The Problem with Sex Trade Expansionary Feminism, A Response to Kate
I am deeply sorry to hear what happened to you. The experience you describe is truly terrifying and I think there is something to be said in that we both became politicized, and not simply victimized, from our experiences. Your letter infuriates me. Not because you disagree with me, but because male violence in the form of rape and beating permeates our existence as women. I hear stories of women in the sex trade nearly weekly telling me how they have been raped, beaten, and traumatized. Male violence pervades our society, but it is truly concentrated in the sex trade.
As women, it is not easy to publicly share our stories of surviving male violence. Even though male violence penetrates our existence — and has throughout history as women’s exploitation is the oldest oppression — rape culture blames us for being victimized, silences us for being survivors, and gaslights us for telling the truth of what happened to us. Your story is harrowing and the only consolation I have from reading it is that I am grateful you survived and are alive today to have this discussion and to continue organizing and resisting. We might disagree on some points, but in the end of the day if I were with you in those situations I would gladly put my body on the line to defend you. I appreciate the care and thoughtfulness you put into writing this response and respect your ability to fight for what you believe in.
Sex Trade Expansionary Feminism is a failed neoliberal project
The global sex trade expanded rapidly during the 70’s, marked by the onset of neoliberalism which intensified inequality and increased precarity among workers. COYOTE, an early sex trade positive organization known as the first national organization for prostitutes, were funded by Christian churches as well as Playboy Magazine. They were one of the first to call for the recognition of prostitution as “any other work.” Little known, though, is that they were also lead in part by pimps who sought to expand their market. Not to mention, out of 35,000 members only 3% were prostituted women. This is to explain the “sex work is work” movement, not to say that COYOTE did not do anything good.
Normalizing the sex trade as work has always been a bourgeois project. Kajsa Ekis Ekman recalls in her book Being and Being Bought that COYOTE spokesperson Priscilla Alexander popularized the term “sex work, ” arguing “with a straight face, that her four years at Bennington College qualified her to claim that label.”
Sex Trade Expansionary Feminists (STEF’s) have accepted a number of conditions that they are unable to change. Firstly, they accept that women’s social and economic condition will not get better. Secondly, they accept that women who are left with no other viable option at survival will turn to the sex trade. Lastly, they accept that the reserve army of labor constituting the sex trade is coerced by social and economic forces, that such a reserve army of labor is engaged in coerced sex for survival, and that no better options exist or can exist for the masses of dispossessed women.
They have accepted defeat on the terrain of guaranteeing any material improvement to women’s conditions. Therefore, instead of attempting to abolish the global markets which trade the most vulnerable women and girls, and the conditions precluding that market, they seek to surrender to capitalist realism, accepting the situation as unchangeable and trying to win some tiny improvements here and there.
This position cannot be called socialist. Such a position is aptly named right opportunism, where they ignore the political immediacy of ending the commercial sexual exploitation of women and girls — and with it the male violence concentrated in the industry — in favor of attempts to make some legal recognition for them, hoping it can somehow offset the coercion, force, and violence inherent to the sex trade.
You state that, contrary to my initial assertion, decriminalizing pimps and buyers does actually reduce trafficking. Yet research shows this claim to be false. Countries that have decriminalized prostitution, such as Denmark did in 1999, still have human trafficking at equal, if not higher, levels. The authors of one study note that there were 2,250 trafficking victims in Denmark in 2004, and only 500 in Sweden under the Equality Model, stating that “this implies that the number of human trafficking victims in Denmark is more than four times that of Sweden, although the population size of Sweden (8.9 million) is about 40% larger than that of Denmark (5.3 million).”
Additionally, decriminalization has expanded the industry, and thus the demand for trafficked bodies. “Importantly, the Global report also estimates the number of prostitutes in Denmark — about 6,000 — to be three to four times larger than the number in Sweden.” They conclude that “countries where prostitution is legal experience larger reported human trafficking inflows.”
Decriminalizing pimps and buyers expands the sex trade. As one 2019 study notes, “The number of sex buyers in the streets doubled after New Zealand decriminalization and an Auckland outreach agency’s staff reported that they were more often harassed by the men.” Furthermore, “The New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, a lobbyist for the law, offered no programmatic support such as job training or housing advocacy for the large majority of those in prostitution who wanted to escape it,”and “instead, viewing prostitution as a reasonable job for poor women,” they left behind those women who wanted to leave because it was “just like any other job.”
Expanding the sex trade while poverty deepens only expands the coercion and violence of the industry rather than expanding rights for prostituted women and girls. That means that as the sex trade market expands, the right to exit contracts. By fighting to expand the global market you are categorically fighting against the right to exit and the right to not be prostituted for the women who, under some form of captivity, make up the actual reserve army of prostituted bodies.
Bourgeois human rights are always centered around the fundamental right of the market. Sex Trade Expansionary Feminists argue that human rights are the right to buy and sell sex and bodies as commodities. A socialist construction of human rights includes the right to not be coerced into survival sex, the right to exit, and the right to live free from commercial sexual exploitation.
Ending commercial sexual exploitation is even more of a necessity now as climate catastrophe is likely to hit the same areas hit hardest by the sex tourism industry. Desperation will increase, women’s conditions will decline, and women will be forced into worse forms of sexual servitude to survive. We have to prevent this from happening.
Sex Trade Expansionary Feminists argue in favor of expanding the market despite the fact that the market is built on the backs of coerced and enslaved women. Small programs like microcredit and job fairs are not sufficient to end coercion or guarantee the right to exit because they are individualized solutions to a systemic problem. Sex Trade Expansionary Feminists condemn every actually existing program fighting for the right to exit as saviorism.
Saying you support the right to exit, while fighting to expand an industry that is premised on denying that very right, you show that sex trade expansionists are unable to make good on their promise. Because they fight to expand an industry fundamentally based on coercion and captivity, and in every case involving violence, these sex trade expansionists align themselves with the interests of the imperialist, the rapist, and the batterer by refusing women their most denied right: the right to exit.
Prostitution or death is not a choice
The reserve army of women which populate the global sex trade are recruited from the most destitute classes of society. As long as imperialism exists — where the poverty of oppressed nations is maintained in order for imperialist nations to grow their wealth — the forces of coercion will be strongest among the lowest classes of women in oppressed nations. This means that despite the best efforts of Sex Trade Expansionary Feminists, decriminalizing pimps and buyers will never be able to end the strong arm of imperialism that gives the most oppressed women no other choice but to engage in coerced sex to survive where they will be repeatedly raped, beaten, and trapped in poverty.
This is true abroad and at home. In the US, the majority of the army of labor which constitute the sex trade market are proletarian women who, “through choices precluded, options restricted, [and] possibilities denied” are left with no other choice but to sell their bodies to survive. They experience violence because their bodies as proletarian women are disposable to bourgeois men; meant to be used, their boundaries meant to be violated, and their bodies meant to be disposed of when they are no longer useful. That is because women’s bodies are the commodities bought and sold in the sex trade and commodities are disposed after use.
The sex trade will always retain its class character. Wealthy men get the “right of the first night” and choose the most desirable women paying them the most desirable rates. Working-class men get to buy the women not currently used by wealthy men, and out of the woman’s economic desperation, pay her lower rates. Thus the few at the top are high-end escorts, the rest at the bottom are relegated to a life of poverty, extreme coercion, and hyper-exploitation. This is the result of women’s bodies being commodities bought and sold on the competitive market.
These women, having gotten into the sex trade because of poverty, almost always stay in poverty, proving the sex trade to not be a path out of poverty for the masses of women.
Some few prostituted women might ascend to capitalist success. The rest experience the trade as a brutal trap which denies them the right to exit when desired. The freedom of a few women to break glass ceilings with the sex trade is eclipsed by the army of women forced into the trade with no choice and no protection.
This is clear in the example you cite. While you claim that US women in prostitution enjoyed relative freedom and autonomy in the 19th century, you should clarify that you mean a select group of settler women who occupied a high rung on the class structure of the sex trade.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, in An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, noted around the same time that over 20,000 Indigenous people were murdered in Northern California and 4,000 native children from those murdered groups were kidnapped by settlers. This created a sharp decline in the conditions of indigenous women, and the “disruption of Indigenous social structures under these conditions and dire economic necessity forced many of the women into prostitution in goldfield camps, further wrecking what vestiges of family life remained in these matriarchal societies.”
Furthermore, Nigerian born Canadian Sociologist Dr. Patience Elabor-Idemudia notes that “between the 1520s and 1860s, an estimated 11 to 12 million African men, women and children were forcibly put on European vessels for a life of slavery in the Western hemisphere.” She connects that to trafficking today noting that “a resurgence of slave-like practices is obvious in the trafficking of African women, men and children today.” African women were trafficked and enslaved and indigenous women were either killed or forced into sexual servitude during the alleged golden age of American prostitution.
It is fundamentally reactionary and idealistic to attempt to take women back to a time when the genocide against Indigenous peoples and the slave trade were in full force, and where select settler women enjoyed limited privileges on the back of a class of women forced into sexual servitude. Now, like then, Sex Trade Expansionists ignore the lower rung of the prostituted masses to protect and glorify the freedom of those few at the top.
This is even more clear in the example of Dalit women that you cite. Nepali revolutionary leader Hisila Yami in People’s War and Dalit Women Question notes that Dalit women are treated as a “sexual commodity that can be used and thrown away by upper class and castes.” Parents, out of severe desperation, often act as pimps selling their daughters into prostitution. They are in the sex trade because they are literally considered “untouchables” cut off from both social life and social production. Yami notes that their oppression is so severe that they are sometimes forced to eat human feces and are severely beaten, sometimes to death through stoning. Thousands of pre-teen girls are yearly forced into prostitution as a religious obligation, as Dalit oppression is deeply rooted in religious ideology. Prostitution is a condition of their oppression not a tool of their liberation. Yami understood that liberation of Dalit women would only come by abolishing the caste and class system that thrust them into severe sexual exploitation, not trying to win some “labor rights” and conceding to a life of sexual exploitation and class and caste oppression.
Presenting the sex trade as freedom for women is an illusion which tricks us into believing freedom in form is freedom in essence. The legal freedom to sell our bodies on the market is a superficial freedom as the essence of our exploitation — our subordinated class position thrusting us into commercial sexual exploitation — is still maintained and in many cases worsened.
It is worth noting that Emma Goldman, whom you cite, railed again reactionary moralists, not socialists attempting a historical material analysis of the sex trade or a decolonial approach to ending it. She also stated that “the economic and social inferiority of woman is responsible for prostitution” and defined prostitution as a “form of a relationship which degrades her to the position of an object for mere sex gratification.” Attempting to expand such an industry is untenable.
Downplaying rape only protects rapists
Coerced sex is rape. Period. This is true whether the coercive force is your husband, boyfriend, friend, a strange man, or social and economic forces. To surrender to the patriarchal definition of rape, defined in its most limited sense in order to protect the male right to rape, is to forfeit your ability to call yourself a feminist.
Rape culture ignores the myriad of ways women are coerced into sexual service for men. As legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon notes, “the coercion of women into and within prostitution has been invisible because prostitution is considered sex and sex is considered what women are for.”
Hisila Yami defines rape as “a manifestation of men’s power over women.” Men wield their power over women through physical force, mental manipulation, or by exploiting conditions that make her vulnerable such as her subordinated class position. The global sex trade is a market defined by the right of men to use their money as power over women, to demand the right to women of lower classes when and how they want it, and to play their fantasies out over proletarian women who are only there because of severe economic destitution.
Prostitution is not socially necessary
Farm work is socially necessary. Without it people would starve. Without prostitution, men would have to either masturbate or find consensual ways to enjoy sex with women. To conflate the two industries is to flatten distinctions between phenomena to the point that it becomes impossible to analyze them and how they develop in actually existing reality.
This is not about what some people “prefer” to do for work. This is about a market, an institution, which recruits its army of bodies from the most vulnerable sections of society, holds them in economic and social captivity, and exposes them to repeated violence and trauma.
Some in the centers of imperialism might be able to join the ranks of a labor aristocracy and enjoy certain freedoms given to them on the backs of the sexual servitude of the most oppressed women. That won’t suddenly erase the class character of the global sex trade that enslaves the poorest women from the most oppressed nations. The sex trade is a parasite that feeds on vulnerability.
Rape culture under imperialism:
- Rape culture teaches us that male desire necessitates a reserve army of women to please them when and how they demand it.
- Class oppression means that such an army is always composed of women from the lowest classes who were deprived from any other option of subsistence and who, because of their class, are unable to easily escape the sex trade and even less likely to escape poverty.
- Imperialism means that this global army is composed of the poorest women from the poorest classes and castes from the most oppressed nations. This market is geared towards serving men from the imperialist nations and leaving men from oppressed nations to maintain the market in their absence. Because imperialism keeps oppressed nations in poverty, stunted from developing, the women will de facto be denied the right not to be prostituted and the right to exit.
Correcting the line: Police criminalization
Your story describes in painful detail how the detective considered physical assault to be a normal condition of work for you, downplayed the violence you went through, and then threatened you with the charge of prostitution. As we both know, this is common to all women in the industry. That is why, after being raped by a john and pressured by the emergency room doctor to report it, I outright refused.
This is why I am arguing for the full decriminalization of everyone in the sex trade, so that those charges cannot be brought against anyone who has experienced what we have. But men who take advantage of women’s economic vulnerability, and who use their money to coerce her into sex, still need to be help accountable. And yes, they do need to be reeducated to not see women’s bodies as commodities, to not feel entitled to women’s bodies, and to learn how to engage in fully consensual sexual encounters. However, I think regardless of the decriminalization model that police attitudes towards us will remain largely unchanged.
Even women who were raped or beaten in “legal” spaces and jobs experience gaslighting and victim blaming at the hands of police. Decriminalizing all prostituted people would remove the legal backlash of getting charged with a crime themselves, but it wouldn’t remove the assumption that such activities are a normal part of the job. Moreso, many women in the sex trade are targeted by police for drug use, homelessness, and other “offenses” which means that even after decriminalizing pimps and buyers the police could and would still target them.
You argue against a straw man throughout your entire letter by claiming that I (and Filipina revolutionary feminist Ninotchka Rosca) believe the solution to ending the global sex trade lies with the police. Nowhere do I state this. I refuse to argue against such a libelous claim because it comes from someone else’s head, not mine.
Furthermore, it comes off as quite paradoxical to call my stance “carceral” when you readily admit to wanting equal access to carceral institutions in order to “[enforce] laws against non-consensual sex of any kind, kidnapping, wage theft, and assault.” This is the hypocritical logic of Sex Trade Expansionary Feminism: Appropriating the language of police abolition to frame the other side as “carceral,” but then argue that decriminalizing pimps and buyers will allow prostituted people equal access to those very carceral systems they denounce.
Correcting the line: Migrant criminalization
As long as immigration is criminalized, migrants will be the target of police and immigration authorities. This does not significantly change simply because the industry is no longer criminalized. Workplace raids, I-9 audits, and other tactics are employed by ICE to target and arrest migrant workers in industries that are legal. This happened in New Zealand post-decriminalization here and here. In the US, where many prostituted women are undocumented, neither temporary visas for prostituted women nor decriminalizing pimps and buyers would save them from criminalization and deportation.
Even if prostitution were fully legalized, ICE would continue to patrol the industry under the guise of targeting “illegal aliens.” The criminalization of migrants will manifest itself regardless of whether pimps and johns are decriminalized. That argument is a nonstarter.
On the other hand, migrant criminalization has served to actually protect the existence of the sex trade and sex trafficking. A 2004 study of trafficking and prostitution on the Mexican/US border found that sex trafficking of youth has “been prejudicially dismissed as ‘the problem of illegal immigrants,” and that due to this dismissal “trafficking of people across the Mexico/US border has become a lucrative business.”
Prostitution is not an avenue of freedom for migrant women. On the contrary, it is a site of concentrated male violence, hyper-exploitation of their vulnerabilities, and a failed project at lifting them out of poverty. As one researcher noted,
“My analysis reveals that many migrant sex workers have very limited ‘freedom’. This is in stark contrast to the classical liberal claim of sex worker rights activists and academics that the vast majority of migrant sex workers are free, and therefore not coerced, exploited or trafficked.”
The power struggle will not be resolved through labor law or through protecting pimps and buyers
Prostitution will always result in rape and assault, especially for the most destitute women in the sex trade. “Those power dynamics of exploitation were still there,” stated one sex trade survivor in a country where prostitution is legal. “When legal johns came in, they were the ones with the money.” A 2008 study in New Zealand showed that post-decriminalization, “violence and sexual abuse continued as before.” Additionally, they found that “more than a third of women interviewed post-decriminalization reported that they had been coerced.”
You cite this study to claim that “police are the biggest source of violence that they [prostituted youth] face.” That is a manipulation of the evidence. Page 15 of that study clearly states: “with the data we collected, we discovered that girls face as much institutional violence (like from police or DCFS) as they do individual violence.”
Yes, the police are a source of violence against prostituted people. But to claim that they are the biggest or only source of violence is a fallacy.
There are four key sources of violence against every proletarian woman in the sex trade:
- The social, economic, and institutional forces which compel her into sexual service and deny her right to exit;
- Male violence — rape and beating — which keep her in submission and reinforces her belief that sex is all she’s good for;
- Police aggression due to criminalization but also because of her class, and;
- The power struggle between the buyer and the bought premised on the buyer exploiting her economic and social vulnerability.
Organizations such as Red Canary Song and others funded by Open Society Foundations who push for decriminalizing buyers and pimps want to only address one source of violence — the police — while expanding the very market that will intensify the other three sources of violence.
The argument that police and criminalization are the driving force behind violence in the sex trade is to misunderstand that the factors internal to the sex trade are what causes it to be fundamentally coercive and always result in violence. External factors, such as the police, interact with the internal factors of prostitution making the situation even more volatile.
The fundamental contradiction between the buyer and the bought will not resolve itself via labor law. That struggle will still play itself out over the woman’s body, resulting in a violation of her boundaries on one end, and severe forms of rape and beating on the other. Liberalism incorrectly teaches that these two opposing forces can both peacefully coexist together. This is wrong. The only way to resolve the contradiction is by overthrowing the power of the buyer, thus freeing the woman from the position of the “bought” and the chains which bind her.
Two main contradictions in capitalism are (1) between the bourgeoisie versus the proletariat and (2) imperialist nations versus oppressed nations. Imperialist nations go to war with oppressed nations to expand their market influence. These wars result in the rape and prostitution of colonized women which have historically set the infrastructure for the global sex trade to develop where western men buy hyper-exploited women in oppressed nations. States use this as a tool of capital accumulation, ensuring that the body-commodities of women and girls can be offered at the lowest price to attract the most buyers.
Contradictions become more antagonistic as capitalism develops. The intensifying of the contradiction between imperialist and oppressed nations, and between the bourgeoisie’s wealth and the proletariat’s destitution, is the driving force behind the expansion of the global sex trade. This is an essential concept to understand because it is the reason that prostitution will never become the petty bourgeois ideal of “sex work” that its imperialist advocates want it to become. As long as the global sex trade expands, it does so at the sharpening of capitalist contradictions, thus parasitically feeding off of the vulnerability and need of the most oppressed masses of women, exposing them to more concentrated forms of violence and exploitation.
Having been a union organizer the other half of my adult life, it strikes me as odd that unions are posed to be a solution for the violence inherent to the sex trade. Considering that unions are struggling to protect the 9% of workers they represent, I’m not sure how unions are a game-changer in an underground industry that will resist formal recognition even if legalized, is composed of either “self-employed” people with no boss or pimps who want to stay underground, where most have no fixed place of work, high turnover, migrating labor, and buyers who by and large want to remain anonymous.
Problems with prostitution unions have been manifold. The first famous prostitute union was the Red Thread which was founded by the state, funded by the state, and lead by academics. They failed to recruit more than 100 members, and failed to ever have a labor dispute with a brothel. In the United Kingdom, The British International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW) was run by an escort agency owner Douglas Fox. Other women in prostitute unions reported being used as campaign tools for further expanding the industry instead of receiving material help. One researcher noted that she never came across a “single organization that actually functions as a union, meaning that it is founded and funded by its members and is composed only of people in the industry, and whose counterpart is employers and profiteers.”
The same researcher notes that, while other unions speak of the horrors of the industry, prostitute unions often act as special interest groups promoting the expansion of the industry itself. She notes:
And prostitution has occupational hazards that few other jobs come close to: 82 percent of people in prostitution have been physically assaulted, 83 percent have been threatened with a weapon and 68 percent have been raped. The death rate among women in prostitution is higher than for any other group of women, including homeless women and drug addicts. Would a union that truly represented people in prostitution not speak of that? But many of the above-mentioned groups do the opposite: They cover up the problems. They say only how self-fulfilling it is to be in prostitution.
The Red Thread Union, in 2008, released an information for sex tourists that read: “Some prostitutes are trapped in debt and drugs, but many are in control of their destiny. Some fill out tax returns and many belong to a loose union, the Red Thread.” A union normalizing these conditions and accepting that a chunk of their membership are “trapped in debt and drugs,” unable to leave an industry of coerced sex, is entirely untenable.
The Dutch Brothel Owner’s Association long provided a link on their website to the prostitutes union, and that among other amicable relations, is proof in itself that the interests of the brothel owning pimps and the prostitute unions often align. A union movement aligned with the interests of the boss is an instrument of capital, not worker power.
Ekman squarely points out the problems of the union proposition:
The proponents never enumerate what demands these unions should make or what conditions they think should apply to prostitution. Is it a reasonable expectation that a woman should have intercourse with 10 men per day, or should the line be drawn at 5? What is one act of intercourse ‘worth’ — 15 dollars or 1,500 dollars? How do you enforce legally binding contracts with the heavily armed mafia? Is ‘sex work’ where women and girls are hit and urinated on in compliance with legislation for safe work environments? And what about the law against sexual harassment? How does that fit in?
Instead, discussions of trade unions remained on a very abstract level. They were always followed, however, by a highly concrete demand: prostitution must be decriminalized, proponents said, or trade unions can’t do their job.
That being said, the solidarity union model is something I think is worth exploring as it can focus on providing defense, mutual aid, and fighting for the right to exit and the ultimate abolition of commercial sexual exploitation along with ambitious improvements to women’s conditions. Such a model would not seek governmental recognition, would not align with the interests of the johns and the pimps, would not require decriminalization of johns and pimps to operate, would instead hold johns and pimps accountable, and would fight to shrink and ultimately abolish the market.
Sex Trade Expansionary Feminism is a petty bourgeois project launched during the onslaught of neoliberalism and promulgated at first largely by people within the center of imperialism that were not themselves prostituted. As such, arguments to decriminalize pimps and buyers are aligned with the interests of pimps and johns, but falsely promoted as a “pro-sex worker” policy. Thus, with the help of wealthy funders and the capitalist expansion imperative, Sex Trade Expansionary Feminism became hegemonic within the movement and any stance critical to the global sex trade was heavily disciplined.
In order for this to take hold, contradictions internal to the sex trade are ignored and all the violence is blamed entirely on external forces, such as police. Although the police are a large source of violence against prostituted women, there are three other key sources: (1) social, economic, and institutional forces which compel women into sexual service and deny them the right to exit; (2) male violence (rape and beating) which keep her in submission and reinforce her role as body-commodity; and (3) the power struggle between the buyer and the bought premised on the buyer exploiting her economic and social vulnerability.
These sources of violence cannot be reformed away by decriminalizing pimps and johns or gaining simple labor rights. They are internal to the trade and conditions of its existence. Because the power struggle between the buyer and the bought plays out over and inside of the woman’s body, rape and violation of her boundaries is bound to happen frequently.
As the global sex trade expands due to the increasing vulnerability of women, the right to exit contracts. We cannot be protagonists for this process, and instead agitate to shrink the market while we improve conditions for all women.
As imperialist contradictions grow sharper, conditions for women around the world will surely decline, through dispossession and proletarianization, pushing them into the sex trade where they will occupy the lowest classes of prostituted women and thus experience the highest forms of male violence and be unable to escape.
This is why we must act now to reverse the road of necrocapitalism, where women are used as commodities until their use-values are exhausted, their exchange values worthless, and thus like any other commodity they are thrown to the waste side for their eventual obsolescence.
Most women in the sex trade are not there by choice. By and large women in the sex trade are there because of a lack of any other option to survive. Thus they are relegated to a life of coerced sex by material condition, their vulnerability exploited for the right of capitalists to make profit and the right of men to buy her body on the market.
Our agency as women isn’t itself political, but becomes politicized depending on how we use it. We can choose to use our agency in service of imperialism by fighting to expand the global sex trade. Or, we can use our agency in resistance to capitalism and patriarchy by fighting to overcome all forms of commercial sexual exploitation on the road to broader social revolution.
When we accept the conditions of our oppression and seek solutions within the boundaries of those conditions our solutions will always be crafted on the terms of the oppressor. This is insufficient to the task of women’s liberation and profoundly anti-socialist. Anuradha Ghandy stated this more clearly than I in the last page of her seminal work, Philosophical Trends in the Feminist Movement.
“Not understanding women’s oppression as linked to the wider exploitative socio-economic and political structure, to imperialism, they have sought solutions within the imperialist system itself. These solutions have at best benefited a section of middle-class women but left the vast mass of oppressed and exploited women far from liberation. The struggle for women’s liberation cannot be successful in isolation from the struggle to overthrow the imperialist system itself.”
AF3IRM is the only transnational feminist organization based in the US fighting for the right to exit and the right to not be prostituted. This fight is not waged because of hypocritical moralism or an allegiance with police but from a transnational anti-imperialist stance, informed by indigenous women, fighting to tell the world that “land back” means “NO” to patriarchal institutions on their land and “NO” to exporting the bodies of women and girls from their homelands for sexual servitude and profit extraction.
The recent attacks against AF3IRM are both categorically false and are by and large driven by a small group of people who have a rap sheet of violently harassing rape survivors, who were expelled from pro-prostitution organizations for their abusive behavior, and who have resorted to stalking and harassing women for daring to say “NO” to commercial sexual exploitation. This is despicable and is a reaction only because they feel threatened by the women in AF3IRM, who, in the words of Rosa Luxemberg, are doing “the most revolutionary thing one can do” by daring “always to proclaim loudly what is happening.”
To be a socialist means that we dare to struggle and dare to win. It means that we dare to end the commercial sexual exploitation of women, that we dare to end male violence, that we dare to overcome capitalist exploitation within our lifetimes. This is not “utopia.” It exists in the here and now — as a feminist and socialist necessity — if you dare to struggle for it.
Fight for ambitious improvements to women’s conditions. Fight for the right to exit and the right to not be prostituted in the first place. Fight to end imperialism and its sexualized violence that manifests as the global sex trade. But do not fight for interests of capitalists, pimps, and male buyers.
As the Zapatista women chanted to the tune of Despacito in their last encuentro, “la prostitución no puede ser trabajo, más oportunidades para las de abajo!”*
*This translates to “prostitution cannot be work, more opportunities for those women at the bottom!”
The correct socialist feminist orientation to prostitution would include:
- Decriminalizing and de-stigmatizing prostituted people.
- Repressing global sex trade markets through containing demand.
- Creating accountability for buyers and pimps outside of the bourgeois state judicial system.
- Ensuring the universal right to exit and right to not be prostituted.
- Focusing specifically on the most vulnerable proletarian women in the sex trade, including women who are indigenous, Asian, Pacific Islander, Black, Latin American, transgender, and especially children.
- Pursuing an ambitious plan for women’s liberation alongside increasing opportunities for women at the bottom including good jobs, housing, education, etc.
- Organizing towards complete abolition on the road to social revolution.