Is Sex Work, Work?
The Cambridge Dictionary defines work as.. ‘an activity, such as a job, where a person uses physical or mental effort to perform a task or service, usually for money.’
There is no real argument as to whether sex work is work, the word ‘work’ is in the name and the dictionary definition couldn’t be any clearer. What people really mean in the many debates over whether sex work is ‘work’, is whether sex work should be acknowledged as an ‘acceptable’ means of earning money, and moreover, whether sex work should be decriminalised and afforded the same rights and support as other industries and workforces.
The term ‘sex work’ was first used by activist Carol Leigh, in 1978(1), it was adopted by several pro sex worker movements in the 80s, and is now commonly used by organisations, sexual health agencies, and in the media, along with the similar term ‘adult work’. Previous to this, other commonly used terms such as prostitute, hooker, and call girl, carried insinuations of illegality, immorality, and were generally used as an insult or slur. Whereas these terms undermined pro sex work arguments, ‘sex work’ became a simple, yet powerful term, which didn’t add further to the stigma of being a sex worker. Since its adoption, there have been those who take objection to the very fact it calls sex work ‘work’, and many are vocal as to why this shouldn’t be so.
For the sake of this article, by the term ‘sex work/worker’ we will be referring to escorts and the escort industry, but it’s important to note that ‘sex work’ and ‘adult work’ have grown as umbrella terms, now representing all those working in sex industries; from escorts and cam performers, to strippers and porn actors/actresses. Some may argue against certain sex work roles stronger than others, but sex workers of every different kind share one very common goal, to be recognised as a workforce, and afford rights and support... "those who do sex work, in all of their workplaces and in varied conditions, deserve the rights and respect accorded to workers in any other industry." (2)
The sex worker next door
Sex work isn’t like any other work, and that in itself is a cause of offence. Sex work doesn’t slot neatly into how people see employment. Sex workers don’t work traditional hours, in a familiar workspace, they don’t have health and safety inspections, they rarely pay taxes, and can’t claim for work related benefits when things aren’t going well. Sex workers are alien to most people, who simply don’t have sex worker relatives, friends, or neighbours. Or so they may think.
Like most people, sex workers use their work as a means to earn a living and support their family. Most sex workers are carers and parents; it’s estimated that 1 in 3 UK female sex workers are single parents (3), and in Thailand and Philippines a single sex worker typically supports 2-3 generations of their family. While sex workers may seem alien to most, they share the same values and are living next door. They are loved daughters and sons, supportive parents, friendly neighbours, close friends, and extremely dedicated carers. They typically choose sex work as their means of supporting themselves and their loved ones.
What sex work opponents actually have in mind when they cringe … is that sex work does not—and cannot—resemble their ... more respected labour administering social projects, conducting research and lobbying. To consider sex work to be on the same level as that work breaks down the divisions that elevate some forms of labor while denigrating others. (4)
It’s fair to assume that the vast majority of those who campaign against sex work, are not campaigning against sex (or work), and many of them have active sex lives of their own. Sex work doesn’t comply with how they value sex. They typically see sex as something which should strictly be used as a way of expressing love, to consume a marriage, or at a stretch, sharing a moment of passion with someone outside of a long-term relationship. For one stranger to have sex with another, it is rarely an issue, but when two consenting strangers have sex in exchange for money (or something other than love or intimacy), this is where the offense is taken. Even when sex work is done so in absolute privacy, and between two happily consenting adults, the fact it is happening at all still seems to cross a moral boundary that for some, must never be crossed, and there must then always be a villain and a victim.
"Sex work is not always about sex. Sometimes it is about intimacy or just company, and sometimes it is almost like therapy. But even when it is just about sex, I am still proud of the work I do, and I will not be ashamed. I am a good person … Some people look at sex workers as bad people without knowing them … In my culture many people think that even just to have sex with someone you are not married to is immoral. To me this feels so very ignorant, and lacks understanding, compassion, and empathy."
Are all sex workers victims?
Many sex workers are victims, although how, where, and why sex workers are victims is not always so black and white. There are serious issues and concerns with the way many people are introduced to sex work, as well as their treatment, conditions, and support within it. There is an immense lack of support and assistance for those with addictions and other health and social issues, and there are few clear routes or guidance for those desperately looking for a way out. But the leading anti-sex work argument often concludes that sex work must be criminalised in order to protect these vulnerable sex workers. Yet, in so many ways it is the criminalisation of sex work which pushes sex workers further towards the margins, and darker corners of society, feeding those very issues of addiction, abuse, isolation, and exploitation.
Recognising sex work as work, and affording sex workers the ability to operate safely within the eyes of the law, isn’t about supporting the evil predators, controlling pimps or abusive clients, quite the opposite. It’s about introducing reasonable laws which afford sex workers basic human rights. Essentially, it should allow for sex workers and their supporters to create unions and support networks, and be able to approach the wider community and authorities in times of need. While those who campaign against the recognition of sex work may proclaim to do so in order to save sex workers, the truth is, many sex workers do not wish to be saved in this way.
"A few months ago, I met a feminist activist in Thailand who now works in the field of sexual and reproductive health and rights. … Back in the 1980s she had wanted to rescue Thai sex workers in the Netherlands. To her surprise, they had told her they didn’t want to be rescued. They did not mind trading sex for money but wanted to earn more and work in better conditions. If she could help them with that, she was welcome. This and other similar interactions changed her views of sex work and sex workers." (5)
Most sex workers are not against being helped and supported, but for the many who work of their own free will, they are not looking to be rescued or removed from the industry, they are looking for rights and support, within it. The criminalisation of sex work does not simply save victims, it often isolates them. Even when that criminalisation is focussed on the paying clients, it pushes sex workers towards more risk and danger.
"Where some or all aspects of sex work were criminalised, concerns about their own or their clients’ arrest meant that sex workers often had to rush screening clients, negotiating services, or work in isolated places, to avoid the police. This increased sex workers’ vulnerability to theft and violence." (6)
The criminalisation which forces the sex work industry into the darker spaces, not only raises the dangers and lessens the outreach for help and support, but it also disconnects sex workers from those entrusted to police and protect their communities. This in turn can build great alienation and even resentment towards sex workers. It further encourages repressive policing and allows for corrupt and exploitive police officers, who only add to the fear, abuse, and helplessness which already exists, and strengthens the ability for abusive clients and exploitative third parties to operate.
"Sex workers who had been exposed to repressive policing … had a three times higher chance of experiencing sexual or physical violence by anyone. They were also twice as likely to have HIV and/or other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), compared with sex workers who had avoided repressive policing practices." (6)
"I do this work by my own choice. I don’t have strong career prospects or good job choices, because of the life I was born into. If I am able to use my body and my ability to make someone else happy as a means of making money, why should I have that taken away? In my country, religious morals are so deeply woven into legislation. They don’t care about people’s freedom or choices, they are afraid of people undermining marriage and the family values, and afraid of the churches losing their control and influence."
Is this a fight against trafficking?
Arguments against sex work, and its decriminalisation, often claim that the criminalisation of sex work is needed in order to stop sex trafficking. The phrase ‘sex trafficking’ has become an incredibly powerful anti-sex work term; it instantly paints an image that the industry is made up of victims and traffickers, with little space in-between. Not only is this incredibly misleading, but while trafficking and exploitation is a major issue of the industry, it is not unique to sex work. Labour trafficking and exploitation is a critical issue, rife in almost all industries which attract lower income, migrant workers. From nannies and domestic workers, to the construction, labouring, and farming industries, labour exploitation and people trafficking issues are of similar nature and proportion.
"Of the 24.9 million victims of forced labour, 16 million people are exploited in the private sector including domestic work, construction or agriculture. 4.8 million people are victims of forced sexual exploitation, and 4 million people were in forced labour imposed by state authorities." (7)
Anti-sex work campaigners separate issues of sex worker exploitation from the trafficking and exploitation in other industries, and would not wish to see their arguments and proposals be regarded on the same terms or context. In these other industries, the idea of such wide spread criminalisation would make no logical sense and would not be entertained as a means of tackling the real issues. Keeping ‘sex trafficking’ as a completely separate and unique issue is needed in order to keep pushing the agenda that sex work is not work, and the industry and its workforce must not be treated as equal to other industries and workers.
There is no illusion that acknowledging sex work as being an industry, and affording legal support and rights to its workforce, would quickly solve issues of trafficking and exploitation. But, affording sex workers basic labour rights, recognition, and greater support, would at least bring it into the conversation when talking about wider issues of labour exploitation. More importantly, this would help bring more sex worker voices into such debates, and push toward more effective solutions.
"Migrant and trafficked women’s stories are strikingly similar regardless of the sector in which they are exploited. They all speak of deceptive agents and brokers, limited freedom of movement, physical, psychological, and sexual violence at the workplace, as well as stigma upon return … exploitation in the sex industry isn’t unique at all." (5)
"my sex work is a consensual transaction between adults, and it does not violate anyone’s human rights … Sex work IS work and must be governed by law and [have] protections similar to other jobs. It is a necessary condition to realize that sex workers’ rights are human rights."
Does it really matter whether we call it work?
Campaigns, debates, and discussions over how sex work should be governed and how the issues surrounding it are best tackled, are very rarely instigated, or lead, by sex workers. Many of the conversations which lead to political campaigning and legislation, fail to take into account any sex worker voices, and are seldom based on in-depth academic research or direct outreach to the sex worker community (for more exposure on this look no further than ‘Sex, Lies, & Statistics’ by Dr Brooke Magnanti(8)).
"Unlike in other conversations on labor exploitation, workers in the sex industry are neither seen as experts on the nuances of their work nor as the people best positioned to identify solutions. They are treated as ignorant of the conversation, at best, and as a driver of trafficking at worst." (9)
Sex work conversations which are not inclusive of the wider community, not only add to the stigma and issues of actual sex workers, but miss out on value insight and guidance. There were clear examples of this during the introduction of the SESTA/FOSTA act in the US. This legislation was pushed through despite great vocal concern from sex workers and their supports. It has gone on to cause further vulnerability and create many more victims.
"While anti-trafficking organizations were pushing the dire need for this legislation and arguing that it would do no outright damage, sex workers were explaining that this would cause websites to close, displacing people into precarity and vulnerability. In the year and a half since its passage, the law has not been used for any new civil litigation, yet websites have indeed closed and sex workers have indeed been displaced and faced precarity and vulnerability. Sex workers were clearly the experts who should have been heard before its passage." (9)
Acknowledging that sex work is work, is often seen as being naïve of (or even in support of) exploitation and trafficking. But sex work between consenting adults of legal age, and the exploitation of vulnerable people, are two very different things. The blurring of these lines seems to only work as a tool for avoiding real conversations on how sex workers can be supported, how genuine victims can be saved, and how further victimization can be avoided.
"Criminalizing adult, voluntary, and consensual sex – including the commercial exchange of sexual services – is incompatible with the human right to personal autonomy and privacy. In short – a government should not be telling consenting adults who they can have sexual relations with and on what terms." Statement by Human Rights Watch, August 2019(10)
Sex work isn’t always empowering to the sex worker. Sex work is rarely a dream job, and many sex workers won’t find their work satisfying or fulfilling. Many sex workers will question their choice of career, many more will have ambitions beyond sex work, and many are looking for a way out. But that doesn’t mean sex work is not work. The majority of sex workers simply see it as a their choice of work (whether it be a temporary or a longer-term option), and in many of these cases it is simply their preferred means of earning a living based on the options they have. When sex work is between consenting adults it should not only be recognised as work, but it should be given the same protection and rights as any form of work. "Sex workers aren’t asking for you to approve of sex work, they’re asking for equal protection under the law." (11)
Sources and further reading:
- Carol Leigh coins the term ‘sex work’ : https://www.nswp.org/timeline/event/carol-leigh-coins-the-term-sex-work
- Lets’ call sex work what it is: work : https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/lets-call-sex-work-what-it-work/ - This article is adapted from Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work, (https://www.versobooks.com/books/1568-playing-the-whore)
- A review of the literature on sex workers and social exclusion - https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/303927/A_Review_of_the_Literature_on_sex_workers_and_social_exclusion.pdf
- Let’s call sex work what it is, work - https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/lets-call-sex-work-what-it-work/
- Sex workers can tell you why sex work is work – speak to them - https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/beyond-trafficking-and-slavery/sex-workers-can-tell-you-why-sex-work-is-work-speak-to-them/
- Criminalisation and repressive policing of sex work - https://www.lshtm.ac.uk/newsevents/news/2018/criminalisation-and-repressive-policing-sex-work-linked-increased-risk?utm_source=facebook-press&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=sexworkerpolicy
- Modern slavery: facts & figures - https://www.unseenuk.org/modern-slavery/facts-and-figures#:~:text=Of%20the%2024.9%20million%20victims,labour%20imposed%20by%20state%20authorities.
- Sex, lies, & statistics - https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/36224357-sex-lies-statistics
- Decriminalization by any other name: sex worker right in federal advocacy - https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/beyond-trafficking-and-slavery/decriminalization-any-other-name-sex-worker-rights-federal-advocacy/
- Why sex work should be decriminalised - https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/08/07/why-sex-work-should-be-decriminalized
- Sweet, smart, strong, and sexy: the sex workers taking a stand in Thailand - https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/beyond-trafficking-and-slavery/sweet-smart-strong-and-sexy-the-sex-workers-taking-a-stand-in-thailand/