Why We Should Support Sex Workers
By Lauren Hutton
A lot of people consider sex work to be one of the oldest professions, and, according to anthropologists, it did exist in many primitive societies. But despite thousands of years to grapple with and understand the practice, sex work is still viewed in incredibly black and white terms and uneducated assumptions guide modern discourse. People assume the women are abused or forced into it, morally corrupt, and in need of saving, and those buying the services are equally depraved or deserving of our contempt. But how many of us are personally friends with a sex worker? Have participated in it ourselves? Have engaged in dialogue about what it means to do sex work and why someone may choose it for a profession? If you don’t fall into one of those categories, consider educating yourself on sex work before forming an opinion on the legality of sex work or what it means to support sex working communities.
Well-intentioned people may believe that criminalizing sex work is in sex workers’ best interest. It will stop women being exploited by pimps, force prostitutes to find other careers, and stop folks from wandering the streets and putting themselves in danger; wouldn’t that support sex workers? In actuality, the biggest component to supporting sex workers is believing that consensual sex work should be fully decriminalized. After conducting global research and working with sex workers themselves, the Human Rights Watch publicly announced their support of full decriminalization of sex work, as criminalizing it violates ones right to personal autonomy and privacy. Many people stigmatize sex workers or conflate their work with sexual trafficking or sexual exploitation. However, sex work is fundamentally consensual and between adults. If someone chooses to earn a living through prostitution, stripping, web cam modeling, porn performances, brothel work, or other avenues of sex work, they should legally be able to.
When deciding whether or not you think sex work should be legal, engage in a little introspection. Do you think porn should be legal? While notes in the small legal print distinguish between porn and sex work (one is acting and one is “real” sex), are individuals not being paid for sex in each scenario? Do you think paying cam girls for their sexual skills in the comfort of their room is fair and equitable? Why support laws that make that same job dangerous in places outside of a bedroom? Or do you believe escorting or being a sugar baby is acceptable — because it’s less risky or higher paying?
Most sex workers agree that there is a “whorearchy,” a hierarchy of types of sex work, and it seems as if the public agrees. In a Jezebel article, porn performer Belle Knox explained that the whorearchy works “according to intimacy of contact with clients and police. The closer to both you are, the closer you are to the bottom.” In this system, street-walking prostitutes are at the bottom, followed by indoor-prostitutes who find clients online, strippers and escorts, and finally cam girls and phone sex operators who have no direct interactions with cops or clients. But as sex worker Maggie McNeill puts it, “If you accept money from someone that he gives due to sexual interest in you, then you are a whore and everything else is just semantics.” Consider where you draw the line and why some of these workers are criminalized while others are celebrated; why some you may pay for and others you may pay to arrest.
Sex workers are varied in circumstance and opinion. Some genuinely love their profession and find their work empowering. For folks with disabilities, both mental and physical, sex work can be a welcome profession when office environments prove difficult. Some love running their own business and the flexibility of the hours while some primarily enjoy the pay. As sex worker Alice Little said in a sheknows article, “I mollify [clients’] worries and help them recover from devastating things like the loss of a wife or girlfriend, the crushing social shame of virginity and even help those who are disabled and unable to have normal relationships feel the genuine comfort of a romantic partner in a way they may never, ever get to enjoy outside an interaction with me.” Despite many career options and multiple degrees, she chose sex work because she feels her work heals people and makes them happy, and called her brothel work “a noble job.”
This is not to say some workers feel they have few other options and do not like their work or tolerate their work but don’t take particular pleasure from it. But as the Open Society Foundations puts it, sex work is not innately harmful, but by criminalizing it and enforcing a stigma around it, societies “make sex work circumstantially harmful,” and deny workers access to their human rights and workplace health and safety. Support laws that enforce gender equality, affordable housing, and access to education to support vulnerable communities, but don’t support criminalizing sex work for everyone who chooses to engage.
Globally, sex work is largely still illegal and that makes the job extremely dangerous. The Human Rights Watch notes that when sex work is criminalized, sex workers routinely face abuse and exploitation from law enforcement in the form of police harassment, bribery, physical and verbal abuse, and even rape. Additionally, when sex workers are unable to receive help from the police, they are more frequently raped and assaulted because perpetrators perceive that victims cannot seek help. Furthermore, evading police drives sex workers to work in less safe areas and in unsafe conditions. Making sex work a crime turns consenting adults into criminals and puts them into extremely vulnerable positions that could have been avoided.
Criminalization also means the job itself becomes less regulated. Sex workers generally cannot seek justice for sexual assaults or robberies that occur on the job because they are afraid of being arrested, harassed, or even laughed at by police. Additionally, because possession of condoms has been historically used to prove intent to prostitute, sex workers often no longer carry protection to avoid legal action being taken against them, increasing their risk of STI or HIV contraction through unsafe sex. The bottom line is that criminalization makes sex workers operate under less safe conditions with fewer protections, but it does not actually stop them from working, the alleged intent.
By decriminalizing sex work, sex workers maintain their right to work and even organize safely and are not made vulnerable in the eyes of the law or unsavory community members keen on taking advantage of them. Research indicates the decriminalization also helps reduce crime, such as sexual violence, against these workers.
So, why do so many people feel the need to “save” sex workers or force them out of their career? Many folks conflate sex work with sexual trafficking or link sex work with an unproven increase in trafficking. While sex work is consensual and nonviolent, human trafficking is a human rights violation “involving the threat or use of force, abduction, deception, or other forms of coercion for the purpose of exploitation. This may include forced labor, sexual exploitation, slavery, and more,” according to the Open Society Foundations. However, trafficking is mostly perpetrated by someone the victim knows according to the Counter-Trafficking Data Brief (CTDB), which states that a third of adult trafficking cases and around two thirds of child trafficking cases involve a family member, friend, or intimate partner. Trafficking more often than not is the result of someone a victim knows taking advantage of them, or a loved one unknowingly sending a child to a fake business or educational opportunity. But this is largely a separate issue from consensual, professional sex work. The real issue is that many victims of trafficking are already at-risk youth (through lack of housing, queer identification, or poverty), and resources and laws devoted to helping these populations would go farther in ending sexual trafficking than the criminalization of sex work.
Another misconception revolves around the idea that sex workers are exploited by pimps. In actuality, most sex workers do not have pimps. However, laws put in place to supposedly target pimps as arbiters of prostitution and end the exploitation of women prove harmful rather than helpful to sex workers. Romantic partners looking to protect sex workers and prostitutes working together for safety purposes are charged as pimps, simply adding more restrictions on sex work that make workers vulnerable. This law can also include landlords, making sex workers less likely to receive access to housing, and children of sex workers can be charged for living off of wages earned through sex work. These laws aren’t saving sex workers, they’re making it even harder for them to protect themselves while working and putting their families and livelihoods at risk as well.
When it comes to improving sex work conditions, there are no easy solutions. Under Nordic policies to criminalize consumers of sex work rather than workers, the workers ended up negatively impacted. Their job opportunities suffered, they struggled to organize because the nature of their work was still considered illegal, and the criminalizing of clients enforced their stigmatization. In New Zealand, legalization of brothels and street solitization helped some sex workers but hurt sex workers of color and migrants. Some feminists don’t support sex work at all, believing sex work is inherently exploitative and violent, and seek to abolish it. These feminists center conversations around the “abolition of prostitution rather than the promotion of human and labour rights of sex workers,” according to Stella, an organization created by and for sex workers. Sex workers begrudge these abolitionist feminists for alienating them from wider feminist goals and likening their profession to slavery — inaccurate for sex workers and insensitive to those who have suffered through slavery and its legacies.
The discussions surrounding sex work are complicated and often well-intentioned, but ultimately have proven harmful to communities of sex workers. In forming my own opinion, I strive to center the voices of sex workers speaking about what they need from us without casting moral judgement from my place in society, the resources and tools I was given, and the opportunities afforded to me.
In that regard, educate yourself on the issue by turning to those in the sex work community. Read books by sex workers such as Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight For Sex Workers’ Rights, A Disgrace Reserved for Prostitutes, or Economies of Desire: Sex and Tourism in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Pay for porn and search for ethical porn production companies. As a client, respect sex workers, strippers, and cam workers’ boundaries and compensate them well for their services. Do not call the police on sex workers even in an effort to help them — ask them if they need help and how to help instead. Demand legislation that helps sex workers and oppose bills that criminalizes their work. Finally, participate in protests, write your representatives letters, and vote in folks who support sex workers, too.