Radical Feminist Harms on Sex Workers
45 Pages Posted: 24 Oct 2016 Last revised: 30 Jul 2020
Date Written: October 20, 2016
Sex work has long been a site for contesting sexuality, womanhood, race, and patriarchy. Its very existence forces us to examine how we think about a very controversial topic – the commodification of sex. This controversy is evident in the feminist legal scholarship, where there have been substantial debates between radical feminists, who advocate for the eventual abolition of sex work and criminalization of the purchasers of sex, and other feminists, who argue that sex workers should have the autonomy to sell sex. Radical feminists are particularly concerned with the structural harms of sex work and have formed alliances with groups that oppose sex work due to moralistic reasons. Like radical feminism, this Article considers the structural harms of sex work in assessing whether it should be criminalized.
However, this Article arrives at a very different conclusion and challenges the radical feminist approach to sex work, by arguing that the harms of any form of criminalization, particularly to individuals with intersectional identities, are overlooked in much of the radical feminist literature on sex work. This Article incorporates empirical research from nearly two years of ethnographic fieldwork in Johannesburg, South Africa, to illustrate the ways that criminalizing any aspect of the sex work transaction, including the demand-side, is problematic. The Article also considers the ways that race and overcriminalization should be factored in ways that are often missing from the literature. By recognizing that some sex workers face the effects of multiple systems of oppression and that the criminal justice system has often been a source of oppression for these individuals, this Article argues that decriminalization should be the favored approach for those interested in improving the lives of sex workers. Moreover, the essentialist framing of the harms of sex work in the radical feminist literature is itself a reproduction of patriarchy and white supremacy, often silencing the voices and experiences of sex workers of color.
Keywords: Criminal Law, Feminist Legal Theory, Critical Race Theory, Criminalization, Sexuality
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