Polish Bez Association: Prostitution Is Not Work

Prostitution is the most evident example of gender inequality. When a woman is in a crisis, she might get exploited and attacked sexually. Boys and men appeared less frequently in that scenario. In an interview with Anna Golus, a representative of the Bez Association who supports women with experiences in prostitution says that this is the world's oldest form of oppression, not the oldest profession.

Anna Golus: I am nearly forty years old, and with both astonishment and concern, I observe the growing trend of normalizing prostitution as ordinary work, ostensibly in the name of feminism. This is currently the dominant feminist narrative, which might influence the decisions of young girls and women. You are in your twenties and encountered this narrative already in your teenage years.

Anna Obłękowska: Initially, we encountered the conservative narrative, for instance, in school, during discussions of literature where prostitution is depicted as a moral downfall for women. Later, as we began to engage with feminism, the first feminist narrative about prostitution we encountered was that it is “sex work.” A job like any other, potentially even a form of sexual liberation for women. As we grew up, this was the main feminist message reaching young women through social media. Many girls believed this, especially since they had no opportunity to hear other perspectives.

Gabe Wilczyńska: As a teenager raised in a religious environment, I believed this narrative. Following the dichotomy of the bad conservative approach to women versus the good feminist, leftist, progressive approach, I believed that “sex work” and everything encompassed by the term hookup culture was good for women. Commodified female corporeality was presented to me and other girls as something positive, not as another step towards dystopian capitalism and gender inequality. Any critical voices were dismissed as backward and conservative, and the very word “prostitution” was considered stigmatizing and harmful.

Black and white photo of Gabe Wilczyńska from the Polish Bez Association
Gabe Wilczyńska from the Polish Bez Association. Photo: private archive

Prostitution and Language

Anna Obłękowska: Currently, both on the left and in academia, the word “prostitution” is rarely used; people are afraid to use it. Even sexual slavery is referred to as “forced sex work.” I haven’t encountered this in Poland yet, but in English-language publications, terms like underage sex worker are also used.

Advocates for Child Protection also advocate replacing the term “child prostitution” with “commercial sexual exploitation of children,” rather than “child sex working.” Your association, Bez (Against Misogyny, Exploitation, Violence), also proposes certain linguistic changes.

Anna Obłękowska: Primarily, we oppose normalizing prostitution as ordinary work and assist those entangled in the sex industry in exiting it. We understand the crucial role of language, but we do not focus solely on it. We have specific terminology that we use, which we believe is the most precise and non-diluting while also being non-stigmatizing. However, we never correct individuals who approach us. If someone refers to themselves as a “sex worker,” we never suggest that a better term would be “person with experience in prostitution” or “woman involved in the sex industry,” although we use those terms ourselves. We do avoid the term “sex work.”

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Polish Bez Association and the Debate Over Prostitution

Gabe Wilczyńska: A few years ago, all the founders of the association were frustrated with the state of public debate on the sex industry. Or rather, the lack of it, as there was no debate. In feminist and leftist circles, the prevailing view was: “sex work is work,” and the few individuals who publicly expressed dissenting opinions, such as Kaja Szulczewska or Urszula Kuczyńska, faced ostracism. We were aware of this and, before founding Bez, we feared exclusion, so we expressed our concerns and doubts only privately. We did not “like” any “controversial” posts on social media because even such support for views other than those affirming prostitution was risky.

Anna Obłękowska: When founding Bez, we anticipated negative reactions and expected to be labeled dismissively as “SWERFs” (Sex Worker-Exclusionary Radical Feminists). However, we did not foresee everything that we encountered.

Black and white photo of Anna Obłękowska from the Polish Bez Association
Anna Obłękowska from the Polish Bez Association. Photo: private archive

Persona Non Grata

What did you not anticipate?

Anna Obłękowska: For instance, the withdrawal of our invitation to participate in the Equality Village during last year’s Equality Parade. When we were invited, we were excited about the opportunity to talk to people particularly harmed by the sex industry (as LGBT individuals are highly fetishized), whom we not only support but also represent (our association includes LGBT members). However, the invitation was rescinded under pressure from individuals claiming that prostitution has always been part of queer culture and accusing us of “harassing sex workers.”

An open letter against our presence in the Village was signed by, among others, the Feminist Fund Foundation, which grants funds for various feminist activities. The Fund, for example, financed the publication of the guidebook “Experiencer: How to Work in the Sex Industry Safely, Consciously, and Satisfactorily” and financially supports the Sex Work Poland collective. They have never granted us funding, citing that we “stigmatize sex workers.”

The World‘s Oldest Form of Oppression

Gabe Wilczyńska: We often encounter the accusation that we stigmatize women in the sex industry, disrespect their decisions, deprive them of agency, and consider them inferior – but that is not true. We absolutely do not believe that women in the industry are doing something wrong. We support the decriminalization of individuals in prostitution.

In Poland, it is not prohibited, but there are still many places worldwide where engaging in prostitution is criminalized – not only in the Global South but also, for example, in the United States. This country is associated with very progressive policies, yet it has absurd situations where victims of human trafficking are treated as criminals because they engaged in prostitution. We certainly strive for destigmatization and changing the perception of individuals in prostitution. However, we primarily aim to ensure that these individuals do not have to harm themselves in this way and that men – since the vast majority of “clients” are men – do not treat women as objects.

Prostitution is the most evident example of gender inequality. When a woman is in a crisis, she might get exploited and attacked sexually. Boys and men appeared less frequently in that scenario. In an interview with Anna Golus, a representative of the Bez Association who supports women with experiences in prostitution says that this is the world’s oldest form of oppression, not the oldest profession.

Polish Bez Association and Its Efforts

Anna Obłękowska: We are aware that there is a small group of individuals who have chosen the sex industry and wish to remain in it (at least for now, as they might change their mind, like Święta Ladacznica [“Saint Whore”, nome de plume of a Polish woman who used to be a prostitute and advocated for its normalization, and later on left the industry and became its critic – ed.]). But our efforts are not directed at them; rather, they target a much broader group that has been coerced into this “choice” in one way or another and does not want to remain in it. Additionally, our focus is on those considering entering the industry. Primarily, we aim to reach young girls, to tell them that this is not a good path for them, that it is not ordinary work, that it is very difficult to exit, and if they do, it is usually not without harm.

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We Need to Change the Message

Do young people approach you after entering the sex industry, thinking it is just ordinary work, only to find it’s not?

Anna Obłękowska: Yes, a significant portion of those who contact us fall into this category. We also encounter individuals who knew the risks but took them because they simply had no other option and were forced into it. In both cases, exiting the industry is challenging and time-consuming, consuming a lot of energy and financial resources, and requires support and often therapy. We are an organization that supports exiting the sex industry. But we cannot provide immediate exits for everyone who comes to us – we are currently unable to sustain them and provide food, housing, or vocational courses. We offer them temporary financial relief in a crisis and support to gradually create more space for themselves to ultimately enforce the decision they made when they approached us.

Gabe Wilczyńska: Many women would not enter prostitution if they had greater knowledge – both about the realities of the sex industry and feminist thought. Such individuals are among those who approach our association and among its members (as we also have survivors, women who have escaped the sex industry, among us). We know exactly what we are talking about; some of us have experienced this objectification firsthand. Prostitution epitomizes the commodification of the female body, but women are treated as sexual objects not only in this industry but also in advertising, movies, TV shows, and music videos. It’s everywhere you look. This message – even more intense than when I was a teenager – is now being directed at young girls.

Polish Bez Association and Preventive Action

Today, even on the website of a well-known organization focused on sex education, sexed.pl, a “sex worker” (a stripper and dominatrix, a member of the Sex Work Polska collective) introduces young people to the world of BDSM.

Gabe Wilczyńska: I am horrified by how this affects teenagers. Some of them write to us saying that until they found our website, they thought something was wrong with them – they observed the normalization of the sex industry and felt there was something odd about it but didn’t see any dissenting voices, so they thought they were the only ones with a problem. We also receive messages from young women who shared the view that prostitution is just ordinary work, but after exploring our site, they reconsidered and changed their minds. That is a significant success.

Anna Obłękowska: And our greatest success is the effectiveness of our preventive function. We know it’s happening. We also receive messages from girls who considered entering the sex industry but changed their minds after reading some of our articles or testimonies from survivors. In the online space, it’s easy to get the impression that we are in the minority, but we encounter substantial support from women and girls daily.

Translation: Klaudia Tarasiewicz

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Published by

Anna Golus


PhD in humanities specializing in cultural and religious studies (doctoral dissertation on children's participation in reality TV programs defended in 2020 at the University of Gdańsk). Author of the books "Superniania kontra trzyletni Antoś. Jak telewizja uczy wychowywać dzieci" (published by Krytyka Polityczna, 2022) and "Dzieciństwo w cieniu rózgi. Historia i oblicza przemocy wobec dzieci" (published by Helion, 2019). Regular contributor to "Tygodnik Powszechny," initiator of the campaign "Kocham. Nie daję klapsów" and the initiative "Książki nie do bicia".

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