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January 31, 2023

Esperanza Fonseca and the Case for Prostitution Abolition

"If you're not talking about the systems that constrain our choice, then you are just talking about fantasy,” Fonseca said.

Muriel Alejandrino, Clara Meyers
Courtesy of Leeanye Wade

Op-Ed by Clara Meyers, Vice President of WorldWE Youth Coalition 5C Chapter, and Muriel Alejandrino, a member of the same chapter. Trigger warning – This article contains discussions of sexual violence.

“What we’re seeing is this entire generation of young people that are being groomed to believe that this is an industry that is empowering, that is [a] job like any other… And the unfortunate reality is that when they enter the sex trade, they are going to experience rape, sexual violence, physical violence, likely going to get robbed, going to lose friends and going to experience trauma that will last with them for the rest of their lives,” Esperanza Fonseca said to a room of over sixty students last November.

Fonseca is a member of AF3IRM, a transnational anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist feminist grassroots organization that focuses on education, advocacy, and direct action. Citing her involvement in AF3IRM and her personal experiences, she made a case in the talk for the abolition of prostitution, rather than its full decriminalization.

For us, Fonseca’s previous work was the first exposure we had to the sex trade abolition movement. Her work draws upon both her personal experiences within prostitution as a trans woman and leftist theory to challenge the glamorization of the sex trade.

Creating World Without Exploitation Youth Coalition’s 5C Chapter (WorldWE Youth 5C) last fall alongside club president Dahlia Locke was a rewarding experience in which we were not only able to meet an idol of ours but share her work with the broader 5C community. Dahlia, who also serves as Co-Chair of the national WorldWE Youth Coalition organization, connected with Fonseca to make possible last fall’s talk “Sex Work:’ A Neo-Liberal Fantasy? Globalizing Perspectives on Prostitution and Trafficking,” in partnership with the Claremont International Relations Society (CIRS).

In efforts to make the contents of Fonseca’s recent talk accessible to more students, we have compiled here the main arguments of her speech alongside our own further research.

Prostitution is the World’s Oldest Oppression

Throughout the talk, Fonseca emphasized that the historical and contemporary contexts of gender and class domination that underlie the global prostitution system influence individuals’ agency when “choosing” to enter the industry.

“When we talk about choice, if you’re not talking about the systems that constrain our choice, then you are just talking about fantasy,” Fonseca said.

This “fantasy” is propelled by popular sentiments such as the phrase “prostitution is the oldest profession,” which is historically inaccurate and misleading. The expression, Fonseca explained, actually originated within a short story by Rudyard Kipling, a writer known for his support of British imperialism. Instead, she referred the audience to the work of historian Gerda Lerner, who located the origins of prostitution with the beginnings of slavery and the institution of class society and the state.

In “The Origins of Prostitution in Ancient Mesopotamia,” Lerner theorizes, “It is likely that commercial prostitution derived directly from the enslavement of women and the consolidation and formation of classes.” Lerner challenges the notion of prostitution as natural and sacred, instead classifying it as a historical tool of oppression that is not inevitable but constructed.

With the growth of capitalism, Fonseca explained, prostitution has developed into a global industry, ignited by imperialism and militarization. “When the United States sponsored militarization, for example, in Thailand and in the Philippines, they created military brothels…[which were] brothels around military bases to serve the American soldiers,” Fonseca explained.

As a result, she said, countries that had previously not relied on the sex tourism industry began to depend on it as a means of developing and escaping debt. Some countries, such as Hawai’i, had no organized system of prostitution prior to the intervention of the United States. Meanwhile, the majority of the people within the industry were economically coerced or forced out of necessity to join the trade.

Dahlia Locke, WorldWE Youth 5C’s president, explained that economic coercion remains the norm of the trade. “The vast majority of people in prostitution would leave if they had any other options for survival,” she said, explaining that narratives of prostitution as empowerment “only serve to benefit the privileged few in the sex trade with the right to exit and pimps, traffickers, and sex buyers.”

Courtesy of Leeanye Wade

Prostitution Disproportionally Affects Marginalized Groups

Fonseca’s experience within the sex trade follows this legacy of gender and class oppression. In her talk, she made reference not only to the historical context of the global sex trade but also her own harrowing experiences within it.

Fonseca was introduced to both the sex trade and movement organizing in college, when she began to experience harassment from the campus police surrounding her transgender identity.

“They brought dogs… they forced me to go into my room until, in their words, ‘you dress more like a man and then you can come outside,’” she described.

After the college neglected to sufficiently address this issue after she filed a complaint, Fonseca began to organize on campus for more equitable conditions. Soon, she joined in solidarity with cafeteria workers advocating for unionization, which would begin her continuing involvement in the labor movement.

However, as she continued to transition, she lost her job and turned to prostitution for an income.

“As a young transgender woman, and I say young in terms of transition years, prostitution was really glamorized in our community,” explained Fonseca. Encouraged by friends and other trans women, she began to see clients.

The decision was not just the result of social pressures, but of psychological ones. “Yes, people might look at me sideways or make mean humiliating, shameful comments about me,” she said. “But if certain men think I am attractive or feminine enough where they’re willing to pay for me, then that must say something about my self worth, right?”

For this reason, she continued, prostitution is dangerous because it “exploits the vulnerabilities that people have, whether it’s economic vulnerabilities of poverty and homelessness, or whether it’s psychological vulnerabilities, of groups who have been traditionally marginalized in society.”

Though she described at first feeling empowered to be in the industry, after multiple experiences of sexual violence and the deaths of several friends, she realized its violent reality.

Dangerously, she said, popular portrayals of prostitution often neglect to demonstrate the scope of its violence.

Prostitution Abolition Must be Non-Carceral

Our movement on campus with WorldWE Youth 5C and Fonseca’s work with AF3IRM advocate for similar policy models. WorldWE advocates for the  Equality Model, also known as partial decriminalization, which decriminalizes people in prostitution; holds buyers, pimps, and brothel owners accountable; and, crucially, provides exit services and support for those exiting the trade.

Fonseca addressed concerns about the nature of accountability for sex buyers under sex trade abolitionist policies such as the Equality Model, including accusations of carceral feminism. Carceral feminism, which approaches feminist issues with increased policing and prison sentencing, is antithetical to the goals of WorldWE Youth 5C and the prostitution abolition movement in its entirety.

The full decriminalization of the sex trade is a sex trade expansionist policy which enables the continued exploitation of and violence toward women by pimps and buyers. However, lessening the violence of the sex trade by maintaining restrictions on sex buying and pimping need not involve increased policing and prisons.

“That we hold buyers accountable need not mean anything to do with the prison system,” Locke said. Instead, accountability for buyers under the Equality Model’s can follow models of restorative justice.

AF3IRM Hawai’i’s Bodies Back Model is one example of an explicitly non-carceral and indigenous-centered approach to sex trade abolitionism that falls within the Equality Model’s framework of partial decriminalization

In an article outlining the policy’s demands entitled “The Bodies Back Model: Re-Indigenizing the Policy Debate on the Sex Trade,” AF3RM Hawai’i writes: “We must end the conflation of prison and accountability.”

The Bodies Back Model instead calls for transformative justice through the implementation of a 50 week men’s accountability program, more comprehensive sex education, and family accountability processes, among a host of other strategies listed in the above article.

Ultimately, Fonseca said, ending the sex trade requires an interrogation of the very ways that we relate to each other.

“How do we educate people to show them, like, no, other people and their sexualities are not commodities that can be bought, sold and traded on the market? And that’s where I want the focus to be,” Fonseca said.


To get involved in this movement, consider attending a WorldWE Youth 5C chapter meeting. We meet biweekly to plan educational events and direct action on campus to create more nuanced conversations about the sex trade and its abolition. For more information, feel free to email us at worldweyouth5c@gmail.com or message us on instagram @worldweyouth5c.

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Undercurrents reports on labor, Palestine liberation, prison abolition and other community organizing at and around the Claremont Colleges.

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