Sex Work: Advancing the Cause or Perpetuating Subjugation

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The first time I ever heard another woman say that engaging in sex work was liberating was during my graduate course study at DePaul University. I was in class chomping away at a dry, turkey and Swiss cheese sandwich from the cafeteria when out of the blue the words came rushing from my classmate’s lips. There I sat with this frozen look across my face staring at the young lady as if she had completely lost her mind. What kind of feminist, or better yet woman, would promote such foolish propaganda? Had she completely lost her mind?

Speechless, I sat motionless pondering the fact that I had actually lived long enough to hear another fellow feminist/womanist agree to the idea that choosing to prostitute oneself (whether it be through pornography, phone sex, stripping, pimping or other forms of personal and commercial sexual activities) was indeed freeing.

As time went on, the more I began to understand the ongoing debate between those feminists who believed in the emancipation of sex work and those who simply saw it as the perpetual dehumanization of women.

Re-visioning and re-evaluating the negative associations of what society has deemed to be “women’s work,” has been an institutional practice among feminists for centuries. By controlling the image of women’s labor, an image once viewed as having very little intellectual involvement, feminists were able to critically engage and politically lobby for the advancement of women in the public arena. Women who chose to freely participate in the production of labor for capital gain did so with the same consciousness, intelligent rigor and strategic abilities as did their male counterparts.

Read: Discovering Black Feminism, The Power of Female Relationships

These same principles are essentially the foundation for those who choose to support sex workers in their endeavor to decriminalize their sexual activities. It is their freedom of choice that gives them the right to express themselves sexually, as they see fit, that brings about the liberation to control the act and participation in and of itself. By enacting the same conscious, intelligent and strategic decision-making processes that yield monetary advancement, the women who actively choose this particular line of work are doing so from a cognizant employment of will. They are not helpless victims but rather self-employed entrepreneurs.

On the other hand, however, those who find themselves constantly battling against the brutality of women in the sex industry, are constantly appalled at the idea of prostitution as anything but an ongoing misogynistic occupation of violence against women. It is their belief that through such work, men are allowed to continually exploit the sexuality of women and reinforce ideals such as rape as being a normal activity among men. Not only does it actively involve the oppression of women, but also strengthens the perception that women are no more than objects for sale and subjugation.

To this day I am still undecided as to where I stand on the issue but choose to critically involve myself on both sides of the debate. I may not have chosen sex work as my career choice but it has, nonetheless, become that for many other women. At this point in my life I find it much easier to stay engaged rather than being dismissively judgmental.


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Alice J. Rollins is an aspiring freelance writer and blogger who holds an M.A. in Women’s and Gender Studies from DePaul University. Her areas of interest include African American women’s spirituality, feminist/womanist pedagogy and politics of migration.

She is currently based in Chicago, IL. Email her at:

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