A brief history of the ‘Sex work is work’ movement

In 1977 a Swedish project was launched to discover the everyday reality of prostituted women’s lives. Researchers interviewed hundreds of women, johns and pimps. What they found exploded the old Victorian myths that prostitution resulted from a biological urge in men and a mental defect in the women. Instead, they found it was something that men do to women with tragic consequences.

Around the same time feminists in the United States and elsewhere, such as Kathleen Barry and Andrea Dworkin, were making a powerful analysis of pornography and prostitution as key elements in the systematic subordination of women. As a result, the sex industry had a serious image problem on its hands.

This article provides an insight into the ways in which the sex industry fought back, including by using euphemism to obscure the reality of prostitution and the idea of prostitutes’ trade unions to give itself legitimacy.

I draw on research and arguments by Kajsa Ekman in her excellent book, Being and Being Bought. Ekman shows that in almost every case these so-called unions are facades put up by those with vested interests – some of them pimps and others who exploit the prostitution of others, some of them johns and some of them people who, for various reasons, have carved out a niche for themselves promoting the industry.


Financed by churches and the porn industry, COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) was founded in the United States in 1973 by a liberal faction of the hippie movement, who believed that prostitution is an expression of sexual freedom. After eight years it had about 30,000 members, including sex liberals, beatniks and known pimps. In spite of the fact that only about 3% of its members were prostituted women, COYOTE has repeatedly been labelled a union of “hookers” or “whores”.

It was COYOTE spokesperson Priscilla Alexander who, perhaps more than anyone, brought the term “sex worker” into mainstream use. She realised that to normalise prostitution, they needed to shift the language from the word “prostitution,” which is ugly and does in fact conjure up something of its reality, to a euphemism that obscures that reality and conjures up something wholesome and healthy. Sadly, her solution has been very effective.

Alexander claimed that her four years at college qualified her to be considered a “sex worker” and speak on their behalf. She and Margo St James travelled round the world marketing their ideas that “sex work” should be legitimised and that selling your body is a human right.

De Rode Draad

From the early 1980s the Dutch government started a number of projects with the aim of normalising prostitution. This culminated in the legalisation of all aspects of the sex industry in Holland in 1999. The de Graaf Foundation played a central role in this process. The foundation is pro-prostitution and now has official status as the Dutch Institute for Prostitution Issues in Amsterdam and is a major source of pro-prostitution propaganda.

The de Graaf Foundation founded de Rode Draad (The Red Thread), which is now one of the most famous “unions for prostitutes” in the world. In 2002 it became an official trade union under the name Truss and shortly after that it joined FNV, Holland’s largest federation of trade unions. In 2010 it had only about 100 members (out of more than 25,000 prostituted women in Amsterdam) and there is no record of it ever pursuing any genuine trade union issue. In spite of this, tourist brochures give the impression that it is a hive of activity through which prostituted women self-organise en masse.

The World Whores’ Congress

The Dutch government and the de Graaf Foundation part-funded the World Whores’ Congress held in Amsterdam in 1985 and in Brussels in 1986. The congress was initiated by COYOTE’s Margo St James and Priscilla Alexander, along with academic Gail Pheterson. The people who attended were prostituted women (about 50%) along with academics, sex liberals, government officials, police, and pimps and others from the sex industry.

The record of the congress shows that it included open and frank discussion with a wide range of opinions expressed including support for prostitution, desire to leave it, and seeing it as a necessary evil. Some of the testimony was harrowing – for example, one woman told of being raped and beaten by her pimp when she was 13 and another spoke of being violently beaten and coerced into prostitution by her boyfriend who became her pimp. In spite of this, the organisers pressed ahead with their pre-defined agenda and adopted a manifesto demanding the decriminalisation of both prostitution and pimping.

The manifesto is quoted extensively in pro-prostitution academic and “sex positive” literature as the authentic demands of “sex workers”. However, the records of the congress show that the prostituted women did not speak with one voice and that the demands were passed by a majority who were not “sex workers” and many who had a vested financial interest in the industry. It is rare to find a critique of the context in which it arose and how the agenda was set and controlled.

The AIDS epidemic opens up new funding streams

The onset of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s led to a large (and continuing) influx of funding to COYOTE and other organisations that purported to represent prostituted women, under the guise of preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS.

The prevention strategy can be summarised as the distribution of condoms to the women (at whose door the responsibility for preventing the spread of the disease to punters and their wives and partners is firmly laid). The funding enabled these groups to step up their campaigns for the normalisation of prostitution as “work”.

As a result, the “prostitution is work” argument started to gain real traction in the late 1990s with organisations like the ILO, UNAIDS and the WHO coming out in favour of it.

Unions for “sex workers”

In the early 2000s, the idea that trade unions were the solution to all of the problems of prostitution took off. However, discussion about what a union could actually achieve for prostituted women was noticeably absent.

The idea of unions for prostitutes is seductive. But how do isolated women organise against the violent pimps, mafia-like gangs and ruthless brothel and lap-dancing venue bosses that control the trade?

Even in countries where prostitution is legalised, only a very small minority of women are formally employed. For example, in 2007 in Germany (where prostitution is legalised), government research showed that less than 1% of prostituted persons were formally employed and only 5% even wanted any sort of registered employment within the industry.

For her book (which was originally published in Swedish in 2010) Kajska Ekman conducted research into the “sex worker” unions in Western Europe. Of particular note is the International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW), a UK-based group that became part of the National Union of General and Municipal Workers, now the GMB.

The IUSW website states that membership is “open to everyone working in the sex industry and adult entertainment […] and those who support the campaigning aims of the organisation” – which sounds like an invitation to johns and pimps to me. Which legitimate union invites customers, bosses and business owners to join?

The IUSW campaigns for the full decriminalisation of the industry, including pimps. In 2003, it had only 150 members (at a time when there were an estimated 100,000 prostituted women in the UK). When Ekman was doing her research, the most active member was Douglas Fox who claimed to be a sex worker but was actually the founder and co-owner of one of England’s largest escort agencies, Christony Companions – i.e. a pimp.

The IUSW has not only failed to make any demands on the sex industry to improve conditions for workers, it has actually lobbied the government to reject proposed anti-trafficking legislation, which would provide redress for trafficked women.

Ekman found a similar story in the other Western European countries she investigated:

“In spite of my efforts, I was not able to find any group that functions as a trade union in the true meaning of the term: an organisation run and financed by its members, negotiating with employers to promote the best interests of workers. Although there may be or may have been such groups, I still draw the conclusion that the majority of groups calling themselves trade unions for prostituted individuals are mislabelling and misrepresenting themselves. Instead, most of them are interest groups using the term ‘trade union’ to make prostitution out to be a job like any other.” (Page 69)

She showed that the groups weren’t what they appeared to be and generally their main aim was not to change the industry but to change its image. There is a deathly silence from all of them about the practicalities of unionising “workers” in prostitution as it is actually practiced.

The hall of distorting mirrors

The focus of all of the groups that purport to represent “sex workers” that Ekman investigated was on agitating for full decriminalisation of the industry – and attacking feminists.

Much of their discourse relies on association – so prostitution is associated with positive and dynamic words and ideas like ecstasy, pleasure, festivities, dynamism, liberation, and transgression while feminists are associated with negative words like puritanical, sobriety, authoritarianism, anti-sex, and even Nazism. This is not analysis. It is manipulation and it blocks analytical thinking.

More recently this strand has morphed into the assertion that feminists hate sex workers and the ‘SWERF’ term has come into use. SWERF stands for Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminist and the term is used widely as a slur against feminists who see prostitution as a lynchpin of the patriarchal system that oppresses and subordinates women. The use of the SWERF term is also manipulative and blocks analytical thinking.

What feminist wants to be thought of as someone who hates anyone, let alone a vulnerable woman? Even the threat of being called a SWERF frightens women into conforming with the “prostitution is work” agenda. This is particularly devastating for young women who are exploring feminist ideas and who might otherwise listen to the feminist analysis of prostitution.

The use of the SWERF term is a form of harassment. It is used to discredit the feminist analysis and to frighten women away from it. This is a tired old patriarchal tactic but unfortunately it is effective.

Another main thread of the discourse is that the “sex worker” is not a victim but a strong person who knows what she wants, whose choices we must respect. This is a curious argument because the definition of ‘victim’ is someone who is subjected to cruel or oppressive treatment or suffers some other damaging event. Nowhere does the definition suggest or imply anything about the victim’s humanity or strength, or lack thereof.

All types of people can be victims of earthquakes or car crashes. News stories about earthquakes often focus on the strength and resourcefulness of the victims and never question their choice of, for example, going to sleep in their own bed on the night of the earthquake.

However, in popular culture it has become something of a taboo to describe someone as a victim of systematic oppression because by definition that draws attention to that systematic oppression and implies the possibility of a different system – one in which there is some form of social justice, for example.

Calling someone a victim of anything other than something random and unpredictable has become associated with an insult to that person’s humanity, strength, “agency”, and so on. It is no accident that this change in popular culture has come about in the decades that neoliberalism has controlled the media and infiltrated academia. It is yet another ideological trick to block analysis of systems of oppression and to keep us all firmly in our place.

We should not be surprised therefore that those who want to normalise the sex industry accuse anyone who critiques it of promoting a victim/saviour narrative that impugns the “sex worker’s agency”.

Who do they use they use this tactic against? Those horrid feminists, of course. Why? To silence their analysis of prostitution as a system of oppression and frighten others (especially young women) from listening to them. Because ultimately that feminist analysis is sound and once you open your eyes and ears and heart to it, it is hard to disagree.

And of course when those horrid feminists say that a prostituted woman is a victim, it just proves that they must hate her. So therefore they are SWERFs. QED*. Except, actually, not.

It’s just another distorting mirror. Let’s listen to the survivors of prostitution and hear what they have to say.

[*] QED is short for the Latin phrase quod erat demonstrandum, which roughly translates as “so it is proved”.

Further reading

  • Ekman, Kajsa Ekis (2013) Being and Being Bought. Melbourne: Spinifex.
  • Barry, Kathleen (1979) Female Sexual Slavery. New York University Press.
  • Dworkin, Andrea (1974). Woman Hating. New York: Penguin Books.
  • Dworkin, Andrea (1981). Pornography: Men Possessing Women. London: Women’s Press.

4 thoughts on “A brief history of the ‘Sex work is work’ movement

  1. Thanks for this! I’ve been looking for this info on COYOTE for some time but didn’t know it was in Ekman’s book.
    I’ve been thinking about this and how the “SW is work” agenda is a clear example of astro-turfing. It comes from the industry and the lobbies, but some how it manages to appear like a grassroot spontaneous claim. It’s perverse.

  2. I’m sorry if it was mentioned in the article, but I’d like to know if that Swedish study interviewing prostitutes, johns and pimps from 1977 is available in English somewhere, that seems like a very valuable resource and I’d like to read it if possible, could you share the name with me?

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