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December 17th is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 16 years ago, in 2007, on the World Wide Web.

We identify with all women. We define our best interest as that of the poorest, most brutally exploited women. —Redstockings Manifesto (1969)

GT 2005-12-17: December 17th is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers

December 17th is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. The commemoration began from the Sex Workers' Outreach Project's memorial and vigil for the victims of the Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer. Since then its purpose has expanded to a memorial for, and protest against, all forms of violence against women in prostitution and elsewhere in the sex industry.

I'm opposed to prostitution as an industry, on radical feminist grounds. I frankly have very deep and sharp differences with the organizers of the event, and I'm iffy at best towards the rhetorical framework of sex work as a whole, for reasons that are way beyond the point of this post). But so what? The day is an important one no matter what differences I may have with the organizers. Real steps towards ending the ongoing daily violence against women in prostitution and elsewhere in the sex industry are more important than that; here as much as anywhere — probably more than anywhere else — women's lives are at stake.

You can read the rest at the original post. Any serious commitment to freedom for, and an end to violence against, women, means a serious commitment to ending violence against women who work in the sex industry. All of it. Immediately. Now and forever.

And that means any kind of violence, whether rape, or assault, or robbery, or abduction, or confinement against her will, or murder. No matter who does it. Even if it is done by a john who imagines that paying for sex means he owns a woman’s body. Even it is done by a cop or a prosecutor who calls the violence of an assault, restraint, and involuntary confinement an arrest or a sentence under the color of The Law. The Law has no more right to hurt or shove around a woman than anyone else does.

In honor of the event, in memory of the 48 women murdered by Ridgway, and in solidarity with the living, I have contributed $120.00 tonight to Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive, a harm reduction group that provides counseling, safety resources, clothing, and food to prostitutes on the streets of the Washington, D.C. area, and $120.00 to Alternatives for Girls, whose Street Outreach Project provides similar services out of a van along the Cass Corridor in downtown Detroit. For other groups that provide similar resources and mutual aid, you can check out the links at the end of my original post.


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  1. Serafina

    Note: Serafina’s question was originally posted on GT 2008-03-12: Que se vayan todos; I’ve migrated the thread over here, since it seemed like a logical place for the discussion. —R.G., 18 March 2008.

    Here’s an off-topic question, RadGeek: what is your stance on prostitution and pornography?

    I can see from perusing your site that you are both libertarian and radical feminist in your outlook, which strikes me as an interesting and unusual (though not incompatible at all) combination. And on the feminist blog Pandagon there’s a long thread going on about prostitution in the light of the latest political sex scandal, wherein people with roughly libertarian views on prostitution are arguing with people with radical-feminist views on the subject. So I wondered how one would reconcile the two viewpoints on this issue.

  2. Rad Geek


    I don’t think that men should use pornography or buy sex. I think it’s unethical, for various reasons, and I think that the industries are extremely, systematically exploitative to the women on the bottom of them, largely for the profit of the men at the top. On pornography in particular, I accept and am willing to defend a fair amount of fairly orthodox antipornography radical feminist analysis of the ways in which pornography expresses, reinforces, entrenches, and celebrates a rape culture. And I think it’s important for pro-feminist men to tell other men as much.

    On the other hand, I don’t have any opinion on whether or not women should engage in prostitution, or make pornography. I’m not going to run anyone down over her choice of a nonviolent, honest livelihood, and in general I don’t see the question as something I know much about, or can know much about, or have much business to speaking on.

    However, as an anarchist, I also believe in complete decriminalization of prostitution (not half-hearted, bureaucratic legalization through government licensure, which just makes the State into a pimp; I mean the real thing, i.e., no government restriction, restraint, or regulation on consensual sex, ever). I consider the criminalization of prostitution to be State violence against women, as repulsive as any other form of violence against women, which is most often directed, with considerable callousness and brutality, at the poorest and most vulnerable classes of women in prostitution, and often with the outrageous excuse that locking women in cages and forcing them to starve rather than do sex work is somehow for those women’s own good. (It’s for this reason that I won’t work with groups that encourage sustaining or expanding the criminalization of prostitution, which unfortunately is a lot of them.) And as a radical feminist, I also think it’s important to favor approaches to these questions that respect the humanity, dignity, and consent of women in prostitution or pornography–rather than attacking them or having the male State come in to make their choices for them. (While my views on State action alienate me from some radical feminist activism on these topics, there are also plenty of examples of radical feminists whose activism focused on using non-state means to agitate and organize — compare what Women Against Pornography did, for example, when it was organizing tours of Times Square sex shops, as compared to what it was doing later, when they threw themselves behind the Antipornography Civil Rights Ordinance. There are many antipornography feminists — Susan Brownmiller, for instance — who have written that they think that the jump into legislative politicking was a serious political error, which really undermined the organization and the broader movement.)

    Does that clarify, or muddify?

  3. Serafina


    Thanks for such an informative reply–it does clarify quite a bit.

    But I do have a follow-up question, if you wouldn’t mind: would you condone jailing pimps? And what about johns? The Swedish policy, for instance, criminalizes pimps and johns while decriminalizing being a prostitute. I believe British and New Zealand law criminalizes being a pimp, but not a prostitute or a john.

    Johns seem to be the controversial issue, at least in what I’ve seen: it seems that most non-conservative people agree that no prostitutes should be punished, and that pimps should be.

  4. Rad Geek


    No, I don’t believe in jailing johns or pimps (just as such; if they are violent in any way, as I know many of them are, then they should be arrested or otherwise held accountable for that violence). My reasons here are basically libertarian ones: I view what male johns are doing to be unethical, and I view pimps, as a class, as really detestable — all the worst of exploitative bossism, multiplied by violent male supremacy. But, where overt acts of violence against person or property are not involved, I don’t believe in using government violence (arrest, fines, prison, etc.) in order to punish people for being unethical, or to remedy even the most terribly exploitative labor conditions. As an anarchist I have a moral commitment to using other, non-coercive means to address these situations, and as a radical feminist I don’t at all trust the male State to use that kind of power in anything other than a male supremacist way. I think that the Swedish and New Zealand approaches are substantially and importantly better than the American prohibitionist model–in the sense that they involve directing government force at fewer people–but what I would advocate is complete decriminalization of all aspects of prostitution.

    The kind of radical feminist responses to prostitution that I believe in are methods that take weapons out of the hands of pimps and traffickers, without putting them into the hands of vice cops or sex bureaucrats. For example, agitation and education work on prostitution (exposing the class system within prostitution, and how it works; combating misogynist prejudices against women in sex work; etc.); repealing government immigration laws immediately and completely (nobody can use your passport to keep you captive if you don’t need a passport to stay in the country); building networks of on-the-ground, safe, non-judgmental women’s shelters for women who need to escape violence or grinding poverty; mutual aid for women who want to leave prostitution, and harm-reduction for women who are currently in it; and solidarity with women who speak out against exploitation and violence within the industry, as well as with women within it who organize against pimps and/or aggressive johns. Etc. etc. etc. Hence, for example, my support for the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, although I disagree substantially with some aspects of SWOP’s politics.

    Speaking of which, that seems like a good topical location for this thread, so I hope you don’t mind if I’ve relocated this thread over here to the December 17th post, with a brief note explaining the move.

  5. Serafina

    Of course I don’t mind; I’m glad there’s an on-topic place this could be put.

    Thanks for the explanation. Just to put my own cards on the table–I’m not quite sure where I stand on the johns/pimps issue. I’m certainly “anti-prostitution” since most prostitutes aren’t there by choice, and I strongly disagree with the liberal view that prostitution is just another job that we shouldn’t judge. I also don’t know how efficacious criminalization is, and arresting prostitutes is clearly deeply wrong. The reason why arresting pimps seems like a good idea to me is that (from what I know) violence is an inherent part of how they collect their money and enforce their rules. As for johns–well, having sex with a woman who fears violent punishment if she doesn’t have sex with you is rape, even if that violence is inflicted by someone else and not you. Ditto for having sex with a young girl. Since so many prostitutes are in the business because of violence, and since so many are still children, it seems to me that going to a prostitute–unless it’s a high-class escort service–means you’re accepting a very high likelihood of committing rape. I’m not convinced that having sex with someone when there’s a strong chance that they’re only doing it under duress shouldn’t be criminal.

    Anyway, thanks for explaining–I was curious about how radical feminism and libertarianism would intersect on this issue.

  6. Aster of Wellington

    Serafina and RadGeek-

    I’ve less time to write than I’d wish, but speaking as a sex worker I wish to (first) clearly state that I disagree entirely with the notion that clients are unethical or exploitive for using our services. There are violent johns, of course, but they are a small minority, and such violence is in no way unique to prostitution but systematic throughout all male-female relations within patriarchy or all exchange relationships with the structural inequalities of capitalism. But clients are just human beings, and the vast majority of them are no more cruel and harmful than anyone else.

    I’ve recently moved to New Zealand, so for the record, the New Zealand model decriminalises sex work totally- clients including sex workers, and in this regard is a very libertarian model (there are still some discriminatory local laws on zoning and immigration to NZ is forbidden for any sex worker not a citizen, as I am). Unfortunately there is still quite a bit of social injustice (the sex industry in San Francisco suffers from state persecution but is culturally healthier), primarily because of the social marginalisation of prostitutes and the exploitive attitude of the lumpencapitalists who dominate the trade- it shouldn’t be surprising that the state does even less to make sure prostitutes are getting a fair deal than they do with other employees under capitalism. But the answer here is to remove the stigma of prostitution entirely and to fight for institutional structures within the sex industry controlled by sex workers themselves.

    There is nothing whatsoever exploitive about buying or selling sex, unless on considers buying or selling anything objectionable (I do not), and I don’t think the opposite claim makes any sense without a hidden patriarchal/Christian moral intuition that sex is ‘different’ and merits a special and suspicious scrutiny. Everything we do exists within unjust systems of power, including sex and prostitution, and it is irrational to treat sex work as any more intrinsically exploitive than coal-mining or agricultural labour, both of which have of course at different times been institutionalised within horrid social systems. I don’t deny that this is to a- significantly exaggerated- degree true with prostitution today as well (some of the abuses that get reported are propoaganda, but others are quite real), but what sex workers need to overcome the situation is empowerment as prostitutes. And we cannot have respect and pride in our work and organise for fair wages and working conditions while others insist on treating us as victims to be pitied instead of fellow workers.

    And as I’ve said to Charles before, at least some of us did choose to work in prostitution and are damn proud of our work- and plenty of others got into the biz the same ways one gets into any job, and with no more love or shame. I don’t like the injustices that go on in this business more than anyone else, and I emphatically agree with Radgeek that the class divisions within the industry are poisonous and unacceptable (and many pro-sex feminists are indeed culpable for continually glossing over this issue). But it’s also true that sex work has given me freedom and a life of my own in a way which was impossible for me in the tightly controlled environments of straight work, and far from desiring to leave I want nothing so much right now as to get my life as a sex worker functioning again. I like my job. How many other people in this world can truly say the same?

    I find the ‘radical feminist’ (I don’t grant that Dworkin’s views constitute the only genuine kind of feminist radicalism) perspective on this issue entirely patronising and unhelpful- even when detached from the advocacy of state violence. The ‘good girls’ vs. ‘bad girls’ division doesn’t do anything except help patriarchy succeed at playing divide & conquer- and treating someone as a pure victim without listening to their perspective is looking down on them, intended or not. You can’t really be in solidarity with someone if you insist on replacing her self-understanding with yours. But this is what most radfems do, against any feminist principle I can imagine- not listen.

    I’d love help making prostitution a better place. I’m sure most of us would. But how is that going to happen so long until people- including feminists, who should be the first to do so- treat sex workers as equals with minds and wills and voices and dignity? Please clear out the ‘pimps’ and the social norms which let some (I repeat, only some) men get away from treating sex workers (and other women) as inferiors. But I don’t desire to leave the industry despite all that, and despite having by now had a taste of the nastier side of the industry- I’d still far rather have sex for a living than mop floors, take orders, or serve some corporation as an office drone.

    Ni victimes! Ni coupables!

    Free Cyprus!

  7. Serafina


    I don’t think your clients are necessarily doing anything unethical if you freely chose to enter prostitution, and if you have the freedom of choice to turn them down if they want you to do something you don’t want to do. My problem is not with that kind of scenario.

    But the vast majority of prostitutes are not in the same position as you, and so when I think of “prostitute” or “sex worker” I don’t think of someone in your position at all. Most people who go by those titles just aren’t so lucky. And they themselves want to get out, for the most part. So, basically, when I think of “prostitution,” I think of the most common kind of scenario for prostitutes. And the most common kind of scenario is very, very bleak. I think attitudes to sex work should be, like attitudes to other kinds of work, based on what’s most likely to happen and not on the happy exceptions. I don’t agree that it’s “propaganda” to say that the general state of prostitution is bleaker than the general state of other forms of labor. I think it’s well-supported by evidence.

    I also disagree with the idea that selling/buying sex is just like selling/buying anything else, and that the belief that sex is “different” has to be based on a patriarchal or Christian sensibility. No culture that I’m aware of has treated sex just like any other activity, including sex-positive cultures (being positive about sex doesn’t necessarily mean treating it as just like any other activity). And even if it were possible for such a culture to exist, nobody on the planet currently lives in it, including those people who live in gender-egalitarian societies. Under these circumstances, most people do not regard sex as being just like anything else, but instead regard the experience of sex as deeply personal and constitutive of their identities. Certainly not everyone, but most people. And this includes most prostitutes: I don’t think the thousands upon thousands of prostitutes in the world are all exceptions to the general rule of regarding sex as different. On the contrary, all available research shows that they do regard and experience sex as different.

    People have desires and distastes and taboos and compunctions about sex that are much stronger and personal than their attitudes about, say, typing letters. That’s why being economically exploited for sex on someone else’s terms is more of a denial of freedom than being economically exploiting for letter-typing on someone else’s terms. That’s why rape is far more violating than being forced to type a letter. Because sex is personal, the need for it to remain under the individual’s control is stronger. Selling sex, like selling anything, is an alienation of control: it is handing control over to the customer. It’s the customer’s desires that will dictate how the encounter goes (he’s the paying one, after all), not the sex worker’s, and if she’s not good at catering to those desires then she suffers economically (or maybe even violently). I don’t think most people experience being economically dependent on catering to somebody else’s sexual pleasure without concern for your own as the same as being dependent on catering to somebody else’s taste in shoes or desire for a neat office. Because of this commonly-felt personal aspect of sex, I don’t think it can be looked at as Just Another Job. For some people, it might be. But for most it isn’t.

    Clearly you don’t feel this way about it. And I certainly don’t think you should be stigmatized for it, or patronized, or anything like that. But I think we have to accept that you’re in the minority here, and while that doesn’t mean it’s okay to violate your rights, it also doesn’t mean we should take you as a typical example.

    Not to mention the potential physical health consequences and risk of violence: sadly, statistics indicate that it’s not just “some” johns who are violent. That by itself separates prostitution from most forms of labor.

    None of this means I think prostitution should be criminalized. I do not. But, while you think that an ideal sex-positive feminist society would have legal non-exploitative sex work, I think that if we ever achieve that sort of feminist pro-sex world then prostitution will die out. Not because it’s illegal, but because both supply and demand will be negligible. I think, exceptions notwithstanding, most prostitution in the world exists because of horrific attitudes against women and against sex (it amazes me that so many people think anti-prostitution advocates are against sex, because it seems very clear to me that prostitution itself is usually an anti-sex phenomenon, especially anti-women’s sexual pleasure). And so a perfect world that was pro-woman and pro-sex would naturally end up having very little prostitution. Clearly, you disagree. I suppose we’ll just have to see what happens when the utopia is finally achieved.

  8. Kay

    Serafina’s perfect future world would also need to remove cultural biases based on perceptions of “beauty”, acceptance of disabilities (differences in abilities), and gendered roles. For example, some clients of sex workers are men who are socially rejected through perceptions of ugliness, disability, age, weight etc and who only ever experience human touch when they pay for it. Others are men with partners who have no or only limited interest in sex – its easier for them to manage a mismatch in sexual drive through having another outlet.

    My concern over prostitution is about the disrespect shown to many sex workers and the vulnerable position some young homeless people are put in – the trade of sex for food is understandable but with that sort of power imbalance, there is more likely to be coercion and increased risk of exposure to STIs including HIV through non-condom use.

    The situation in New Zealand where sex workers are able to have small home based businesses and vet clients is much better than the street and brothel based alternatives (although we have both of these operations too).

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