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Prostitutes are "the only street fighters we've got," wrote radical feminist Ti-Grace Atkinson in her 1974 book, Amazon Odyssey.
The prostitutes' rights movement of the early 1970s evolved directly from the women's movement. As feminists developed an understanding of the mechanics of our oppression, so prostitutes among them recognized the dynamics of our oppression and saw the criminalization of prostitution as another manifestation of sexism and misogyny.
I've been living in this war zone, on the front lines in the battle of the sexes -- and the feminist sexuality wars.
Historical Brushes With the Women's Movement
The women's movement in the U.S. has always been ambivalent about prostitutes. The historical record has been filled in by scholars like Ruth Rosen, author of the The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America (1982); Judith Walkowitz, author of Prostitution and Victorian Society (1980), and Gail Pheterson, editor of A Vindication of the Rights of Whores (1989). Their research shows that, although the welfare of prostitutes was addressed by 19th century feminists who resisted the invasive medical checks in Britain's Contagious Disease Acts, early 20th century feminists in the U.S. ultimately promoted repressive prostitution policies. As suffrage was achieved in the U.S., politicians catered to a new female electorate through punitive prostitution laws.
In the 1970s, Margo St. James, founded COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) as the first U.S. prostitutes' rights organization. The prostitutes' rights movement in the U.S. grew aligned with sex positive feminism and sex radical feminism.
Still, a schism existed. Some feminists considered sex work to be a labor issue. Others, most prominently represented today by the Coalition Against Trafficking of Women, regarded sex work as a form of violence against women. Today, feminists in countries around the world align with these factions to one degree or another. While the former group of sex worker organizers sought to decriminalize prostitution, the latter group of feminists moved to expand criminalization of prostitution and quash decriminalization efforts.
Now, prostitutes' legal status is at another pivotal point. Several ongoing waves of activity are impinging on their lives, and the historic ambivalence among women's rights activists about prostitution is in a particularly hostile phase.
Increasingly punitive approaches seek to lock up those who turn to prostitution, whether for survival or other reasons, with additional laws and stiffer penalties permitting arrests based on the barest suspicion. For example, in 1986, California made it a crime to agree to receive money for sex. Police decoys may now offer money for sex and immediately arrest someone who agrees to have sex for money, but does nothing more. Previously, the "crime" occurred when the sex worker offered the exchange. The California law extends even further. A person need not even offer or accept a sex-for-money exchange to face arrest. As of 1996, individuals can be charged in California with "loitering with the intent to do prostitution."
The sex wars are also erupting in policy discussions about anti-trafficking laws, revealing deep rifts among feminists. Some feminists, allied with the religious right and conservative groups like Concerned Women for America, have revived the framework of early 20th century and seek the abolition of prostitution.
Feminist abolitionists, such as the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, aim to increase the criminalization of the sex industry and to use anti-trafficking laws to target commercial sex in general.
Carol Leigh has been working as a prostitute, artist and activist in the sex rights movement in the San Francisco-Bay area for more than 20 years.