Demonizing Our Sisters Through Epistemic Oppression

64 Pages Posted: 22 Jul 2022 Last revised: 2 Aug 2022

See all articles by Yvette Butler

Yvette Butler

University of Mississippi - School of Law

Date Written: July 10, 2022


Feminists seeking to abolish prostitution are adamant that anyone who advocates for the full decriminalization of sex work is a part of the “pimp lobby” or otherwise undermining the movement to end violence against women. Despite sex workers’ assertions that decriminalization is necessary for their survival and would provide safety in the face of state and interpersonal violence, prostitution abolitionists label sex workers as either too traumatized to understand why full decriminalization is wrong or that they too are part of the “pimp lobby.” Consequently, laws impacting sex workers (state anti-prostitution laws, federal trafficking statutes, online platform regulations, among others) reflect the prostitution abolitionist position that all sex work is inherently a form of violence against women. If this narrative is not modified to reflect the diversity of experiences within the sex trades, sex workers will continue to be silenced by the allegation that they are a danger to the feminist movement, courts will make harmful rulings, and legislatures will continue to enact laws that put sex workers in danger.

This trend can be disrupted by understanding this labeling as a form of “epistemic oppression.” Building on feminist philosophy, this Article is the first to name this harmful labeling by prostitution abolitionists. In doing so, this Article demonstrates (1) the prostitution abolitionist position is thoroughly entrenched in the law, (2) sex workers are a key source of knowledge who should inform how law should address prostitution and trafficking, and (3) excluding sex workers from policy making robs our collective resources of the knowledge to make good law. In making these arguments, this Article illustrates the chilling parallels between the modern United States anti-trafficking movement and the early domestic and sexual violence movement, which excluded the perspectives of women of color. This exclusion perpetuated a fiction that all women seek carceral solutions to interpersonal violence. The push for carceral reform today, particularly in light of the dangers police pose to people of color, highlights just how wrong this early narrative was.

Keywords: sex work, prostitution, trafficking, legal theory, critical theory, critical race theory, feminist theory, epistemology, epistemic oppression, jurisprudence, epistemic injustice, courts, legislatures, policy, constitution, cooptation, transformative, interpersonal violence, movement to end violence,

Suggested Citation

Butler, Yvette, Demonizing Our Sisters Through Epistemic Oppression (July 10, 2022). Available at SSRN: or

Yvette Butler (Contact Author)

University of Mississippi - School of Law ( email )

Lamar Law Center
P.O. Box 1848
University, MS 38677
United States
6056510364 (Phone)

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