Is the Sex Trade Always about Victimizing Women?

This article in today’s Post-Gazette revisits an old debate in feminist circles about the sex industry: does sex work always victimize and exploit women? Or do women have agency and independence, and potentially gain economically and otherwise, from this labor? The problem is that a reductionist approach like this (“all sex trade work harms women” vs. “women are empowered by their work”) tends to over-simplify and obscures real intersectional issues such as race, class, gender identity, and age.

Ms. Echevarria argues forcefully here that we must pay attention to oppression and power — and she redefines (at least some of) the local adult entertainment business as human trafficking:

I run a safe house for victims of trafficking here in Western Pennsylvania, and I know that adult businesses such as strip clubs, escort services and certain “massage parlors” are often entry points and hubs for trafficking human beings, especially women and minors.

For every woman whose story I can tell, there are hundreds, maybe thousands, in our region whose stories remain shrouded. They are brought here from all over the country and the world, but many are from Western Pennsylvania, often runaways from broken homes lured with the promise of love and companionship. …

The harm is that there’s a good chance that each visit to the shadows supports the trafficking of human beings like farm animals. … Sometimes women begin being trafficked after working for these businesses, as their self-esteem is slowly broken down by the suggestion, then the recommendation, then the requirement that they service customers off the books. Sometimes these businesses are way stations for women who have been enslaved since their preteen years.   (Elizabeth Echevarria, Post-Gazette, 7-1-15)

Here’s a classic text from women’s history (from 1983) on prostitution in the early 20th century. Ruth Rosen put sex work in the context of industrializing America, immigration, and progressive ideas about women and race. She also told the story from the sex worker’s perspective.


Here’s a more recent example (from 2014) of the scholarship on the sex trade. In Sex Workers Unite, Melinda Chateauvert argues that “sex workers have been at the vanguard of social justice movements for the past fifty years while building a movement of their own that challenges our ideas about labor, sexuality, feminism, and freedom.”


What do you think? It would be interesting to get Chateauvert and Echevarria together in Pittsburgh to talk about women, gender, sex labor, and social movements.

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