What can we do to end violence against sex workers? It’s hard to talk about what all sex workers need to make that happen, because contrary to popular opinion, there is not one type of sex worker. Sex workers come in all varieties, from all intersections of privilege and oppression. But one thing I am certain of is that decriminalizing sex work will benefit all sex workers. In my explanation, I am leaving out the over arching moral issue of whether or not it is “ethical” to sell sex for money in a basic philosophical sense. I’m generally not interested in engaging with this part of the issue when I talk about sex work, because in the day to day life of a sex worker, it is mostly irrelevant. Although I certainly have my opinions about it, I’m not writing this to talk about whether or not women “should” sell sex for money. The fact is that they do. And given that fact, here are some ideas about what will make sex workers safer
I consider myself an example of someone who was a very privileged sex worker. I’m white, cisgender, and grew up with class privilege. I decided to do sex work for five years because I wanted to have money and time to party and enjoy myself while I was a full time under graduate college student. It felt more fulfilling to perform sexual acts for money 3-5 hours a month than to work 10-15 hours a week at a boring food service or retail job- and I usually made about the same amount of money or more by doing sex work for much fewer hours. It meant that I had more time to do homework and pursue my other interests, leaving me feeling less stressed and more fulfilled than if I had a regular job.
Although not all the work I did was illegal, it was certainly all stigmatized, which I believe is related to criminalization and the stereotypes that are used to maintain criminalization. Criminalization affected me negatively, even with all of my privileges.
When I first got into sex work, I had no connections to other sex workers. I figured out how the industry worked mostly on my own, through trial and error. Looking back, I realized that I did a lot of really unsafe things. If I had known other sex workers from the beginning, this could have been avoided. I could have been taught all the tips and tricks and safety precautions that I now know. Criminalization isolates sex workers. We are afraid to talk about our work, we are afraid to talk about our experiences, and we are afraid to help out new sex workers as they enter the industry.
Although most of the clients I worked with when I did sex work were decent, gentle men, some of them were creepy and I was even assaulted a couple of times. However, I had no recourse, or even an effective way to warn other sex workers about these people, because of criminalization. I wonder sometimes how many other girls have been traumatized by these same men because I had no way to circulate my experience and hold these men accountable.
Lastly, criminalization hurt me because I knew that if I was outed, I could get a criminal record, or at the very least because of the stigma of even the legal work that I did, I could be dismissed from my internship, lose credibility at school, and not be taken seriously as an applicant for a job in my chosen field, destroying any chance of progressing in my career and therefore actually trapping me, without choice, into a life of sex work.
Maybe you are still skeptical, because the examples I have given are all related to life as a sex worker with a lot of privilege. “You had a choice”, you might say. “Many women are not so lucky”. That’s true- many women are not nearly as lucky as I have been in my life. However, I want to complicate the idea of choice- because it is not sex work that creates a lack of choices for women. It is capitalism, it is ableism, and it is patriarchy. Many poor women are choosing between sex work and scrubbing toilets as a hotel maid, standing long hours on their feet at fast food restaurants, enduring awful conditions in factories, or even being homeless. Because the reality is, there are not enough jobs outside of the sex industry that exist for poor women. If you take sex work away, it does not automatically create other jobs for women to get, or inherently make that woman feel any more empowered. Those other jobs I mentioned feel incredibly degrading to a lot of women. However, no one talks about “outlawing fast food workers” as a way to keep women from feeling degraded. Banning sex work does not prevent women from making hard choices in an awful economic climate. Many poor women, because of personal taste, ability status, or their own life priorities, will choose sex work over an exhausting full time minimum wage job. If this bothers you, organize to create a more just economic system, and leave sex workers alone. Giving sex workers a criminal record and the label of “prostitute” just gives them fewer future choices among the limited ones they already have.
Maybe you are tempted by the rhetoric of “criminalize johns and pimps, not sex workers”. Many people who argue for this say that it will help the least privileged sex workers. Let’s think this through. Say you are homeless, addicted to drugs, and are a sex worker meeting clients all day. You are hoping to make enough money to get a hotel room, some food, and your drug of choice for tonight. However, your clients keep getting arrested after you solicit them. Even though you are not arrested, you now have no money for a hotel room that night. You have to spend the night on the streets, where you are much more likely to be violently assaulted. Criminalizing the soliticitation of sex workers doesn’t automatically create more shelters, more work and educational opportunities, and more drug rehab options, let alone ones that are accessible to the most marginalized of people. Staying on the streets over night is traumatizing, and physical disabilities and mental illnesses often get worse when living on the streets, leaving people less able to access services they would need to help get them out of the homeless and drug addicted cycle they get stuck in. You can see that in no way did criminalizing the clients of this hypothetical sex worker actually gave her more choices or helped her in any way.
Even if after all this, your response still might be, “but what about women who are actually kidnapped and used as sex slaves? How will decriminalization help them?” First of all- the number of people this actually happens to is by far the minority of people in the industry. Law enforcement inflates these numbers by including all manner of traveling sex workers, regardless of their individual situations. For example, the “sex trafficking victim” who was murdered at a Portland hotel last year was actually an escort murdered by a client (every headline calls her a trafficking victim). Sex workers in Portland kept saying that she wasn’t a trafficking victim, that they knew her, but no one listened to them.
Even if your focus is this minority of women in the industry- then I think you should actually be supporting sex workers even more! Sex workers inherently have the most access to those who are trafficked, due to their connections in the industry and the places they work. By supporting and empowering sex workers, they would be able to ally themselves with social services to help trafficked women escape their kidnappers and abusive pimps.
Although all sex workers have different identities and experiences, all sex workers deserve rights, deserve respect, and deserve to have their work decriminalized. If you are so upset about the work conditions that sex workers experience, spend your energy fighting to end stigma, increase social services and the creation of a more humane economic system in general.
Clarification: I did sex work for five years. I’m no longer doing sex work. I haven’t for a couple of years now. Which is the only reason why I now feel comfortable talking about my experience.