Imagine an actress sitting in a movie producer’s office and accepting his sexual advances in hopes of cinching a leading role in next summer’s blockbuster. Should the police come and arrest her? Arrest him?
It’s a clear case of sexual harassment, and it’s outrageous that women artists are treated this way. But we don’t think of her as breaking the law. She may be criticized for “sleeping her way to the top,” but criminalization isn’t on the table. Whether we frown on her behavior or give her a high five for her boldness, we understand her as consenting to sex in a male dominated situation where she wants something and is willing to use her body to get it.
Why is it not the same for sex workers?
When I made my living as a spoken word/hip hop theater performer, I would dress much more provocatively than when I went to the grocery store. I understood that my appearance -- people finding me sexually desirable -- was part of advancing my career. I wasn’t prepared to disadvantage myself as a performer by completely refusing to participate in looking sexy onstage. I look forward to the day when women can stand on stage in a burlap sack and command attention exclusively with our words, but that day hasn’t come yet.
Every day, all kinds of women choose to have all kinds of sex for reasons other than sexual arousal. One of those reasons is for sex work. In our society, women’s sexuality is used as a type of currency. I wish that weren’t true, but until it changes, it is hypocritical and harmful to punish sex workers who trade sexual services for cash.
Recently, Reverend Pat Robertson advised a woman to reward her husband with sex for doing the dishes. Even the politically conservative Robertson encourages women to use use sex as currency -- in marriage. Perhaps the woman seeking his advice needs sex workers to come counsel her: No girl, make him clean the whole house top to bottom, then watch the kids while you go have a spa day, then you’ll come home all refreshed and rejuvenated and can enjoy the sex.
Am I concerned about the sexualization of women and girls? About rape culture? About the trafficking of women against their will in the US and internationally? Yes. Am I concerned about the increasing political and social power of the corporate-controlled sex industries and their growing influence in the lives of women and girls worldwide? Absolutely. But none of those battles are won by criminalizing the sale of consensual sexual services between adults. There are male sex workers, as well, but the vast majority of sex workers are women.
The sex industries are vast and diverse. I know people who are sex workers by choice -- that is to say that they have other professional options that many non-sex workers would consider appealing, but they prefer sex work. They either enjoy the work itself, or the lifestyle allowed by doing something that is so highly paid on an hourly basis. They proudly call themselves whores, and have built a community and a life they enjoy.
I know former sex workers who found that time glamorous and exciting. I also know people who don’t particularly like the work, but have had difficulty finding other work, so they have mixed feelings about sex work.
I have also known someone who was trafficked into sex work. It destroyed her life, and she died over a decade ago.
Many sex worker activists are in favor of decriminalization as opposed to legalization of sex work. The blog sexworkerproblems offers a distinction: "[L]egalization…comes with regulations, laws, mandates, and (hyperbolically speaking) a million hoops to jump through. Decriminalization simply means law enforcement and government agencies don’t criminalize participation in a particular activity. ~Most~ sex workers we’ve seen…are fans of decrim[inalization]..."
Unlike the sex work community, the feminist community is very divided over whether sex work should be decriminalized. I know pro-sex work feminists, anti-sex work feminists, anti-trafficking feminists, and sex workers who identify as feminists. I take issue with feminists who make mass negative generalizations about sex work. Gloria Steinem refuses to use the term “sex work,” and insists on the term “prostitution” which she describes as "commercial rape.” I think this undermines all the work that other feminists have done to demand recognition of the power of women’s consent. I don’t support a man saying a woman’s no means yes. I also don’t support a woman saying another woman’s yes means no.
Similarly, current reforms of criminalization have led to laws that posit that all sex workers are victims, when this simply isn’t the experience of some of the women involved. Many sex workers have experienced rape, and have also experienced consensual sex work, and can tell the difference. Some women have “consented” to sex work, and later explored their motives only to find that the consent was a sham. They were experiencing manipulation, coercion or did not feel that they really had a choice. Those experiences are valid as well, but it doesn’t mean that all current workers are deluding themselves.
One feminist reform of criminalization is the strategy to “end demand,” to target the buyer of sexual services, as opposed to the seller. According to decriminalization advocate and former sex worker Maggie McNeil, “[T]he idea of pursuing clients and the pretense that sex workers are not being targeted [is false]….In the United States it’s…absurd to even claim that ‘oh we’re only targeting the clients’ when all the laws against…sale of sex are still on the books [and can be enforced against sex workers]…”
Numerous sex work advocates have also pointed out that when clients’ behavior is subject to legal prosecution, it creates unsafe conditions for sex workers. Client negotiations and service provision must still take place in the shadows, where workers have the least safety and protection.
There are important criticisms that can be leveled at sex work: any institution where women are rewarded to act out men’s sexual fantasies is part of male domination. I believe that. But these criticisms can be leveled at many different institutions of our society. This happens across the board in media, and in heterosexual dating, relationships, and marriage.
Every woman who’s ever faked an orgasm, or rallied to have sex to put her male partner in “a good mood” before they discuss an important issue in the relationship, is a colluding participant. Few heterosexual women can say that every moment of every sexual experience they’ve ever had was bursting with sexual fulfillment. If there were no male domination, a woman would never feel any obligation to please a man or have any fear of reprisal. In that case, many women might feel more comfortable saying, halfway into a sexual encounter, “Hey, I’m not so into this anymore, let’s go get pizza.” Most women having heterosexual sex have been there.
So why do we target sex workers? And furthermore, why would we advocate using the power of the state to target workers who use sexual currency for their livelihood? Feminists and other progressives are well aware of histories of brutality and sexual violence by police. Why would we knowingly unleash that force on a group of economically vulnerable women?
Sex trafficking is something else altogether. Trafficking of women against their will is and should be a criminal act. The practice of coercing or manipulating anyone into selling sex, particularly a young person, is an act of sexual violence as well as economic exploitation, and should be part of any program to systematically eradicate sexual violence.
The sex work activist community has been trying to contextualize sex trafficking: "Sex trafficking isn’t sex work. We don’t combine or conflate the two and we think, as many sex workers have said… it damages everyone involved to mix them together. Victims of sex trafficking are often shamed through the stigma attached to sex work, and sex workers have their agency and decision-making taken away from them through the idea that sex work is sex trafficking. To mix them doesn’t help anyone at all.
“We do recognize the seriousness of the issues of human trafficking, …sex trafficking is a very small part of that, and more people are taken to work manual labor, work in the garment and hospitality industries…than the scary and frightening media reports of sex trafficking. When we focus only on trafficking in the sexual sense, we are truly erasing an unknown number of people who are trapped, working as slaves every day."
Survival sex work is where economic circumstances coerce women into sex work who really don’t want to do it. However, in these cases, as sex worker/activist Lori Adorable has pointed out, the problem isn’t sex workers or their clients; the problem is poverty. The criminalization of sex work makes it more dangerous for workers, and more difficult to identify instances of trafficking. Particularly because sex workers, who may be witnesses to trafficking, are at odds with the authorities and not in a position to share their information. The criminalization of sex work also leads to criminal records for many who do survival sex work, making it more difficult for them to exit the industry.
Some accuse sex worker activists of glamorizing the industry, but there are many examples to the contrary. Peechington Marie, a former sex worker, advocates decriminalization but doesn't gloss over the harms: "There are a ton of sex workers who have ugly stories. stories of terror and tragedy, rape and abuse, daddy issues and drug habits, and more. there are sex workers who wish they didn’t have to do this job. there are sex workers who would rather do anything else than do this job....we need to be here for them, too."
Melissa Gira Grant’s book Playing the Whore talks about sex work as work. In today’s world, there are many lousy types of work, with systematic mistreatment, sub-living wage compensation, and unsafe working conditions. Much of this labor is being done by women, worldwide. If we take a larger view, the sex industries are one part of an international labor force where women are paid less than men for equal work, where traditionally feminine work is undervalued or completely underpaid, where we are excluded from many types of work and pushed into others. Sex work is part of this picture, and should be seen in this larger context.
Imagine a young woman on a date with an older, wealthy man. She’s not attracted to him, but to his bank account. Later that night, when they have sex, should the cops bust in and arrest her in the middle of a fake, dramatic moan? If she’s working for the fancy dinner and jewelry gifts instead of cash, does it count as sex work? Does it count if she marries him? Is he a husband, or a regular, live-in customer? Why is it legal to be a gold digger but not a sex worker?
It’s not illegal to have sex for money. Women can have sex for money in brothels in Nevada. Women can have sex for money on video in the adult film industry of Los Angeles. Women legally strip and give lap dances for cash in their g-strings. Women can have sex for financial considerations in a range of relationships from sugar babies to casting couch starlets to gold diggers to suburban wives. But the only women who get punished are the ones who take cash, negotiate openly, and don’t give a percentage to any male-led corporation.
I have a daughter, and by the time she hits puberty, she will already have received a million sexualizing messages. I loathe the day she’ll realize that the society values her ass more than her mind, her breasts more than her creativity. I dread the upcoming lesson that boys will be more excited about what she can do for them sexually than her leadership skills or her athletic abilities.
But that is the world that we live in. That is the world that I’m fighting to change. For my daughter, myself, and all women. And the last people who should be getting punished for it are the women who are choosing to make the best of a bad situation.
Editorial note: the above has been edited to correct a Tumblr misattribution.