Critique of the SWERF: On Feminism and Sex Work
Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminist—or SWERF—is a relatively new term. It describes a faction within feminist thought that is fundamentally opposed to sex work. Those who take up the SWERF position usually claim that we are all prisoners of a male-centered world (i.e. “the patriarchy”), and that any individual who chooses to make a career out of sex is ultimately, and naively, in violation of herself (because, of course, it is always assumed these individuals are women). Under the SWERF perspective, it is impossible for an individual to willingly engage in the exchange of sex for money, because all who do are either forced by outside circumstances or somehow fooled into thinking they are making a choice. This SWERF take on sex work is said to promote feminist values. However, these arguments are actually grounded in a highly sex-negative position that illogically discriminates against many in the industry, and is, in the end, inherently antithetical to the core ideals of feminism.
A little background on feminism: it started out as a movement designed to expand women’s freedom in society. This meant pushing for things like the right to be educated, to vote, to own property, and to control our own money. Gradually, as we won these battles, this focus shifted to other issues like equal pay and the right to an abortion, and today is also involved in challenging rigid social norms surrounding gender. At its core, though, amidst these many shifts, the motivations underlying feminism have largely remained the same: to push for women’s independence, and to protect our bodily autonomy.
The problem with the SWERF position is that it violates both of these values. For one thing, sex was one of the earliest methods of achieving financial freedom available to women. Thus, sex work has played an important role in our individual attainment of independence. Today, sex continues to provide many people with the means of caring for themselves and facilitating the freedom to make their own decisions. Without sex work, a significant portion of these people would otherwise most likely be beholden to someone else.
For another thing, by denying the possibility of voluntary sex work, the SWERF position rejects an individual’s agency, thereby succumbing to the soft bigotry of low expectations. Certainly, there are those who are forced into sex work, and this reality is deeply troubling. However, intentionally lumping all forms of voluntary sex work together with sex trafficking does nothing to solve the problem. Instead, it serves to fuel sex-negativity and ignorance by suggesting that all jobs involving sex are bad, and it undervalues the moral agency of sex workers by forcing those who do the work voluntarily into a victim position. In doing so, SWERF arguments are not only condiscending and paternalistic, but they also take away an individual’s right to do what they like with their own body, which is clearly in conflict with the feminist ideal of bodily autonomy.
The attitudes I encountered around pole dancing further prove this point. When I was in college, I decided that I wasn’t getting enough exercise, so I joined a pole dancing studio. I also took many of the other fitness classes they offered, but I fell in love with pole. It made me feel strong and beautiful and more comfortable in my body. I also loved that over time, through my body, I was able to take stock of my progress.
Unfortunately, I quickly learned that there was a strange stigma surrounding my new favorite hobby. When I spoke to others about it, many either seemed uncomfortable or wanted to know whether I was only taking these classes for exercise. When they asked me this question, I knew there was a right and wrong answer. Many times, I was told that it was okay for me to attend pole classes as long as I didn’t attempt to use my skills professionally as a stripper because that would be inappropriate. Yet, it was totally fine for me to do the exact same thing in the confines of the studio.
This double standard in the social attitudes surrounding pole dancing was infuriating! It precisely mirrors the illogical argument that is present in SWERF approaches to sex work and bodily autonomy. While twirling around a pole for my own pleasure, I am an empowered young woman actively improving my physical health. If I do the same thing professionally, I am a naive victim trapped in the world of sex trafficking. Never mind the fact that I personally would love to be paid for pole dancing—a fulfilling activity that I enjoy. It would be akin to being paid for one of my many other hobbies: my vast knowledge of Futurama trivia, for instance. Sadly, that doesn’t pay as much. The only reason people judge me under the SWERF perspective for wanting to be paid for the former hobby and not the latter is that the former is sex-related while the latter is not.
Thankfully, sex- and body-positivity are currently on the rise. People are feeling more empowered to shamelessly own and control their anatomy. In the spirit of this change, I hope that more men and women who are interested in doing so will feel free to be the CEOs of their own bodies in whatever ways they choose without their agency being called into question by well-meaning paternalists. The most feminist thing we can do for ourselves is to take back control of our bodies and do with them what we want. Why should that not include sex work? If two consenting adults want to make a financial arrangement, that is simply part of the good business of sex.