Monday, January 3, 2011

Feminist Winter Term: Sex & Sex Work

Molly, Alicia, and I are currently in New York City at Feminist Winter Term, a program for college-age feminists run by Soapbox Inc. (Click the link for more info.) Today was our first day!

We're super-tired right now--it's been a long day running around New York. But here's a quick summary of what we did today! Molly will write in tomorrow about her afternoon; she was in a different group today.

First we all met with Jennifer and Amy, the founders of Soapbox, at Amy's apartment. We had delicious food (I didn't know orange juice could taste that good) and met all of the participants. There are young women (and one man) from around the United States and Canada. We all feel that it's wonderfully refreshing and fun to be around people with whom you instantly share the basic tenets of a political/social philosophy...though we may be different people, from different schools and different parts of the continent, we're all on the same feminist page. It's easy to get into discussions with people when you know you already have similar ideas about discrimination, abortion rights, sexuality, etc. I talked to a bunch of people on our many walks and subway rides, and I'm excited to get to know them all better!

After the meeting at the apartment, we headed to Babeland, a sex toy shop celebrating women's sexuality. The atmosphere is Bath-and-Body-Works-ish--warm, inviting, and clean (appearance- and hygiene-wise)--but instead of scented soaps, it's vibrators, dildos, and condoms. Do check out their website, it's awesome!

In the afternoon, we were split into two groups. Alicia and I were in group 1, which went first to the Sex Workers Project. We learned that the SWP approaches sex work as an occupation that individuals come to through choice, circumstance (financial hardship and no other options), or coercion. They believe that sex work should be de-criminalized, which, they said, would not lead to an increase in human trafficking. Using harm reduction strategies, they use therapy and legal action to support people who are or have been, legally or illegally, involved in sex work.

There was a lot of frustration at SWP, but also a lot of hope. It's scary yet awe-inspiring to see this kind of intense, feminist, hands-on approach to a problem. After this one meeting, I was reeling with ideas.

We then headed to the NoVo Foundation, which is dedicated to empowering women and girls worldwide. Where the Sex Workers Project was an organization working directly with individuals, NoVo is a foundation, funded by a single donation, which gives money to organizations working to further the goals of 1) social and emotional education, 2) empowerment of adolescent girls, and 3) ending violence against women and girls.

Unlike SWP, NoVo believes that legalizing prostitution (a term they used instead of "sex work"--more on this in a bit) will lead to an increase in human trafficking, and they support the "Swedish model" in which pimps and johns are prosecuted for buying sex, rather than a system in which women are prosecuted for selling it.

Of course, to say that SWP and NoVo are complete opposites is a misunderstanding; NoVo may acknowledge sex work/prostitution, but they also point out that the majority of people in the sex industry are not there by choice; they are forced by other people or by financial hardship to sell their bodies. SWP would, I think, agree with that, but their strategy is simply much more support-based; they are there to help people after trafficking has happened. NoVo is broader and more idealistic...they're working to attack trafficking at its roots, hoping to eventually stop it.

It was interesting to hear the differences in language between the two. Maybe as an English major, I'm particularly attuned to shifts in language, but the sudden substitution of "prostitution" for "sex work" was startling. "Sex work" certainly reflects SWP's belief that it can be a valid, legal field for a woman to enter if she truly chooses to enter it, whereas "prostitution" is an older, more traditional way to describe it, and makes selling sex a much more passive act.

Well, for now it's time to go to bed. My shoulders are aching (from carrying bags...and from looking up all the time at really tall buildings) and my brain hurts even more. Look forward to more posts as the week goes on!


  1. This is why modern feminism is alienating to so many women. Causes like "legitimizing sex work" are so fringe and extreme that even many progressives can see that they are ultimately divisive and exploitative.

    Legitimizing "sex work" is not useful for for women, men or society, and it insults and whitewashes the legitimate data that shows prostitution is harmful OVERALL. There is no magic bubble where all "sex work" occurs as a happy, mutually satisfying exchange between people, and in fact engaging in "sex work" drastically increases a person's risk of being raped or murdered.

    If you really care about "women" as you say, you should not be standing on the backs of human trafficking victims so you can get brownie points from fringe groups.

  2. "Ohhh, we went to a sex shop and sex worker conference! Aren't we progressive! Yea, sex! We don't really care if people get sold into sex slavery, so long as they are happy with their choices! Yea feminism!"

    This sort of "feminism" is reprehensible and I can't believe the university supports it - you can put the little disclaimer up there, but the content of this blog still reflects VERY POORLY on the university itself.