by Kaileigh La Belle
From bans on LGBTQI “propaganda” to yearly debates about kink at Pride, it is no secret that we are seeing an uptick in popular, transnational conservatism about sex. While much of the responding conservation has focused on protecting the LGBTQ+ community, one equally vulnerable group is often neglected: sex workers. Recent attacks on sex workers include a notable rise in SWERFs [Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminists] in England, Spanish attempts to ban prostitution, and votes in Bristol town council to ban strip clubs. However, unlike previous attacks on the industry, these movements are not solely originated from the Right, but also from the Left. As such, anti-sex work movements, grounded in sexist and moralist populist trends, reconstruct Far-Right ‘traditionalist’ views on sexuality and gender, which threaten to bring down the liberation of women, femmes, and queers.
Sexist Populism and the ‘Victim Narrative’
As historian Kate Lister notes, the “Victim Trope”—a staple of anti-sex work narratives on both the Left and the Right—“repackaged [sex workers] as a pitiful victim in an uncaring world” who ultimately need to be saved for their own moral good by non-sex workers. These narratives take on a moral dimension laced with chauvinistic tendencies and situate them within the trend of sexist Populism. Many historians and theorists define populism as a political style that positions the everyday man as ‘pure’ against the ‘corrupt elite’, drawing particularly on emotional reactions against the ‘Other’ and institutions. Yet, sexist Populism takes on a gendered dynamic, presenting ‘traditional’ gender roles as endangered to radicalize ‘the people’, usually with an emotionally-driven paternalistic or chauvinistic flare. ‘Victim narratives’ present (white, female) sex workers exclusively as subjects of male abuse or rescue, upholding a ‘traditionalist’ perspective on gender. In keeping with their Victorian origins, such anti-sex work narratives present the non-monogamous, transactional nature of sex work as inherently ‘damaging’ and ‘abusive’. Therefore, monogamous (often heterosexual) partnerships rooted in love and/or marriage become the safe moral norm, a key viewpoint of Far-Right populism.
When women and girls are placed in this victim role, an abuser must emerge as the “Other” against whom the everyday man must take a stand. It is here that the populist anti-institutional, ‘othering’ process is injected. In modern takes on victim narratives such as this one, consensual sex work is conflated with sex trafficking and, for Dworkin Feminists, rape. In this way, states who have legalized sex work (the majority in Europe) become enablers of abuse who “wash their hands” of blame. Various conspiracy theories have made the rounds on social media, positing that ‘global elites’ are sex trafficking children for “sexual rituals” or “blood libel”. In their evocation of sexual deviancy, ‘deep state’ plots, and blood libel, they push antisemitism. Evidently, the emotionally-charged image of imperilled women and children functions to maintain myths of ‘Otherness’ and weaponize a dichotomy of pure/un-pure.
Populist Threats to Feminism
Many sex workers have voiced concern about this rise in whorephobia. Firstly, they fear that it does not reflect the realities of the industry and ignores sex workers’ critique. For example, many sex workers point out that they are going after the wrong people when making conflations between sex work and trafficking. While, as a high estimate, 1 in 7 sex workers in Europe could be trafficked, sex workers clarify that a total ban would drive the industry further underground, dragging these victims down with it. By ignoring these lived experiences in favour of ‘rescue’ narratives, both Left and Right populists maintain the chauvinistic, sexist populist trend and make things harder for real sex workers and the victims they claim to ‘protect’.
Secondly, these populist narratives endorse ‘purity’-based rhetoric that are fundamentally exclusionary. SWERF narratives often present Suffrage-era feminism as the foundation of the feminist movement. They repeat the First Wave argument that women are morally superior, embodied by the ‘motherly’ image, to men as they’re ‘inherently’ prone to uncontrolled, sexualized violence. Furthermore, in this popular memory, the Sexual Revolution becomes an extension of patriarchy, having “hurt” feminism and women by centring sexuality. With the Sexual Revolution positioned as antithetical to ‘true’ feminism, its emancipatory elements can easily become ‘un-pure.’ Everything—the normalization of casual sex, trans liberation, and especially the acceptance of sex work—becomes a threat to women. As such, by romanticizing earlier, exclusionary periods of feminist history and ignoring the voices of sex workers, SWERFs align themselves with a conservative moral purity argument that has historically been used to deny liberation to those outside the gender-sexual norm.
As these victim narratives leech into the public consciousness through apps like Tik Tok and manifest in mainstream political institutions, we must remember that they do little to protect women. In fact, by identifying the use of populist tropes that misplace anger surrounding very real issues of patriarchal and capitalist violence, we can see how they maintain gender essentialist binaries and drive us towards sexual conservatism. If anything, understanding this process should shed light on why feminism must make room for the voices of all women, regardless of their profession.