The Complicated Feminism Of Sex Work

The Complicated Feminism Of Sex Work

Would decriminalization of the sex industry help or hurt the women involved?
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One of the most divisive issues among feminists today is that of sex work. Prominent feminists such as Gloria Steinem (who, although she has recently fallen from grace among many young women, is still an incredibly important and influential feminist icon), Anne Hathaway, Kate Winslet, Maryl Streep, and Lena Dunham are opposed to sex work of any kind, and spoke out against Amnesty International's recent proposal to decriminalize sex work.

Their point of view is that the legalization of prostitution will only make it easier for women to be victimized and harder for women who are forced into the industry to find help. These celebrity activists are supported by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), which agrees that legalizing sex work would not help the women who need it the most.

This side of the argument believes that when a woman "chooses" a path of prostitution, there is actually very little free choice involved. Instead, this choice is made out of economic necessity or coercion, leading to what Gloria Steinem has called "commercial rape." The principle behind this phrase is that sex, when sold, is not an act of consent but an act of compliance. In accordance with this, the CATW states on their website that "a culture in which women can be bought for use is one in which rape flourishes." This contends that women who work in the sex industry are not exercising bodily autonomy or freedom of choice, but are instead being further objectified and marginalized by their work. The organization also argues that the decriminalization of prostitution would benefit pimps and clients, but not the women themselves, who are often forced into the profession and treated poorly by their higher-ups.

Aside from the complex issues of consent and exploitation involved in sex work, much opposition to its decriminalization comes from those who are concerned about the moral problems attached to the industry. There are those who believe that, above all else, prostitution is not and will never be morally justifiable, and should be illegal for that reason.

Now, let's look at the other side. In regards to the moral questions so frequently raised, Catherine La Croix, founder of the Seattle chapter of an organization called Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics (COYOTE), and a former sex worker herself, asks: "Why is it illegal to charge for what can be freely dispensed? Sex work is no more moral or immoral than the chocolate or distilling industries." Of course, this doesn't take into consideration the many moral violations that can and do occur internally in the sex industry -- injustices committed by pimps, clients, etc., -- but it does raise a good counterpoint. If a woman freely decides to work as a prostitute, who's to tell her she isn't morally allowed to use her body, the rights to which she exclusively possesses, to create a career for herself?

Those in support of sex work decriminalization also argue that it would hugely increase the safety of the women involved. Giving sex workers labor rights and legal protection could have a dramatic positive effect, allowing them to prosecute for mistreatment and abuse in a way that is not currently possible. Criminalizing the work these women do creates ideal conditions for them to be exploited, coerced, and trafficked, with no opportunity for any kind of help or support from law enforcement. It also creates a stigma around the work that leads to more secrecy and shame, creating a negative public perception of women who, aside from their chosen profession, are really no different from anyone else. This stigma only aids in making sex workers afraid and ashamed of seeking help when they end up in undesirable situations.

In an attempt to counteract this stigma, the Turn Off the Blue Light campaign, an Ireland-based sex worker rights association, has created ads that enforce a woman's right to choose a sex profession and still be afforded the dignity she deserves:

Of course, as the ads clearly state, these are women who chose their professions; for many women working in the industry, sex work is not something they would freely choose, and that's another issue in and of itself. Those who do choose it, however, should not be punished by law for their choice.

And in regards to all the high-profile opponents of decriminalizing this industry, as well-meaning and well-educated as they are, they largely do not have the support of the women they're trying so hard to help. In the words of a 30-year-old New York City sex worker, “If Kate Winslet and Lena Dunham are trading sex in a criminalized environment, then they should speak out [but] the role of an advocate and an ally is to step back and let these people speak." It is not the place of these big shot feminists to decide what is or isn't an appropriate way to address an issue with which they have no involvement. Instead, it would be much more beneficial for them to use their huge social platforms to give a voice to the women who are actually affected: the sex workers themselves.

In all, this is an incredibly complex and multifaceted issue, and I don't know if there's any right answer. However, I am inclined to agree with what Elizabeth Wurtzel says in her book "Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women":

"Pornography, prostitution and stripping exploit women, but women should be free to enter these professions just the same. [. . .] We should still support all efforts of any women wishing to escape life as sex workers without exacting a toll in shame (which, after all, is just more exploitation)."

So, yes, there are some dark and exploitative implications inherent in sex work, but that should not mean that we can't simultaneously provide sympathy and aid to those who wish to escape it and support and legal protection to those who do not.

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14 Things Every College Student Should Do This January To Improve Their Sexual Health

There is nothing sexier than safety

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It's that time of year again, my friends. Everyone is running around trying to fulfill their resolutions of working out regularly, eating healthier foods, and focusing more on academics. But what's just as important as these resolutions is the decision to better your sexual health. As college students actively exploring our sexualities, we are always at risk for unwanted STIs and pregnancies, so it's time we take charge of our bodies this year and work to be safer when we have sex.

Here are 14 sexual health resolutions that you can easily make in your life to improve your wellbeing in 2019:

1. Carry your own condoms, lube, and other incidentals 

It's important that you are always prepared for an unanticipated sexual encounter. If you're going to a bar or a party where you know you could meet a potential hookup, be sure to have the necessary means of protection. That is, keep condoms in your pocket, wallet, or purse if you're interested in having sex with men. It's not a bad idea to also invest in lubricant, dental dams, and other items that will lessen your risk of contracting an STI or becoming pregnant.

2. Get screened for STIs

What better way to kick off the new year than by ensuring that you are entering it STD-free? Book an appointment to get tested at a local clinic, a nearby Planned Parenthood, or at your university's health center. A lot of colleges offer free screenings for HIV and other prevalent STDs, so why not take advantage of the offer and confirm that you're 100% healthy?

3. Make sure your birth control method still works for you

Whether you have an intrauterine device (IUD), the patch, or the pill, it's critical that you're happy with the method of birth control you choose to use. You have every right to be comfortable in the process of being protected. If something doesn't feel right, don't be afraid to talk to your physician or OB/GYN about adjusting your treatment plan to suit your needs.

4. Consider getting the HPV vaccine

Contrary to popular belief, the HPV vaccine isn't just for high school teenagers. It's recommended for people from age 9 to 45 because it not only guards you against the STD itself, but it also protects you from HPV-related genital warts and cancers of the cervix, anus, vulva, and vagina. If you engage in a lot of high-risk sexual activity or are knowingly exposed to partners who have HPV, you might want to arm yourself with the vaccine. If anything, it'll allow you some peace at mind the next time you hook up.

5. Get into the habit of peeing after sex

Women in particular are advised to urinate no later than fifteen minutes after sex. Why? Because voiding your bladder flushes out any bacteria that might have been introduced to your urethra during intercourse. Your vagina has a sensitive pH balance that may be interrupted when you engage in sexual activity. By peeing after a sexual encounter, you lower your risk of disrupting your natural probiotic bacteria and contracting an STI or a urinary tract infection (UTI).

6. Try limiting your hookups (or be more cautious about them)

As long as you're being safe and smart about your hookups, you don't need to worry about your sexual partners in terms of quantity alone. But perhaps you fear that more encounters will expose you to unwanted diseases and risks of pregnancy. If you're looking to break away from the hookup scene, you have every right to limit yourself and refuse to engage in casual relations. At the end of the day, no one else's opinions matter—it's all about your sexual health and your comfort.

7. Take time to get to know your own body

That's right—I'm talking about the intimate art of self-pleasure. How can you expect someone else to satisfy your desires, after all, if you hardly know what you enjoy yourself? Find some private time in your day to explore your body and your sexual preferences. Experiment with different stimuli and you will be sure to discover a combination that works best for you. And besides, masturbating feels good and can relax you after a long, stressful day.

8. Don't have sex when you're drunk or high

Being sober during sex is the best way to stay alert and grounded to what is going on. If you're tipsy or buzzed, it may be harder for you to excuse yourself from risky situations and you may put yourself in a position where you could be taken advantage of. It's never your fault if you are violated while under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, but you can prevent these tragedies altogether by keeping your mind clear when having sex. Unless you're with a trusted romantic partner, keep the drinks or the smoking to a minimum when engaging in casual sex.

9. Treat your STI as soon as you know you have it

Some STIs are curable with the proper medications and procedures. If you test positive for syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, or trichomoniasis, diligently taking the needed antibiotics will clear up the infection. Advise your sexual partners (that is, anyone who may have been exposed to the infection) to receive treatment for these diseases as well. Unfortunately, there are no known cures for hepatitis B, HIV, HPV, or herpes simplex virus, but you can still manage your symptoms and prevent further complications down the road.

10. Talk with your roommate(s) about how you should go about having sex

It isn't exactly the most fun discussion to have, but it has to be done. Roommate etiquette is at stake here, and the last thing you and your roommates want is to barge in on someone else's private time or to be exiled from the space for hours on end without any advance warning. If you have a long-term partner that you plan on having over frequently, be courteous and tell your roommate(s) when you'll be together. Make an agreement that you are both entitled to having the room/apartment to yourselves now and then and always make an effort to respect each other's boundaries.

11. Practice better genital hygiene

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Forget about douching or using frilly scented soaps on your nether bits—practicing genital hygiene is a lot easier than you'd think. All you need is some mild, unscented soap or wash and a little bit of warm water and you're good to go. You can also think about grooming your pubic hair regularly if you'd rather not keep it grown out. Try to find a shaving cream that's specialized for sensitive skin, because ingrown hairs and stinging sensations in your crotch area are never a good time.

12. Be more confident about expressing your desires in bed

Your pleasure is just as important as your partner's. No matter what the circumstances of your sexual relations are, you should be comfortable expressing your desires in the bedroom and receptive to your partner's suggestions as well. The experience will be best for both of you if you stay invested in each other's satisfaction from beginning to end. Don't be too shy to talk about what you enjoy beforehand or speak up during intercourse—it's all about both parties being engaged by what's happening at all times.

13. Don't be afraid to ask for your partners' sexual histories

You have every right to know where your partners have been in the past. You are, after all, having sex with every one of your partner's previous partners when you have sex with them. Likewise, you are morally obligated to disclose your own sexual history if your partner asks you, too. For both of your sakes, make sure there's no air of mystery between you that will come back to surprise you later.

14. If you have experienced sexual violence, consider talking to a counselor

If you are a victim of sexual assault of any kind, know that you are not alone and that a critical part of healing from what happened is acknowledging that you have the strength to get better. Talk to someone you trust about your feelings, whether that's a loved one, significant other, a doctor, a teacher, or a counselor. You owe it to yourself to believe in a new beginning, and that all starts with moving on from this tragedy at your own pace.

2019 is going to be the year that we all take care of ourselves more than we ever have before.

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