Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers' Rights

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Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers' Rights (2018) by Molly Smith and Juno Mac is a book discussing policies surrounding sex work from the perspective of sex workers.



  • Who are prostitutes? Ideas seem to lurch between contradictory stereotypes, perhaps unsurprisingly for a group more often spoken about than to. Much as immigrants are seen as lazy scroungers while somehow also stealing the jobs of "decent people", sex workers are simultaneously victim and accomplice, sexually voracious yet helpless maidens.
    • p. 18
  • Sex workers - not journalists, politicians, or the police - are the experts on sex work. We bring our experiences of criminalisation, rape, assault, intimate partner abuse, abortion, mental illness, drug use and epistemic violence with us in our organising and our writing. We bring the knowledge we have developed through our deep immersion in sex worker organising spaces - spaces of mutual aid, spaces that are working towards collective liberation.
    • p. 21


  • The hatred of sex work is rooted in very old and misogynist ideas about sex.
    • p. 22
  • Sex workers are associated with sex, and to be associated with sex is to be dismissible.
    • p. 28
  • Sex, in these discussions, is positioned as something intrinsically too special to be sold - something intimate reserved for meaningful relationships. Implicit in this view is the sense that sex is a volatile substance for women and must be controlledor legitimised by an emotional connection. [...] Yet for many people, sex can indeed be recreational, casual, or in some way "meaningless". The meaning and purpose of sex varies wildly for different people in different contexts or at different times in their lives.
    • p. 29
  • As sex workers, we sympathise with the wish to over-emphasise pleasure, freedom or power. This narrative may feel much better than being stigmatised as damaged, an animal or a piece of meat. However, there is an obvious conflict of interest between a fantasy persona who loves their job and an activist who demands policy intervention to remedy the abuse of their human rights in the workplace.
    • p. 33
  • A sex worker may describe a bad experience as a labour-rights violation, sexual abuse, or simply a shitty day at work. Regardless, their testimonials are not merely symbols to be interpreted by non-prostitute feminists, especially not as part of rallying for the criminalisation of their income.
    • p. 38


  • Sex workers' rights [...] should hinge on workers' rights to safety, not on the purported social value of the work.
    • p. 41
  • If we are serious about safety for sex workers in a post-Weinstein era, we will extend to them the same faith we give to film stars in their ability to differentiate between sexual touch at work and sexual touch that - even in the workplace - is assault.
    • p. 44
  • We live in a culture where it is assumed that to penetrate someone sexually is intrinsically an act of dominance and to be sexually penetrated is to be made subservient. This means that the mistreatment of sex workers begins to seem natural. If we who sell sex are already degraded through penetration, then the further degradation of being written about as garbage cans, flesh holes, sperm receptacles, orifices, or blow-up dolls is seen as fact rather than as actively reproducing and perpetuating misogynist discourse - and all in the name of feminism.
    • p. 45
  • People sell sex to get money. This simple fact is often missed, forgotten, or overlooked. This can be because sex workers are stigmatised to the extent that their motives are pathologised; it becomes inconceivable that people could do something considered so strange and terrible for the same mundane, relatable reasons that govern everybody else's everyday life.
    • p. 46
  • Like other marginalized groups, LGBTQ people are over-represented in sex work. Discrimination, rejection and abuse - both at home and in wider communities - increase their precarity and vulnerability in a homophobic and transphobic society, leaving prostitution as one of the remaining viable routes out of destitution. Trans women in particular often find that formal employment is out of reach. Increased school drop-out rates, lack of family support, and lack of access to adequate healthcare (including the means to finance gender-affirming treatment) leave them exposed to poverty, illness, and homelessness.
    • p. 50
  • It is very difficult to prevent anyone from selling sex through criminal law. Criminalisation can make it more dangerous, but there is little the state can do to physically curtail a person's capacity to sell or trade sex. Thus, prostitution is an abiding strategy for survival for those who have nothing - no training, qualifications, or equipment. There are almost no prerequisites for heading out to the streets and waiting for a client. Survival sex work may be dangerous, cold, and frightening- but for people whose other options are worse (hunger, homelessness, drug withdrawal) it's there as a last resort: the "safety net" onto which almost any destitute person can fall. This explains the indomitable resilience of sex work.
    • p. 50/51
  • Capitalism is in many ways at its most intense in criminalised markets. This is because in criminalised markets, there can be no regulations, no workers' rights. With commercial sex criminalised, there can be no workers' rights, whereas with commercial sex decriminalised, people who sell sex can access labour law.
    • p. 51
  • To say that prostitution is work is not to say it is good work, or that we should be uncritical of it. To be better than poverty or a lower paid job is an abysmally low bar, especially for anyone who claims to be part of a movement towards liberation. People who sell or trade sex are among the world's least powerful people, the people often forced to do the worst jobs. But that is precisely why anti-prostitution campaigners should take seriously the fact that sex work is a way people get the resources they need. [...] Few sex workers would object if you sought to abolish the sex industry by ensuring that they got the resources they need without having to sell sex.
    • p. 52/53
  • People are attracted to the concept of a Nordic-style law that criminalises only the sex buyer, and not the prostitute - but any campaign or policy that aims to reduce business for sex workers will force them to absorb the deficit, whether in their wallets or in their working conditions.
    • p. 54
  • Just because a job is bad does not mean it's not a "real job". When sex workers assert that sex work is work, we are saying that we need rights. We are not saying that work is good or fun, or even harmless, nor that it has fundamental value. [...] People should not have to demonstrate that their work has intrinsic value to society to deserve safety at work. Moving towards a better society - one in which more people's work does have wider value, one in which resources are shared on the basis of need - cannot come about through criminalisation. Nor can it come about through treating marginalised people's material needs and survival strategies as trivial. Sex workers ask to be credited with the capacity to struggle with work - even to hate it - and still be considered workers. You don't have to like your job to want to keep it.
    • p. 55


  • This perspective [that without prostitution, there would be no trafficking of women] also views prostitution as intrinsically more horrifying than other kinds of work (including work that is "low-status", exploitative, or low-paid).
    • p. 59
  • In these conversations, trafficking becomes a battle between good and evil, monstrosity and innocence, replete with heavy-handed imagery of chains, ropes, and cuffs to signify enslavement and descriptors such as nefarious, wicked, villainous, and iniquitous.
    • p. 59
  • There is a huge emphasis on kidnapping and, correspondingly, heroic rescues. In the wildly popular action film Taken (2008), the daughter of the hero (played by Liam Neeson) is snatched by Albanian sex traffickers while on holiday in Paris. Taken typifies many real anti-trafficking campaigns, presenting trafficking as a context-free evil, a kidnap at random that could happen to anyone, anywhere.
    • p 60/61
  • The vast, vast majority of people who end up in exploitative situations were seeking to migrate and have become entrapped in a horrifically exploitative system because when people migrate without papers they have few to no rights. Acknowledging that people who end up in exploitative situations wanted to migrate is not to blame them. It is to say that the solution to their exploitative situation is to enable them to migrate legally and with rights. Everything else is at best a distraction (sexy chains! evil villains!) and at worst, actively worsens the problem by pushing for laws which make it harder, not easier, to migrate legally and with rights.
    • p. 62
  • The mass migrations of the twenty-first century are driven by human-made catastrophes - climate change, poverty, war - and reproduce the glaring inequalities from they emerge. Countries in the global north bear hugely disproportionate responsibility for climate change, yet disproportionately close their doors to people fleeing the effects of climate chaos, leaving desperate families to sleep under canvas amid snow at the edges of Fortress Europe.
    • p. 63/64
  • You don't stop people wanting or needing to migrate by making it illegal for them to do so, you just make it more dangerous and difficult, and leave them more vulnerable to exploitation. Punitive laws may dissuade some from making the journey, but they guarantee that everyone who does travel is doing so in the worst possible conditions.
    • p. 64
  • Much mainstream trafficking discourse characterises the abuse of migrants and people selling sex as the work of individual bad actors, external to and independent of state actions and political choices. Sometimes this discourse works not only to obscure the role of the state but to absolve it.
    • p. 69
  • To assert simply that sex work and trafficking are completely different is to defend only documented sex workers who are not experiencing exploitation but say nothing about those exploited at the intersection of migration and the sex industry. As a slogan, "sex work is not trafficking" suggests that the current mode of anti-trafficking policy is broadly correct and merely - on occasion- misfires. [...] Fundamentally, the claim that sex work and trafficking are different operates as a way of refusing to talk about "trafficking", since such conversations are often used to attack us when we organise; people reach for any easy way to shut the topic down. But sex workers should start welcoming such discussions. They are an opportunity to talk about how border enforcement makes people more vulnerable to exploitation and violence as they seek to migrate - an analysis which should be central to sex workers' rights activism.
    • p. 84/85
  • There is no migrant solidarity without prostitute solidarity and there is no prostitute solidarity without migrant solidarity. The two struggles are inextricably bound up with one another.
    • p. 86

A Victorian Hangover: Great Britain[edit]

  • As well as risks to safety and security, this situation also produces a culture full of silences. Very few sex workers are prepared to step forward and speak in political spaces because the consequences of visibility can be so disastrous. [...] The mechanisms that produce the silence, precarity, and vulnerability of most sex workers are not natural or fundamental to society.
    • p. 93
  • Ending the war on drugs is a sex workers' rights issue.
    • p. 93
  • Both sex workers and drug users face discrimination in the media, in courtrooms, in healthcare, in dealing with social services, and in formal employment - doubly so for those who fall into both categories. Sex workers who use drugs are intensely vulnerable to violence because they fear arrest on two counts.
    • p. 95
  • Thinking of sex workers who use drugs as people who are trying their best to survive in a bad situation is necessary. It pushes the public to think of them not as flawed or failing, but as dealing with the big and small ways that society is stacked against them. It also helps to identify the big and small changes that would make them safer, like safe injection facilities, clean needles, safe red-light areas, affordable housing, and an end to destitution.
    • p. 96
  • Criminalisation is a multi-pronged trap. Convictions, ASBOs, and prostitute cautions hinder sex workers' ability to secure other jobs and lead to accumulating debts for fines, pushing them into continuing to sell sex.
    • p. 101
  • There is also a more prosaic reason for the police to focus on paid sex: the opportunity to confiscate cash and other assets. Under the Proceeds of Crime Act of 2002, British police have the power to confiscate assets they suspect are the result of criminal activity. [...] Between them, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service can each pocket 50 per cent of what ever is taken, giving the police a significant incentive to use these powers extensively. [...] As a result, the theft of sex workers' money in police raids on brothels is routine and goes beyond merely confiscating the occasional eighty pounds. [...] Anti-prostitution policing thus becomes legalised theft.
    • p. 107/108
  • Criminalisation grants the police power over sex workers, and at the same time creates points of leverage which can be exploited by predators.
    • p. 108
  • Almost all sex workers are in the job because they need the money. When made to pick between their income and making bad bosses or rapists accountable, the sex worker often has no choice but to tolerate bad conditions.
    • p. 110
  • The criminalisation of our workplaces means sex workers lose our jobs if we report abuse.
    • p. 111

Prison Nation: The United States, South Africa, and Kenya[edit]

  • Criminalising the prostitute is rooted in disgust and hatred - entangled with misogyny, racism, and fear of the visibly queer or diseased body. These coalesce into the belief that the prostitute is a threat who must be warded off through punishment.
    • p. 116
  • Amidst the increasingly visible resurgence of fascism, it is easy for some liberals to position themselves as "good people" simply by being to the left of the most ghoulish and uncouth iterations of hard-right politics. Structural problems become personalised and pathologised in figures like Donald Trump.
    • p. 117
  • When we think of police violence not only as state violence but also (often) as male violence against women, the criminalisation of prostitution comes into focus in a new way: as a key driver of male violence against women.
    • p. 118
  • Criminalisation forces workers to compromise on some or all of their safety strategies in the hope of avoiding the police. At the same time, it signals to violent people that sex workers are in some sense "legitimate" targets at the periphery of society.
    • p. 125
  • There is no progressive version of full criminalisation. Abuses such as racist policing, corruption, and sexual assault are fundamentally bound up with the vulnerability of the sex worker who, when defined as criminal, has little recourse to justice or protection. Across nations where sex workers are criminalised, stories emerge of police officers capitalising on the weakness of their victims in order to inflict beatings, rape, and extortion to an extent where sex workers fear police more than clients, managers, or the public.
    • p. 129
  • In the US, the criminalisation of people attempting to survive is routine; for some, police attention means arrest as often as it means any kind of safety.
    • p. 132
  • Identifying the problems of this law-and-order approach pushes us to locate violence against women within the broader texture of state violence - including arrests, deportations, evictions, loss of child custody, anti-homelessness ordinances, the war on drugs, gentrification, and racism in policing and in the criminal justice system. The fight for decriminalisation is just one strand. Working to end the power of the police to assault, arrest, prosecute or deport people in the sex trades is part of a larger struggle for safety, a struggle which includes freeing incarcerated survivors, ending cash bail, and fighting for investment in the things that make people safer - not cops and prisons.
    • p. 134
  • For sex workers, effective organising has to mean solidarity that branches further than a single issue. The most criminalised and marginalised sex workers have more problems than the criminalisation of sex work.
    • p. 137

The People's Home: Sweden, Norway, Ireland, and Canada[edit]

  • Prostitution is a richly symbolic terrain. It is where our society's anxieties about power, womanhood, and the nation coalesce. For feminist women, the figure of the prostitute often comes to represent the trauma that is inflicted on all women within patriarchy - the ultimate symbol of women's pain, of the violence that women suffer. The client thus becomes the symbol of all violent men: he is the avatar of unadulterated violence against women, the archetypal perpetrator.
    • p. 141
  • Those who advocate for the Nordic model are correct that the client benefits from a huge power imbalance; what they miss is that client criminalisation worsens this power imbalance. [...] The sex worker needs to sell sex much more than the client "needs" to buy it. This "asymmetry of need" is essential to understanding the actual impact of the Nordic model.
    • p. 148
  • Sex worker advocacy is not simply about making sex work safer: it is also about removing the barriers to leaving it behind.
    • p. 152
  • When people are pushed into prostitution by poverty, the response of the Nordic model is not to alleviate their poverty, but to try to take away their survival strategies.
    • p. 155
  • It is no coincidence that so many of the sex workers deported from Scandinavia are Black women. The Nordic model emerged in response to racist anxieties about the migration of Black sex workers [...] who were depicted through the stigmatising trope of the sexually aggressive Black woman.
    • p. 163
  • The criminalisation of sex workers for sharing flats, the use of fines and evictions against sex workers, and the extremely aggressive use of deportations are incompatible with the claim that the Nordic model "totally decriminalises" sellers. It retains, adds, and intensifies numerous tools with which to harass, prosecute, arrest or harm sex workers through criminal law or civil measures. In conveying to the police that disrupting commercial sex is their job, the law pushes the police to use these tools against sellers - which they do with particular alacrity when the seller is Black.
    • p. 163
  • When people who sell sex have desperate, urgent reasons to hide from the police, we are profoundly vulnerable to violent men. Such men know that they can attack us, rob us, or assault us - and because contacting the cops means we'll risk being made homeless on top of being robbed at gunpoint, we won't contact the cops. Sex workers under such a system are sitting ducks.
    • p. 164
  • Bear in mind that there is no simple binary divide between sex workers and those you would consider trafficked. [...] All, for whatever reason, are seeking to make money - whether to buy drugs, placate a violent partner or abusive manager, give to a landlord or send to a dependent family member. Or indeed to pay off a people smuggler. Policies which make a prostitute's life harder will make the lives of those you would consider trafficked harder, too.
    • p. 165
  • Criminal law is not a key determinant of the size of the sex industry in any given country. [...] The key determinant is not criminal law but poverty and people's access to resources.
    • p. 166
  • For all that feminists say they prioritize tackling violence against victims - addressing the hurt caused to us by the buying of sex - it is striking how frequently the mask slips. When it does, we see yet again that the goal of "doing away" with sex workers and the spectre of "harm to the community" drive these policies.
    • p. 171
  • We can work towards a more feminist world by making women less poor - but not through bolstering the patriarchal power of the carceral state.
    • p. 174
  • As sex workers and feminists, we do not accept that borders and their enforcement are inevitable or immutable. We too are working towards a radical feminism that can abolish borders, capitalism, and the sex industry without causing harm to sex workers.
    • p. 175
  • Criminalisation is about what can be taken away from sex workers. If you care about the most marginalised people in society, why not start from thinking what can be given to them?
    • p. 175

Charmed Circle: Germany, Netherlands, and Nevada[edit]

  • When we make clear that we're asking for the decriminalisation of sex work, we are persistently misunderstood to mean legalisation and are maligned as liberals, capitalists, or men's rights activists interested in securing the unimpeded primacy of male sexuality.
    • p. 178
  • Regulationist laws manifest in wildly different ways as countries on every continent anxiously try to eliminate selectively, through criminal law, what they consider to be the most pernicious aspects of prostitution. As a whole, these approaches speak clearly to a set of cross-cultural fears [...] - the fear of the visibly queer or diseased body; the fear of migrancy; the fear of sexualised social contamination; the fear of disorderly, unsupervised women roaming freely in society or commanding economic power by organising their work among themselves.
    • p. 178
  • Everybody deserves medical privacy and medical autonomy, and mandatory testing violates those core human rights. These policies show sex workers that "public health" doesn't include preserving their bodily autonomy and privacy, and encourages them to deploy savvy evasion strategies in times of infection if they need to put bread on the table.
    • p. 183/184
  • Traffickers, pimps, and clients alone do not produce all that is harmful in the sex industry. Any robust analysis of the failings of legalisation would be incomplete without recognising the role the state plays. [...] Regulating prostitution allows the state to have its cake and eat it too. On the one hand, it can punish unacceptable sex workers and seize their money. On the other hand, it enjoys the financial perks of a legal sex industry: business taxes on licensed brothels, income from tourism, and a reputation as a fantastic lads' holiday destination.
    • p. 185

No Silver Bullet: Aotearoa (New Zealand)[edit]

  • Criminalising sex work isn't working. At its core, exchanging sex for money - like migrancy, drug use, and abortion - is a legitimate and pragmatic human response to specific needs. Prohibiting it produces evasiveness and risk-taking among sex workers, driving them into the margins and exposing them to even more harm.
    • p. 190
  • Decriminalisation cannot wash away class conflict between the interests of management and employees; instead, it aims to mitigate the intense workplace exploitation that is propoed up and fuelled by criminalisation.
    • p. 195
  • The vast majority of survivors of sexual violence [...] do not report their experiences to the police. Survivors are well aware that the criminal justice system is more often a site of further trauma than a site of healing or justice.
    • p. 199
  • Decriminalisation positions workers within the sex trades as primarily rights-holders who need additional support, while legalisation or regulationism [...] positions prostitutes as unruly, alarming, and needing to be controlled through specific punitive measures. What flows from the perspective of decriminalisation is a system where the knowledge, safety, and rights of people who sell sex are prioritised.
    • p. 201
  • The criminalisation of sex work and the "messaging" flowing from it - that "women's bodies are not for sale" - clearly has not prevented people from Stockholm to New York to Harare from selling sex. It should be obvious that the real message of criminalisation is that people who sell sex exist outside of safety, rights, or justice.
    • p. 205
  • To decriminalise sex work is to treat as important the immediate, material safety of people who are selling sex. In that, decriminalisation is a deeply radical demand, far more so than throwing the world's poorest sex workers to the wolves in an attempt to annihilate the sex industry through increased policing.
    • p. 206


  • We aren't asking you to love the sex industry. We certainly don't. We are asking that your disgust with the sex industry [...] doesn't overtake your ability to empathise with people who sell sex.
    • p. 208
  • The mainstream feminist movement is correct in identifying prostitution as a patriarchal institution; they conveniently miss that policing is, too. Attempting to eradicate commercial sex through policing does not tackle patriarchy; instead, it continues to produce harassment, arrest, prosecution, eviction, violence, and poverty for those who sell sex.
    • p. 209
  • Sex workers simply want to be asked what they think is best for them, rather than being forcefully rescued from the life they are trying to build for themselves.
    • p. 212
  • Decriminalisation needs to be implemented in tandem with other vital policies that remedy the precarity of marginalised sex workers. The idea that it would work by itself is a self-serving expression of the interests of privileged sex workers. [...] The sex worker movement [should] be aware that, for poor sex workers, for migrant sex workers, for disabled sex workers, and many more, it is not enough to overturn soliciting laws or brothel-keeping laws.
    • p. 213/214
  • Our position is not that the sex industry is valuable or desirable in itself. As feminists, we know the misogyny and violence we've experienced in the sex trade to be abhorrent. But the real end of sex work can only happen when marginalised people no longer have to sustain themselves through the sex industry; when it is no longer necessary for their survival. To make sex work unnecessary, there is much work to do: winning rights for freedom of movement, labour rights, access to services and to work without threat of deportation, employment alternatives, better welfare provisions, cheaper housing, support services for single mothers, and so on. If everybody had the resources they needed, nobody would need to sell sex.
    • p. 215
  • Ending violence against women requires interrogating the full extent of how it operates. Everyone can understand a loaded gun and the damage it can cause. But who has the license to carry the gun? Who can use it with impunity? When and why were they bestowed this power? These things are just as important as the murderous intentions of the person pulling the trigger.
    • p. 216
  • Nobody will give us power: not the police, not our bosses, not our clients. Power is always won. We need to take what's owed to us.
    • p. 220

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