Date of Award

Winter 12-10-2021

Degree Type

Honors Thesis



Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts


Political Science

First Advisor

Elisabeth Friedman


With a reputation as humanity’s oldest profession, sex work has been the subject of social and political debate for centuries. Feminist scholars, in particular, have given a great deal of attention to the profession, questioning whether the existence and prevalence of sex work have had a positive or negative impact on the advancement of women’s rights. This feminist debate has formed a binary between sex-positive feminists and abolitionists who starkly disagree on the role sex work plays for women, while each side simultaneously believes that their argument provides the greatest opportunity for the liberation of women from the oppressions of patriarchy. Sex-positive feminists advocate for the normalization of sex work as an avenue for women to reclaim their sexuality whereas abolitionists argue that women’s sexuality has been so deeply embedded in patriarchal structures that women can't behave sexually separate from these structures. Beyond the theoretical arguments, both sides of this debate advocate for policy approaches that advance their beliefs, with sex-positivists favoring legalization or decriminalization and abolitionists pushing for criminalization. Although both sides of this debate aim to advance women’s liberation, the polarized binary feminist scholars have formed has inhibited positive policy progress regarding sex work and has even led to the emergence of a third, middle-ground body of theory. The standstill of the feminist theoretical binary has established the need for the determination of the most liberatory policy approach for sex workers so that feminist advocacy can direct its energy at the policy that will most effectively attack the patriarchal oppression women have been subjected to. As such, through this thesis, I aim to analyze and compare the impact that the criminalization and legalization of sex work have on sex workers to determine which policy approach, and the feminist theory that backs it, is more liberatory. I use Nevada and New York as my comparative case study for this research, contrasting their approach to sex work based on the impact each legal policy has on the health, safety, and perspectives of workers. Ultimately, I found that the decriminalization of sex work offers the greatest potential for liberation from harmful systems of oppression, however, I argue that policy alone is insufficient to fully deconstruct the oppressive structures that women and their sexuality exist within.