Sex Work: Radical Feminism vs Liberal Feminism

Sex work and human trafficking are frequently conflated in international arenas and spaces in which global governance is produced(Almeida, 2011, p. 229; Baye & Heumann, p. 78; Limoncelli, 2009, p. 261; O’Brien, 2015, p. 191; Saunders, 2005, p. 344). This essay will investigate the strengths, weaknesses and alternatives to Amnesty International’s approach to sex work and in particular how debates around sex work affect spaces in which global governance is produced.

I will argue that while on an ideological level, Amnesty’s model does little to challenge the pervasive gendered super structure within which sex work is located, its focus on harm minimisation and the human rights of those involved is better than abolitionist alternatives.

I will do this by first explaining the theoretical debate between radical feminism/neo-abolitionism and liberal feminism/the human rights model and why this matters. Secondly I will show how the ideological infighting between feminists obscures the multidimensional nature of human trafficking and its effects on global governance. Thirdly I will make recommendations of alternatives to policy which Amnesty could lobby for states in order to minimise harm.

Debates around human trafficking have divided feminists who disagree on the issue(Limoncelli, 2009, p. 261; O’Brien, 2015, p. 194). Radical feminism has sided with the abolitionist movement to seek the criminalisation and abolishment of sex work(Limoncelli, 2009, p. 261; O’Brien, 2015, p. 194). The abolitionist movement is comprised of political conservatives, not all of whom are necessarily feminists. This camp includes religious groups who in some cases would clash with radical feminists on other issues such as abortion(O’Brien, 2015, p. 195). Non-state actors(NSAs) involved in this include the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women(CATW) and Equality Now(EN) and stand largely opposed to other NSAs such as Amnesty as well as the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women(GAATW).

Radical feminist NSAs like CATW believe that sex work is a product of the patriarchal society we live in(Limoncelli, 2009, p. 262). They believe that sex work, trafficking in women and violence against women are all products male dominance of women and this gender inequality is perpetuated and sustained by state sanctioned sex work(Limoncelli, 2009, p. 262). They believe that sex work is harmful to women and that its decriminalisation increases demand for women’s bodies, thus facilitating trafficking. Radical feminists thus conflate sex work with human trafficking and “reject any distinction between trafficking as a coercive or forced form of labour and prostitution as a voluntary form of labour.” (Limoncelli, 2009, p. 262) “Sexuality is to feminism what work is to Marxism,”(Saunders, 2005, p. 349) and radical feminists point out how sex work is perhaps the clearest example of institutionalised and informal male sexual violation of women, sex workers are thus the most injured women under patriarchal capitalism(Saunders, 2005, p. 349).

At the heart of it, radical feminism falls back on its second wave modus operandi, identifying spaces in which women’s rights are most commonly violated by men. Thus while they oppose sex work, they do not believe that women should be criminalised for their engagement in it(Limoncelli, 2009, p. 262). Their influence has been strong in the conceptualisation of the “Nordic Model” in which doing sex work is legal but the purchasing of sex work is not. Meaning that the focus is placed on the men who would purchase sex and not on the women who would sell it(Limoncelli, 2009, p. 262). Internationally CATW has been involved in the 1995 Beijing Women’s Conference and in construction of the 2000 Optional Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children(OPPSPT)(Saunders, 2005).

In opposition to the radical feminist/abolitionist movement to sex work is liberal feminism and the human rights model. This is the position of GAATW who have frequently been present in the same debates as CATW, but also most recently the UN and Amnesty(Saunders, 2005, p. 347; Godwin, J, 2008, p. 21; Murphy, C, 2015). Liberal feminism strongly denounces the position of radical feminists for denying the agency of women who enter the sex trade voluntarily(Limoncelli, 2009, p. 262). They believe that the criminalisation of sex work merely drives the industry ‘underground’ and increases the rates of rights violations of women as they are no longer able to seek help from state authorities(Limoncelli, 2009, p. 262; Baye & Heumann, p. 79). They also posit that legalisation leads to safer work places, sexual health and that there is a distinction between human trafficking and sex work(Limoncelli, 2009, p. 262).

Evidence for the efficacy of this position is evident in countries where sex work has been legalised to some degree. Studies done in Australia, specifically in Victoria and Brisbane where sex work is legal to some degree have found that the legalisation of licensed brothels made them more disciplined and highly regulated. Brothel-based sex workers used condoms more often than street based sex workers and due to regular testing for sexually transmitted infections and higher condom use, sex workers in the legal industry have lower rates of infection than non-sex workers(Begum, Hocking, Groves, Fairley & Keogh, 2015, p. 86). In fact after legalisation, the priority for women in the industry swapped from safety being a main concern to instead stigma of the trade being the most pressing concern(Begum et al., 2015, p.86; Almeida, 2011, p. 230), resulting in a different set of worries for sex workers.

The UN in its report Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific(2012) found that criminalisation of sex work and activities related to it fuels stigma and discrimination which stifles access to sexual health services which adversely affects the self esteem of sex workers and state based HIV responses(Godwin, 2012, p. 21). Indeed it is clear to see how in nations like Pakistan and Viet Nam where sex work is referred to in law as a ‘social evil'(Godwin, 2012, p. 21) how criminalisation propagates stigma against sex workers. There is evidence that even the Nordic model contributes to the production of stigma against sex workers(Levy, 2015, p. 175).

Problems become evident when in practice, liberal feminists focus exclusively on deconstructing the assumptions and meta-narratives provided by radical feminists to the extent that they attribute the stigma of sex work to them(Limoncelli, 2009, p. 265). The ideas themselves around the morality of sex work then becomes the focus for victory in debates between abolitionists and non-abolitionists, sidelining the material practices of sex work(Limoncelli, 2009, p. 265). Further liberal feminists, unlike radical feminists, do little to challenge the capitalist super structure within which sex work is found. Assumptions around the free market, individualism and consumerism are not challenged, instead liberal feminists choose to work within these parameters to respond to the status quo and women’s position within it as opposed to radically challenge or change the super structure(Limoncelli, 2009, p.265).

Thus not only is the position that Amnesty International has bought into too focused on the discursive rather than the material, it seeks to work within a problematic super structure of global capitalism. To this end, for all the short comings of the radical feminist position on sex work, on an ideological level I believe that radical feminism has greater foresight, with a clearer picture of the problematic gender politics at play within sex work.
These debates between NSAs on the issue of sex work and human trafficking matter to global governance and politics. As was seen in the construction of the OPPSPT, states engage with these debates and choose sides accordingly. The OPPSPT began as a means of fighting criminal activity and not a human rights document(Saunders, 2005, p. 347). A number of nongovernment organisations(NGOs) from Europe, Latin America and Asia formed a lobbying group naming themselves the Human Rights Caucus to challenge this direction. They lobbied for delegates to define trafficking in persons by reference to international recognised standards of forced labour as opposed to by reference to what work migrants might perform, thus broadening the discussion to include labour rights in multiple industries(Saunders, 2005, p. 347).

Later in the deliberations a second group of NGOs, the International Human Rights Network (of which CATW was a part) entered the process which opposed the Human Rights Caucus. They insisted that sex work be the most fundamental part of trafficking. The result was an unusual mix of compromises which defines trafficking with reference to forced labour and slavery but does not include human rights for sex workers as mandatory provisions(Saunders, 2005, p. 348; Baye & Heumann, 2014, p. 81).

These debates between feminists, which inform the positions that NSAs take and further inform the decisions that states make are so entirely focused on each other and operate on such an abstract level they are exhausting and sometimes fail to consider factors outside the debate. Migration law has as much of an effect to the human rights of sex workers and women as does the patriarchy, stigma and criminalisation of sex work. Italy is an example of how the creation of laws which criminalise aspects of sex work, and migration law intersect to create and buttress the work of sex capitalists and traffickers.

The Italian model is celebrated by the European Commission as an example of “best practice” in human trafficking policy for its early action and alleged “victim rights centred approach”(Baye & Heumann, 2014, p. 79). The Italian penal code does not mention sex work as explicitly legal or illegal however prohibits brothels and recruitment of sex workers. Further since 2008 there has been a EUR 500 fine for those caught soliciting sex in the street. The effect of which is that sex workers fear the police and actively avoid them, going so far as to notify other sex workers via phone of raids in order to avoid them(Baye & Heumann, 2014, p. 86).

The result of which is that sex capitalists play on the illegal status of trafficked sex workers, to make women afraid of the state and law enforcement. 80% of respondents to a study by Baye and Heumann reported experiencing violence at the hands of traffickers and police(2014, p. 80), yet 85% reported never having visited a hospital(2014, p. 93).

Thus while ideological wars are fought at an international level over the morality of sex work, women die at the hands of their illegal status. While making it harder to enter a country may seem to be the way to keep illegal immigrants out, it also advances the conditions for traffickers to control trafficked women, facilitating their abuse. The solution cannot simply be to open borders either, this violates a state’s right to control its boarders but also risks the collapse of social services which could become over encumbered by a potential influx of migrants.  The challenge for Amnesty International who has now taken a ‘side’ in this feminist debate is to transcend the infighting of this ideological war and find ways to protect those most at risk.

My recommendation would be to look to alternative spaces where progress can be made by circumventing the sex work debate, to finally separate the issue of illegal migration/trafficking and sex work. Joseph H. Carens is an advocate for “The Firewall Argument(2008, p. 167), identifies the “possession paradox”(Langlois, 2009, p. 18) which is that while people are legally entitled to certain rights, that does not mean that they are actually able to make use of those rights(Langlois, 2009, p. 18). Indeed those most at risk, most requiring human rights are often those least likely to every has access to them(2014, p. 163). He advocates for a ‘firewall’ to be created between immigration law enforcement and the protection of basic human rights(2014, p.167).

Taking this idea and applying it to the case of Italy as an example, Amnesty could lobby at an international level for the principle of a firewall to be placed between immigration law enforcement and health care, education and perhaps even criminal law. Trafficked persons would then be able to visit hospitals, pay for education and make statements to the police about crimes they have witnessed or suffered. This harm minimisation approach circumvents the ‘sex work debate’ and indirectly benefits sex workers who have been trafficked by removing the fear of their illegality resulting in deportation, eliminating a factor that traffickers use to control trafficked women. Whilst far from being a panacea to the problems faced by sex workers or trafficked persons, the proposal of a firewall between law enforcement and processes which protect basic human rights provides a space for progress for trafficked people outside of the paradigm of sex work.

The debate about sex work is unlikely to be solved in any foreseeable future. Sex work and human trafficking remain discursively linked. Abolitionist radical feminists present a greater challenge to the patriarchal super structure of global capitalism than their opposition, liberal feminists, who employ a human rights/harm minimisation approach. Amnesty International’s decision to take on board the latter matters because this debate filters upwards through academia to NSAs and later to states and their interactions in producing global governance. Yet while abolitionists have greater foresight in looking at the patriarchal causes for sex work, Amnesty International’s decision to support existing sex workers is welcomed to the alternative because women die because of their illegal and stigmatised status within societies. Alternative approaches to the issue of human trafficking is to engage with migration studies to find solutions such as the firewall argument which could provide indirect, incremental progress for women who find themselves unable to make use of their claims to basic human rights for fear of deportation.


Almeida, M. J. (2011). Sex work and pleasure. An exploratory study on sexual response and sex work. Sexologies, 20, 229-232

Baye, E. M-O., Heumann, S. (2014). Migration, sex work and exploitative labor conditions: experiences of Nigerian women in the sex industry in Turin, Italy and counter-trafficking measures. Gender,             Technology and Development, 18(1)77-105

Begum, S., Hocking, J. S., Groves, J., Fairley, C. K., & Keogh, L. A. (2013). Sex workers talk about sex work: six contradictory characteristics of legalised sex work in Melbourne, Australia. Australia, Culture, Health & Sexuality, 15(1), 85-100

Carens, J. (2008). The rights of irregular migrants. Ethics and International Affairs, 22(2) 162-186

Godwin, J. (2012). Findings and conclusions, In Sex work and the law in Asia and the Pacific (pp.21-31). Bangkok: United Nations Development Programme.

Langlois, A. J. (2009). Normative and theoretical foundations of human rights, In M, Goodhart (Ed.) Human rights: politics and practice (pp.12-26), Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Levy, J. (2015). Compromised citizenship – outcomes of law, policy and discourse, In Criminalising the purchase of sex, lessons from Sweden (pp.175-223), New York: Routledge.

Limoncelli, S. A. (2009). The trouble with trafficking: conceptualising women’s sexual labor and economic human rights, Women’s Studies International Forum, 32, 261-269

Murphy, C. (2015). Sex workers’ rights are human rights. Retrieved from     

O’Brien, E. (2015). Prostitution ideology and trafficking policy: the impact of political approaches to domestic sex work on human trafficking policy in Australia and the United States, Journal of Women, Politics & Policy, 36(2), 191-212

Saunders, P. (2005). Traffic violations: determining the meaning of violence in sexual trafficking versus sex work, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 20(3), 343-360

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About Saúl A. Zavarce

Venezuelan-Australian journalist and international relations academic.

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