You may have heard the term SWERF but are unclear as to what it really means.
Is it actually a branch of feminism? What views does it promote and uphold? Is it related to the term TERF? Is it an insult?
Read on to find out what sex worker exclusionary radical feminism means, how the term became part of our vernacular, what SWERFs believe, and the controversy surrounding the ideology.
What is a SWERF?
An acronym for sex worker exclusionary radical feminism, SWERF is a term for the ideology upheld by many radical feminists that all sex work, including prostitution, pornography, erotic dancing, web camming, and other work involving sex and sexuality, is wrong, degrading, offensive, and oppressive.
Many SWERFs believe that all sex work must be violent and exploitative and that consensual sex workers participate in perpetuating an immoral and abusive industry. In fact, some even say that consensual sex work is a paradox, suggesting that there is no difference between those who engage in it voluntarily—claiming it is impossible to be a voluntary participant—and women who are coerced into sex work through sex trafficking. Others argue that consensual sex work is possible, but that its participants, as well as the feminists who support and seek to protect them, are perpetuating an exploitative environment.
History of the term
The term SWERF is modeled after TERF. TERF stands for trans exclusionary radical feminists and constitutes a transphobic subset of radical feminism. Australian writer Viv Smythe is credited for having first used the term in 2008 as a response to those who attempted to exclude transwomen from female and feminist spaces and advocating the inclusion of trans people. It is not clear when the term SWERF first emerged, but there were some appearances of the acronym in articles and other online forums in the early 2010s.
Both schools of thought came about at least indirectly as a response to third-wave feminism, which, among other principles, promoted intersectionality, the inclusion of people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, sexual orientations, economic backgrounds, races, and other groups. Intersectional feminism recognizes that women face discrimination because of these and other factors in addition to their gender and seeks to embrace these differences and fight against all forms of discrimination. It also acknowledges the idea that women who are part of multiple minority groups face additional discrimination because of their identities.
In contrast, SWERFs and TERFs, of course, see limits in terms of what feminism means and whom the category can and should encompass, protect, and champion.
Both SWERFs and TERFs are also groups that fall under the umbrella of radical feminism, which seeks to eliminate the patriarchy and oppression. Many radical feminists believe that sex work promotes patriarchal structures and is degrading to all women.
Many “mainstream” feminists criticize SWERFs for their exclusionary views on sex workers and the industry in which they participate. Despite SWERFs’ supposed concern for the safety of these women, other people note that their practices often perpetuate stereotypes about and endanger the very people they claim are being violated by the sex work industry. Some of their specific concerns include SWERFs’:
• Lack of differentiation between voluntary and involuntary sex work
Many (although not all) SWERFs equate workers who enter the sex work industry out of their own free will with victims of human trafficking. It is important to recognize that the latter category is a form of slavery, while many women choose to work in professions such as erotic dancing and related industries out of their own volition, not because they are being forced to do so. Furthermore, this belief suggests that women should not have the right or agency to choose their own path, even if it is a legal one, as many jobs within sex work are.
• Failure to recognize objectification in other industries
Some people see SWERFs as hypocritical because they claim to be offended by the objectification of sex workers but do not hold the same views about the treatment of members of other industries where the issue is prevalent, such as modeling. This suggests that the goal of SWERFs is to control and tell women how they should use their bodies rather than improve the lives of women who are facing objectification and oppression.
• Bullying of sex workers
Many SWERFs espouse their ideology publicly, not only making women working in sex industries the target of their abusive rhetoric but in some cases also risking the workers’ safety, which they claim to want to protect. For example, SWERFs have been known to engage in doxxing, publicly posting addresses and other personal contact information of women who engage in sex work, as well as protesting at and picketing women’s places of work.
SWERF response to criticism and view of feminism
SWERFs tend to see the term as disparaging, preferring to be referred to as sex work or prostitution abolitionists. They also see themselves as the true feminists, countering the opinions of the many people who suggest that they are actually antifeminists, claiming mainstream feminism actually marginalizes women working in sex industries.
Many SWERFs critique “mainstream” feminism, claiming these feminists don’t recognize or want to protect members of the industry who are being abused or violated, choosing instead to see the work as empowering. However, many feminists argue that they do, in fact, advocate safety in sex work, understanding that many sex workers face violence and abuse regularly.
Some SWERFs also argue that sex workers who do choose the to enter the profession voluntarily and are happy with their work tend to come from privileged backgrounds, claiming that these are the individuals mainstream feminists champion while ignoring those who perform sex work because they are coerced to do so. Many feminists counter this claim as well, noting that satisfaction with a profession within the industry is not limited to “privileged” women.