fulfilling their need for intimacy and sexual activity, with people who are willing to participate and be a part of it.
Demand: As a subsequent result of our need for intimacy and sexual activities, and the fact that many people rely on the work of sex workers to partake in such activities, the demand for the services of sex workers is very high.
In summary, sex workers assist in fulfilling a basic human need that is detrimental for many members of society. We as both individuals and a collective society need to move forward past these negative, preconceived ideas we may have about sex workers, and realise that the discrimination and oppression of sex workers is not only unjustified, but morally indefensible. Sex worker’s rights are human rights.