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Sex Work and Prostitution: Female  
 
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One of the most controversial figures opposed to prostitution was lesbian feminist activist Andrea Dworkin. Until her death in 2005, Dworkin was one of the most vocal critics of the sex industry, claiming that pornography and prostitution were key elements of the subjugation of women.

In a symposium at the University of Michigan Law School, Dworkin declared, "Many of us are saying that prostitution is intrinsically abusive. Let me be clear. I am talking to you about prostitution per se, without more violence, without extra violence, without a woman being hit, without a woman being pushed. Prostitution in and of itself is an abuse of a woman's body. Those of us who say this are accused of being simple-minded. But prostitution is very simple. And if you are not simple-minded, you will never understand it."

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Dworkin wrote many books and dozens of essays and articles about the damaging effects of the sex industry on women. With lawyer Catherine A. MacKinnon, whom she met while both were teaching at the University of Minnesota in 1983, Dworkin drafted ordinances defining pornography as "the sexually explicit subordination of women" and making its sale illegal as a violation of women's civil rights. Such measures were passed by the city councils of Indianapolis and Minneapolis. The mayor of Minneapolis vetoed the bill, however, and a federal court in Indiana struck down the law there. The United States Supreme Court upheld that ruling in 1986.

Though many feminists respected Dworkin and her work, others criticized her severely, accusing her of inflexibility and censorship, and even resorting to personal attacks on her.

But if Dworkin and other lesbian feminists attacked prostitution and pornography and other manifestations of sex work as demeaning to women, other lesbians took a different position.

Male-dominated society has often dictated that women's sexuality be submissive and hidden, defined only in relationship to men. From the beginning of the gay liberation movement, lesbians and other queer women have taken the lead in asserting the importance of female sexuality and demanding acceptance of counter-cultural forms of sexual expression.

Out of this sex-positive movement has come a new view of sex work as a kinky and empowering way of reclaiming sexuality. Radical lesbian historian Joan Nestle and sexologists Susie Bright and Annie Sprinkle have all written and spoken extensively about the need for a new feminist perspective on sex work.

Lesbian Clients

Some queer women sex workers serve female clients as well as male. Since the 1980s and 1990s, there has been an increased visibility of sexual commerce directed at lesbians, ranging from pornography and sex parties to strip shows and escort services.

During the 1980s, "butch gigolette" Les von Zoticus set up a prostitution business aimed at femme lesbians. She hoped not only to perform sexual services, but also to educate clients and help them explore their own sexual needs. However, perhaps because women tend to have less money than men, or perhaps because their sexuality does not lend itself to purchasing sexual service, female prostitution clients are far outnumbered by males. Les von Zoticus' gigolette service survived only six months.

Dangers of the Profession

Sex work, especially prostitution, remains an extremely dangerous profession. Though accurate statistics are difficult to obtain, many social scientists agree that a high percentage of sex workers experience violence at the hands of clients or pimps.

Because prostitution is so widely treated as a crime, prostitutes who are abused, beaten, or raped can expect little help from the legal system and are frequently victimized by the police themselves.

Hookers who work the streets and highways are especially vulnerable to attacks by aggressive clients. The life and death of Aileen Wuornos provides a stark example of the devastating effects of violence against prostitutes.

Example of Aileen Wuournos

Wuornos, a queer woman who worked as a prostitute in and around Florida truck stops, was executed by the state on October 9, 2002 after being convicted of murder. Widely billed as the first female serial killer, Wuornos admitted killing seven of her clients, claiming each had raped or attempted to rape her.

Many dismissed these claims of self-defense as ridiculously unlikely, but most sex workers would have little trouble believing that a streetwalker working the Florida highways could experience numerous incidents of extreme violence.

As Wuornos sat on death row, a November 1992 episode of Dateline NBC pointed out many lapses in Wuornos' defense. In addition to editing out Wuornos' many claims of self-defense from the confession tape that was played for the jury, the prosecution also did not fully investigate one of her victims, Richard Mallory. Dateline's revelation that Mallory had previously served ten years in prison for violent rape validated Wuornos's testimony but was not enough to gain her a new trial.

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