They live on your street, they go to the same nail salon as you, and guess what? You’ve probably bumped into some while you’re buying tomatoes and milk. This may come as a shock. Sex workers are commonly dehumanized, which leads people to view them as fictional characters from another planet. In reality they are functional human beings from the same world as you, and they deserve respect.
The term was coined in the 1970s by Carol Leigh, sex worker and activist. She became an activist after she experienced sexual violence while working and realized that if she reported the crime, she would be punished and would risk becoming unemployed. Sex work simply means that the selling or exchanging of sexual services is work. That sex work is work. The term ‘prostitute’ is offensive to many as it suggests a link to criminality which increases social stigma and exclusion.
The life and choices a of sex worker varies, but sexual services can include:
Sex trafficking is usually mentioned during discussions of sex work. This is a form of human trafficking which involves force, violence, or coercive control. Victims are exploited by perpetrators and criminals who profit from their forced labour. Gender inequality and discriminatory migrant policies increase the risk of trafficking. Sex work however, is consensual. This does not mean that experiences of sex work are equal. Some people have negative experiences of the sex industry and exit. Exiting can be a struggle, but this is mainly due to stigma and criminalization. Others enjoy the work, some do occasionally but choose to continue due to flexibility and pay. It is important to recognize that sex work is a broad term that encompasses a spectrum of experiences.
In other industries people have the option to change their line of work if things don’t go to plan. They can move from finance to teaching, from retail to law. Career changes can be daunting, but with access to support and guidance, it is possible. Sex workers should have the right to this choice. To fully protect the health and safety of sex workers, we must protect choice. Decriminalization and a realistic perception of sex work encourages sex workers to value their skillset and to exercise their right to choose. Stigma restricts choice and creates dangerous situations.
Sex workers around the world have a 45-75% chance of experiencing sexual violence while working. There is a myth that this is a ‘hazard of the job’ rather than assault, which stems from the tendency to dehumanize sex workers as previously mentioned.
Let’s explore 3 options:
This would mean sex workers, clients and third parties (brothel managers, agency staff etc) would be prosecuted. Labelling sex workers as criminals increases risk as they are not able to prioritize their safety while trying to avoid police. Criminal records make finding official employment difficult, so criminalization actually traps people in illegal employment.
Partial criminalization means that selling sexual services isn’t illegal, but soliciting and facilitating is, as well as kerb-crawling and working indoors with others. Under The Nordic Model only clients are criminalized. These options are supposed to protect sex workers, with the Nordic Model also being known as ‘End Demand’. In reality however this does not end demand but rather decreases it, leaving sex workers with little privilege in being able to turn down clients. Those working under these conditions have reported an increase in violence, including theft, physical attack and rape.
This would allow sex workers to gain legal recognition, which would increase access to healthcare and the ability to exercise legal and human rights. Safety can become a priority as sex workers no longer have to fear being punished by the law, but can be protected by it. Decriminalization results in destigmatization, meaning less marginalization.
This topic is an extremely nuanced and feminist one. Around 88% of sex workers are women. If your concerns about sex work stem from a wish to end gender based violence then it is crucial that you focus on changing educational systems rather than undermining choice. Thorough sex education can establish a healthier sexual culture for everyone, including sex workers. The introduction of porn literacy to curriculums as well as more women behind the camera makes it impossible to ignore the positive impact that sex workers can have on social development. Not all sex workers need saving, and some are producing educational contact that could save us.
This is not a quick fix. Education is the solution, but requires time. So what can you do in the meantime?
Today, remember and mourn the victims of violence against sex workers. We can end discrimination.