Rowman and Littlefield International

Realising Justice for Sex Workers

Published on Thursday 08 Mar 2018 by Dr. Kathryn McGarry & Dr. Sharron A. FitzGerald

‘Realising Justice as an edited collection calls for transformative change in the lives of sex workers, yet the proposals for achieving this have resonance beyond the lives of sex workers and indeed sex working women. The agenda for positive change presented begins with the premise that the lives of all women are limited when the rights of some women are denied. In order to allow all women to enjoy parity of participation, to have choices, to feel safe and to live fulfilling lives we need to attend to the rights of many women, including sex working women, whose rights to all of these things have long been dismissed. Our edited collection, as a “politics of doing” presents a social justice lens through which to envision and ultimately realise women’s rights global wide.’

Dr. Kathryn McGarry and Dr. Sharron A. FitzGerald, authors of Realising Justice for Sex Workers.



Policies which exclude, marginalise, stigmatise and threaten sex workers’ health, and safety contravene social justice principles based on equal, safe and fulling opportunities for all.


Recently, moves to criminalise sex purchase have proliferated globally. Advocates claim that this will address violence against women (VAW) and gender inequality. While the intention might be genuine, we assert that the method is wholly mistaken and falls short of any just response for sex workers. Commentators argue that the criminal law is a crude instrument and using it to address complex social issues results in, at best, failure and, at worst, adverse outcomes for those in most need of supportive policy interventions (Smart, 2002; Scoular, 2004).

Uncritically appealing to the criminal law to reduce demand for women’s sexual services and to tackle violence against sex workers does not mitigate their vulnerability. As research from Nordic nations reveals, the criminalisation of sex purchase to protect sex workers is counter-productive (Skilbrei, 2013). Levy (2014) found that sex workers in Sweden and Norway faced exacerbated difficulties in a criminalised context, including increased stigma and discrimination which deterred them from reporting violence to authorities. Such struggles demarcate sex workers’ lived realities when facing eviction from homes (Levy and Jacobson, 2014), issues with child custody (ibid) and difficulties with immigration authorities and tax authorities (Levy, 2013; 2014). Policies which exclude, marginalise, stigmatise and threaten sex workers’ health, and safety contravene social justice principles based on equal, safe and fulling opportunities for all. Yet how can we understand contemporary feminist prostitution politics and its impact on achieving social justice for sex workers? It is not our intention to rehearse these tired debates - and indeed our goal is to move beyond this to consider how real positive social change can happen for sex workers - yet it is impossible to understand prostitution politics’ dimensions and transform them without reflecting on their influences and origins.


Feminist Prostitution Politics


Creating spaces to research prostitution, means confronting a particular ‘politics of representation’ (Fraser, 2012) pervading ‘what’ is said, ‘who’ can say it and ‘how’ it becomes knowledge (McGarrry and FitzGerald, 2017). And while all policy issues are complicated by discursive politics (Bacchi, 2009), the materiality awarded to particular hegemonic notions of prostitution and ‘the prostitute’ have influenced knowledge (‘what is prostitution?’); knowledge production (‘what is there to know about prostitution/the prostitute’ and ‘who’ can produce such knowledge?) and law/policy (‘how do we address this?’).

This framing is useful for the current volume. Neo-abolitionists consider prostitution as the ‘absolute embodiment of patriarchal male privilege’ (Kesler, 2002: 219) as it strips a woman’s dignity, reducing her to an object for the sexual consumption of men (Overall, 1992; Farley, 2006). Thus, a neo-abolitionist approach to prostitution supports policies to eliminate prostitution, and punitively target men’s demand for and the organisation of prostitution. Scoular and O’Neill point to abolitionist policies as intersecting with wider neo-liberal structures to compound the marginal status of those involved in prostitution, ‘foreclosing any discussion of forms of rights or recognition which could support counter-hegemonic challenges’ (2008: 18).

Critics argue that contemporary abolitionist politics mirror older reformers who focused on ‘saving fallen women’ (Walkowitz, 1980). Yet now, feminists have at their disposal ‘increasingly sophisticated techniques of risk management to legitimise new forms of behavioural regulation and control’ (Scoular and O’Neill, 2008: 22). This comes into sharp relief when neo-abolitionists entwine their policy objectives with state interests (Jeffreys, 1997). For them, the law is both the means and the instrument to tackle men’s demand for women’s sexual services. It frames their ideological campaign to protect female ‘victims’ of modern-day sexual slavery and human trafficking (FitzGerald, 2016). Many national women’s groups and other feminist organisations support utilising the law to communicate a symbolic message on sexual behaviour without consideration of impact on sex workers’ safety (e.g. European Women’s Lobby, Coalition Against Trafficking in Women). Appealing to state mechanisms to criminalise the sex industry, radical feminist concerns segue into regulatory techniques by simply perpetuating and legitimising more invasive systems of control to regulate women who do not assume a victim identity and who do not self-responsibilise and persist in sex work (Scoular and O’Neill, 2008). As Scoular observes, law’s involvement in sexual regulation ‘has radically altered how legal power works and relatedly the questions we can ask’. She argues that in light of the international community’s preference for neo-abolitionism, rather than asking whether a sex purchase law is good or bad or focus on its implementation and the associated problems, we must begin to ‘probe more deeply on what these extended forms of governance mean for men and women’ (2015: 74).

Associated with ideas of prostitution as ‘free choice’ is the liberal notion of prostitution as work like any other (Sanders, 2005). The sex work discourse emerged in the 1990s, reflecting sex workers’ fight for their rights and their increased political mobilisation and challenges to stigmatising language (O’Neill and Campbell, 2006). Approaching the issue from an inclusive and human rights perspective, many sex work advocates call for sex work to be regarded as legitimate labour (Delacoste and Alexander, 1988; Pheterson, 1993; Nagel, 1997; Doezema, 1998). 

Internationally, sex worker rights organisations (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics (COYOTE), the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), De Rode Draad and SWAI) evolved to challenge traditional constructions of prostitution and to raise awareness of sex workers’ rights as self-determining agents (Pheterson, 1993). As a discourse, a sex-as-work approach challenges stereotypes about women in prostitution which they argue leads to their stigmatisation and abuse (Lopez and Clamen, 2004).

Where evidence-based critiques of neo-abolitionism emerge from informed challengers abolitionists respond by discrediting ‘others’ who they insist neither understand nor have the authority to speak about the reality of prostitution (McGarry and FitzGerald, 2017). Accordingly, they construct the decriminalisation of prostitution as normalising men’s right to buy women, VAW and sexual exploitation (Scoular and O’Neill, 2008) and construct those who challenge neo-abolitionism as legitimising the exploitation of women (Ward and Wylie, 2014; McGarry and FitzGerald, 2017). Observing these discursive and subjectification effects we note the knowledge-power dynamic, and how neo-abolitionists construct boundaries on who is entitled to produce ‘knowledge’ that will count as ‘truth’ and tactically secure their position of influence (Bacchi, 2009). This entrenched politics is the prime impetus for us to devise An Agenda for Change.




Bacchi, C. and J. Everline. 2009. Gender mainstreaming or diversity mainstreaming? The politics of "doing". NORA – Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research 17(1): 2 – 17.

Farley, M. 2006. Prostitution, Trafficking, and Cultural Amnesia: What We Must Not Know in Order To Keep the Business of Sexual Exploitation Running Smoothly. Yale Journal of Law & Feminism 18(1) Article 5: 108-144.

FitzGerald, S. A. 2016. Vulnerable geographies: human trafficking, immigration and border control in the UK and beyond. Gender, Place & Culture 23(2): 181-197.

Kesler, K. 2002. Is a Feminist Stance in Support of Prostitution Possible? An Exploration of Current Trends. Sexualities 5(2): 219–235.

Levy, J. and P. Jacobson. 2014. Sweden’s abolitionist discourse and law: Effects on the dynamics of Swedish sex work and on the lives of Sweden’s sex workers. Criminology and Criminal Justice 14(5): 593-607.

Levy, J. 2014. Criminalising the Purchase of Sex: Lessons from Sweden. London: Routledge.

McGarry, K. and S. A. FitzGerald. (2017) The Politics of Injustice: Sex working women, feminism and criminalising sex purchase in Ireland. Criminology and Criminal Justice DOI


Pheterson, G. 1993. The whore stigma: Female dishonour and male unworthiness. Social Text 37: 39-64.

Sanders, T. 2005. ‘It's just acting’: Sex workers’ strategies for capitalizing on sexuality. Gender, Work & Organization 12(4): 319-342.

Scoular, J. 2004. The ‘subject’ of prostitution: Interpreting the discursive, symbolic and material position of sex/work in feminist theory. Feminist Theory 5(3): 343-355.

Scoular, J. and M. O’Neill. 2008. Legal incursions into supply/demand: criminalising and responsibilising the buyers and sellers of sex in the UK. In V. Munro and M. Della Giusta (eds.) Demanding Sex: Critical Reflections on the Regulation of Prostitution. Hampshire: Ashgate: 13-34.

Smart, C. 2002. Feminism and the Power of Law. London: Routledge.

Skilbrei, M. L. and C. Holmström. 2013. Is there a Nordic prostitution regime? Crime and Justice 40(1): 479-517.

Walkowitz, J. R. 1982. Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class, and the State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ward, E. and G. Wylie G. 2014. ‘Reflexivities of discomfort’: Researching the sex trade and sex trafficking in Ireland. European Journal of Women’s Studies 21(3): 251-263.



Dr. Sharron A. FitzGerald teaches in gender and migration studies at Ludwig-Maximilian University, Munich, Germany.

Dr. Kathryn McGarry is a lecturer in Social Policy in the Department of Applied Social Studies, Maynooth University.