This is something to be optimistic about. Ms. Magazine has long been ambivalent at best about the rights of sex workers. Far more commonly, they’ve fallen in the camp which casts all sex workers as equally victimized, as “trafficked” or “prostituted women.” When something as unreservedly pro-sex work as this piece shows up in such a standby of mainstream feminism as Ms., it says something profound. I was heartbroken to see $pread‘s demise recently, but this kind of acceptance can be said to be its legacy:
Whore stigma is a particularly gnarly incarnation of misogyny marking women who dare to exercise economic independence or sexual independence. Think of the stereotype of a woman in a mid- or high-power position sleeping her way to the top. Think of prostitution in the media: news stories of women arrested for prostitution, or victims saved from trafficking; the popularity of HBO’s CatHouse: The Series reality show in a legal Nevada brothel; Showtime’s Secret Diary of a Call Girl. Basically, women exercising power in forms traditionally coded as masculine—with sexual independence, economic aspirations—are a challenge to the traditional gender model.
Whore stigma is one clue that anti-prostitution ideology is about more than just violence against women—it’s specifically about femininity. In this sense, arguments against transactional sex are a defense of both the gender binary and of heterosexuality. This is why men and transgender sex workers are invisible in prostitution debates. This is why changing laws is just the beginning, not the end, of a longtime struggle for basic human rights for sex workers.
What’s really significant about this piece to me is that she’s not just asking to legalize prostitution in the name of accepting an inevitable evil, or advocating the so-called “Swedish solution,” in which the prostitutes are legalized, but the johns remain criminalized; she’s very specifically calling out the harm of stigmatizing sex work and demanding that sex workers not just be legalized, but respected. That’s an important point. In many cases, it’s not the illegality of prostitution that makes it impossible for sex workers to depend on the law for protection like other citizens: it’s the stigma. It’s the belief that people are devalued by being “just a whore” or “just a stripper” or “just a porn star,” and that effort to protect them from harm is wasted. Getting rid of bad laws against prostitution is only the most basic step; genuine respect for the people and their work is at least as essential.