The Progressive Case for Decriminalizing 'Sex Work' Dehumanizes Women

“Can the world’s oldest profession survive the age of social distancing?” asks Caitlin Hu, senior editor of CNN. In her article, Hu details the “tips” that women engaged in prostitution have received from health authorities and advocacy groups to maintain their business during this COVID-19 crisis. Women engaged in prostitution were told to “Wear a mask. Wear gloves. Avoid face-to-face positions.” They were encouraged to go so far as to “put on a nurse costume and pull out a thermometer -- if his temperature is normal, make it part of the game. If he has a fever, end the session.”

These tips may help women survive the threat of COVID-19, but how do these same women survive the daily violence and abuse that marks the sex trade? Journalist Kajsa Ekis Ekman decided to find out. Advocates of prostitution portray women in prostitution as “sex-workers,” painting them as entrepreneurs and businesswomen. In reality, Ekman found that the only way these women survive is by practicing a mind trick, splitting off their body from their true self.

In her research, detailed in her book Being and Being Bought, Ekman consistently heard from women in the sex industry, “I sell part of my body, not my Self.” For example, a woman currently in the industry reported, “I moved myself entirely into my head…. So I felt like I didn’t have a body.” Sara, who spent two years in prostitution, said it this way: “I moved myself entirely into my head….  So someone could do whatever they wanted with my body without me feeling it.” Ida describes the impact of regular, daily tricks as small but continual scratches that work together to wear away at her person -- “Each scratch helps to separate my body from my head. The feelings I had, I’ve left behind on the street.”

In practice, a woman selling sex regards her body as a passive participant in a business transaction, treating her body as a product detached from her personhood. The body is reduced to a tool and the mind must be numbed, in a desperate attempt to preserve her sense of self.

There is a movement both nationally and globally to decriminalize prostitution and, ironically, proponents of decriminalization reinforce the same destructive idea that a woman can sever her body from her personhood. Advocates often say, ‘She’s not selling herself, she’s only selling sex.’ They claim that the “Self,” that is the sex worker, is the epitome of female strength and independence, not a victim. This strong, independent woman supplies her body as a product to sell, but she herself is not being purchased. Thus, her body is reduced to a “sex machine” that provides the commodity: sex.

These supposedly progressive feminists are undercutting their own efforts to advance the dignity and integrity of women. Terms like “sex work” and “female empowerment” are euphemisms concocted to normalize and sanitize prostitution. In obscuring the nefarious world of commercialized sex with these terms, progressives have concealed how harmful it really is. Prostitution is deeply dehumanizing: Ekman found that the split self creates a “dividing line [that] is incredibly damaging for a person because it breaks down her essential wholeness.”

It’s not only damaging, it ultimately fails. The minds of prostituted women are devastated by the frequent sexual transactions their bodies endure. They themselves describe prostitution as “paid rape,” “signing a contract to be raped,” and “being raped for a living.” It is no surprise then, that women in the sex industry remain perpetually in a psychologically distressed state. One study of 854 people across 9 countries found that 68 percent of interviewees met the criteria for PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Women engaged in prostitution experienced symptoms similar to war veterans and refugees who have endured torture. Violations of the body inevitably impact the mind and emotions, attesting to the reality that we are unified beings.

Our bodies and minds are designed such that they are an integrated whole -- what one does to the body, one inevitably does to the whole person. A former sex worker, speaking about her experience in prostitution explained, “I felt like every time I let a man penetrate me, a part of me disappeared…. No matter how much I turn off [my body], my soul is still being used up.”  Instead of promoting “sex work” as a career choice, advocacy groups should help women find opportunities outside of the sex industry that do not treat her body as a consumer product. If we want to advance women’s rights, we should affirm that women’s bodies and minds are to be respected, not purchased. A woman should never have to consider engaging in a “career” in which she must surrender her personhood for her livelihood.


Rylee Free interned at the Texas Attorney General’s, Human Trafficking Unit. She served as Vice President of the International Justice Mission chapter at Texas A&M.

Image credit: Pixabay public domain

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