Sex worker-exclusionary radical feminism

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Activists holding a flag expressing solidarity with transgender individuals and sex workers.[1]
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Why then the insistence on calling themselves radical? When your attitude to porn is ban it, when your attitude to sex is only with the lights off and never with any acts that might not be papally approved, when your views are those that reinforce patriarchal tropes of the whore /madonna split,Wikipedia what is radical?
—Ann Tagonist[2]
Claiming that a sex worker somehow transfers ownership of her own body to someone else would be farcical if it was not used so often, especially by those opposed to sex work. What they are actually saying is that once a person has sex for money with someone they lose all rights over their own body. Dig deeper into the “selling your body” trope and what you discover is people saying sex workers cannot be raped, cannot be assaulted, cannot be beaten up, because their autonomy over their own bodies ceases the moment money is exchanged. Tied up is the idea that we do not fully control ourselves in the way non sex workers do.
—everyday whorephobia[3]

Sex worker-exclusionary radical feminism (abbr. SWERF) is a flavor of feminism that negatively impacts sex workers, as a result of its view that any sort of sex work is part and parcel of the evil patriarchy.[4] Since sex worker-exclusionary radical feminism opposes pornography and prostitution, it overlaps with sex-negative feminism.

The term used to refer to adherents of this pseudofeminist ideology are better known as SWERFs.[4] The designation "SWERF" is quite similar to TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminism), as both labels serve to identify feminists who assail disadvantaged people, via purporting them to be detrimental to feminism.[note 1] SWERFs are those who believe that sex workers are both victims and enablers of patriarchy. This ideology is quite present in radical feminism, hence the name.

It's not certain when the term "SWERF" came to be, but likely within the past decade.[4] It flourished in sex workers' rights blogs (such as Everyday Whorephobia) for some time.[4]


In 2018, the federal government of the United States passed a set of bills known as Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA).[5] FOSTA-SESTA is in violation of rights to privacy and jeopardizes sex workers, rather than sex traffickers.[4][6][7] Despite sex workers perpetually speaking out against these laws, they have yet to be abolished. Consequently, those who supported FOSTA-SESTA were referred to as SWERFs.[4]

New Zealand decriminalized sex work in 2003 when the Parliament of New Zealand passed The Prostitution Reform Act 2003 (PRA), which seemingly is an anti-SWERF bill — till you realize it only was meant to aid sex workers with citizenship. If you are a migrant sex worker on a temporary visa, you aren't protected by PRA, thus you're subject to criminalization and feasible deportation if the police find out you're doing sex work. Putting on the no-bullshit goggles, this means that a lot of sex workers of color have their services criminalized.[8]



For more information, see: Prostitution
  Decriminalization - No criminal penalties for prostitution
  Legalization - Legal and regulated
  Abolitionism - Legal, but organized activities such as brothels and pimping are illegal; prostitution is not regulated
  Neo-abolitionism - illegal to buy sex and for 3rd party involvement, legal to sell sex
  Prohibitionism - prostitution illegal
  Legality varies with local laws

While SWERFs may argue that they simply want to help sex workers to find a life outside of sex work, the policies they advocate to do this often harm sex workers instead of even achieving what's intended. The exception is poverty reduction, which many SWERFs and sex workers seem to agree on, at least. Things would be a lot better off if SWERFs just went ahead and focused on that instead.

Prohibitionist model[edit]

The World Health Organization, UNAIDS, and The Lancet, for instance, recommend the decriminalization of sex work due to the impact that criminalization has on HIV/AIDS cases; sex workers who need not fear law enforcement will tend to experience better health conditions and safer sex.[9][10][11]

Prostitutes may also face fines, jail time, and even sexual harassment from police.[12] In places where selling sex is illegal, prostitutes may even find themselves added to sex offender registries if caught (their offense, after all, was sex related!), which has devastating life consequences.[13] They can also face blackmail.[14]

Neo-abolitionist model[edit]

But many SWERFs don't advocate criminalization for selling sex, merely the purchase of sex. This model goes by various names, such as the neo-abolitionist model, or Nordic model approach to prostitutionWikipedia — a title that's sure to lure in some social democrats. But alas, the Swedes can't have everything right. This model is harmful as well, though significantly less so than a full criminalization model. Criminalizing buyers still contributes to the stigmatization of sex work, for example, which will have a negative cultural effect on women who do this for a job. Human Rights Watch puts it thusly:

The Nordic model appeals to some politicians as a compromise that allows them to condemn buyers of sex but not people they see as having been forced to sell sex. But the Nordic model actually has a devastating impact on people who sell sex to earn a living. Because its goal is to end sex work, it makes it harder for sex workers to find safe places to work, unionize, work together and support and protect one another, advocate for their rights, or even open a bank account for their business. It stigmatizes and marginalizes sex workers and leaves them vulnerable to violence and abuse by police as their work and their clients are still criminalized.[15]

There is also significant evidence that criminalizing clients will increase violence against sex workers, as perpetrated by clients.[16][17][18] The mechanism by which this is the case isn't necessarily intuitive, so let us explain: by criminalizing clients, prostitutes are then pressured to cover for their clients. This can involve threats, or violence, to keep the prostitute from reporting the client to the police, if the client suspects that could happen. In one 2013 study, it was found that when clients were criminalized, prostitutes often had less time to negotiate sex conditions; they had to do so in shadier areas (e.g. dark alleyways) to avoid police detection. Beyond the increased risk of violence this poses, it was also found to recreate many of the health risks that come with a general criminalization of prostitution (i.e., rushed negotiations for sex meant less safe sex).[19][20] Police in Sweden have seized condoms as evidence in prostitution cases, which has disincentivized their use.[21]

Contradiction by sex workers[edit]

By the way, sex workers and their advocacy organizations are largely opposed to the neo-abolitionist model (and, in fact, some are opposed to full legalization as an alternative to simple decriminalization; legalization implies stringent government regulation they'd rather not deal with).[22][23][24][25] This, for some reason, doesn't seem to be very important to SWERFs. Perhaps they simply aren't aware; such is a good example for why listening to those most affected by any given policy, to see if they have some significant insight that you don't, is probably a good idea.

Some more conspiracy-oriented SWERFs sometimes suggest that these advocacy groups for sex workers are merely controlled by Big Porno: brothels, pimps, and pornography companies. This claim does not appear to be well-founded. Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics (COYOTE), for example, is a chapter-based group that has even had funding issues obstruct its campaigns in the past.[26] They aren't the only ones: other sex worker organizations often lack the funds to lobby Congress.[27] That isn't the mark of a network funded by big porn companies.

But it's hard to argue that it's all a Big Porno conspiracy when it comes to individual sex workers themselves telling you that the impact neo-abolitionist policy has on them is negative.[17][28] In 2010, the Swedish government accepted prostitutes' testimony to the fact that the neo-abolitionist model was negatively impacting them. However, it openly viewed this harm inflicted against prostitutes as a good thing, stating that it "must be viewed as positive from the perspective that the purpose of the law is indeed to combat prostitution."[29]

Misrepresented evidence[edit]

For more information, see: Cherry picking

While research has pointed to the benefits of decriminalization and the pitfalls of neo-abolitionism, SWERFs do have some academic papers that they like to tout. As it happens, many of these papers are written by radical feminist activists themselves, such as Melissa FarleyWikipedia and Janice Raymond.[30][note 2] Much of this research was also funded and promoted by the George W. Bush administration, including papers by Donna Hughes and Farley.[14][31] Ronald Weitzer,Wikipedia a sociologist who specializes in criminology, has been critical of the "theory and methodology" behind such prostitution research, which he characterizes as tainted by a moral panic fueled by unscientific, absolutist ideology.[32][30] A group of 18 academics wrote a 2008 commentary criticizing how this sort of research bias is, in practice, ethically and empirically unsound.[33][34]

Susan Hidel, the presiding judge in Bedford v. CanadaWikipedia (in which Raymond and Farley were called as expert witnesses), found similarly. She stated:

I found the evidence of Dr. Melissa Farley to be problematic. Although Dr. Farley has conducted a great deal of research on prostitution, her advocacy appears to have permeated her opinions. For example, Dr. Farley's unqualified assertion in her affidavit that prostitution is inherently violent appears to contradict her own findings that prostitutes who work from indoor locations generally experience less violence. Furthermore, in her affidavit, she failed to qualify her opinion regarding the causal relationship between post-traumatic stress disorder and prostitution, namely, that it could be caused by events unrelated to prostitution. Dr. Farley's choice of language is at times inflammatory and detracts from her conclusions. [...] Dr. Farley stated during cross-examination that some of her opinions on prostitution were formed prior to her research [...] Accordingly, for these reasons, I assign less weight to Dr. Farley's evidence. Similarly, I find that Drs. Raymond and Poulin were more like advocates than experts offering independent opinions to the court. At times, they made bold, sweeping statements that were not reflected in their research.[35]

Commenting on research published by Raymond, Weitzer points out her use of "horror stories to arouse the reader's disgust and anger". He adds that one should "recall Rubin's (1984) criticism of those who present the worst examples of abuse as typical." Raymond claims:

The sexual service provided in prostitution is most often violent, degrading, and abusive sexual acts, including sex between a buyer and several women; slashing the women with razor blades; tying women to bedposts and lashing them till they bleed; biting women’s breasts; burning the women with cigarettes; cutting her arms, legs, and genital areas; and urinating or defecating on women."[30]

Another paper, for which Farley (who is a psychologist) was the lead researcher, was published by the Journal of Trauma Practice in 2004: "Prostitution and Trafficking in Nine Countries".[36][30] To give you an idea of the kind of objectivity we're dealing with here, Farley (being in every other typical way a sex-negative feminist) has been arrested multiple times for destroying porn magazines in bookstores.[37] She founded the anti-prostitution website Prostitution Research & Education, which she has for some reason also used as a platform to complain about "transactivist woke imperialism" despite the apparent irrelevance to the topic.[38][39]

This perhaps serves as an explanation for the slanted language present in the 2004 paper.[30] That paper reached the conclusion that decriminalization of prostitution won't reduce violence, despite the fact that it only ever discussed legalization, not decriminalization. They also only asked respondents about "legalization", not "decriminalization"; these are different legal models. Despite that, a significant sum of respondents (who were all current or former prostitutes) still said that legalization would make them feel safer. Somehow, there was no given number for how many respondents would feel less safe with legalization; perhaps it was intentionally omitted or not asked at all. It is somewhat hard to know, since Farley's research transparency has often left something to be desired.[36][40][30] As Weitzer comments, it's "especially important to know the exact wording of questions, especially on this topic, because question wording may skew the answers." This isn't provided.[30]

Weitzer was critical of Farley's "very selective" referencing style, often citing herself or other radical feminist academics, such as in her 2004 paper "Bad for the Body, Bad for the Heart: Prostitution Harms Women Even if Legalized or Decriminalized".[30] She has also been accused, including by one of her research employees, of explicitly misrepresenting research results and skirting ethical review.[41][42][43][44] One former sex worker discusses Farley in an interview with Reason:

There's a researcher named Melissa Farley who does an awful lot of these kind of studies to provide numbers for the anti-prostitution people. And on her site she traced this supposed [average number] of 13 [as the average age of entry into prostitution] to several old studies which all drew back to a study done here in LA actually in the early 80's—in '82. And that study found the average age of entry for underage sex workers—not for all sex workers, but only for underage ones—was about 16. In a different part of the study, they listed 13 as being the average age of first sexual contact. First kiss, first groping in a car, first whatever. Farley seems to have conflated the two numbers to represent that 13 as being the age not of first sexual contact, but of first accepting money for it. Even so, she still was only claiming that that was the age of origin for underage sex workers. Normal distortion, the gossip game syndrome, has changed that from underage to average of all.[45]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. While many TERFs are also SWERFs, there are trans-inclusive SWERFs. Several of the big-name anti-porn radical feminists such as Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin have stated relatively trans-inclusive views, and likewise, many of today's trans-inclusive radical feminists are also SWERFs.
  2. This doesn't discredit the research in itself, but is worth mentioning.


  1. Credit: Charles Hutchins (March 10, 2020). "Feminism is intersectional: No Terfs / No Swerfs". Flickr. London, United Kingdom.
  2. SWerfs/Terfs, the Westboro Baptist Church of Feminism." everyday whorephobia, 20 Nov. 2021,
  3. "It’s not even for rent." everyday whorephobia, 23 Dec. 2021,
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 "SWERF.", Accessed 16 October 2021.
  5. "H.R.1865 - Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017."
  6. Romano, Aja. "A new law intended to curb sex trafficking threatens the future of the internet as we know it". Vox.
  7. House, Briq and Andrews, Alex. "SWOP-USA stands in opposition of disguised internet censorship bill SESTA, S. 1963." Sex Workers Outreach Project USA. Accessed 16 October 2021.
  8. "Who can do sex work?" Community Law NZ, 23 Dec. 2021.
  9. "New WHO guidelines to better prevent HIV in sex workers". 12 December 2012. 
  10. "HIV and sex workers". The Lancet. Elsevier. 23 July 2014. "This Series of seven papers aims to investigate the complex issues faced by sex workers worldwide, and calls for the decriminilisation [sic] of sex work, in the global effort to tackle the HIV/AIDS epidemic." 
  11. Sam Wong (24 July 2014). "Decriminalising sex work would cut HIV infections by a third". Imperial College London. Quote: "Calls for removal of all legal restrictions targeting sex work have been supported by international policy bodies, including WHO, UNAIDS, UNDP, and the UN Population Fund."
  12. North, Anna (2019-08-02). "Sex workers' fight for decriminalization, explained" (in en). 
  13. Christina Lynch (December 8, 2022). "How Georgia's Sex Offender Registry Traps People in Debt and Homelessness". The Appeal.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Emily Bazelon (May 5, 2016). "Should Prostitution Be a Crime?". The New York Times Magazine. (Archived).
  15. (August 7, 2019). "Why Sex Work Should Be Decriminalized. Human Rights Watch.
  16. "Is Sex Work Decriminalization the Answer? What the Research Tells Us". American Civil Liberties Union.
  17. 17.0 17.1 "Les chiffres clés de la prostitution" (in fr-FR). 
  18. Frankie Miren and Laura Watson (22 January 2020). "The false feminism of criminalising sex workers’ clients". openDemocracy.
  19. Open access journal article Krüsi, A.; Pacey, K.; Bird, L.; Taylor, C.; Chettiar, J.; Allan, S.; Bennett, D.; Montaner, J. S. et al. (2014-06-01). "Criminalisation of clients: reproducing vulnerabilities for violence and poor health among street-based sex workers in Canada—a qualitative study" (in en). BMJ Open 4 (6): e005191. doiWikipedia:10.1136/bmjopen-2014-005191. ISSN 2044-6055. PMID 24889853. 
  20. Susan Nembhard, Kierra B Jones, and Jahnavi Jagannath (April 15, 2021). "Partial Decriminalization of Sex Work Could Cause More Harm Than Good". The Urban Institute.
  21. Sukthankar et al. "Sex work: European legal frameworks". International Union Rights 12 (4), Sex workers organising (2005), pp. 8-9.
  22. Carrabine, Eamonn (2020). Criminology: A Sociological Introduction. Abingdon: Routledge. p. 253. ISBN 9781351343824. "Sex workers' organisations have been campaigning against neo-abolitionist policies and the criminalisation of commercial sex as detrimental to their lives and working conditions, and advocate for the complete decriminalisation of prostitution (see Plate 12.2) (Macioti and Garofalo Geymonat 2016)." 
  23. Tremblay, Francine (2020). Organizing for Sex Workers' Rights in Montréal: Resistance and Advocacy. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield. p. 87. ISBN 9781498593908. "Sex workers' organizations and their allies favor decriminalization of prostitution because of the harms that stigmatization, discrimination, and criminalization bring to sex workers' lives and work." 
  24. Flowers, R. Barri (2011). Prostitution in the Digital Age: Selling Sex from the Suite to the Street. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO. p. 49. ISBN 9780313384615. "There are some who support Nevada's legal prostitution industry in specific and the legalization or decriminalization of prostitution in general, such as the sex workers rights' organizations, COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) and PONY (Prostitutes of New York). (...) There appears to be stronger support among prostitutes' rights groups and many self-employed sex workers for decriminalization than legalization of prostitution, as "legalization is understood to mean decriminalization accompanied by strict municipal regulation of prostitution."" 
  25. Cruz, Katie (2020). "10. The Work of Sex Work. Prostitution, Unfreedom, and Criminality at Work". Criminality at Work. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 192–196. ISBN 9780198836995. "The central and uniting demand of the sex worker rights movement around the world is the decriminalization of consensual adult sex work. (...) Sex worker rights activists and their allies are united on the need for decriminalization of prostitution-related activities." 
  26. Heather Lee Miller. "COYOTE: American organization". Encyclopedia Britannica.
  27. Chris Mills Rodrigo (May 30, 2021). "Sex workers gain foothold in Congress". The Hill.
  28. Elian Peltier and Emma Bubola (September 29, 2018). "A Prostitute Was Killed in France. Is a New Law Partly to Blame?". The New York Times. (Archived). Quote: "Forty-two percent of prostitutes in France say they have been exposed to far more violence since the 2016 law took effect, according to a survey of 583 prostitutes conducted this year for Médecins du Monde and other nongovernmental organizations."
  29. Michelle Goldberg (July 30, 2014). "Should Buying Sex Be Illegal?". The Nation. "Then, a few sentences later, it said: "For people who are still being exploited in prostitution, the above negative effects of the ban that they describe must be viewed as positive from the perspective that the purpose of the law is indeed to combat prostitution."" 
  30. 30.0 30.1 30.2 30.3 30.4 30.5 30.6 30.7 Weitzer, Ronald (July 2005). "Flawed Theory and Method in Studies of Prostitution" (in en). Violence Against Women (SAGE Publications) 11 (7): 934–949. doiWikipedia:10.1177/1077801205276986. ISSN 1077-8012.  (Open access version here) Open access journal article.
  31. Melissa Gira Grant (August 13, 2018). "Beyond Strange Bedfellows". Political Research Associates.
  32. Weitzer, Ronald (September–October 2005). "The growing moral panic over prostitution and sex trafficking". The Criminologist (American Society of Criminology) 30 (5). 
  33. Sanders et al. A Commentary on 'Challenging Men's Demand for Prostitution in Scotland' (Jan Macleod, Melissa Farley, Lynn Anderson, Jacqueline Golding, 2008). 29 April 2008.  (Archived).
  34. (February 24, 2017). "Exploring available knowledge and evidence on prostitution in Scotland via practitioner-based interviews". Justice Directorate. Government of Scotland. Quote: "Although this was an exploratory study, it was strongly criticised by a number of academics, 18 of whom produced A Commentary on 'Challenging Men's Demand for Prostitution in Scotland collectively arguing that the study did not meet standards of academic rigour, nor was it grounded in empirical research ethics (see Sanders et al, 2008)."
  35. Superior Court of Justice (September 28, 2010). "Bedford v. Canada (Attorney General), 2010 ONSC 4264". The Canadian Legal Information Institute (CanLII). 
  36. 36.0 36.1 Farley, Melissa; Cotton, Ann; Lynne, Jacqueline; Zumbeck, Sybille; Spiwak, Frida; Reyes, Maria E.; Alvarez, Dinorah; Sezgin, Ufuk (January 2004). "Prostitution and Trafficking in Nine Countries". Journal of Trauma Practice (Taylor & Francis) 2 (3-4): 33–74. doiWikipedia:10.1300/J189v02n03_03. ISSN 1536-2922.  (Open access version here) Open access journal article.
  37. Debra J. Dickerson (July 22, 2011). "If You Want To Outlaw Prostitution, You're Going To Have To Do Better Than This". Slate.
  38. "Mission & History". Prostitution Research & Education.
  39. Melissa Farley (February 13, 2023). "This is woke imperialism and this harms women". Prostitution Research & Education.
  40. Weitzer, Ronald (July 2005). "Rehashing Tired Claims About Prostitution: A Response to Farley and Raphael and Shapiro" (in en). Violence Against Women 11 (7): 971–977. doiWikipedia:10.1177/1077801205277090. ISSN 1077-8012. 
  41. Calum Bennachie (2010). "Comment on Melissa Farley's claims regarding decriminalisation of sex work in New Zealand" via
  42. Spanger, Marlene; Skilbrei, May-Len (2017). Prostitution Research in Context: Methodology, Representation and Power. Taylor & Francis. pp. 94–97. ISBN 9781317433569. 
  43. Maggie McNeill (October 6, 2011). "The Pigeons Come Home". The Honest Courtesan.
  44. "Melissa Farley and complaints against her for fraud". Police Prostitution and Politics.
  45. Thaddeus Russell and Alexis Garcia (July 14, 2014). "Former Sex Worker & Activist Maggie McNeill on Why We Should Decriminalize Prostitution: 'This Is Not What Feminism Was Supposed to Be'". Reason.