The most common myths about sex workers. Photo: Julia Davila-Lampe
Over the past few weeks, I've been both witness to and participant in a number of conversations around sex work, autonomy and feminism. A recent argument on Twitter had me baffled by one representative from a conservative feminist organisation in Australia, who trotted out the tired idea that sex work degrades and harms all women. Elsewhere, people have been rehashing the argument that the sex industry is a sort of Outland ghetto for traumatised drug addicts, abuse survivors and the mentally ill, all of whom are connected by the singular characteristic of having little to no self-esteem. We can pity them, but gosh wouldn't we just hate for anyone we loved to be them?
Well no, I wouldn't hate that actually. I have a number of friends and acquaintances who have either been or currently are sex workers. No doubt I know greater numbers of women still who may one day become sex workers. And I'm tired of seeing their lives denigrated because of how they choose to make money – as if taking off your clothes for a pre-arranged fee is somehow less honourable than working for a mining company or a tabloid magazine.
Demonising sex workers under the guise of "helping" them is simply a way of expressing puritanical snobbery. As an intellectual tool, it relies more on myths and prejudices than any real knowledge of the lives of sex workers.
So let's take a look at some of those myths, and see how easily they can be debunked.
(Note: This article refers to sex workers, not victims of forced prostitution or sex slavery. They are very different things, and the conflation of the two only makes it easier for real incidents of exploitation to occur unidentified.)
1. All sex workers are women.
This is a good myth to begin with, because the conservative view of sex work as something exploitative is predicated on the idea that all of its victims are women. In fact, there are many men who also choose to participate in the broad spectrum of work that makes up the sex industry. But because men are generally assumed to be less vulnerable to sexual exploitation than women, we tend to view their participation as something different and more autonomous. (What man wouldn't want to get paid to have sex, amirite?! etc.)
The collective cultural view of the sex industry is still one in which women are thought to make up the subjugated parties and men the johns who benefit from them. But what happens when men are the ones pulling a pay check from providing sexual services? And what does it mean if women are the ones paying for it? Would a woman buying the services of a female sex worker be less likely, in our view, to exploit her? Would a man purchasing time with a male sex worker be able to treat him the way we imagine female sex workers are treated? Undermined, degraded, exploited? Or would all of these transactions occur in much the same way as each other – occasionally enjoyable, often as expected and sometimes requiring action unfavourable to those workers involved.
In short, kind of like a normal work day.
2. There's no such thing as real choice in sex work, because no one would ever choose to sell their body for money.
It can be tricky to understand what constitutes the notion of inviolable choice. To some people, sex workers are women to be pitied, either pawns of the patriarchy with no agency of their own or poor women who've had to resort to "degrading" themselves to make a living.
The reality is a little more nuanced than that. A sex worker (and let's assume in this instance that it's a woman) may indeed be poor and untrained enough for socially sanctioned careers to ensure that her available options keep her hovering around the poverty line. On the other hand, she might have a middle-class background, a tertiary education and no apparent "need" to choose an option that so many sanctimoniously assume to be the last resort. While sex work for both these women may just be a way to earn a more than decent income, improving the stability of both their finances and her family (if they have one), it might also be something they enjoy as much as any other kind of job if not more. Validating (and shaming) sex workers based on your interpretation of their circumstances undermines the very same autonomy and choice the sex industry is often accused of denying women.
Much like any career field, the sex industry is staffed by women (and men) of all different backgrounds. Some come from privilege, and have had all the benefits of education that are supposed to "keep" women out of a career path seen as both shabby and tawdry. Do we need to "save" them as well? Or are they entitled to their choice because we assume their privilege allows them to make it more freely than the women we speak for, but not to?
Which leads me to...
3. Choice is fine, as long as it's not made under the influence of drug addiction, a history of abuse and/or mental illness. If you suffer from any or all of these things, you're not capable of making properly informed decisions about your profession.
One of the strongest women I know has been raped twice and sexually assaulted once. She occasionally suffers from bouts of anxiety, and has more than once indulged in the use of recreational drugs while in my company. Is she a sex worker? No. She's a lawyer. Next.
4. But sex work harms women!
I can't disagree that there are elements of the sex industry that are harmful to both women AND men. Chief among these are the ways in which the stigmatisation of the sex industry allows for abuse and exploitation within its ranks. When you force people to work off the grid and to keep their employment a secret, you increase the likelihood of them being disadvantaged. When you demonise sex workers as being damaged goods, who somehow deserve less protection than the women who "have more respect for themselves" then you make it easier for actual abuse to occur unpunished. Yes, women who work in the sex industry are at an increased risk of being raped than women who work in, say, the hospitality industry. Does that mean sex workers deserve to be raped, or experience such abuse in a different way? No. Does it mean that hospitality workers are immune from similar risks? Absolutely not.
There are countless industries that carry a risk of death or severe injury. When miners are killed in tragic circumstances, do we shrug our shoulders and say, "Well, they knew the risks. They had to have expected something like this might happen." No. We expect those industries to identify what went wrong and safeguard themselves and their workers from future accidents. Because nobody deserves to work in an unsafe environment, no matter what the wider public thinks of their profession.
5. OK, well that's all well and good. But come on! It's not like you'd want your daughter to come home and announce she wanted to be a sex worker. Surely you can admit that!
"Sex worker" isn't a characteristic. It's a job, just like any other, and it comes with good days and bad. Expressing the view – especially when done so directly to a sex worker – that you wouldn't want your daughter to grow up to be like her and then expecting her to agree with you is asking another woman to participate freely in her own shaming. It's unexamined privilege based on prejudice and snobbery.
Would you tell a lawyer that you didn't want your daughter to aspire to that profession because law is an area that typically discriminates against its female practitioners via opportunities and wages, and even expectations of attire, and forces them to choose quite rigidly between family and career? Would you tell her that you wouldn't want her to grow up to edit a women's magazine because those magazines contribute to terrible body image and often perpetuate reductive sexual stereotypes that position women as passive performers rather than mutually involved participants? No. Would you object to your daughter wanting to be a model, dancer or an actress, (and as any one of these, she may be required to take her clothes for an audience as well, and a much larger one than your average strip club.) Will you shame her for that too, or is it different when the industry doesn't require a girl to be over-age? I very much doubt it.
I'm not a sex worker, and I don't presume to have the authority or right to speak for them. As an ally, the best thing I can do is call out whorephobia and slut shaming where I see it.