CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Butler on Prostitution and Epistemic Oppression

Yvette Butler (University of Mississippi - School of Law) has posted Demonizing Our Sisters Through Epistemic Oppression on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Commercial sexual exchange (prostitution) is an area fraught with tensions that have plagued the feminist movement since before the infamous “sex wars” of the 1980s. This Article weaves the contributions of multiple critical theories with first-hand accounts of people with sex trade experiences (“STE”) to bring to life “epistemic oppression.” Epistemic oppression is a concept born in feminist philosophy that theorizes how sources of knowledge and the insights flowing from that source are privileged or subjugated consistent with societal marginalization of a particular group. Epistemic oppression has never been articulated in the law, with regard to commercial sexual exchange.

When people with STE stray from the narrative enforced by Prostitution Abolitionist Radical Feminists (“PARFs”) that they are all victims of sexual exploitation, they are silenced, particularly by their exclusion from policy making. Their exclusion is often accompanied by claims that they are a part of the “pimp lobby” or are too traumatized to know what they want out of policy making. Failure to meaningfully engage with voices of people with STE is an “epistemic oppression.” The consequences of this injustice are perpetuated through court cases that further an incomplete narrative and only credit a PARF theoretical perspective on prostitution. It is also perpetuated in the legislative process through the adoption of laws that are based off the (faulty) perspective that there is only one experience in the sex trade: the monolithic sex trafficking victim perspective. Additionally, that single perspective pushes a requirement that carceral solutions must be part of STE policy.

Today, the debates around prostitution criminalization in the United States have shifted from full decriminalization versus full criminalization to full decriminalization versus a partial decriminalization, otherwise referred to as the Nordic model, the purchase ban, or the end-demand model. This shift is meant to address concerns that criminalizing people who engage in prostitution only serves to increase their vulnerability and exploitability.

This Article argues that in adopting any model, including the end demand model, without meaningful input by people with STE who support full decriminalization of prostitution, prostitution abolition feminists commit an "epistemic oppression” which should be viewed as incompatible with the goals of feminism. This Article builds upon key insights from the domestic and sexual violence movements and feminist philosophy in order to advance a conceptualization of this silencing as an epistemic oppression.

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