As is the nature of theory, a specific framework of feminism is bound to evolve and build on itself. In many cases, the modern definition can be in contradiction with the original intent. In the case of liberal feminism and its discourse surrounding sex and sexwork, this appears to be the case. Liberal feminism is said to be founded by John Stuart Mills who discusses sexuality as “lower” and “animal” (Mendus143) In one writing, he “declares that the possibility of progress depends upon the reduction of sexuality, and that no great improvement in human life can be looked for so long as ‘the animal instinct of sex occupies the absurdly disproportionate place it does occupies the absurdly disproportionate place it does therein’” (Mendus 143). I will not be looking at Mills’ liberal feminism – though it still provides a foundation – but rather the modern liberal feminism that it grew into.
Perhaps more explicitly than other schools of theory, liberalism looks at the nature of legality, often with the intent to limit state’s role in peoples liberties. This is where the importance of “the free contract” comes into play, “[this] narrative sees prostitution as an unremarkable payment of fee for the performance of a service. As long as the contract is freely chose, rather than coerced, the state should not interfere with it”. (Zatz 285). This argument disqualifies moral objections as an interference of one’s liberties. And if one is encouraged into sexwork by poor circumstances, many liberal feminists would argue that the same can be said for the women in all job sectors facing sexual harassment at work, and the division of women and men with women receiving lower-paid jobs (Zatz 287). This response accepts how other conflicting feminisms depict the patriarchal economy as women as subservient to men, but sees sex work as inherently destructive of that system (Zatz 292). Felicia Anna is one such sexworker that sees her job as her liberty and works to raise awareness of sexworker rights against a government that is increasingly cracking down
She describes it in terms of entrepreneurship, a form of autonomy in a man’s world.A cafe in Amsertdam’s Red Light District owned and occupied by sex workers as a safe space. The signs on the window read “if you want to save us, save our windows”. This is response to recent policy aimed to reinvent the Red Light District and close the brothels.
Liberal feminism holds sex work as nuanced and diverse. It often highlights economic disparities, sexual diversity, “relationship between sexual practices and identity”… “the structure of prostitution within any particular historical space”, and so on as contexts necessary to evaluating the subject (Zatz 278). For instance, Noah Zatz notes in his Sex Work/ Sex Act, the nature of economics and erotics in modern Western societies “are clearly outgrowths of the increased regulation of prostitutes, marginalized sexual groups, racialized minorities, and the working classes around the turn of the century” (Zatz 278). In this way, other structures such as sexual hierarchies, post-colonialism/racism, and neo-liberalism shape how sex work is constructed, reconstructed, and analyzed.
The research of sex-work in developing countries is often reduced to a “coping strategy” (Gregory 7) for those who are desperate and cannot find work in the formal sector. While lack of alternatives may be a factor for some involved, many find that the entrepreneurial approach offers agency and money not as accessible for many in the formal sector. Moreover, choosing to opt-out of the often degrading work of the formal sector, and challenge “power laden definition of what [constitutes] productive labor” (Gregory 7).
In addition, there are flaws in the analysis of sex work such as the prevalence of herteronormatitvity as well as the virgin/whore dichotomy placed on women. Zats addresses this by asking who the actors are: their hetero-femalness is assumed when in fact “a significant amount of prostitution [involves] sex between gay or bisexual men, and that there is a largely undocumented history of commercial sex between women” (Zatz 279)
With the liberal feminist approach to sex work having autonomy as its main pillar, here are some quotes from some sex workers themselves:
The sex industry is not the only industry which is male-dominated and degrades women, but it is the industry where the workers are illegal and can least defend publicly our right to our jobs. We we argued that for some womento get paid for what all women are expected to do for free is a source of power for all women to refuse any free sex
I think women and men and feminists have to realize that all work involves selling some part of your body. You might sell your brain, you might sell your back, you might sell your fingers for typewriting. Whatever it is that you do you are selling one part of your body. I choose to sell my body the way I want and I choose to sell my vagina”