Cartoon: Believing (Some) Women

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This comic was drawn by a new collaborator, Kelly Lawrence. Kelly says:

My name’s Kelly, and I’m a comic artist and illustrator based in the Pacific Northwest. I love to use bold line and color, and I’m always excited to work with a subject matter that uplifts others.

I was drawn to this cartoon because I’m a firm supporter of sex workers and oppose how exclusive some feminists are about what women deserve to be respected. All women deserve to be listened to.

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As Kelly says, “some” feminists. That’s important – a strip like this isn’t meant as a knock on feminism in general, just anti-sex-worker feminism, or SWERFs (like TERFs, but with “sex worker” replacing “trans” in the acronym).

It’s curious that – in my anecdotal experience – most SWERFs are TERFs. There’s a horseshoe effect going on, in which the most (allegedly) radical feminists have wound up preaching the same sexual ethics as conservative Christians. Both SWERFs and conservative Christians frame sex workers as women who are victims, and if many sex workers don’t see themselves as victimized, it means they don’t know their own minds.

In an academic paper, feminist economist Victoria Bateman wrote about how SWERF thinking replicates “the cult of female modesty.”

Contrary to radical feminism, I will argue that it is society’s division of women into “good girls” and “whores”, where “whores” are deemed as undeserving of respect, which can often be found at the root of society-wide mistreatment of women. The radical feminist ambition—which seeks to abolish sex work—conspires in such thinking, fuelling “whore” stigma by suggesting that sex work is wrong, that no woman in her “right mind” would choose to do it (hence all sex workers can be cast as “victims”), and that sex workers are the (albeit unwilling) cause of the sins men inflict on other women. Rather than challenging the “cult of female modesty”, feminists conspire in its teaching.

If you have time and interest, the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE), a sex-worker-led umbrella group of various sex workers rights organizations in thirty-five countries, has published a terrific overview of the relationship between sex work and feminism. (It’s thirty pages long, a little dry and academic but totally readable). Like virtually all sex worker rights organizations, ICRSE advocates for decriminalization and ending stigma.

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This cartoon has four panels. Each of the panel shows two young women in an outdoor area with trees and a paved walking path – maybe a college quad. 

One woman, standing behind the table, holds a megaphone and is speaking out to the world in general. She has neck-length hair, fashionably choppy, and is wearing a blue hoodie over jeans and a gray shirt. (I’ll call her “HOODIE”.) Her table is surrounded by banners saying “real men don’t buy women” and “sex work is violence against women”; her table has stacks of pamphlets, as well as a thermos and some pens, and a little pop-up sign which says “prostitution is rape.” (Nice detail work from Kelly!).

The other woman is walking past in the first panel. She has her hair in a high ponytail, is wearing jeans and a pink t shirt, and is carrying a small purse. (I’ll call her “PONYTAIL.”)


Hoodie is talking with conviction into her megaphone, throwing a fist into the air. Ponytail is walking by.



Ponytail’s attention has been drawn, and she pauses and turns to face Hoodie.



Hoodie continues shouting with her megaphone, looking even more passionate. Ponytail, excited by what she’s hearing, holds her hands up and speaks to Hoodie.


PONYTAIL: Yes! Exactly!


Hoodie has swung her megaphone around and is yelling through it, right into Ponytail’s face; Ponytail winces back, looking surprised and annoyed.

PONYTAIL: I’m a sex worker and–


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Believing (Some) Women on Patreon

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20 Responses to Cartoon: Believing (Some) Women

  1. 1
    Avvaaa says:

    I want to be charitable since I certainly believe in the causes that “believe women” is associated with, but I have come to realise that it is more of a slogan than an actual idea for how to be less sexist or a better activist.

    There are women who will tell you trans women are not women, that Muslim refugees are all rapists, that Donald Trump won on January 6, etc etc.

    And of course there are even more women who will just say “this stuff isn´t important to me”. Probably even a majority of women, in a lot of places and a lot of the time.

    I think what is really being said is “believe activists” or “believe feminists”. Not perfect since neither of those categories is 100% clear and neither group is immune to spouting nasty stuff, but it seems much more effective.

  2. 2
    Ampersand says:

    This post from 2006 (!) has some discussion of what I think the slogan “believe women” actually means.

  3. 3
    Avvaaa says:

    I actually find that interpretation a lot less charitable, because it is effectively saying “believe women when they say one thing, but don´t when they say another”. So in fact credibility has little to do with women´s identity as women, and more to do with just wanting to promote a set of views and enlisting women´s authority when it is convenient, and jettisoning that authority when it is not.

    And you know, these are views I agree with! But the thinking behind it strikes me as opportunistic. It is sort of a mirror image of people who say they believe scientists until scientists say climate change is real. If you only believe a group has authority, be it moral, identity-based, intellectual, whatever when that group says things that you already agree with, you actually do not believe the group has authority at all.

  4. 4
    Ampersand says:

    I actually find that interpretation a lot less charitable, because it is effectively saying “believe women when they say one thing, but don´t when they say another”

    I didn’t say that, or anything that can reasonably be interpreted to mean that.

  5. 5
    bcb says:

    I think to some extent, the lack of acceptance of sex workers among supposedly liberal people is because they haven’t really understood the meaning of “my body my choice” and its variants. It doesn’t just mean “abortion is allowed.” It means you own your body and nobody other than you can decide what you do with your own body.

    Same goes for self-described liberals who defend controlled substance laws or forcing people to stay alive against their will. It doesn’t matter if cocaine or marijuana is more or less dangerous to ingest than alcohol or tobacco: you have a right to do what you want with your own body.

    (Though you could make an argument in the case of tobacco that the most common way of using it isn’t just affecting your body, since second-hand smoke is a thing).

  6. 6
    Eytan Zweig says:

    Amp @4 – I sort of see Avvaa’s point, in that what you’ve said on different issues combined can be taken as “believe women if they say they’ve been raped, but not if they say that trans women are not women”. And that’s correct- “believe women” doesn’t and shouldn’t mean “accept any position stated by a woman”. It means, and has always meant “believe women when they talk about their personal experiences”. So if a woman says something happened to her, we should believe her.

    This has nothing to do with moral authority and everything to do with accepting that women are trustworthy witnesses of their own lives.

    So I don’t have to believe a woman who tells me “trans women are not women”, because that is a general political statement, not a personal experience. I do have to believe a woman who says “trans women make me uncomfortable because I think they are really men”, because that is her personal experience, and I shouldn’t dismiss it by telling her she doesn’t feel that way. Of course, I am free to conclude, based on my belief in her words, that she is bigotted.

  7. 7
    JaneDoh says:

    @Eytan I agree with you that “believe women” is meant to cover personal experience and not moral philosophy. In this case, it is relevant because there are plenty of women who are sex workers who say that they would like sex work to be legal so they can be safer, but they are dismissed as deluded, brainwashed, or mislead.

    In this particular scenario, I have never heard a reasonable defence for keeping sex work illegal that doesn’t boil down to religion or “I don’t like it”.

  8. 8
    Avvaaa says:

    I guess the question is, to what degree do women´s experiences inform the wider discussion?

    E.g. if a woman says “I was raped by a refugee”, obviously she was and we should believe her. On the other hand if she says “I want refugees denied entry to my country so I will feel safer”, while to her the one arises naturally from the other, I would presume most people here at least would say our need to believe her personal experience doesn´t mean we need to agree with her proposed solution.

    But the woman talking about sex work is not a million miles off. When a woman says “to me, doing sex work is a net positive” we should believe her. But when she says “therefore, prostitution should not be made illegal”, she is doing the same – going from her personal experience to a wider point about society as a whole. Shouldn´t we be equally critical?

  9. 9
    JaneDoh says:

    But the woman talking about sex work is not a million miles off. When a woman says “to me, doing sex work is a net positive” we should believe her. But when she says “therefore, prostitution should not be made illegal”, she is doing the same – going from her personal experience to a wider point about society as a whole. Shouldn´t we be equally critical?

    While it is true that just because some sex workers believe prostitution should be legal doesn’t necessarily mean that society should agree, it is also true that (at least in the context of the US, where there is nominally separation of church and state) that there should be a reason something is illegal beyond “My religion/I think it is morally wrong” to make something illegal. Why is prostitution illegal? It seems like a blue law to me.

  10. 10
    Eytan Zweig says:

    Avvaaa – I don’t think anyone (here) has suggested that we shouldn’t be critical of sex worker’s views. That’s certainly not what the comic is suggesting. Note that the sex worker was not allowed to express her opinion, so there is nothing to agree with or disagree with there.

    So either you’re proposing a strawman or you’re missing the point, which is that sex workers should not be excluded from reporting on their person experiences just because they are sex workers.

    As to the topic of sex work itself – There are two main lines of arguments against sex work. The first is that it’s fundamentally immoral. That’s a perfectly valid opinion, but I agree with JaneDoh – it’s not a reason to make sex work illegal. It’s a reason for individuals to decide they don’t want to personally use that industry. The second argument is that it’s unsafe and exploitative. That’s true, but so are many other industries. We don’t look at clothing sweatshops and say “ban clothes”, we say “let’s improve the working conditions of clothing workers”. The same should be true of sex work. Whatever energy we as a society spend on sex work, shouldn’t be spent on banning it, it should be spent making sure that sex workers are safe and that they are engaged in it consensually (or at least as consensually as every other employee in every other industry is).

  11. 11
    Avvaaa says:

    JaneDoh: “Why is prostitution illegal?”

    While in a lot of countries (including, I believe, the USA) it is basically just the survival of a very old law that was not rigorously justified under a humanistic framework, there are countries which try to eradicate the sex industry for reasons that are based on a less archaic, more humanist/secular argument. I am choosing my language carefully here because the “Nordic model” does not technically make sex work illegal, but purchasing sex illegal. So it doesn´t make prostitution illegal in the narrow sense because it doesn´t involve prosecuting sex workers, but at the same time it does seek to prevent them from doing sex work.

    Here is a good piece, from a feminist perspective, of why making prostitution illegal is a good idea:

    Eytan: Ouch. Well, if we are being critical, and if Barry´s cartoon is intended to be a close-to-literal depiction of how these things go, I think based on my experience that Barry´s cartoon is also a bit of a strawman. I don´t often see sex workers being prevented from speaking or told to shut up in feminist contexts in the way the cartoon shows.

    Instead I see them being allowed to speak, but then disagreed with, by people who aren´t sex workers. Usually at least superficially politely. I had assumed Barry´s cartoon was using dramatic/poetic license within the four panel format to show that sex workers aren´t heard as much as they should be without showing how it actually happens. That is why I didn´t initially see it as a strawman.

    I am curious though. Obviously my experience is just my experience. Do others here have experience of seeing sex workers being told not to speak or be silent during these kinds of discussions in feminist spaces, whether online or offline?

    (I am sure that in more traditional contexts, where the push for criminalisation comes from a moralist, let alone a religious context, they would indeed be told to shut up, but that doesn´t seem to be the scenario the cartoon depicts)

  12. 12
    JaneDoh says:

    @11 That is a very optimistic article. It is also from 2013. I live in a place that follows the Nordic model, and there is TONS of prostitution (and other sex work) online. Way too much of it for police to find it all even if they tried to look (which they generally don’t). Sex workers here say it makes them a lot less safe, since they don’t have a good chance to screen clients in person like they would if they didn’t need to worry about getting caught. Even if they are not doing anything technically illegal, that does not prevent extra-legal harassment.

    The article also does not really explain why prostitution should be illegal other than “we think it is degrading” and there are criminal organizations involved. That is true about lots of other industries, and we try to get rid of the criminals instead of making the industry illegal. Human trafficking is illegal. Statutory rape is a crime. Police can try to get rid of those crimes without sex work being illegal.

    I don’t want to be a sex worker, and I don’t want to hire one. But I don’t think it should be illegal. We should not be legislating morality, and the track record for prohibition is poor.

  13. 13
    bcb says:

    Did you seriously just link to a Megan Murphy article and call it a “feminist perspective?”

    Meghan Murphy, the author of the linked article, is a well-known conservative reactionary pundit. In 2018 she was banned from Twitter for transphobia, and in 2019 she sued Twitter for what she called “viewpoint-based censorship.”

    In 2022, shortly before the Dobbs decision, she wrote a both-sidesy article about how she is “100% pro-choice” but the radical abortion activists go too far:
    In that article she complained that

    How can you claim to be a mature, thoughtful movement when you sell silver necklaces that say “abortion” in cursive script? Because nothing says you take your grave moral responsibility seriously like abortion-themed jewellery!

    She also argued that trans men getting abortions was bad, and concluded that

    Until the wise, grown-up women return to mainstream feminism and stop the destructive kids running amok, it might actually be safer to allow 12 robed justices decide what is best for women. At least now they are not all men.
    We have lost moral high ground in trying to be edgy and inclusive — in so doing we became monstrous.

    So the likely reason Meghan Murphy wants sex work to be illegal is because she doesn’t want “inclusive” or “edgy” women to be able to control their own bodies. And I’d be very suspicious of anyone who positively recommends one of her articles or says she offers a “feminist perspective.”

  14. 14
    Avvaaa says:

    @JaneDoh: Yes, it is not a great argument, I agree. I am not saying I agree with it, In fact I very much do not. I think that the Nordic model doesn´t deliver. But I was responding to the idea that the only people who want to outlaw prostitution are religious conservatives. I don´t think that´s true. Whatever we think of the effectiveness of the Nordic model, it wasn´t implemented by religious conservatives. The Swedish parliamentary debates that led up to the Nordic model being passed explicitly referenced it as a blow against patriarchy.

    But you know, looking back, you were asking why prostitution is illegal in the USA, so the Nordic model probably isn´t that relevant.

    I admit I am not familiar with Megan Murphy´s background, I saw her using feminist-style language, but I guess that was my bad and this is not a good example of a feminist advocating criminalisation.

    Here is (hopefully) a better link:

    “While the report aims to prevent the harm in the Canadian sex industry, it utterly fails to recognize the sex industry as inherently harmful, exploitive and a violent social phenomenon.”

    This doesn´t explicitly call for prostitution to be outlawed, but when one calls something “inherently harmful”, it effectively comes to the same thing.

    I have to say I am a bit stunned here. I´ve been in many feminists spaces and debates where there is a sort of semi-explicit agreement that we do not debate the legalisation of prostitution because it is something many feminists disagree on, and people prefer to focus on what we do agree on. The idea that no feminist is against prostitution, well, I am kind of surprised at this.

  15. 15
    Jacqueline Squid Onassis says:

    The idea that no feminist is against prostitution, well, I am kind of surprised at this.

    Who said that? And where? Certainly not in anything to do with the post you’ve been responding to and so I’m not sure who you’re speaking to nor what positions they hold since we haven’t been privy to that side of the debate you appear to be engaging in.

  16. 16
    Avvaaa says:

    Never mind.

    I will stop talking now.

  17. 17
    Ampersand says:

    Curiously, the “Nordic model” is now much more relevant in the U.S. than it was a week ago – Maine just passed a Nordic-style law. It was largely passed by Democrats over GOP opposition.

    I certainly agree that there’s disagreement within feminism over full decriminalization vs the Nordic model. What I find curious is how strongly opposing full decriminalization seems to be correlated with being “gender critical” (aka TERF). It doesn’t seem to me that these two views (both of which I strongly oppose) HAVE to run together, but in practice they usually do.

  18. 18
    bcb says:

    What I find curious is how strongly opposing full decriminalization seems to be correlated with being “gender critical” (aka TERF). It doesn’t seem to me that these two views (both of which I strongly oppose) HAVE to run together, but in practice they usually do.

    I suspect there are two reasons.

    First, a central tenet of TER ideology is that the government must control trans people’s bodies. Yeah, sometimes they try to frame it as “parents’ rights” but they immediately backtrack on that whenever a parent is not a transphobe. Meanwhile, the central tenet of anti-sex work is that the government gets to control mostly-women’s bodies.

    I think anti-sex work and TERism go hand in hand because they are both about the government controlling the bodies of the undesirables.

    The second reason is that the heritage foundation has been promoting “feminist” organizations as a disinformation strategy. So, while there are some TERs who genuinly believe the only way to save women is to hurt trans people, there are likely also a bunch of religious conservatives who are only claiming to be “feminist.”

  19. 19
    Ampersand says:

    I think anti-sex work and TERism go hand in hand because they are both about the government controlling the bodies of the undesirables.

    This is really well put.

  20. 20
    Jacqueline Squid Onassis says:

    Yeah. I mean… TERFs have always been political reactionaries except for their own rights. Which is kinda what reactionary politics is all about, anyway. It’s, “They need to be put in their place!” and never, “We need to be put in our place!”