“I’m not exploited.”
“I find my work empowering! I love sex! It’s fun!”
“I chose to do this. I could do lots of other things. I have a degree!”
These are some of the things I see people saying when we’re talking about decriminalisation and rights, and I’m happy for you, I really am, but what you’re saying is completely irrelevant. And sometimes it’s downright harmful.
I understand why you’re saying it. I’ve done it myself, many times. I’m willing to bet that I’ll do it again some day when I’m caught off guard in the middle of an argument and my cheeks are burning and my heart is pounding, and the weight of the shame and stigma is making me feel like a trapped animal.
When someone is telling you that you don’t know your own life or your own experiences, that you don’t know what you do or don’t consent to, and they’re making no attempt to hide their revulsion – asking invasive questions and telling you that you’re damaged and a liar and a victim – it’s hard to keep it all together.
The implication that we’re dirty, disgusting and desperate draws on a narrative so firmly established, institutionalised and legitimised by nearly everything in our culture that sometimes it’s hard to keep swimming against the tide. I try to focus on doing better in future, rather than thinking too much about the times I didn’t get it right. It wasn’t okay, but I think we should recognise how difficult these confrontations can be, especially in the absence of solidarity and support. It’s not easy to weather that violence alone.
But when it comes to thinking about these things in their broader context, when we have space to reflect, community around us, and when we are not between a rock and a hard place, I think we have more of a duty to acknowledge when a particular narrative is doing more harm than good. I’m not by any means the first to say so, but I still see these narratives of empowerment versus exploitation being perpetuated all over the place. and I think we need to start saying to each other: “I see you, and I understand that your back’s against the wall and that’s really hard, but when we’re trying to demand rights and you say “I like my job”, what does that mean for people who don’t?”
I want to look at a few of things I’ve said, and that I see other people saying, that don’t really make sense when you unpack them, and that hurt other marginalised groups within and outside the sex working community. I want us to try for more, and better, solidarity.
“I love my work! I’m empowered and sex is great!”
The truth is that you deserve rights if you like your work, but you still deserve them, (and probably need them more) if you don’t like your work. Responding to prohibitionist claims about how unpleasant sex work is with cries of empowerment and enjoyment means taking the bait and moving the focus of the discussion away from the work of sex work. When we do that, we’re caught up in a never ending game of top-trumps in which we endlessly compare people’s experiences of sex work and try to find an essence somewhere at the centre of it all on which to hinge our opinion of whether or not workers should have rights. We need to stop hunting for the essential sex work experience. It’s not there, and it never was. And we don’t need it to be, because the whole conversation is a pointless, irrelevant distraction.
People are entitled to rights, justice and safety, regardless of their experiences. So the fact that you enjoy your work or have good feelings about it is nice (it might even be useful information sometimes, since we are battling stereotypes here and it’s good to introduce the idea that some people have a okay time doing sex work in order to balance the fact that we’re often all lumped together and imagined as reduced to desperate, miserable wretches– but it’s not an argument for rights. If anything, the reverse is true. Ever had a job you didn’t like? Did you find yourself thinking “‘what I really need right now is just … fewer rights. That’d really improve things for me.”
No? I didn’t think so.
“I don’t do sex work out of desperation. I could do other things/I’m really wealthy.”
I’m happy for you. But just like the ‘I love my work’ situation, this isn’t an argument for why you should be allowed to work in a completely decriminalised environment, with access to good service provision and labour rights. The people who are not in your situation need rights just as much as you do, and then some. If your circumstances dictate that you have to do a particular type of work, the best case scenario is not that someone criminalises the purchase of that labour and leaves you with nothing. You already picked between ‘this type of labour you didn’t want to do’ and ‘nothing’ and you preferred the first option, so it’s not acceptable to have someone take that decision away from you unless they’re stepping up to the plate and providing you with an something equivalently well-paid, flexible and autonomous option.
“I’m not pimped.”
Some sex workers need or want to work for someone instead of operating independently, for a variety of reasons, not least because it is (in the UK at least) the only way to work with someone else and be a little less at risk of prosecution (because theoretically the buck stops with your manager instead of you). You deserve rights whether you’re working for someone else or not, and if anything, you need them more when someone is turning a profit from your labour, in order to limit the ways in which their power over you can be abused.
While we’re on the subject, we need to lose the word ‘pimp’ from these discussions, because the word carries strong racial connotations and is massively steeped in anti-Blackness and racism. When you’re talking about managers or bosses, say so. If you’re talking about abusers who also happen to be managers, then describe them as such. We have a vocabulary to talk about the people in the industry who we work for and with, and we there is no need to invoke the spectre of violent, Black masculinity in the process. The rescue industry is appallingly and unabashedly racist, and has been for a very long time. Part of working against that is refusing to use terms like ‘pimp’ and pointing out other examples of appropriation such as the tendency of sex work prohibitionists to call themselves ‘abolitionists’ in the style of those who called for the abolition of Black slavery and the current movement against the racist prison industrial complex. And if you aren’t already aware of Peechington Marie’s workpiece on the erasure of Black sex workers in pretty much every discussion to do with sex work , you need to be.
“I don’t take drugs.”
Some drug users are sex workers. Other drug users are dentists. Or lawyers. Or shop assistants. All of these people deserve rights at work, and whether or not they use drugs has absolutely nothing to do with it. It’s important to see when a totally irrelevant factor is being used to shut down conversations about rights. Otherwise you may end up shaming drug users in an attempt to refute the claim that sex workers don’t deserve rights because ~drugs~. What’s actually happening here is that the stigma that affects drug users, (which says that people who use drugs don’t know what’s best for them and people who don’t use drugs should step in and take over their lives without permission) is being used to suggest that sex workers are also incapable people, who aren’t qualified to speak about their own lives. Drug-use stigma is often brought into the conversation as part of a narrative that suggests that only terribly unhappy people with out of control lives ever use drugs (which is demonstrably untrue), and that therefore sex workers shouldn’t have rights because their work is making them unhappy. As we’ve already established, the way to help people who are unhappy at work is not to deprive them of rights or push the industry they work in further underground.
It’s tempting, when you belong to a marginalised group and you’re trying very hard to get some rights, to try and distance yourself from other marginalised groups who happen to be associated with you. But it actively hurts the other group (in this case, drug users) and it doesn’t further your position, because the association with that marginalized group wasn’t a valid argument against sex worker rights in the first place, and another will spring up in its place.
“I don’t have mental health problems.”
This is very similar to the drug argument, and again, it’s an attempt to budge certain people to one side so that we can move on, get some shiny rights, and leave them behind. It’s not cool, and it’s not okay. Mental health problems are yet another stigmatised thing that people use to try and discredit sex workers. It’s usually used to suggest that either:
1. sex work causes mental illness
2. only people who have a mental illness could ever want to do sex work.
The suggestion that sex work causes mental illness is plain wrong. There might be a lot of people in sex work who suffer from mental illness, but correlation is not causation, and if you think it is then you need to take a step back and go learn about how events relate to one another. Research about sex workers is notoriously hard to do, and there’s no way of figuring out whether an unusually high percentage of people in sex work suffer mental health problems unless you’ve got equivalent samples from people in other jobs to use by way of comparison. And even if you could prove that, there’s no way of knowing whether those people’s mental health problems are due to their work, the violence and stigma they experience, or their lack of rights.
An additional complicating factor is that when you’re looking at a type of work that can have pretty flexible hours and may allow some people to work a lot less than they would need to in other jobs, you’ve potentially got a working setup that’s attractive to anyone who regularly needs time off or can’t work very much, so you may find a high number of people who suffer mental illness, (or any other chronic illness) in sex work because the work better suits their needs.
But even if we put the flaws in the argument that ‘sex work causes mental illness’ aside for a moment, it still doesn’t make sense to support any form of criminalisation. If we’re arguing that the stress associated with someone’s work is bad for them, the solution is not to deprive them of rights, or of work. Successfully reducing demand, if it’s even possible, means creating a buyer’s market, which in turn means that sex workers end up with fewer clients to choose from. It’s a nightmare situation that means they have to start charging less and offering more services to people they might normally refuse as clients. Does that sound like a situation that would improve anyone’s mental health?
Contrary to popular opinion, alternative jobs don’t pop out of the ground to allow sex workers to leave sex work when policy or law makes their lives harder. If you really believe in increasing suffering and endangering sex workers as a way of driving us out of the industry (and into the waiting arms of poverty and destitution), then I think you’re cruel and inhumane. Get a grip and learn about evidence-based harm reduction (and if you think Melissa Farley counts as evidence, go back to square one and acquire some knowledge of the scientific method before rejoining the conversation, because you’re not qualified to be here until you understand the difference between actual statistics and completely meaningless numbers with a percentage sign next to them.)
Just like the drug stigma thing, this is another smoke-screen argument that uses stigma around mental health to delegitimise sex workers. Anyone can experience stress, and stress can trigger or exacerbate mental illness. One way to help people experience less stress in their jobs is to offer them more rights and more support, not less. This is the point to drive home, rather than insisting that someone deserves rights because they’re lucky enough not to have any mental health problems right now.
“I wasn’t abused as a child”
Much like the discussion above, some people are survivors of childhood abuse. And some of those survivors are sex workers, and some of them are nurses, and others may be linguists or bus drivers or working in the home. But the difference is that nobody is pointing to those workers who aren’t sex workers and trying to weaponize the abuse they survived against them to imply that they lack capacity. No one is telling nurses who are also survivors of childhood abuse that they’re reliving and reproducing the abuse they survived if they have a bad day at work where a patient attacks them or they have to do something they don’t enjoy. No one is telling them that the good days or the dull days are actually bad days and they just can’t see it.
Just like mental health and drug use, being a survivor is used against people to invalidate their decisions. Think about that for a moment. Not only has someone had to survived abuse in the first place, it’s now being used against them to discredit what they are saying about their own lives. Survivors who sell sex deserve rights, and so do people selling sex who are not survivors. Please, please don’t be complicit in suggesting that survivors of abuse shouldn’t be respected and believed when they speak about their own lives.
“I’ve never been hurt at work/My clients are nice to me.”
Whatever your job, if you suffer abuse, or your clients aren’t nice to you, that’s not your fault. And you don’t get rights as a prize for being lucky enough not to have experienced any violence while working.
“My clients are disabled.”
Please don’t use disabled people as political pawns. The implication here is that disabled clients somehow represent a more pitiable and/or more wholesome group of people and therefore sex work that involves a disabled client should be allowed to happen because otherwise these poor disabled people lead sexless lives and we don’t want that to happen. Sometimes working with disabled clients is totally roped off as Not Sex Work even though it’s a sexual service offered on a transactional basis. Not only does this argument approach disability in a horribly reductive manner, it’s incredibly offensive and objectifies disabled people in order to produce a hierarchy of good sex work versus bad sex work, leaving other sex workers behind because their work hasn’t been deemed worthy.
This discussion nearly always erases and ignores disabled sex workers too. There are a lot of us, and we shouldn’t be left out of discussions that centre disability and sex work.
“I work indoors.”
That’s nice, but not everyone can, for lots of good reasons. Given that people working outdoors are even more stigmatised, suffer more violence, and are more often criminalised (which heavily influences the stigma and the violence I mentioned a minute ago), don’t you think they might be in the market for some rights? And why would you deserve rights only while you’re working indoors? Is there another hierarchy at work here? Of course there is, but it’s bullshit and we need to actively work against it, and this argument doesn’t do that.
Besides the fact that some people can’t work indoors, they shouldn’t have to. It’s often insinuated that outdoor sex workers somehow lower the tone just by existing in a public place, which is outright whorephobic. Some people are allowed to be outdoors at certain times and in certain places, and be visible, while others are not. The people who are allowed to be outside without anyone trying to force them out of sight usually belong to the most privileged sections of society. The implication is that the space is for them, and they shouldn’t have to encounter you if they consider you undesirable.
If you’re so disgusted by sex workers that you can’t bear to look at them waiting around for clients, then you need to consider that they probably don’t want to look at you either, and neither of you has more of a right to public space. It’s very fucked up that in practice ‘public space’ is nothing of the sort: it’s evident that some people are allowed to be anywhere at any time provided they are not visibly a member of any stigmatised group, while others can be forced out of public space at any time. And if your main concern about the visibility of people presumed to be sex workers is that house prices might fall, (and you think that’s more important than the fact that violence against outdoor sex workers practically doubles when soliciting and kerb-crawling are made criminal activities,) then you need to get the fuck away from me.
“I’m a domme/a masseuse/ I don’t have sex.”
What’s that got to do with us all having rights?
The hierarchy I mentioned a moment ago? Here it is again, and it’s still not okay. So sex work is fine until it involves some kind of sexual service that is ‘bad’ or ‘worse’ than whatever you’re doing? If you think that anything happening between consenting adults is inherently bad or wrong, or becomes so when there’s money involved, then you’re going down a really dangerous path. Who gets to decide which sex work is okay and which isn’t? How much sex or what kind of sex is all right? No matter how you slice this, someone gets left out in the cold. And the reality is, the people doing the most stigmatised work that you’re trying to distance yourself from right now? They need their rights, and desperately.