‘Prostitution is situated in the subordination of women’: WorldWE Youth 5C challenges prostitution narratives

A woman in a plaid jacket talks in a classroom in front of an audience.
A recent talk from a sex work survivor and hosted by a new 5C club advocating the abolition of sex work challenged common perspectives on prostitution at the 5Cs. (Courtesy: Leeanye Wade)

In its mission to transform campus dialogue, WorldWE Youth 5C, the Claremont Colleges’ chapter of the World Without Exploitation’s Youth Coalition, hosted a Nov. 18 talk titled “‘Sex Work’ A Neoliberal Fantasy? Globalizing Perspectives on Prostitution and Trafficking.” 

WorldWE Youth 5C is the youth branch of the national anti-sex trafficking and prostitution abolition organization World Without Exploitation, founded in 2016. Started this fall, the 5C club is one of three college club chapters, along with the chapters at Trinity College and Arizona State University.

“Our goal is to engage college students in the fight to end sex-trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation through education on the realities of the sex trade and activate our peers through advocacy for survivor centered policies and partnership with local movement organizers,” Clara Meyers PO ’25, vice president of WorldWE Youth 5C, said to TSL. 

WorldWE Youth 5C holds bi-weekly meetings to “bring the prostitution abolition fight” to campus. They also attend protests, most recently the #EndTeenPorn protest in Hollywood led by Exodus Cry, another nonprofit committed to abolishing sexual exploitation and trafficking. 

Club president Dahlia Locke PO ’25 commented on the prevailing narratives at the 5Cs about the sex trade. 

“In short, most narratives around prostitution deeply misunderstand the realities of the trade and the principles of the abolitionist movement,” Locke said to TSL. “Sex trade expansionist narratives are deeply harmful to understandings of healthy sex on campus and to survivors of prostitution and people in the sex trade.”

WorldWE 5C advocates for the Equality Model, also known as the Nordic or Abolitionist Model, which focuses on the decriminalization of people in prostitution, accountability for buyers and pimps and exit strategies — such as mental healthcare and job placement — for those leaving the prostitution system. 

“It is important to note that accountability for buyers can come in the form of restorative justice but also that this movement aims to center support for prostituted people first and foremost,” Locke said.

Locke described the most common on-campus narrative as supportive of people voluntarily entering prostitution. While Locke said she agrees, she believes this centers the wrong issue.

“Research shows and survivors tell us that the majority of people in prostitution are there for survival, and if they had any other options they would leave,” Locke said. “[The dominant narrative is] centering the experiences of the privileged few who do not depend upon the prostitution system for survival.” 

Narratives on campus must change from empowerment through glamorization to empowerment through the abolition of the sex trade, according to Locke.

“Sexual liberation will only come when our sexualities are detached from a market and are instead based on mutual respect and trust,” she said.

In leading this campus-based reform, the club’s Global Perspectives talk is the first event it has hosted with a prostitution abolitionist and survivor on campus.

Esperanza Fonseca, a labor organizer and survivor of prostitution, spoke to a room of around 70 students about her personal experiences, the history of prostitution and dismantling narratives surrounding the international sex trade. 

After Fonseca spoke directly to the audience for about 40 minutes, Locke led a 20-minute Q&A.

According to Fonseca, the argument that “sex work is work” glosses over the realities of the sex trade.

“If you survived [prostitution] you are one of the few that did. Most of us don’t survive it. We’re either killed, beaten, raped or still trapped in it,” Fonseca said. “It is extremely difficult to exit prostitution once you’re in it.”

Criticizing the sex trade from an anti-imperialist perspective, Fonseca argued that liberal media conditions people to believe the industry is liberating for women and queer people. In reality, Fonseca argues that prostitution furthers the oppression of these groups. 

“You cannot just say, ‘We’re going to free our bodies and our sexualities from the state,’ but then keep it subjugated under the market, because market forces are real,” she said. “In order for true sexual liberation to happen, your body, your sexuality, needs to be liberated from the state but also from the market.”

The idea of sexuality as a commodity being inherently exploitative is a theme Fonseca carried into her argument about capitalism and imperialism constraining choice.

“We cannot separate choice and agency from the history and the systems that we are embedded in,” Fonseca said.

As part of taking an anti-imperialist stance on the international sex trade, Fonseca introduced examples involving the United States as an instrument of oppression via military expansion.

“Imperialism is what created the global sex tourism industry,” Fonseca said. “When the United States sponsored militarization, for example, in Thailand and the Philippines, they created military brothels. Brothels around military bases to serve the American soldiers, and many women were forced into prostitution.”

Muriel Alejandrino PO ’25, a WorldWE Youth 5C board member, echoed Fonseca’s perspective on the lack of choice involved in prostitution.

“Class privilege determines whether people in the sex trade have the right to exit, which means the system denies the most marginalized people the right to say no,” Alejandrino said to TSL. “Supporting the full legalization of the sex trade is supporting those who profit from it, like pimps and sex buyers, and not the prostituted people themselves.”

While prostitution abolitionists are often thought of as carceral feminists, Fonseca argued that this narrative couldn’t be further from the truth.

“There are actual carceral feminists, but those carceral feminists are the feminists who believe that the state can actually be used to liberate women,” she said. “My position is that the state is an instrument of class repression and class rule.”

Furthermore, Fonseca emphasized that “prostitution is carceral” because the inability to leave an oppressive, often dangerous situation is carceral.

Another pushback Fonseca frequently hears is that prostitution abolition is related to Puritanism, which she countered with religious history.

“Two of the doctors of the Church, both St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Thomas Aquinas, actually were prostitution preservationists,” she said. “The traditional Christian view on prostitution is that it must be preserved as a necessary evil.”

Some students found Fonseca’s historical point of view to be informative and eye-opening. 

Símir Hampton PO ’26 said the talk touched on topics of autonomy, coercion and brutality that are lacking in current conversations about prostitution.

“I think hearing survivors’ stories is the most efficient and most valuable way of learning about the sex trade,” Hampton said.

Locke hopes Fonseca’s talk inspires people in the 5C community to re-examine their views on the sex trade.

“We hope that people take away from Esperanza’s talk that it is essential that they challenge mainstream ‘sex work’ ideology that is too often discussed in the classroom and amongst college students,” Locke said.

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