🌈 Backlash and backsliding from within: democracy, feminism, and sex work

Analyses of the opposition against gender equality in Europe mostly address the opponents of women’s rights as inherently anti-democratic, and feminist actors as democratic by definition. But Joana Lilli Hofstetter and Lucrecia Rubio Grundell use sex work as an example of how anti-democratic backlashes against women’s rights can also be promoted by feminist actors

Democratic backsliding, gender equality, and sex work

Democracy and gender equality are interdependent, as various contributions to this series show. Democracy advances gender equality, while feminist politics promote democratisation. Conversely, democratic erosion undermines women’s rights, and opposition to gender equality is a key mechanism of de-democratisation.

Analyses of the opposition to gender equality in Europe mostly address the people opposing women’s rights, i.e. anti-gender and radical-right populist actors, as being inherently anti-democratic. The same analyses also tend to consider feminist actors as democratic by definition. The role of feminist actors, however, is more complex. Feminists, too, can promote anti-democratic backlashes against women’s rights, as evidenced by current feminist campaigns against sex work in Europe.

Since the 1970s, sex workers across Europe have mobilised for basic rights. While gender diverse, these movements inscribed their struggles within the broader advocacy for women’s economic and sexual self-determination. Then, during the so-called 'sex wars' of the 1980s, prostitution became a key issue of contention within feminist movements across the West.

Feminist anti-prostitution campaigns are now working to reverse sex workers' hard-fought economic and social rights

At that time, anti-prostitution feminists had already forged unlikely alliances with conservative actors. Yet, sex worker movements gradually achieved important political gains. The recognition of sex work as legitimate labour helped destigmatise it in the public imaginary. Sex workers gained fundamental economic and social rights, such as legal security, access to public health, and pension schemes. They also gained the right to free movement within the EU. However, feminist anti-prostitution campaigns at national and EU levels are now, increasingly, working to reverse these hard-fought achievements.

Examples from Germany and the EU show that feminist anti-prostitution campaigns constitute a form of opposition to women’s rights which exhibit the anti-democratic features scholars commonly ascribe to anti-gender and radical-right populist actors: the exclusion of non-hegemonic subjects from political participation, policy backsliding, and the discursive construction of gender equality in exclusionary terms.

Democracy as process

Exclusion from political participation 

The erosion of inclusive participation mechanisms constitutes a core element of de-democratisation. Anti-gender and radical-right populist actors target feminist actors and seek to exclude them from politics, for instance through vilification and criminalisation. Anti-prostitution feminists across Europe use both these strategies. 

Anti-prostitution feminists frequently discredit sex worker activists and organisations as ‘pimps’ or ‘human traffickers’. In this way, they delegitimise them as valid political interlocutors. Feminist anti-prostitution members of the European Parliament, for example, suggested that the migrant sex workers leading the European Network for the Promotion of Rights and Health among Migrant Sex Workers were 'possible representatives of criminal organisations'. 

Anti-prostitution feminists have discredited sex worker activists as ‘pimps’ or ‘human traffickers’

In Germany, anti-prostitution feminists systematically oppose sex workers’ collective self-organisation, and strive to exclude them from political decision-making arenas. They use othering strategies to portray sex workers as an ‘unrepresentative’ and ‘privileged’ minority, and shame them as sexual deviants. They even invoke Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation to silence sex worker activists, and deter them from participating in public debate. Such 'unfounded and abusive legal actions' are increasingly used by anti-gender actors against feminists themselves.

Democracy as output

Rolling back rights

Backsliding in gender equality policy is another element of de-democratisation. It occurs through dismantlement, lack of implementation, or de-gendering. Anti-gender and radical-right populist actors promote these forms of democratic backsliding to curtail women’s rights, especially in relation to bodily autonomy and public power. Current feminist anti-prostitution campaigns in Europe also curtail sex workers’ rights to sexual self-determination and political participation, as the German case illustrates.

Thanks to the long-standing advocacy of the German 'whore movement', Germany's 2001 Prostitution Act contained a rights-based approach to sex work. This triggered counter-mobilisations by anti-prostitution feminists who demanded the adoption of client criminalisation and increased state control. Their campaigns spurred the subsequent rollback in sex workers’ rights through the Prostitute Protection Act of 2016. This Act emphasises sex workers’ presumed need for state protection, yet simultaneously imposes disproportionate legal obligations on sex workers, including compulsory registration and health counselling. It also illegalises sex workers who do not comply for fear of outing, stigmatisation, or visa problems. Finally, the Act infringes sex workers' fundamental rights, such as home inviolability, by permitting police to search homes if they suspect unregistered activities. 

Democracy as symbol

The exclusionary construction of gender equality

The discursive construction of gender equality in exclusionary ways is a final mechanism of de-democratisation. Anti-gender and radical-right populist actors propose measures they argue are good for women. Yet, such measures reinforce traditional gender and sexual norms, and the power of the state. Moreover, they advance such discourses by the epistemic and economic power they acquire through transnational networking. 

Anti-prostitution feminists operate in a similar manner. Their radical feminist foundations essentialise the heteronormative gender binary by overemphasising the origin of women’s oppression in their sexual subordination by men. This associates women’s sexuality inherently with victimhood, advancing a conservative sexual agenda. Finally, anti-prostitution feminists’ promotion of client criminalisation extends the power of the state in the name of gender equality. 

Anti-prostitution feminists overemphasise women's subordination by men, associating their sexuality inherently with victimhood

Moreover, anti-prostitution feminists raise large sums of government and donor funding. They count among their ranks powerful institutional actors with direct access to official decision-making sites, and they mobilise public support convincingly. At EU level, for example, the European Women’s Lobby actively promotes an anti-prostitution agenda. In contrast with sex worker organisations, this Lobby receives privileged funding from, and access to, EU institutions. 

Feminist de-democratisation

Anti-democratic backlashes against women’s rights can also be promoted by feminist actors, as current feminist campaigns against sex work in Germany and the EU show. Anti-prostitution feminists replicate the anti-democratic strategies and aims of anti-gender and radical-right populist actors, albeit against sex workers. They vilify and criminalise sex workers to exclude them from political participation. They promote policy backsliding in relation to their rights, and they define gender equality in a way that advances an exclusionary heteronormative and conservative sexual agenda. Jennifer Piscopo’s warning against overlooking the anti-democratic traits of left-wing actors, ultimately, equally applies to feminist actors. 

No.12 in a Loop thread on Gendering Democracy. Look out for the ðŸŒˆ to read more in this series

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Joana Lilli Hofstetter Joana Lilli Hofstetter Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Faculty of Political and Social Sciences, Scuola Normale Superiore Florence More by this author
photograph of Lucrecia Rubio Grundell Lucrecia Rubio Grundell MSCA-COFUND-UNA4CAREER Fellow, Political Science Department, Universidad Complutense de Madrid More by this author

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