For a more comprehensive exploration of this topic (by sex workers themselves), please read Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights by Juno Mac and Molly Smith.
Sex workers are your neighbours. Sex workers are those mums you see dropping their kids at school. People who sell sex are in front of you at the cashier, pursuing postgraduate studies, in your political party, your place of worship, your favourite bar, your university reunion… Sex workers are held at police stations and sex workers are marching in protest. Sex workers are everywhere, fighting for their rights.
Yes, the sex work industry is gendered. Yes, the majority of sex workers are women and the majority of clients are men. However, people of all genders dabble into sex work, each experiencing it uniquely. So, let’s find out what’s behind that first window. Shall we?
Just like pornography, the infamous oldest profession in the world gained a lot of traction during the feminist “sex wars” of the 70s and 80s. On one side, those who we will call abolitionists believe that any form of sex work is a form of sexual subjection and objectification of women, a form of patriarchal violence against women’s bodies. As Kathleen Barry (1997) writes, sex work is rape and therefore, there can be no consensual ways to sell sex, no ways to voluntarily engage in sex work. On the other side, those who we will call liberals or sex positives, assume that sex work will never be eradicated, that there are both voluntary and coerced forms of selling sex, which means that rather than being criminalised, sex work should be recognised as work, thereby granting labour rights to sex workers. Sex work (when voluntary) thus becomes about expressing one’s sexuality and about choice over one’s body.
Both approaches analyse sex work only through a heteronormative gaze in which men buy sex from women who sell sex, albeit slightly less true for the liberal stance. The prostitution-as-rape analogy where the prostitute is nothing but a weak, pitiable, (woman) victim does not hold when you factor in men sex workers selling sex to other men since they can be both receptive and insertive during anal intercourse. While nearly one in five sex workers is a man, sex work remains understood as a women’s issue. This hijack means that the profession is seen as more feminine, which exacerbates the stigma experienced by men sex workers who not only face the “whore stigma” but also the stigma of engaging in activities not worthy of “real men,” compounded by other racists and heterosexist forms of discrimination. A study by Trevon D. Logan (2010) highlights how masculine beauty ideals actively influence a sex worker’s financial benefits, where overweight and thin bodies as well as sexually receptive individuals, are penalised and earn far less than muscular, alpha-male like bodies.
Both paradigms also end up placing “sex as a symbol,” and fall short in acknowledging the complexities of the sex work industry. Sex workers are far more than helpless victims or happy hookers pleasuring themselves for money. Framing sex work as a means to sexual gratification assumes a privileged position that many working class sex workers and sex workers of colour simply do not have. While there are important economic concerns when it comes to sexual labour, the online sexual commerce and webcam performances has also allowed many working and middle class sex workers to have safer and more flexible working conditions coupled with increased financial gains, which they can put towards childcare, college education or else.
However, precariousness and poverty remain a reality for many sex workers, especially migrant, transgender, and gender diverse sex workers. The primary emphasis on policing borders as a solution to prostitution exposes those who work in the “ suitcase industry” (periodically commuting between one country and their home), especially illegal ones, to higher degrees of violence, labour rights violations, and state-sanctioned harassment, discrimination, and incarceration. Similarly, many transgender and gender diverse sex workers are undocumented migrants who have fled their country of origin because of transphobic attitudes and legislation, and face higher levels of violence. The societal marginalisation and fetishisation of their bodies pushes many towards the sex work industry, which in many cases such as for the hijra community in South Asia, attaches yet another layer of stigma to their identity. Transgender and gender diverse sex workers, especially those who work outdoors, are a visible population, easily targetable for hate crimes, beatings, public humiliation or in extreme cases, murder by both state and non-state actors.
For instance, Kimberly Kay Hoang (2015) highlights the “white saviour trope” of the “rescue industry” regarding women sex workers in the Global South. She demonstrates how the main discourse of helpless, vulnerable, and coerced Asian women sits in polar opposite to the situation of many sex workers who took an informed and consensual decision to work a job they describe as emancipatory because of its flexibility and financial benefits.
All of that being said, human trafficking remains a pressing issue. However, the fight against sexual slavery should not impede on the rights of sex workers. Criminalising sex workers or clients, rather than reducing sex work, actually puts sex workers more at risk, forcing them to live in precarious and illegal conditions, shrinking their bargaining power, and forcing them to accept unsafe, violent, and dangerous working conditions.
Sex work is work. And well, if you disagree, I will leave you with the words of the trans sex worker community leader Ceyenne Doroshow, “If you don’t want sex workers doing the work, sweetie, employ them! Employ them, have a solution!”.