Prostitution and The History of the Feminist Divide

Sex workers hold placards during a protest to demand the reopening of brothels amid the new coronavirus pandemic on July 3, 2020 near the Bundesrat (upper house of parliament) in Berlin. (Photo by John MACDOUGALL / AFP) (Photo by JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP via Getty Images)

Better known as the oldest profession, Prostitution, or Sex work, is “an umbrella term to encompass a variety of acts involving a commercial transaction for a sexual activity, such as stripping, escorting, erotic massage, telephone or internet sex, and prostitution”. Throughout this article, I will be focusing on the history of female sex work within the United States and how the divide over prostitution has created a serious issue within feminism today.

As addressed in many known feminist theories, the history of prostitution in American culture took flight in major cities in the 19th century, as high populations of predominantly male laborers took over. Many women fell into this career path due to the lack of opportunity – educationally or socially. During the time of First Wave Feminism, it was argued that the need for sex work among women was unjust, and by fighting for suffrage, they would be saving these women from an ungodly career path. They did not necessarily care for their well-being, so to speak, but the religious concerns on the matter instead.

Black and white poster illustrating a triptych of vignettes leading to broken homes, including male unemployment, poor employment for women and children, and prostitution, with text countering that “Votes for Women” will “Save the Home, ” published by the National American Woman Suffrage Association for the American market, 1900. (Photo by Ken Florey Suffrage Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

At the start of Second Wave Feminism and into the Third Wave Feminist movement of today, prostitution came to the forefront as an actual point of debate amongst feminist groups. Liberal Feminism argues that the choice to engage in prostitution is like any other employment decision: ‘work is work’. They push for the legalization of prostitution. Radical Feminism argues the opposite; prostitution reflects larger systems of gender inequality and oppression, and as a result, women do not choose prostitution, but are coerced into it. They argue for either the eradication OR partial decriminalization of sex work, which criminalizes the client instead of the sex worker if something illegal were to transpire. (For more information on the different waves of feminism:

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM – JULY 04: Sex workers and activists stage a protest outside Parliament in London as MPs debate a proposal to outlaw online prostitution platforms. The members of a cross-party group on prostitution argue that UK should follow the recent FOSTA-SESTA legislation in the US, which makes sex work advertising websites directly accountable for encouraging exploitation and trafficking. The protesters say that such legislation will make sex work more dangerous by forcing it out on the streets and removing access to databases of violent clients. July 04, 2018 in London, England. (Photo credit should read Wiktor Szymanowicz / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

This then brings us to the Four Policy Approaches narrowed down by separate governments. One policy is the overall Legalization of prostitution, which has been taken on by a multitude of European countries, most notably the Netherlands. This approach creates regulations for said work through licensing, controlling public solicitation, and limiting where prostitutes can practice. Similarly, other forms of government have used the Decriminalized prostitution approach, which makes sure all laws regarding sex work are removed—including laws against pimps and clients —but it is not regulated or taxed by the government. The third approach is what Radical Feminists believe would be the best policy: Partial Decriminalization. The fourth and final approach is one that the U.S. follows today, better known as Criminalized prostitution.

All four approaches and opinions on prostitution point to one overarching question: Which approach is the best and most beneficial for everyone involved?

In my personal opinion, I lean more towards a Liberal Feminist point of view on the matter because I truly believe that taking away the possibility of sex work for a large group of people will ultimately take away their income. A large percentage of women depend on this line of work in order to support themselves and make a living. As for the governmental approach, I believe more-so in Partial Decriminalization because if something were to happen to the prostitute working, the client should be at fault, not the worker.

What do you think? Leave a comment below on where you think you stand on the feminist divide in regard to prostitution and sex work!

As always, here are some links for more information on Sex work and Prostitution and some Feminist Debates on the matter:

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