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I begin by questioning whether or not sex work can be considered ‘legitimate work’. Liberal feminists argue that by challenging stigmatisation of prostitution, and perceiving it as ‘legitimate work’, it will advance public perception of prostitutes. Liberals confer that greater public respect will improve prostitutes social security and reduce the experience of harm, violence and discrimination towards them. By challenging the stereotypes of prostitution, as ‘dirty work’ (Dworkin, 1997), liberals argue there is no inherent reason why sex work cannot be considered a valued, professional service. St James and Alexander likewise adopt this perspective highlighting the negative effect of illegalising prostitution, primarily because it withdraws the legal rights of prostitutes to qualify for ‘workers’ entitlements, such as health care, sick leave, and worker’s compensation insurance. (1977, cited in Jenness, 1990: 405). By reconstructing prostitution as ‘an intrinsically honourable profession that serves socially valuable ends’ (O’Connell Davidson, 2002:92) liberal feminists seek to reclaim prostitution from its repugnant associations and instead, recognise the value of their work within society. They show how if orchestrated professionally, sex work can be a legitimate profession which has important social value. Liberals also advocate that individuals should have a right to choose what they do with their body. This liberal reasoning ‘focuses on the ways in which sexual commerce qualifies as work, involves human agency, and may be potentially empowering for workers’ (Weitzer, 2005:215). It is through reconstructing prostitution as ‘legitimate work’ and reclaiming the service from its disreputable associations that liberal feminists seek to address the exploitative harm prostitutes are frequently subject of, and reduce discrimination towards the profession.
Abolitionists succinctly delegitimize this liberal argument. They argue that sex work is inherently harmful to prostitutes psychologically, it is unavoidably violent and instils patriarchy in its most essential form. Furthermore, by legitimising sex work you normalise these values and perpetuate the social construction of inequalities between men and women. It is on these grounds which they contest that sex work can ever be perceived as ‘legitimate work.’ As O’Connell Davidson summed up, it is:
The vexed relationship between sex and selfhood [which makes prostitution different from any other occupation]… the client must sell herself in a very different and much more real sense than that which is required by any other [professions]… [The client] parts with money in order to secure powers over the prostitute’s person (O’Connell Davidson, 2002:85-86).
Miriam endorses this in her essay (2005). She defines the nature of the contract as a ‘disembodied agency’. She similarly claims that what is really sold in the prostitution contract is a relation of command, the prostitute sells command over his or her body to the john/pimp/employer in exchange for recompense (2005: 4). Prostitution is unique – prostitutes are expected to subordinate their own will entirely for the sexual gratification of the customers – thus it cannot be considered a legitimate enactment of agency. Since prostitution remains an explicitly segregated service dominated by women, it seems fair to argue that such a practice instils patriarchy and subordination over women in its most innate and intimate form. Jeffreys reiterates the argument, highlighting the sordid nature of the industry using intentionally uncomfortable and graphic language. She puts the ‘vaginas and anuses [back as] the raw materials of the industry’ (2009: 316) and proclaims that ‘women’s experience of the world starts from the body, the only territory that many women have, but not often under their control’ (2009:217). Abolitionist feminist expose the painful and very real, physical impact prostitution has on the body and mind to explore in overt ways why prostitution is an exploitative, harmful and illegitimate form of labour, that it is, effectively, publically accepted sexual abuse.
In terms of instilling patriarchal values, radical feminism highlights the inherently harmful and dominative nature of sex work, how it affects the ways men regard women. Dworkin uses these reasons to justify why sex work is never ‘legitimate work.’ She claims prostitutes are.
‘perceived as, treated as… vaginal slime… When men use women in prostitution, they are expressing a pure hatred for the female body… It is a contempt so deep… that a whole human life is reduced to a few sexual orifices, and he can do anything he wants’ (1997, cited in Anderson, 2002:753).
Although by no means all men perceive women in such ways, the radical feminist argument raises the complications of perceiving sex work as a ‘legitimate’ occupation. Supporting this argument, Sullivan discusses the impact of legalising prostitution in Victoria, Australia. Sullivan (2005) shows how despite sex being perceived as ‘legitimate work’ the inherent violent nature of the industry has not changed; women continue to be raped and traumatised while working. Instead of tackling the violence by legalising prostitution, she claims that treating prostitution as a mainstream business has obscured the intrinsic violence of prostitution. Violence becomes accepted and normalised into every day ‘work’. Though physically and mentally harming the women, they begin to accept violence as normalised; ‘just part of the job’ (Sullivan, 2005:5). By legalising and legitimising sex work, one incidentally normalises subjugation of prostitutes (predominantly women). Legalisation masks and entrenches these problems rather than addressing them. In consideration of these arguments, and the fact that more than 90% of all prostitutes are women (Weitzer, 2009), I agree with the radical feminist justification. Until the essence of harmful female domination is tackled, prostitution will always and inherently be exploitative of women and the practice subsumes the overarching structures of patriarchy. It is in consideration of such perspective that I concur that ‘sex work’ – by its nature – cannot be considered ‘legitimate work.’
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