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White Feminism: Prostitution Is Not Empowering

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Nanyang Tech chapter.

In white radical feminism, one point of contention is prostitution. Many white feminists use the “my body, my choice” rhetoric, the same rhetoric used for debates on abortion, to justify that prostitution is a trade that feminism should support. Their argument is that sex work is liberating and empowering because it allows them to reclaim their bodies as their own: for their own use, for whatever purposes they would like to use it for, instead of it being objectified. They claim that sex work is a choice and a legitamate way to make money, and that for the safety of sex workers, sex work should be decriminalised and legalised completely. 

However, the flaws in this argument is that it stems from a privileged stand point. For white cis-gender heterosexual women who are making these arguments, more often than not, such arguments make sense because that is their reality, that they chose to work in prostitution, and feel the need to justify their career choice. However, many women of other demographics such as women of color, women of lower socio-economic status, women in third world countries or those of the rural South, do not have such freedom or liberty. 

Being a prostitute may seem empowering because it can be seen as a rejection of the patriarchy’s oppression of females especially in relation to their bodies. For example, instead of letting someone else objectify a woman’s body, the arguemnt is that the prostitute claims ownership their bodies and has control over it first. As such they willingly choose to use it for sex. Men no longer have free access to their bodies and have to literally pay a price for it. However, such radical feminism only proves to be a trap. Such ‘empowerment’ is not the empowerment of women, but instead the empowerment of misogynistic values. Misogynistic men patronise prostitutes because they want to use women as objects for sexual pleasure and view women as such. Even if the prostitute believes that she is in control over her body, it is unfortunately not the case. Instead, she is still subjected to the objectification of the patriarchy where men are only interested in her for sex. Prostitution allows these men to continue to perpetrate hateful and sexist ideologies where men feel they are entitled to women’s bodies. 

Prostitution has a long and violent history, and is associated with violence, humiliation, wars and conflicts. One of the most recent and notable examples are comfort women in World War 2, where the invaders would force themselves upon women from conquered lands for their own personal sexual gratification. It was a sign of power that the conquered could not protect their vulnerable. On a more misogynistic level, such war rape was also a symbol of triumph, where the women, who were viewed as properties, were now stolen, defiled and ruined. Losing possession is what harms the reputation and pride of those in war, an indication of loss, and war rape was just another way of the conquerers to indicate such. To quote, “prostitution never existed without violence, slavery, patriarchy and class oppression.” This remains true to this day, especially in third world countries that are still ravaged by conflict, where patriarchal values persist and women are still marginalized. 

To add on, in a capitalist economy, prostitution has become transactional. The relationship between men and prostitutes are not merely between men and women, but as buyers and the object to be bought. This worsens the power difference and struggle in the transactional relationship. It is all about the money and what it is worth: men want more sex for less money and the prostitutes want to do less for more money. Men want to make their money spent worth it, and the prostitutes, especially those who were forced into this line of work, would never want to give more of their body than what they have already put on the table, whether it be due to tiredness of mistreatment, resignation or dignity for themselves. As a part of labor under capitalism, antagonistic relationships between the client and the producer are to be expected. However what makes this relationship worse is that the power struggle is manifested in tangible means such as sexual violence. The claim that sex work is liberating is under the assumption that everything is consensual, but such assumptions rarely hold in the real world. Prostitutes are often raped or experience sexual violence regularly. 

Particularly in third world countries, women of color suffer the most. Unregulated prostitution leads to high rates of human trafficking. An estimated 1 million children are forced into sexual exploitation every year. 99% of these children are girls, many of whom are below 16 years old, which is the most common age standard of consent. Majority of these girls get into sex trade due to  financial need, especially if they come from rural poverty. While some do ‘willingly’ join the trade, many are sold off by relatives or kidnapped and stolen where they are subsequently sold to pimps who specialise in child prostitution. In a patriarchal world where young women are sought after for their virginity and purity, the legalisation of prostitution will only boost supply that encourages the demand. 

Prostitution, especially those that involve child exploitation, is not about the sexual pleasure of the woman. Instead it is about making money for pimps and churning the prostitution capitalist wheel. It is centered around the objectifcation of women as commodities for other people’s sexual gratification. 

Women who try to make a hot-take that prostitution is empowering are simply blind to the dangers and violence that women face every day. This blindness comes from the fact that they are privileged. In essence we must be careful in making such stands that perpetuate misogynistic ideologies.

Emmy Kwan

Nanyang Tech '25

The embodiment of a "material gworl" but with no money, if she isn't complaining about capitalism, the economy or the patriarchy, you can find Emmy in the aisles of a clothing store, ironically selling her soul to the corporations she often critiques.