Believing prostitution is inherently harmful to women isn’t sexist, it’s proper recognition of their emotional lives.

Speaking with my friend A, she told me how her own writing on some feminist issues was making her uncomfortable. She is writing about women who are trafficked from poorer circumstances to rich white ones, and forced into domestic labour such as caring for others’ children and households. In her attack of these practices, she found herself stressing the impact and importance of the relationship between women and children, as these women find themselves desperately missing their own children back home, or becoming very attached to the children they find themselves caring for (despite the possibility of their dismissal at any time). Obviously, this causes the women anxiety and unhappiness. A recognition of the deep emotional impact of child caring on women, she argued, would highlight how inappropriate and exploitative this kind of work is for women.

The sentiment that women are particularly emotionally affected by all things children-related is, however, an echo of the sexist assertion that women ‘naturally’ want to be having children and caring for them, and that therefore that’s what their roles in society should revolve around. The disentanglement of womanhood and motherhood is something feminists have rightly been working on for years. The incessant questioning from neighbours and paparazzi of child-free women as to when they are going to be having children shows that when we see women, we see mothers. Given that when women do have children, they take on the bulk of childcare and housework whilst losing out on promotions and money, motherhood in its current form is not particularly good or liberating for women.

But mothers are still women. Bringing up a child to be happy and healthy happens within a strong loving bond which has a profound effect on women’s mental and emotional lives, as is natural, and as it should. And although we can’t tease from these facts the idea that women therefore are good for nothing but having babies and should just stick to that, we can tease from these facts that women’s extensive relationships with children are highly emotionally charged and deserve proper respect and acknowledgement. This is something that is boringly obvious when we say it of humans in general. When people form extremely deep bonds with each other, fiddling around with them causes great pain and anguish, and constitutes cruelty. But somewhere along the way, women lost the status of person. Women became weak for living and breathing their love for their children, dull for their interest in reproducing in this world, and nothing more than the bearer of a plate of hot food at dinnertime.

I am not a fan of modern feminism’s clumsy smashing of these notions, and in some areas it’s proving dangerous. I see feminists pushing that there is no such link between women and children, ladled with emotional fulfillment and life-affirming experiences. We should not line our activism along the two pronged route that the patriarchy has laid down – that you’re either nothing but mum, through and through, or a strange, cold-hearted creature slightly allergic to young children. Women moaning viscerally and slightly pretentiously about children and how much they don’t want them to an extreme enough degree risks trivialising the harms of packing women off, perhaps away from their own children, to care in a distanced way for others. Women with no interest in children should certainly be respected, but my point is that we don’t have to grab the other horn – that’s not feminism. We need to carve on our own way.

The harms of just grabbing the other horn in a patriarchy and calling it feminism are demonstrated more sharply with prostitution (and all other forms of paid sexual exploitation). Concern for the emotional and psychological effects of copious amounts of empty sex (well, rape) with unknown men (the type of men who pay women they know nothing about for sex) is being construed as believing women are soft, gooey, weak creatures, just like how the media paints mothers. Suddenly prostitution is just sex work, a ‘job like any other’, a job that confident women can do but others can’t hack. The ones that can, apparently can pay off their rent in a couple of sessions and then get on with whatever they want to get on with in life. It’s the ultimate life hack. Pretending otherwise has become ‘whorephobic’ (how such a word got into feminist discussion is perplexing and makes me angry), and in saying such we cover over and ignore the facts that most women first enter prostitution as children, in response to the pressures of living in poverty, and whom would immediately leave the industry if the financial pressure was taken away. During their time as prostitutes, women are likely to be raped, sexually assaulted, addicted to drugs, and suffer from PTSD from their experiences – if they weren’t killed (sources xxx). None of this sounds healthy and empowering because it’s not; it’s the packaging and selling of rape. Pretending that women forced into sleeping with hoards of unknown but violent, ignorant men is no worse than a crappy job in retail with a shitty boss (yes it is compared, a lot), is to misunderstand and trivialise rape. I see liberal feminism putting out these ‘it’s only dick girl, own it! Make some money off that shit!’ vibes, grabbing the other horn of the ‘women are best if they’re pure innocent virgins and modest about sex’ vibe the patriarchy bathes us in.

But it’s doing so much damage. We’ve got to carve our own way. We’ve got to get to grips with rape and point it out wherever we see it, we’ve got to unlearn prioritising men’s sexual gratification over safety and respect for women, and we’ve got to consciously make space for women’s emotional well-being in society through learning about what it is and what affects it – particularly in the domain of sexual relations with men. We need to accept that this is going to take time and effort, because we’ve been bathed in a patriarchy for hundreds of years and slapping some glitter and ‘you go grrrrrl’ stickers on certain things the patriarchy didn’t seem to like isn’t going to be enough.

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