Sex Workers Can Tell You Why Sex Work Is Work – Speak to Them

Yves here. One of my friends is adamant that men should always have to pay for sex. And trust me, she’s partied quite a lot.

While this article opens up an important topic for discussion, it then refuses to go anywhere with it. Quite a few, potentially most, sex workers were manipulated into it: sold by their families, taken abroad for what they were told was a different kind of job, recruited by drug dealers. But women also go into sex work by choice. In developing economies, a young woman will often earn a significant multiple of what her next best option is, say working in a factory, by providing sex. And in advanced economies, more respectable women than you think resort to prostitution in bad times until they can get back to their regular line of employment.

It would have been nice if this article had discussed where sex workers had succeeded in improving their conditions, and in particular, how that had come about.

By Borislav Gerasimov, communications and advocacy officer at the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women and the editor of the Anti-Trafficking Review. Follow him @GAATW_IS. Originally published at openDemocracy

We asked sex worker rights groups and allies around the world to discuss what works and doesn’t work when arguing for the decriminalisation of sex work. This series reports what they said.

The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) was founded in 1994 by a group of feminists and women’s rights advocates from, mostly, the Global South. As students, activists, asylum seekers, or migrants in the Global North, they had witnessed the struggles of their compatriots with much less privilege than their own. And as volunteer caregivers, translators, interviewers, and advocates in law courts, GAATW’s founding mothers had heard the stories of working-class migrant women who had undertaken journeys in search of better livelihoods.

Typically, women narrated stories of difficult situations: of the broken promises of agents/recruiters, unbearable working conditions, and financial destitution. Their stories, hard as they were to hear, testified to the women’s courage, enterprise, and determination and challenged the stereotype of ‘the victim of trafficking’ prevailing in the Global North.

Trafficking and Sex Work

GAATW has always been an ally of the sex worker rights movement. As feminists and human rights activists, our founding mothers thought it natural to support self-organising among this group of women. In the beginning, some were uncomfortable with the idea that ‘sex work is work’. However, their repeated interactions with individual sex workers and fledgling collectives forced them to question their middle-class mores.

A few months ago, I met a feminist activist in Thailand who now works in the field of sexual and reproductive health and rights. She explained that she had been close to GAATW since the very beginning, and that 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.

When she told me this story, I remembered something that Lin Lap Chew, one of GAATW’s founding mothers, wrote in Trafficking and Prostitution Reconsidered about the evolution of her own views at the time: “I [was] convinced that I was not against the women who worked as prostitutes, but that the patriarchal institution or prostitution should be dismantled”, she wrote. “But soon I was to learn, through direct and regular contact with women in prostitution, that […] the only way to break the stigma and marginalization of prostitutes was to accept the work that they do as exactly that – a form of work.” She ended with the observation that “The personal struggle for me was to overcome the mainstream moral hypocrisy into which I had been socialized.”

Regular conversations with sex workers made both of these committed activists change their view from ‘prostitution is patriarchal violence against women’ to ‘sex work is work’. That doesn’t always happen, of course and I’ve long wondered why. Why does speaking with sex workers change some people’s minds about sex work, but not others’? I don’t have the answer, and probably never will. What I suspect is the case is that some people simply give more credence to their favourite academic theoreticians, such as Kathleen Barry, than to the words of real-life women in sex work.

Sex Work as Work, Sex Workers’ Rights as Workers’ Rights

GAATW’s support for the sex worker rights movement stems from our conviction that women are better able to challenge power and bring about change when they organise to collectively analyse their situation. This is as true for sex workers as it is for Indigenous, Dalit, migrant or trafficked women, farmers, domestic workers, and hawkers. We are honoured to stand in solidarity with their struggles. We do not pretend to speak on their behalf and GAATW will never lead a campaign on decriminalisation. But we will support those who do.

That said, we do encourage our partners in the women’s rights, labour rights, migrant rights and anti-trafficking fields to engage with sex workers as part of the larger struggle for human rights and workers’ rights. Even people who despise sex work should agree that those in it should be free from violence and stigma. They should also agree that all workspaces should have decent working conditions, regardless of the nature of work. To wish anything else – to posit that sex workers should face violence, stigma, and abuse at work because their livelihoods raise moral questions – is an odd position to take. As a colleague from another organisation told me once, “I don’t have particular feelings about the garment industry. But I want the workers who make clothes to do so in good conditions”.

GAATW does not separate ‘trafficking for sexual exploitation’ from ‘trafficking for labour exploitation’ (or ‘sex trafficking’ from ‘labour trafficking’ as they say in the US) as most organisations do. When necessary we specify whether we are talking about trafficking in the sex industry, or in domestic work, or in construction, agriculture, fishing, etc. This may seem petty and unimportant but it’s not. Language shapes thought. Drawing a line between ‘sexual exploitation’ and ‘labour exploitation’ in itself suggests that sex work is not work. Anyone who agrees that sex work is work should avoid referring to different forms of trafficking in this way. In particular, American activists, journalists, researchers and others concerned with sex workers’ safety should absolutely stop using the term ‘sex trafficking’.

We follow the same strategy in our mutual learning and knowledge sharing work. 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. The strategies that women use to resist and escape exploitation are similar too. Our mutual learning exercises have taught us that, for all the talk of the unique nature of the trade, exploitation in the sex industry isn’t unique at all.

It is well known that some migrant women working in, for example, domestic work, garment factories, or restaurants do sex work on the side to earn more money. Yet, trade unions and NGOs working on migrants’ rights, domestic workers’ rights, and garment workers’ rights see sex work and sex workers’ rights as something completely unrelated to their work and their communities. When we organise meetings for different stakeholders, we always invite sex worker rights groups. This strategy has led to some people recognising the common experiences of women working in different sectors and at least being more open to learning about sex workers’ struggles.

Advocating for the rights of sex workers to other groups is not an easy task. I often hear from our partners that they ‘don’t have a position on sex work’. I understand where this is coming from, but it highlights a gap in logic that often appears when talk turns to sex work. GAATW doesn’t have a position on many issues or groups of women. We don’t have a position on cooking or selling vegetables on the street, even though there are women who cook or sell vegetables all around us in Bangkok. Yet our instinct would always be to stand in solidarity with them and support them in their demands, whatever these are – for example, for the right to work where they can attract the most customers, maintain decent prices, and protect themselves against exploitative rents and corrupt government officials. These are the demands of all workers, including sex workers. Trade unions, women’s rights and migrants’ rights organisations should stand in solidarity with them.

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94 comments

      1. Plenue

        The Jack Reacher movies are a shoddy adaptation of an already insufferable character. That scene is also both stupid and disgusting.

        Reply
    1. Oregoncharles

      Prostitute to guy who just turned her down: “Honey, it’s never free.”

      I’m not actually that cynical, but there’s some deep biology there. There’s also the social issue of reciprocity – back scratching should be mutual.

      I’m going to post a response separately from the jokes.

      Reply
      1. Oregoncharles

        To “go away quietly [and gladly, of course] afterwards” – which girlfriends may not do.

        But that’s pretty much a definition of a purely transactional relationship. And that’s precisely what some people object to about it.

        Reply
  1. Felix_47

    I have often wondered why we have a problem with this type of work. I suppose it is one way for paternalistic societies to control women. The argument that it is different because of physical intimacy is often made. However, as a surgeon, with my hands running the gut of someone’s abdomen or opening up the thoracic cavity and retracting a lung with my hand it is hard to claim I am not being quite intimate with someone’s insides and I get paid pretty well to do it. And a hundred years ago doctors would promote a visit to the office for vibration treatment of the private area for women’s hysteria. So overall legalization and licensing makes sense. That way wage scales could be significantly increased. You need a license and a ton of malpractice insurance to do what I do. The market is restricted just like for lawyers and accountants. So why not sex workers setting fees like we do?

    Reply
  2. The Beeman

    “One of my friends is adamant that men should always have to pay for sex. And trust me, she’s partied quite a lot.”

    What is she saying?

    Is your friend suggesting I pay my wife for having sex with her?
    If turnabout is fair play, perhaps I should ask her to compensate me for pleasing her.

    Reply
    1. Darius

      The New Yorker had an article once about dating apps. Grindr is a hugely successful app for gay men. A straight Grindr is the Holy Grail of the industry. The problem is that a woman advertising herself as immediately available would be swarmed by all the men in the immediate vicinity who really want sex a lot pretty much all the time.

      Religious zealots and bigots used to talk about gay men being promiscuous, and the “gay lifestyle” involving so much random sex. That may have rung true before HIV, but not because gay men are immoral, but because they’re guys. Guys think about sex all the time. If women thought the same about sex as men, the opportunities existed, and it didn’t kill you, straight men and women would have sex with multiple new partners everyday.

      Repealing laws criminalizing sex work seems pretty simple. But pimping should stay illegal, if not more penalized. And SESTA FOSTA has to go.

      Reply
      1. Tom Doak

        There are potentially a lot of women who think about sex all the time, too. But they won’t participate as often as they’d like because the consequences can be MUCH more onerous for their bodies and for the path of their lives, should they accidentally become pregnant. Men don’t have to worry about that consequence, and if they’re gay, their partners don’t, either, so it’s game on.

        Women, too, can escape a lot of the potential consequences by pursuing same-sex relationships.

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        1. James

          Women think about sex much of the time, but that is not the difference between men and women. Men are more interested in quantity (a number of different partners), while women go for quality.

          Reply
      2. Plenue

        “Guys think about sex all the time.”

        Speak for yourself.

        “If women thought the same about sex as men”

        Plenty of women do.

        Reply
      3. Harrold

        One hallmark of a cult is the control of sexuality. Either the member is forced to have sex with everyone or, more typically, the member is not allowed to have sex with anyone( except for the cult leader of course).

        Reply
    2. The Historian

      “Is your friend suggesting I pay my wife for having sex with her?”

      Actually, you do pay your wife, don’t you, albeit probably not with cash? What is marriage but a private contract between two people to provide for each other? You give to your spouse and she gives to you. And there are unwritten social contracts between friends to provide for each other. But when you step out of those private contracts, do you really expect to get something without providing something, i.e., money, in return?

      For instance, you wouldn’t pay your spouse for cooking a meal nor would you charge when you cook a meal for your spouse. But when you step out of that contract, say go to a restaurant, do you really expect to get a meal without providing something, i.e., money, in return?

      Your spouse may give you a wonderful massage and not expect money for it because he/she will get something else in return. But would you go to a masseuse and expect that same massage for a home-cooked meal?

      Why is sex any different? It is a commodity just like food. When you go to a sex worker, you aren’t concerned about her/his life, you are in effect hiring her/him to do a job for you, i.e., gratify you , just like you hire a mechanic to fix your car. Why shouldn’t you pay money for it?

      Reply
      1. William S

        Thinking it’s OK to treat humans as commodities is one of the results of neoliberalism. There’s an enormous difference between relationships that are continuous and work on many levels with those reduced to a single abstract notion of ‘value’.

        I’d prefer a society that embraces human rights, not one where money is the only way to get rights. All paid work is demeaning IMO, not just prostitution. I rarely go out to eat because I hate being “served” and “waited” upon. We would all be better served if those workers were spending time developing themselves in personally meaningful ways.

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        1. The Historian

          I totally agree with you! But sadly, that is not reality and I would rather sex workers have their work recognized, protected and monetarily compensated for than having them be treated like slaves.

          Reply
        2. Anarcissie

          Agreed also. However, commodification of humans — the ‘cash nexus’ in my translation of the Communist Manifesto — goes back long before liberalism, neo- or paleo-. When we understand that sex work is work and work is patriarchal violence, maybe we can start doing something about it; but many people want to keep their power, their money, their stuff, and their social status, and at present they have the means and intention of doing so. Pending resolution of the conflict, it would at least be fair to allow sex workers the same rights as the rest of the victim class.

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        1. Plenue

          Honestly, I’m not clear how your utopian vision is supposed to work. There are a million things we can and should do to improve civilization, like making every business a worker coop. But in the end people will still be selling their labor for pay.

          I just don’t see how things would work otherwise, barring some Star Trek fairy tale where all the unpleasant tasks are taken care of by machines.

          The example I always think of is that there are parts of sewage systems that gradually get caked in crap. Periodically someone has to go down there and hose the feces off. Society runs off of lots of downright disgusting but necessary jobs like that. There are many things that are either tedious or revolting that have to be done. And I don’t see how you can get people to do them without essentially bribing them.

          Reply
        2. Stephen V.

          This happens when profit is shared rather than fought over. I don’t see this as ideology but economics thought of independently of rights (private property, e.g.).

          Reply
      2. Yves Smith Post author

        Surveys (at least for decades, with our apps driven culture and the sudden turn to sexual reticence among the young, things may have changed) found that the top reason men gave for getting married was sex, and for women, financial security. So on a broad social basis, marriage could be characterized as a trade of sex for money, even though we are strongly acculturated to see it otherwise.

        And in fairness, this construct is largely a bourgeois creation. Aristocrats saw marriage as about procreation and property; it was understood a sufficiently well-off noble might have a courtesan (usually well enough hidden so as not to embarrass the wife). In the sexually liberated pre-Revolution France, both married men and women often took lovers. In the UK, where the bourgeois revolution was already well underway, this sort of behavior was seen as scandalous. Marriage historically have been significantly if not primarily about childrearing. In business circles until not all that long ago, a man was expected to get married and have kids. It would hurt his career not to.

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        1. ObjectiveFunction

          This insightful piece appeared in these fine pages a while back, and seems relevant to the discussion here, especially the notion that all sex is inherently transactional.

          We have tended to proceed as though requesting sex and consenting to it or refusing it are the only important things we can do with speech….[but] invitations are a more common and typically more appropriate way of initiating sex than are requests…. welcoming without being demanding.

          Now how would ‘invitation’ or ‘gifts of sex’ occur in sex work? Not easy in our world of instant gratification, but it does happen, e.g. the geisha courting ritual, where after several meetings she may (or may not) place her teacup in a certain manner, indicating that the client may remain to enjoy her favors, giving a suitable gift after. Kind of a ritualized ‘third date’, giving agency and dignity to all parties. But only possible where all parties understand the rules of the game.

          And of course, clients unwilling to go to that trouble have other workers they can go to on a more casual basis, but who may also lack that agency.

          I personally believe that the West is edging in the direction of classical civilizations, where bisexuality, swinging and (limited) extramarital relationships are unremarkable. But my dear spouse doesn’t share those views, at least as regards us, and I accept that. Too bloody tiring anyway, at a certain age.

          So do not talk to me of love
          I’m not a fool, with starry eyes
          Just put your money in my hands
          And you will get what money buys

          Reply
  3. JacobiteInTraining

    Always worth submitting a link to someone who both walks the walk…and talks the talk…about this topic Maggie McNeill: https://maggiemcneill.wordpress.com

    You want a shotgun blast of frank (and sometimes brutal) discussion about sex workers vs. the carceral state and its moral panics…she is the one to talk to.

    Reply
    1. Robert Hahl

      The excellent “Vernon Subutex” novels by Virginie Despentes are relevant. The author and most of the characters are current or former prostitutes in Paris.

      Reply
  4. Heraclitus

    Loretta Napoleoni, in ‘Rogue Economics’ (2008), discusses the post-Cold War development of prostitution in Western Europe and Israel. It is a powerful book, but the first chapter, where she discusses the way Eastern Europeans have taken over the prostitution business in Europe, is in my opinion the most remarkable part of the book.

    A quasi-homeless guy I sometimes employ tells me that in his his world–twenty/thirty/forty somethings where there is a large component of addicted people, meth mostly–there are very few women who do not sometimes turn tricks. It’s the need to get that fix now.

    Reply
  5. Off The Street

    Bottle Service. A phrase perhaps new to those not circulating as much these days. Pretty young women get recruited by wranglers for some free partying and opportunities to meet young and not so young up-and-comers. Street-level capitalism transitions to table-level and even bed-level. No mention in the recruiting literature about assaults or STDs.

    Reply
    1. xkeyscored

      They’re called beer girls in south-east Asia. Not just for the VIP customers either; you can’t really get served any other way. Each peddles one particular brand, and when you arrive, they surround you with a chorus of “Heineken/ABC/Tiger/etc”. Bad luck if you don’t want alcohol.
      Plenty of assaults and STDs, but like the bottle servers, not widely advertised by recruiters. Things are supposedly improving:
      https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/beer-promoters-see-change

      Reply
      1. xkeyscored

        PS That article offers some answers to Yves’ implicit question about “where sex workers had succeeded in improving their conditions, and in particular, how that had come about.”
        Unionisation of garment workers, the other major employer of young women, seems to have played a big part. (Not all ‘beer promoters’ are sex workers, but it’s common, as it is in the rest of the ‘entertainment industry.’ Many bars ‘used to’ have a system of ‘bar fines,’ whereby men paid say $15 to take a waitress home. The women got a salary of $60 per month, and if they didn’t average at least 4 customers per month, they were out.)
        Sar Mora, president of Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation (CFSWF), said yesterday that the high-profile push for garment wage increases has made it easier to negotiate better conditions for workers who sell for the country’s biggest beer companies.
        In turn, he added, higher wages for these women – who work in restaurants, beer gardens and bars – has helped drive down coerced workplace drinking and shameful levels of sexual assault and harassment.
        In the case of many promoters selling beer for Cambrew – which makes Angkor Beer and is partly owned by Carlsberg – wages have risen from $50 per month in 2011 to $155 now, Mora said. The minimum garment wage is $128.

        Reply
  6. The Rev Kev

    ‘One of my friends is adamant that men should always have to pay for sex.’ After traveling to several countries and reading a lot of history I can say for a fact that men nearly always pay for sex – one way or another. If you don’t believe me, consider what would happen in a world where women disappeared for a year or so. Would men act the same? Would we dress the same? Would we have the same priorities? Actually the scifi author Philip Wylie wrote a book along those lines in 1951 called “The Disappearance”

    https://www.amazon.com/Disappearance-Bison-Frontiers-Imagination/dp/0803298412

    But as for sex workers, they should be consider as just another profession with legal & medical protection and without the moral harassment that they are receiving from Silicon Valley firms. Robert A. Heinlein put it best when he wrote “A whore should be judged by the same criteria as other professionals offering services for pay — such as dentists, lawyers, hairdressers, physicians, plumbers, etc. Is she professionally competent? Does she give good measure? Is she honest with her clients?”

    Personally I prefer an old fashioned name for sex workers and reckoning that they should be called once again “business girls” as they are actually in business. It is a profession that can not be eradicated without severe cost and even in Victorian London it has been reckoned that there were up to 80,000 sex workers. It is only in immature societies that sex workers are not recognized and regulated for their and the client’s protection.

    Reply
  7. Pelham

    I wonder how many sex workers there would be if we adopted Bernard Friot’s proposal to delink incomes from the kind of work we do?

    Reply
    1. notabanktoadie

      Certainly an equal Citizen’s Dividend should replace all fiat creation beyond that created by deficit spending for the general welfare.

      Who can argue with that?

      Reply
  8. Nancy Boyd

    If prostitution is work like any other, surely it should be subject to the OSHA requirements that apply to any worker whose job requires contact with bodily fluids — i.e. full PPE — gloves, goggles, etc.

    If prostitution is work like any other, surely it should be covered by anti-discrimination policy making it illegal to refuse service to someone based on race, religion, sex, national origin, etc. Meaning in certain circumstances a prostitute has no right to say no.

    If prostitution is work like any other, then the work is coerced, as all wage work is coerced — that’s a fundamental tenet of leftist thought. Which means prostitution is coerced work. Which means sex is coerced. There’s a word for that.

    If prostitution is work like any other, and is in fact, as so many insist, “empowering,” why are there are no examples anywhere of a powerful man who was empowered by such work on his path to power?

    If prostitution is work like any other, shouldn’t there be vocational ed programs at local community colleges offering training, shouldn’t there be certificate programs? Shouldn’t there be student loans and shouldn’t suburban parents be thrilled if their daughters who can’t or won’t go to a four-year college get certified in servicing men in the same way they’d be thrilled if their daughters got training in, say, respiratory therapy?

    Since Marx first wrote about it, and until neoliberal and postmodern elevation of individuals selling themselves into a marketplace and of individual subjective experience over materialist class analysis, the left position on prostitution was that it is the commodification of women and support for ending it was a bedrock principle abhorrent for anyone who professes anti-capitalism. The MorningStar has written quite eloquently about that. To oppose the work itself is not to oppose the workers, just as opposing sweatshops is not opposing sweatshop workers. It is quite odd to see leftists railing about the injustices and oppressions of the wage-work marketplace, or neoliberal economies, and yet insisting on their right to penetrate women because they have the cash and the women do not.

    Prostitution is a demand-driven business that relies global female poverty to provide supply. We know this is true because in the aftermath of economic crisis, the supply of women in the prostitution marketplace increases dramatically — and the price goes down. During the Greek crisis, there were newspaper articles proclaiming that one “boon” of the crisis was the possibility, now, of buying a woman for the price of a sandwich.

    To support the expansion of prostitution is to support either the expansion of global female poverty or the expansion of trafficking, there’s no way around that unless and until proponents convince a great swath of women who are not impoverished that prostitution is a job choice equal to or better than others available to them. In the developed nations that have fully legalized brothels — German and New Zealand — trafficking has INCREASED, precisely because of that pesky demand-driven aspect relative to lack of supply.

    Maybe, in fact, convincing non-impoverished women that prostitution is work like any other is actually the end goal: after all, economists have been speaking quite openly about 40-50% unemployment rates in developed economies within 1-2 generations, and historically in those situations women get thrown out of the labor force. (Yes, I know there are male prostitutes, but they are a very small sliver of that workforce, not even 5%.)

    To those who insist that prostitution is work like any other, equivalent to providing a service as a barista or a masseuse does, I ask that you yourself go down to your neighborhood dive bar and spend eight hours engaging in the work yourself before stating that having one’s body repeatedly penetrated by another is no different from any other form of hard labor.

    This is not written out of any moral panic. It’s written out of an analysis of what leftists have long called “exploitation.”

    I’d suggest reading Rachel Moran, former prostitute, “Paid For,” and Julie Bindel, “The Pimping of Prostitution.”

    Reply
    1. Eclair

      Thank you, Nancy Boyd. Although the images immediately conjured up by your first paragraph, “If prostitution is work like any other, surely it should be subject to the OSHA requirements that apply to any worker whose job requires contact with bodily fluids — i.e. full PPE — gloves, goggles, etc.,” will haunt me for the rest of the morning. Even a benign visit to the dentist is like a rendezvous with aliens, suited, gloved and goggled.

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    2. pebird

      And if sex work is work, what is to stop a boss in, say a high tech startup, to demand sex work from his workers? After all, we are all asked to do things at work for which we haven’t been fully trained, if at all.

      Let’s normalize sex work for the sake of eliminating sexual harassment in the work place.

      Reply
      1. The Historian

        Normalizing sex work won’t do a thing about sexual harassment because sexual harassment at work, or any place else, isn’t about sex or gratification, it’s about power.

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        1. Tim Smyth

          There is some evidence on the margins that all the “Me Too” scandals have increased demand for sex workers especially on the high end from executive types that don’t want to get in trouble for sexual harassment in the workplace.. However, your are correct to suspect that for the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer it is all about power. Weinstein and Lauer almost certainly knew of and had the ability to obtain paid sex in a very discrete manner but obviously the non consensual sexual harrasment thing is what turned them “on.”

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      2. ChrisPacific

        This is a strawman. Acting in porn movies has been legal for a long time, but nobody thinks it’s appropriate to ask workers to do porn unless it’s already part of their job description and they signed up for it.

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    3. Jeremy Grimm

      “If prostitution is work like any other, and is in fact, as so many insist, “empowering,” why are there are no examples anywhere of a powerful man who was empowered by such work on his path to power?”

      I think if you accept a quid pro quo exchange where sex is the quid you will find some examples of a “powerful man who was empowered by such work” if you look into the way some theater casting is done. My brother worked as a stage hand at the Globe in San Diego and told me of several of the plays where some male parts were cast through couch casting. My brother could have made Equity if he had agreed to come live with this guy up in San Francisco theater.

      Reply
    4. Tim Smyth

      I think if you talk to a lot of sex workers at the high end(which I think is a lot larger percentage of total sex workers than many think) they will tell you what the call escorting or “paid” companionship is far far better than a lot of alternative jobs including most of what would be described as the service sector i.e. bartending, waitressing, etc. As one high end escort once put it in an interview I saw would she rather go out three times a week for dinner with hedge fund managers and big time CEO’s on the Upper East Side(and have “protected” sex with them for a few minutes out of a couple hours) or do what she did in college as a part time job work in a food processing chicken de-boning plant making minimum wage.

      Now to be fair like any profession it is not for everyone(a lot of people would have a hard time being dentists or doctors for example) but I think one has to admit there are significant number of women who really do like and enjoy sex work compared to other alternative forms of work.

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      1. xkeyscored

        I’ve known quite a few men and women sex workers, both here and in the UK. I can’t think of any offhand who said they like or enjoy it, though many say it’s easy after the first time, and they prefer it to the alternatives.

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        1. Tim Smyth

          Again I might be hanging out with a different crowd but the majority I have talked to say they do in fact enjoy and actually wished they had perhaps even found out about it earlier.

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        2. Procopius

          I am reminded of a quotation from a Brazilian sex worker I saw many years ago.

          It’s a shit job, but there are lots of shit jobs, and at least the pay is pretty good.

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    5. kiwi

      This: Prostitution is a demand-driven business that relies global female poverty to provide supply.

      I’ve always thought of prositution as a desperate measure taken when there is no other option. Really, who would want any of their female relatives or friends to be sex workers? I certainly never dreamed of being a prostitute when I was young and comtemplating my future.

      Additionally, I’ve always worried that if sex work was broadly legalized, it would start pushing wages down for women in regular fields of work and effectively force more women into sex work as more and more money is spent for those services. At least that is what I thought may be going on in places like Thailand.

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      1. Plenue

        “Really, who would want any of their female relatives or friends to be sex workers?”

        Wouldn’t bother me, in and of itself. If they felt they had no other choice, that would bother me, but the core act of them screwing in exchange for money? I wouldn’t have any more problem with them having sex for money than I would them having sex for free, and I don’t ‘slut-shame’.

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      2. xkeyscored

        I think the exact opposite may be going on in places like Thailand. Without sex work as an alternative, women are in a much harder negotiating position vis-a-vis employers. Hence, perhaps, employers’ frequent and vocal support for so-called anti-trafficking and rescue schemes, seen by many sex workers as harassment and kidnapping.

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      3. Harrold

        Sex work is broadly legalized. There is an abundance of cam models, actresses, dancers who all get undressed for money.

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    6. ChrisPacific

      All good points, and I would probably have agreed with you before the legislation in New Zealand – I wasn’t sure about it at the time. In practice I think the effect has been almost entirely positive, and I wouldn’t go back.

      I think it might be useful to frame it as a series of questions:
      1. Do you think that eliminating (or substantially reducing) sex work is a realistic and achievable goal?
      2. If so, do you think that criminalizing sex work helps or hinders that goal?
      3. Is criminalization of sex workers, denial of standard rights and protections under workplace law etc. an acceptable price to pay to achieve that goal?

      In a lot of respects, decriminalization has not changed very much about the industry here. The main changes are an official recognition that it goes on and a commitment to ensure the workers receive the protections they would be entitled to under standard workplace law. Nobody describes prostitution as empowering. Brothel owners don’t show up to present at job fairs. Nobody discusses the relative merits of various escort services over morning coffee (at least, not in any circles I’ve encountered). Will that still be true fifty or a hundred years from now? Maybe not, but I wouldn’t bet against it. Legislation hasn’t changed views on the profession for the most part, just the practical terms under which it operates.

      I’d be interested in your source for the claim that legalization has increased trafficking – I did some looking and couldn’t find anything, and in fact this article suggests that it’s largely absent from the legal part of the industry. In practice I expect it probably hasn’t made that much difference, since anybody with a legal right to work in New Zealand is probably not a trafficking victim by definition. It might have made detection and enforcement a bit easier by sharpening the legal distinction instead of regarding all sex workers (legal right to work or not) as equivalently criminal. But it’s a notoriously difficult area in which to find data.

      Reply
      1. ChrisPacific

        In answer to your question about whether prostitution is work like any other, I would say: no, it clearly is not. But that’s not the same as asking whether it should be legal.

        Reply
          1. ChrisPacific

            I think you’ll find they are well aware of it already.

            As I noted above, legalization hasn’t done much to change their position in society. The one thing it very clearly has done is make society much more willing to treat them as human beings with rights that are worthy of protection. Everything else has stayed about the same.

            Reply
    7. Martin Ibannes

      > (Yes, I know there are male prostitutes, but they are a very small sliver of that workforce, not even 5%.)

      There are quite a few IdPols where with even less than 5% of their relevant demographic they exert inordinate influence and power, in a ‘wag the dog’ kind of way.

      Reply
    8. Darius

      It’s not work like any other. Still doesn’t mean it should be criminalized. Criminalizing it hasn’t improved anything, but makes millions worldwide vulnerable to oppression, hardship, and violence. All that should be done is decriminalization. Pimping should remain illegal and perhaps even more penalized. It is no different from trafficking. But women or men shouldn’t be penalized for seeking clients on Craigslist or other internet platform.

      Reply
  9. Jon Cloke

    Cracking article and right to the heart of the matter – as with the trade in illegal drugs, the real harm caused to sex work is done by illegalization in defence of a mythical moral standard – the real damage to the social fabric in both cases comes from the selective criminalization of social issues and the vast (profitable) networks set up to police ‘acceptable’ behaviour.

    Reply
    1. xkeyscored

      Many have claimed that prostitution is the flip-side to marriage. My hunch is that sex workers are degraded and criminalised lest their claims be taken seriously, as when, say, someone claims to have been paid for sex with a bible-thumping lock-up-the-perverts public figure. If ‘respectable’ people can dismiss these claims as the unreliable ravings of a moral degenerate, all can continue as usual. “Of course we believe him over her/him; he’s a judge.”

      Reply
      1. Oregoncharles

        They’re the victims of the law, dying precisely because it’s illegal. Harm reduction always involves legalization or at least tolerance, so the drug can be regulated and help made readily available.

        The same applies to prostitution.

        Reply
        1. kiwi

          No, they didn’t.

          In fact, I favor drug legalization – but more because of the corruption the trade causes throughout governments, law enforcement, and society rather than any notion that legalization somehow helps the addicted people.

          I was just noting that the activities themselves tear at the social fabric anyway, regardless of legal status.

          Reply
          1. Tom Doak

            The same exact dynamic happens with sex work.

            In Australia, where prostitution is above board, each state was tasked with determining its own laws and framework. New South Wales did the longest and most thorough study, and opted for full decriminalization, upon determining that law enforcement officers would otherwise be empowered to take advantage of the situation.

            Even US television police dramas of the 1980’s captured that dynamic accurately!

            Above all, sex work is dangerous for the workers. As long as their work is illegal, they are unable to report assaults for fear of being arrested, and are therefore much more vulnerable to the small fraction of men who would do them harm. That this dynamic should be used to scare them away from the job (and keep those predators on the street) is not a noble response to the issue.

            Reply
  10. xkeyscored

    Where I am, garment factory owners are among the biggest backers of the ‘anti-trafficking’ initiatives and so on. A few years ago, many garment workers were laid off due to some western recession, so they ended up in the ‘entertainment industry’ – brothels, beer gardens, karaoke or massage parlours, etc. When those same factories decided they’d like more workers again, they discovered many were happier with their new jobs. Several said that after the initial disgust and shame and so on, they were happy to be getting more money, often a lot more, and they’d had to put up with various kinds of sexual harassment before anyway. One local sex workers’ organisation has a logo and slogan something like “You can keep your damned sewing machine.” If I remember their name, I’ll post a link.

    Reply
    1. kiwi

      Yes, just swallow until you get used to it.

      As I posted above, this is my fear about legalized sex work – that it pays more and effectively forces women into that kind of work if they want to earn a decent living.

      And yet, people post that illegalizing sex work is the patriarchy’s way of controlling womens’ bodies. So how is legalizing sex work, with women being forced into sex work to survive, a better patriarchy?

      Vive la choice!

      Reply
      1. xkeyscored

        As I posted above, higher wages in the garment sector here have resulted in better wages and conditions for beer promoters, at least some of whom regularly do sex work with the men they meet. Why wouldn’t the opposite hold true?
        An end to patriarchy would indeed solve so many of these problems. But do you see it just around the corner? Until it happens, many women, and not a few men, I know have the choice between rural poverty, some kind of sex work, or fairly low wage employment.
        https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/beer-promoters-see-change

        Reply
  11. David in Santa Cruz

    How is “sex work” different from other “gig economy” work, like Uber, Instacart, DoorDash, etc? It’s not. They all sell the same illusion of “empowerment” that is anything but.

    The problem is, except at the very high end, these gigs take exactly zero skill. All that they require is the level of economic desperation that it takes to debase one’s self, to assume all the risk of accident/violence/disease, but to be willing to share a cut of the tiny reward in order to have minimally vetted customers sent one’s way.

    Because these “gigs” take so little in the way of skill to perform, they are fungible. Yes, Uber will let a driver with a Lincoln Navigator charge more than a driver with a Hyundai Accent, and a physically attractive prostitute with a nice wardrobe (or a willingness to take extreme risks) can charge more than a homeless addict, but those who labor in the “gig economy” are so replaceable that they have no real economic leverage beyond minor variations in pricing.

    I must agree with the analysis of Nancy Boyd above. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to have one’s body repeatedly penetrated by strangers, some of them loathsome, some of them violent, some of them disease vectors, simply in order to eke out a living. Just because some men (and almost always men) are willing to pay other men and women to submit to these acts, “empowerment” is the last thing that comes to my mind.

    Reply
        1. David in Santa Cruz

          Who said anything about legality?

          Most prostitution is nasty, demeaning, and unpleasant work that most would not submit to if they had the choice. Sex workers are simply gig workers. They should not be treated like criminals, but they should also live under an economy that is organized to offer better alternatives to opening-up their orifices to complete strangers than sweat-shops and Ubers.

          We aren’t talking about some Manhattan banker improving her lifestyle by screwing wealthy men willing to toss her a few baubles and pick-up her tab…

          Reply
          1. Oregoncharles

            I agree: the way to minimize prostitution is to make sure other decent employment is available.

            Making it illegal merely makes it nastier and more dangerous – but legalization is what we’re discussing.

            And I suspect your last paragraph is just about what Yves’ friend was talking about.

            Reply
    1. Tim Smyth

      Except there are a lot of sex workers that would rather be a sex worker than an Uber driver(A lot of sex workers actually boycott Uber for various different reasons including the way they treat their employees. Equinox gyms are another company I know some high end sex workers boycott again for mistreating their employees).

      On the subject of “physically attractive prostitutes” with “nice wardrobes” having talked to a couple of people who meet this description they would in fact claim in part the fact that the Nancy Boyd’s of the world don’t like them is in fact less to do with them “having sex” and more to do that the Nancy Boyd’s of the world are in fact really jealous of their physical appearance and wardrobe.

      Reply
      1. David in Santa Cruz

        Jealous?

        I too had a friend who once traded on her youth, beauty, and wardrobe. This dear woman was recently featured in a Netflix documentary featuring a notorious underground film from 40-odd years ago. Her looks now faded, her wardrobe threadbare, she was now staring-down old age with no pension, no insurance, and no more paintings to sell. She blew her brains out within the year.

        So, there’s that…

        Reply
        1. Tom Doak

          Had prostitution been legal and her earnings legitimized, they would have counted toward Social Security. Just like the rest of us.

          Reply
          1. David in Santa Cruz

            My friend wasn’t a hooker, she was what we used to call a “groupie.” Legal then; legal now. Many people trade sex in transactions which don’t look anything like “employment” but which are nevertheless economic at their core. My friend lived a lavish lifestyle at a very young age thanks to the “friendship” of certain older men.

            Social Security and health care should be a right, and not based on some means-tested points system. Personally, I’d prefer to do other things in order to pay the rent and save for retirement than submitting to men sticking things down my throat or up my rectum — but maybe that’s just me…

            Reply
  12. Plenue

    “One of my friends is adamant that men should always have to pay for sex.”

    What a sad world view. Apparently she doesn’t think sex is a worthwhile thing in and of itself, and needs to be bribed out of a woman.

    Reply
  13. jeremyharrison

    Take what you will from the anecdote, but years ago, I had a girlfriend who was a stripper (plus sex acts were done in the back rooms, if both the girl and the guy sized it up to be mutually agreeable and mutually beneficial).

    When I wasn’t up to anything, I’d sometimes go to her club so we could hang out and chat when things were slow, and I’d often have fun conversations with her and her co-workers. One takeaway from listening to the girls talk about the guys was that “exploitation” works both ways. My girlfriend often had to explain their lingo – like when someone said, “I just Hoovered that guy”, it meant she got every dollar in his pocket in exchange for much less than she knew he was hoping for. High fives all around.

    But one of my favorite moments was when one girl joined us and said, “I got $200 out of Bob for almost nothing.” I asked, “Which guy is Bob?” The girls all looked at me, and then laughed a little. My girlfriend said, “Um, Jeremy, they’re ALL ‘Bob’. “

    Reply
  14. Oregoncharles

    Let’s remember that law and policing are always POLITICAL issues.

    The fundamental arguments for legalizing sex work are the same as for marijuana: (1) personal liberty; is this anybody else’s business? (2) Harm reduction, which always depends on the activity being legal or at least tolerated, hence in the open and subject to regulation or, in this case, worker protection.

    A significant difference is that sex work involves significant public health issues, so should be regulated to minimize health risks. Again, that’s an argument for legalization. Police using condoms as evidence of lawbreaking is a good example of why.

    It’s clear from the above comments that this subject is highly emotional – even the jokes indicate that. That’s ultimately because sex and mating are highly emotional subjects – and seriously vexed in our society, so vexed that there are murders and even mass killings over it. Sex work is arguably a safety valve for a dangerous dynamic in our society. For that, the workers should get some respect – and even some training, as someone above suggested, so they can do it better.

    I find it shocking that there are feminists who are passionately against legalization. Feminists do not attack other women’s livelihood, nor pass judgement on other women’s sexual choices. That’s foundational, basic solidarity. (I don’t mean to imply that only women are sex workers, or only women are feminists. Obviously not.) I consider it a basic feminist cause – one that should have been more prominent earlier on. Unfinished business; there’s a lot of that.

    Oddly, prostitution is legal if done in front of a camera. That’s a bit hard to account for.

    Reply
    1. kiwi

      Your notions are what happens when one intellectualizes something as basic as sexual urges or addictive behaviors. You take all of the humanity out of the equation.

      I simply don’t believe very many women (well, or even men) would choose sex work voluntarily, assuming they didn’t grow up in a prostitution culture (I am thinking the movie “Pretty Baby) and assuming they had other well paying jobs available. Most self-reporting I’ve read involves people who didn’t choose the life, but, oh well, got used to it because they had no other choice.

      Hence my concern that as sex-work becomes more and more accepted and as more and more gdp of the economy is devoted to pay for sex, the fewer well-paying jobs there will be for women. I don’t see how being forced into prostitution because it pays better than most available jobs is a win for women (or for men, either).

      Some posters above disagree with that scenario. I don’t know enough about the economics surrounding the sex trade.

      Reply
      1. Oregoncharles

        How many people would work collecting garbage if they had other choices? only the very fortunate get paid for something we love doing.

        I believe that displacement theory has been debunked, in general. More economic activity tends to mean more jobs. In this case, the job really is repellent for most people (to be clear, I wouldn’t want to do it or to pay for sex), so it won’t expand all that much.

        As I just wrote above, the right way to minimize prostitution – or drug dealing – is to insure that more appealing jobs are available.

        Reply
      2. Harrold

        I simply don’t believe very many women (well, or even men) would choose sex work voluntarily, assuming they didn’t grow up in a prostitution culture

        The stats published by sugar baby sites might challenge your beliefs.

        Reply
  15. Tim Smyth

    Given no one has mentioned it so far I should bring up there a quite a few sex workers active on social media(especially Twitter), podcasts, and even YouTube. I am going to suggest the following fully safe for work links that go into from a sex worker’s perspective almost all of the issues that have been brought up here today.

    YouTube’s Ask an Escort:
    https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCDa3xl5q_a_CCSt2o3DfNYA/videos

    The Escort Deconstructed Podcast(This one in particular has an episode about retirement and financial planning for sex workers. I would recommend starting towards the beginning of the series):
    https://www.buzzsprout.com/520450

    Reply
  16. charles 2

    Nancy Boyd’s post is well articulated, which is why I think it is worth linking to.
    This being said, I still think it misses the mark.

    a) the rhetorical device “there is a word for coerced sex” which is rape, which is illegal, ergo prostitution should be illegal equally applies to “there is a word for coerced work”, which is slavery, which is equally illegal. The real problem is slavery not prostitution, whether it is for blow jobs or making garments or picking up fruits.

    b) The main health problem is not STD, for which present solutions are quite adequate (condoms really work, provided they are used properly, and a professionals can get proficient with that), but mental health, which is a much tougher nut to crack. Considering how symbolically charged sex is in most societies, the mental strain of the activity is huge, and generates many cases of PTSD. The only way to practice sex work safely is after thorough theoretical studies and practical mental training (as clinical psychologists do when they spend their workday probing in other people minds) and regular monitoring. Thus a safe mental distance can be maintained. There were attempts in the 70’s to have such sex surrogates. Unfortunately, it didn’t really take off. I believed it could be more expanded beyond time limited “treatments” to longer “patient/healer” relationship. In the same way that psychotherapists are perfectly happy to be “friend for hire” outside of any substantial therapeutic relationship (even if they vigorously deny this…), long term “sex-friend for hire” with sex surrogates could be perfectly legitimate, with community college training, professional associations and the whole credentialed shebang. It is, IMO, a better way forward than pure abolitionism.

    c) If the solution above can take care of the damage caused by the highest end of prostitution, there is no question that it is out of reach financially for most sexually miserable individuals (in the same way that most mental health issues of poor people go unattended by a psychologist…). Readily available Porn is currently a substitute for a lot of them, but I believe that sex devices will feature more and more prominently to alleviate sexual misery. (As an aside, I wouldn’t be surprised if the so-called disinterest of younger generation with intercourse sex was not in reality, tools and knowledge enabled auto eroticism). There are already some brothels proposing sex dolls or VR services. I believe that it will eventually drive out the lower end of prostitution once mass production is enabled and usage is de-stigmatized. Ironically, acceptance of sex-toys in popular culture is higher for women oriented sex toys than for men oriented sex toys.

    Reply
  17. Jon

    Prostitution is not a job, its exploitation.

    If your daughter, “Mommy, daddy, can I grow up to be a cocksucker?” What would you say?

    This is just a way to make prostitution acceptable instead of recognizing the trap you keep girls and women in.

    Reply
    1. Plenue

      If that’s what she wants to do, as opposed to being forced to do it, or feeling she is being forced to do it, good for her. I’d hope she’d have some standards about her clients and practice safe sex though.

      It doesn’t have to be exploitation, though it very often is.

      Reply
      1. adrena

        Legal prostitution in Germany and The Netherlands has made the exploitation of women and girls worse.

        The city of Amsterdam is fed up with the increased crime as a result of sex tourism.

        Reply
  18. Borislav

    Hello and thank you for reposting my article from Open Democracy. Regarding your comment that it would’ve been nice to highlight situations where sex workers improved their conditions – this was beyond the scope of this particular article. However, I did write on this very topic two years ago, again in Open Democracy, see Sex Workers Organising for Change.

    Reply

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