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22 Lewis & Clark Law Review 185 (2018)


Sex work has long been a site for contesting womanhood, sexuality, race, and patriarchy. Its very existence forces us to examine how we think about two very dirty subjects—money and sex. The radical feminist literature highlights the problems with sex work and often describes it as a form of “human trafficking” and violence against women. This influential philosophy underlies much of the work in human trafficking courts, was evident in a letter signed by several Hollywood starlets in opposition to Amnesty International’s support for decriminalization, and is the premise of several movies and documentaries about “sex slavery.” Radical feminists aim to abolish sex work but argue that only sex work purchasers should be criminalized for engaging in it. They are concerned with the structural harms of sex work and have formed alliances with groups that oppose sex work due to moralistic reasons. Like radical feminism, this Article considers the structural harms of sex work in assessing whether it should be criminalized.

However, this Article arrives at a very different conclusion and challenges the radical feminist approach to sex work, arguing that the harms of any form of criminalization, particularly to individuals with intersectional identities, are overlooked in much of the radical feminist literature on sex work. This Article incorporates empirical research from nearly two years of ethnographic fieldwork in Johannesburg, South Africa, to illustrate the ways that criminalizing any aspect of the sex work transaction, including the demand-side, is problematic. By recognizing that some sex workers face the effects of multiple systems of oppression and that the criminal justice system has often been a source of oppression for these individuals, this Article argues that decriminalization should be the favored approach for those interested in improving the lives of sex workers. Moreover, the essentialist framing of the harms of sex work in the radical feminist literature is itself a reproduction of patriarchy and white supremacy, silencing the voices and experiences of sex workers themselves.