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What Does Ms. Magazine Have Against Sex Workers?

Ms. Magazine, the self-proclaimed "media expert on issues relating to women's status, women's rights, and women's points of view," can't seem to stop disrespecting sex workers—a group who, in the Ms. way of thinking, is composed exclusively of women. The recent article on sex tourism in Ukraine is symptomatic of their usual sex industry coverage: half anxiety and miscomprehension, half lip service to activism efforts promoting sex worker autonomy.

Early in the piece, author Marina Kamenev refers to one source as a "sex worker" before immediately referring to sex workers in Ukraine as "prostituted women," a phrase used to emphasize pimp/trafficker involvement and deny sex worker choice. Yet this very same sentence explains that many Ukrainian women returned to their home country after Ukraine relaxed its visa requirements so that Western tourists could more easily enter. Trafficked women are not in control of their own movement, particularly not across national borders. Therefore, this piece of information suggests women were voluntarily leaving the country for better sex work opportunities abroad, then voluntarily continuing to sell sex once they came home. While Ms. decries the profusion of sex tourism within Ukraine, it's easy to see that the opportunity to work in their homeland, whose language they speak and whose customs they know, with their families and friends nearby, is a considerable improvement for workers.

The next strange moment occurs when Kamenev mentions the police tactic of punishing prostitutes through public shaming while allowing clients to escape without any penalty. Rather than criticize this ugly practice, which relies on gendered stereotypes about sexually active women in order to be effective, Kamenev scolds "brothels remain boldly unembarrassed." Ms. has yet to establish any uniform editorial position on prostitution, but their content generally supports the idea that sex workers should be ashamed of themselves—an attitude which one would logically expect to be negated if they are in fact "prostituted" against their will.

Not too long ago, Ms. featured favorable coverage of NOW-NYC's campaign to eliminate adult classified ads in New York publications on the grounds that these ads often advertised trafficked women. The article, by Jennifer Hahn, explained that publishers were asked to "screen" ads by looking out for those which featured in call only services and "women of a particular ethnicity." Quite a few sex workers choose to see clients at their own location, since, with good reason, they feel safer in a well-known environment that is under their own control. The "particular" ethnicity Hahn refers to is most likely Asian, although the fact that she didn't choose to include that detail speaks volumes about the discrimination inherent in these types of "anti-trafficking" measures. In other words, if NOW-NYC had gotten their way, they'd have made print ads the exclusive domain of white, outcall-only escorts.

NOW-NYC itself was exhibiting some bizarrely misogynistic reasoning when discussing their campaign, most notably with the claim that "advertisers and readers find newspapers loaded with explicit content and photos of half-naked women just not acceptable." The implication here is that such ads are offensive because they're advertising women who are not working voluntarily—but if what's "unacceptable" is kidnapping and rape, the "half-nakedness" pales in comparison. It's hard to see how the explicitness of the ad is relevant unless it's referred to in an effort to stir up old-fashioned American moralizing and sex-shame. If one objects to trafficking, certainly it's the trafficking itself that one finds offensive, not the presentation.

Hahn's article, published in the print edition of Ms. (Fall 2007) bought into the same nasty rhetoric, referring to sex worker ads as "smut" that can deter "more respectable companies" from advertising in the same space. (This, in spite of acknowledging that prostitution can be "a simple business transaction between consenting adults.") The implication here is that sex is shameful, or rather sex for pay is dirty and not a legitimate capitalist enterprise. A letter published in the Summer 2008 issue conveyed this common sentiment, one that has influenced decades of feminist thought on prostitution: "[Diablo] Cody and others like her who have used their bodies as sexual objects have disrespected women and encouraged the subjugation of females." While letters to the editor are the opinions of certain readers and not that of editorial staff, they are also usually suggested as particularly eloquent examples of a common reader sentiment. And the idea that women who do sex work voluntarily are betraying other women is the proverbial elephant in the room in many feminist articles on the sex industry.

To return to Ms.'s more recent take on trafficking, Kamenev's Ukraine coverage contains some pretty astounding numbers, including the statistic that well over half of the phone calls to the domestic branch of a women's rights center (64%) are from individuals preparing to work overseas while only 8% are from families looking for missing persons or trying to help trafficked relatives. This is significant because it starkly highlights the reality of life in parts of Eastern Europe, where economic opportunities are so few that many people, particularly women, are willing to enter into vaguely described or plainly undesirable work conditions abroad. (This includes many forms of manual labor, not just sex work.) Although there are those who deny that any woman can or would enter willing into life as a prostitute, it's terribly insulting to assume Ukrainian women are always, in every single situation, unaware of the type of labor that awaits them in another country. Some women, Ukrainian and otherwise, choose a life as a sex worker when faced with a life of barely any income at all.

If Ms. really wants to assist trafficked women, they'd have a good start in examining some of their own prejudices against prostitutes. It would also be helpful for them to challenge the rhetoric dominating our national discourse on trafficking, a rhetoric that equates sex trafficking simply with trafficking and ignores the forms of forced labor that don't cater to prurient interests. As the recently released Trafficking in Persons Report acknowledges, trafficking encompasses many forms of exploitation, including domestic servitude and the recruitment of child soldiers.

Everyone who wants to minimize trafficking needs to turn their attention and energy to addressing the root causes behind all forms, not simply using the angle of sexual slavery to titillate and sensationalize. (Among these risk factors are unemployment, poverty, political conflict and corruption.) Surely all trafficked persons, men, women, and children, deserve to live a life of autonomy and dignity, and they deserve help whether they're being forced to work in a brothel, factory, field, or home.

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Glamour magazine is also

Glamour magazine is also pretty bad. They've been making rude remarks about sex workers (usually strippers or prostitutes) for many years, along with periodic "victim" articles. Or they like to unfavorably compare celebrities with sex workers.


Ms Magazine's greater sin

…perhaps, was to devote 1000 words to a subject that requires ten times more.

In Ukraine and other developing markets like it, distinctions between voluntary and coercive sex-for-money are blurry. Lack of economic opportunity, vast disparities in wealth, unseen and pervasive connections among government, business and organized crime, and a legal and enforcement system where nearly everyone must break laws at some point just in order to survive, make it perilous to apply American understandings of sex work and human rights to countries like Ukraine.

For sure, trafficking of Eastern European women for the sex industry (and children and possibly men too) is a problem; visit night clubs and hotel lobbies in capitals across Africa and the Middle East, listen carefully, and you’ll hear nightmare stories that will keep you awake for weeks. But it doesn’t mean that all sex for money is not voluntary or that there aren’t sex workers happily engaged in the business of pleasure in cities like Kyiv.

In this way, cultural differences are an important factor too. A female director of HR at a Ukrainian company once confided that she did not believe in sexual harassment in the workplace; women, she felt, had complete control over whether and when to flirt or have sex with their colleagues and superiors. Another female friend in Moscow once complained about the large number of young women who moved to the city from the provinces in search of mini-garchs, complicating her own ambitions. In other words, sex is for pleasure, and it also can be used as a means for betterment when the laws of the jungle prevail.

In this kind of environment, then, should American mass-media concepts of prostitution apply? Does cash have to change hands? Or is it prostitution to develop sexual relationships in support of a promotion, or for an attractive, young Ukrainian woman to have sex with a dull, overweight American man because she believes he might provide a better life for her, her parents and children? By American standards, these may be distasteful concepts, but it seems inappropriate for Ms Magazine or anyone in this country, lattes and blackberries in hand, to pass judgment on a people whose challenges and viewpoints we barely can understand.

Cultural Disconnect


I'd argue that the blurry distinction between voluntary and coercive sex (with or without the exchange of money) exists across virtually all cultures and countries, including class and race divides. Of course there are different degrees and nuances in each environment, but lack of economic opportunity exists here, too—as does the use of sex as a bartering or negotiation tool rather than simply for cash. I'm not sure I know what you mean by American understanding of sex work--plenty of sex worker advocates here (Robyn Few, Penelope Saunders, Melissa Ditmore) are women who've traveled to and networked with sex workers in various other countries to gain a more global vision. But I'd agree that the mainstream idea of sex work as either forced at virtual gunpoint or entered into flippantly by privileged girls is a false dichotomy and not helpful when applied to other cultures any more than it is helpful when applied to our own.

I fully believe in cultural sensitivity and attention to the unique challenges and circumstances within a region, but I also think what sex workers need and want are usually pretty basic: respect or at least a lessening of stigma so they can pursue a healthy public life; support to either stay in the profession in a risk-minimizing way or to leave it for another job; good medical care, etc. And I've yet to come across any sex workers anywhere who ask to be arrested. So I don't think cultural relativism should lead us to act as though there's absolutely no way we can support sex workers internationally. Sadly, a lot of Bush's trafficking policies had a horrendous impact on sex workers (see Cambodia) and it would be irresponsible for us to throw up our hands and not try to rectify some of the damage our country caused, by encouraging better international policies and raising awareness if nothing else.   

Anyway, I think all the questions you've asked should be taken into account when discussing sex work policy, and I'd be thrilled if mainstream journalists could refrain from trying to flatten the conversation. (While I doubt that Ms. thinks of itself as mainstream, they certainly behave in predictable ways when it comes to this subject.) But I have to point out that I don't think passing judgment is made any more odious just because it's accompanied by some symbol of yuppiedom, nor I do I think judgment is the domain of the middle class. I don't want anyone judging sex workers whether they're holding a golf club or a pitchfork. 

Point taken that snarky words,

even on yuppiedom, do not add to the debate.

I agree that there is little room for cultural or historical relativism in the area of basic human rights, respect for sex workers included. And I also agree that borders should not be viewed as a barrier to advocating change.

My concerns relate not to how human rights are defined, but to how they are translated into policy and action around the world. Our country’s record in this regard is disappointing, perhaps because we have tended to advocate human rights through an evangelism centered on concepts of democracy, religion, social values and timelines, rather than through the force of example. Our approaches have tended to fall particularly flat in societies, like Ukraine, that are undergoing social disruption and that historically have assigned more value to collective than to individual rights.

Anyway, thank you for your thought-provoking response and for the clarity of your writing on this site. If you already have not, I hope you will reach out to Ms Magazine and to other more widely distributed publications that would benefit from your direct thinking on sex work. Those beyond the audience here also need to read the points you are making.

Thank you. I've been reading

Thank you. I've been reading Ms. for about two years and while I generally enjoy their content, I've always felt that their articles about sex workers were oversimplified and contained biased, generalized assumptions about the nature of sex work.

Well the reason why is

Well the reason why is because sex work is disgusting behaviour. Why does every single aspect of humanity have to become a capitaist enterprise? For goodness sakes, women are buying implants because apparently plastic breasts make a woman a woman! I am hopeful that the sexual revolution and more women freely engaging in sex without shame will stop all so-called sex "work". I'm sorry...but this type of "work" should never be glamorized or seem as respectable career choices. I wonder if these "workers" ever sat down and actually considered the fact that its always women selling/giving/providing thier sex to men. Sex workers do not empower women...they actually take us backwards by stating that all women are good for is thier vaginas. Please use your brains!

Not sure you actually read the article....?

 What disastrous reasoning you've exhibited. Who here has written anything about implants or "empowerment?" We've been discussing the hard choices people make in order to survive in countries without many opportunities. Extending human rights to other individuals isn't about glamorization; it's about affording fellow beings basic freedoms. How can you advocate sex without shame and then call sex work disgusting? If you object to sex being used to generate income, then feel free to critique the advertising industry, clothing companies, alcohol purveyors, etc. etc. And you're just flat out wrong about women being the only sex workers. Sex workers are male, female, and transgendered. I'd recommend you do some remedial reading:  

so sick of this attitude

I always love how people how have NEVER been a sex worker like to tell actual sex workers all about their job. In fact, this is one of the reasons magazines like Ms. and Glamour get it so wrong -- the articles and remarks about sex work are written from a perspective of judgement, not empathy; imagination instead of experience. (Though at least those writers will attach their name to their work.)

Sex workers do indeed sit down and think about their job, their choices and how it impacts their life. All the time. I'm very sure the Ukranian sex workers in this article think about their job a lot. It is YOU who think sex workers are some sort of vapid, ATM-vaginas -- this is not how sex workers act nor how we see ourselves.

It is work. Since you've never done the job, you have no idea. It is work.

Sure it is work. Of course. I

Sure it is work. Of course. I beleive that. YEAH RIGHT. The day when our children come home saying "mom i want to be a ho when I grow up" is the day society goes to sh*t. Actually its already here. I agree with the orginial poster. Buying sex is lame. Selling sex is lamer. EVERYONE CAN HAVE SEX. IT'S THE EASY WAY OUT. And thankfully will more and more women just going out and being sexual and not being afraid to ask for what they want...strippers and prostitutes will disappear. I do agree that not only women are sex workers (but the majority...and in fact I do research on the sex trade). And the majority of customers are men - over 60% being married men. I am all for sex without shame. But sex should never be bought and women/girls should never think its ok to make money this way. Seriously, I know in about 10 years, every girl will have been a prostitute/porn or pose nude...becuase men are so disgusting and think they are "entitled" to see every woman naked. I would really like to see how prostitutes defend that this is a good thing for women.

I have been in post-secondary for 9 years (BA, MA, PhD) and never had to strip (like so many girls apparently do) and never had to sell my vagina. I didn't get money from loans or parents...i paid my way through with an excellent average. I also have seen the girls in my classes who do strip/sell sex....they are not fact they are the most vapid idiots I have ever known. All they talk about is the sex trade -- as if they are so enlightened about sexuality and they are superior beings. Actually I don't think sex workers are any more sexual or confident than anyone else. The fact that I can enjoy my sexuality (through role play and sex outdoors and all other kinky stuff) without needing to get paid for it - out of my own will and desires...not some random man's - shows alot more about shameless sex than prostitution ever will.

There are a ton of way to make money..instead of on your backs with someone else's man. It just takes the un-lazy, un-selfish and the intelligent to figure them out.

 Hi Lucille,

 Hi Lucille,

It seems you have some unresolved hostility towards both men and women, and sex work is just an easy target at which to vent your anger. You're not really making a coherent argument here about prostitution or stripping or anything at all. You're just saying sex workers are all stupid and terrible people, like men, who are "disgusting" and want all women to be sex workers. I've met many, many sex working women (and men!) and I can say they are categorically some of the most interesting and motivated people I've encountered. Furthermore, most of them hold other jobs or, as you've noted, attend school full time--hardly the definition of "lazy." I am also not sure why, in your way of thinking, a woman wants a man—be he "someone else's" or not—since men are such slime. Nor do I believe that posing nude or dancing topless is the equivalent of "selling your vagina."

You say you'd like to see "prostitutes defend that this is a good thing for women." I don't know what "this" means, and I don't know why prostitutes would have to prove that their work is "good for women" in order for it to be legal or de-stigmatized. But the internet (and your PhD program's library, I'd assume) is full of written works by sex workers, current and former. For instance, you could check out Bound, Not Gagged or Whores and Other Feminists if you're genuinely interested in learning more. But given that this very site already offers coherent and relevant essays by sex workers (Carol Queen, Modern Hooker), my guess is that you're content to write not-very-original, judgmental rants under an anonymous name rather than extend some critical thinking or compassion to the group you're denigrating. I hope you change your mind about that approach someday soon. 



You are a brilliant writer on

You are a brilliant writer on prostitution. Please take every opportunity to get your views out there in a variety of feminist and other forums.

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Monica Shores
June 26th, 2009
MonicaS's picture
Monica Shores is an editor of and regular contributor to $pread magazine. She has also written for Alternet, The Rumpus, Boinkology, and the Feminist Review. Her work is forthcoming in The Best Sex...