Glorial Steinem: "Sex Is Not Work"

06 Apr 2012 | Women | By Makepeace
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"Women are systematized into this demand and supply cycle and don't have a choice as far as choosing this profession or even the gender they are born into" - Gloria Steinem.

2Comments Read MoreFeminism, Gloria Steinem, Prostitution, Sex Trafficking

For the longest period, the raging debate has been on whether prostitution should be legalized or not? Whether sex could be acknowledged as ‘work’ and what sort of labour, civil or human rights can be legislated for sex workers.

They say, and I don’t know with how much accuracy, that prostitution is one of the oldest professions. But that doesn’t deter it from keeping the morality surrounding it unchanged. In the yesteryears, the focus was entirely on the ‘prostitute’ (with all the laden moralistic implications), who would be stoned and ostracized from the society to keep the “impurity” at bay. Gradually with the civil rights movement and the feminist movement, the focus shifted on the pimp, the corrupt system and the moralistic society for unfairly creating the circumstances, where ‘victims’ hardly had any options to make a choice. 

States legislated laws on prostitution, however, mostly condemning and criminalizing the sale of the flesh. But anyone who knows the basic laws of economics would understand that as long as there is demand, supply will never fall short. And that is the entry point of the argument that renowned feminist author and activist, Gloria Steinem, made in a lecture at Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi) organized by Apne Aap on the feminist approaches on combating sex trafficking and prostitution.

(L) Gloria Steinem (R) Ruchira Gupta, Founder President of Apne Aap. (Photo Credit: Makepeace Sitlhou)

She said,

“The prostitution industry is getting bigger and bigger with very less scope of choice into it. Instead of criminalizing the seller, penalize the buyer”.

It was at one level surprising to hear a seasoned feminist take an oppositional stand against sex work as one is led to believe that feminism purports the idea of choice for women, in particular, and goes beyond moral strictures that confine them to live a life of liberty. While the earlier waves of feminism may have lifted the veil of shame from ‘sex work’ and attempted to liberate the term ‘slut’ from a slur/insult to its celebration or positive prominence, it certainly did nothing to curb the ongoing prostitution and the cycle of sex trafficking that flourished over the decades into the billion dollar industry that it is today. While the earlier waves of feminism acknowledged women in prostitution as ‘a part of the society’ and fought for legislative rights in ration cards, voting rights or improving working conditions, it never alleviated women from the status of a ‘prostitute’ or the risk of falling into prostitution. 

Steinem challenges if ‘sex’ can ever be democratically and dignifiedly labeled ‘work’. She said,

“While all other occupations have physical, mental and sexual hazards and risks, prostitution is one such vocation that has an inherent risk towards violence against women as it involves penetration, which is an invasion of the human body, unlike in any other vocation. Prostitution cannot be legislated since the dignity of the body is constantly negotiated”.

The initial argument about penalizing or criminalizing the buyer seems like a valid point on taking proactive steps towards crippling this worldwide industry. If consumers know and understand that they pay not only for the pleasure of a misconstrued fantasy for an hour or night but are in effect injecting fuel into the fire of human rights violations and ensuring that that victim will never get out and more innocent and younger children will get pulled into this. However, for an unforeseeable and uncertain future, it seems less agreeable to rob sex workers of their present identity and dignity, both going hand in hand. True, that identifying someone as a sex worker legitimizes their work and the industry they earn their bread and butter from. However, to neglect their civil, labour or human rights would throw them back in the stone ages of abuse, disease, malnutrition, shunned voices – much like the current status of men who have sex with men that is neither identified under prostitution nor any sexual orientation - therefore, perpetuating the vicious cycle of sex trafficking and trade.

Photo Credit: Makepeace Sitlhou

Steinem, of course, is not of the extreme stand that calls for the abolition of sex slavery as a clean sweep solution. She speaks about the third way out of trafficking and prostitution i.e. the option of creating alternatives for a sex worker. To do this, she believes, we need to start listening to each other to find local solutions to the problem. So the alternative for young girls could be to go to schools to get an education and for women could be to get micro financed into self employment. Note that Steinem calls them alternatives, NOT solutions because girls at school or women at work are just as much at risk of sexual harassment, assault as well as a relapse into sex work.

Its not like there are no exits and no light at the end of this winding tunnel. While Gloria may have identified that alternatives must be fiercely provided everywhere possible, one would emphasize on the need to work on sustaining these alternatives as developmental models while simultaneously negotiating cultural constructs of patriarchy, gender, masculinity and sexuality.

Steinem rightly broughtl the discussion to a close in saying,

“We need to bring back the culture where sexuality is its own reward and not commercialized”.



Gloria Steinem is an American feminist, journalist and political activist who emerged as a prominent voice of the women’s rights movement in the 1960’s and 70’s. You can follow her on Twitter at @GloriaSteinem.

For an overview understanding of how sex trafficking and prostitution works, the movie ‘Human Trafficking’ (2005) is a recommended watch.


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