This is a controversial opinion, especially among second-wave feminists and radfems and even some intersectionally-aware feminists, but I firmly believe in legalising and destigmatising sex work in developed countries. I come from a firm sex-positive standpoint and very much support the
Safe, Sane and Consensual Risk-Aware Consensual Kink creed found in the kink community*. This post is written for people who come from a similar viewpoint, but may still feel conflicted about sex work.
As I am not a sex worker myself, I would welcome any corrections to this post.
People who identify as sex workers do a variety of different work, and it’s not just prostitution**. There are people who make pornography, there are people who strip, there are people who you can pay for a bunch of kinky shit, but may not actually involve sex. Sex work is partly legal in Australia, however it will depend on the type of work and laws vary from state to state. Famously, the porn site Abby Winters moved away from my hometown because of strict Australian laws regarding the depiction of real sexual activity – regardless if it’s completely consensual and agreed to under ethical conditions.
Before we begin, let’s get some common objections to sex work out of the way first:
Sex workers are primarily women, and we don’t want women selling their bodies!
If sex workers are “selling their bodies” then so are manual labourers. And athletes. And office workers. In fact, anyone who has a job is “selling their bodies” because everyone is selling what their bodies can do for money. That’s what labour is. In some cases, people are literally selling their minds for jobs that are brain-intensive – like researchers, writers, and basically every creative job ever (which, arguably, can be almost every job).
The truth is that no one can really “sell their bodies” because slavery is universally illegal. To imply that sex workers are “selling their bodies” is in some ways incredibly offensive because in my mind it implies that all sex workers have no personal choice about the jobs they do and the clients they have. It implies that all sex workers have no agency over their own consent.
(Hold that thought. I’ll get to the issue of choice and consent later in the post.)
Sex workers only do it for the money! They’re addicted to money!
Similarly, anyone who has a job can be said to “only do it for the money”.
There’s an odd few who might actually labour in their chosen career paths for free, but that’s definitely the minority. A lot of people hate their jobs. A lot of people are completely indifferent about their jobs. A lot of people would prefer to never work again, if not for the money.
Some of those working people could probably live on significantly less than they’re currently earning – yet they still choose to work more hours in order to afford more. Are they “addicted to money”?
(If your answer is ‘yes’ that’s probably a discussion for another post. But if your answer is ‘yes’ then you’ve also failed to identify why this objection applies moreso to sex work than any other paid work.)
The sex industry is sexist, racist, and caters primarily to straight white men!
So are Hollywood movies. So are books. So is modelling.
Much of this blog has been dedicated to deconstructing problematic media. Media produced by the sex industry is just another problematic thing that you can be a fan of. Sex work and pornography itself, however, is not fundamentally problematic. Current mainstream attitudes are not the be-all and end-all to what pornography can be.
Like all media, there are people who are actively trying to break new ground in representation. There are sex workers who are queer, fat, disabled, etc etc all actively trying to give representation to the spectrum of human sexuality rather than just the straight, white male view. There is even an annual Feminist Porn Award.
CHOICE, CIRCUMSTANCE & COERCION
First, you should read dana boyd’s article about the model of Choice, Circumstance and Coercion in sex work, because it will cover the same ground, and in more detail. To quote the article:
On one end, you have choice where individuals with a high level of agency and capital (social, economic, cultural) choose to engage in sex work, often because they hold pro-sex attitudes and believe that the world would be a better place if people were more open and honest sexually… On the other end of the spectrum, you have coercion where individuals lack any form agency or capital and are directly or indirectly forced into the trade through manipulation or force. In between, in a category that describes what I suspect is the bulk of commercial sex, is circumstance. Circumstance itself can also be treated as a spectrum. On the end closest to choice, you have individuals who believe that they should have the right to sell any part of their bodies for financial gain… The bulk of circumstance has more to do with challenging economic issues, including poverty or financial desperation. Finally, closest to coercion, there are individuals who are both financially hard off as well as grappling with serious mental health issues, including drug and alcohol addiction, gender dysphoria, a history of abuse, and/or co-dependency.
I want to make clear that it’s not surprising that many sex workers from marginalised backgrounds will operate from the “coercion” or “circumstance” category (although obviously not all). This is because sex work is not an idyllic career that exists outside the framework of privilege, but nothing does so it’s not particularly “special” in that regard.
COERCION VS CIRCUMSTANCE
In my view, the difference between the Circumstance and Coercion categories is primarily one of information. As trite as it sounds, knowledge and information is power. Someone who is faced with homelessness but who can or knows to contact emergency accommodation and support is in a different position from someone who faces homelessness and is not aware of their options, or that there’s even an option to be had. The former makes an informed choice, and their individual agency should be respected because they are in the best position to make the choice for themselves. The latter don’t have a functional choice because they’re not aware of other options.
The former I would categorise in the Circumstance category – those who have chosen sex work from informed consent; and the latter I would place in the Coercion category – those who work in sex work non-consensually. There is some grey area about what constitutes “informed consent” but that’s a discussion that falls outside the boundaries of this post, suffice to add that the question extends to areas outside of sex work as well.
Sex-positivists (and I include myself in this category) are used to thinking about sex and consent in a very straight-forward way. To have sex, you should seek consent in a very active way from your partner/s. To not do so is to run the risk of raping someone.
But why do people consent to sex? People may consent because they’re in a romantic relationship with their partner… but they might just want to get their rocks off. They might also consent for less emotionally healthy reasons, like to get back at an ex, to boost their own self-confidence, to manipulate another person. I’m not saying these are “good” reasons to have sex, but as long as both parties consent, it’s not rape (although it may be other forms of emotional abuse which I’m not going to deal with in this post).
And, except for some very very limited circumstances, the reason why people consent to sex is generally not my business as long as the consent is there. Similarly, the reason why some sex workers give for working in the industry may not fill me with joy and cupcakes, but ultimately it’s not my business why someone else chooses to consent to sex.
Anti-sex work lobbyists will often point to the fact many sex workers in this category will have problems with drug and alcohol addiction, mental illnesses, homelessness, etc and are resorting to sex work because they can’t get money anywhere else. If that’s the case, then it’s clearly NOT sex work that is the problem, but the fact that people don’t have alternative options. If a sex worker said they’d rather be working as a waitress, but that their wages as a waitress did pay them enough to live off, then that’s a problem with the minimum wage or the social welfare system. If they’ve made a decision to do sex work instead of becoming homeless or not having enough to eat, why do anti-sex work lobbyists focus on eradicating sex work instead of rallying for more support to low-income earners?
Lobbyists will often focus on the fact that some sex workers have very few other choices – which may be true – but this rhetoric detracts from individual agency and the conscious choice being made. Someone may personally feel that sex work is the better choice out of two bad options, so the aim should not be to make sex work an equally bad option, but to make the other option better, or increase the number of options that person has access to.
TRAFFICKING AND SEX WORK
I place trafficked sex workers solely within the Coercion category and their work as non-consensual, ie. rape and sexual assault.
Traffickers will often prey on uneducated women from developing countries, lure them to a developed country with the promise of a jobs as maids and cleaners, and then force them into debt bondage at their destination country. Traffickers will claim that the girls owe them money for the trip, food, accommodation – and when they can’t meet the costs, the traffickers force them to work in brothels as sex workers.
The women have little or no English. They are in a foreign country where the only people they know are literally their captors. They are told by the traffickers that the police won’t help, will arrest them and/or won’t believe them. They are told they’ve signed binding legal contracts when they have not. Sometimes they not only threaten and assault the women themselves, but also threaten their families in their home towns. From the minute they enter the country, the women are entirely reliant on the traffickers.
I want to make a distinction clear: there are foreign sex workers who might come to a developed country in order to pursue career opportunities in sex work. The exchange rate may be quite favourable, or perhaps the destination country has better laws for sex work. Either way, they’re in a very different situation from women who have been trafficked.
Trafficking and forced labour occurs in both legal and non-legal brothels, and the fact that licensed brothels have been complicit in people trafficking has been an argument against legalising sex work. However, what’s less often spoken about is the fact that other kinds of legal, licensed businesses also participate in people trafficking.
Trafficking does not solely occur within the purview of sex work. People trafficking and forced labour occurs in many industries: at restaurants, factories, farms and retail shops. Anti-slavery Australia gives four case studies as an example – only one of which is about sex work. But no one calls on the government to ban construction work, or fruit-picking, or table service at restaurants. This is because we recognise those jobs to be legitimate in and not fundamentally harmful in themselves. There is no reason why we can’t apply the same reasoning to sex work, which is fine when consensually agreed to, but abhorrent when it is forced upon people.
This should be obvious, but maybe it bears saying: No sex worker I’ve ever met, heard or read has supported people trafficking or forced labour. Every sex worker I’ve encountered is disgusted by the practice. Conflating sex work with people trafficking and forced labour is lazy and intellectually dishonest and if you take that approach, you may as well conflate the hospitality, retail and agriculture with the same.
THE CASE FOR LEGITIMISING SEX WORK
First, sex work is no different from any other labour that is sold for money, and the sex industry is no more or less problematic than other job industries.
Second, if disadvantaged people choose sex work as their best option when they are faced with a number of bad options, then it is the government and our society that is at fault, not sex work. Money ought to be spent in improving access to mental health services, education system, drug and alcohol programs – not spent trying to dissuade people from choosing sex work. The problem is not that they’re choosing sex work to survive, but that our society cannot provide adequate health, monetary and social support for some of the most disadvantaged people in our community.
Third, people trafficking is not exclusive to sex work. People are trafficked across a number of different industries, but the majority of businesses within those industries operate lawfully and morally.
Consequently, there are a number of things that occur when sex work is criminalised:
If people are in desperate situations, criminalisation may not dissuade people and they may turn to sex work anyway. In the end, it would only result in a criminal record for a lot of marginalised people, and extra administrative costs for the police and the courts. Alternatively, it may mean that people will need to pick “the worse option”, whether that means working three jobs or becoming homeless or something else.
For people being trafficked, those sex workers remain controlled by their traffickers who will have no qualms in directing them to break criminal laws. The fact they’ve committed a crime will be used as additional ammunition against them by their captors.
In the end, all criminalisation would do is curb the choices of those sex workers in the Choice category – the most privileged group with the most opportunities available to them – which also happens to be the category of people who we are the least concerned about engaging in sex work.
If we are really concerned in helping disadvantaged and marginalised people, banning, criminalising or stigmatising sex work is not going to solve anything. Much of the criticism thrown about relates not to sex work per se, but to the system of privilege that affects all aspects of our society, sex work included. The fact of the matter is that most mainstream opinions towards sex work are still firmly couched in anti-feminist, anti-sex rhetoric about women – and the idea that governments should dictate what women can or can’t do with their bodies.
*Edit: With thanks to a friend for pointing out the problematic aspects of using SSC and that the better acronym is now RACK.
**Edit 2: Please note that “prostitution” and “prostitute” are generally not accepted terms to apply to sex work and workers. I have used this term in the absence of anything else that describes exactly what I want to convey, but please note that the preferred words are always “sex work” and “sex worker”.