Sex work is a service job: during your working hours, you provide your clients with a good or service in exchange for payment.
The difference between sex workers and other service workers? Sex workers are among the few whose job is illegal.
In the United States, sex work is criminalized. Sex workers have to take precautions to make sure that they aren’t criminally charged for trying to provide a much sought-after service. They are increasingly being banned and excluded from online platforms such as PayPal, Tumblr, and Instagram because of SESTA/FOSTA, a Trump-era policy that holds platforms and internet service providers accountable for content published to their sites that promotes prostitution—including sex work. This policy encourages platforms to ban and delete any material they think could get them punished under SESTA/FOSTA, including the content of sex workers who may be trying to use these platforms to vet potential clients. In light of this increased discrimination against sex workers, it’s important for us as allies to talk about sex work and the harmful misconceptions that have popped up around it, as well as ways we can support and lift up the voices and humanity of sex workers.
First, sex work is not inherently dehumanizing. Those who have chosen to go into sex work do not lose any of their worth because of their profession. Receiving money for a service, even when that service is sex, does not take away a person’s humanity. What is dehumanizing is the way our culture has chosen to talk about sex workers, alternating between treating them as victims who need to be saved and making rape culture statements along the lines of what sex worker Ginger Banks has reported receiving in online comments, such as, “Well, she’s a sex worker. She gets f***ed for money. Why can’t I grab her right now?”
Sex work is not the same as human trafficking. Sex work is a consensual arrangement. Sex trafficking involves non-consensual sexual activity with a person who is being sold or coerced. Some have taken to claiming that sex work and human trafficking are the same, or that sex work enables human trafficking. These people believe that all those who engage in sex work have been coerced or conditioned, and that criminalizing sex work will help to end human trafficking. In reality, there is evidence that decriminalizing sex work will actually decrease the number of people who are trafficked. By decriminalizing sex work and making it possible for sex workers to report abuse, countries will actually make it more difficult for potential traffickers to thrive.
Conditions that support and enable human trafficking are only exaggerated by criminalizing sex work, as criminalizing sex work marginalizes sex workers and leaves them with no legal recourse. This is especially true when we consider that many sex workers are already members of marginalized groups: women, people of color, and LGBTQIA people, especially transgender people. When sex workers are treated like criminals, and the police “d[o] not want to ‘waste time’ on sex workers,” that is when traffickers are able operate freely.
When we criminalize sex work, we don’t stop sex work. We don’t stop human trafficking. We don’t protect members of marginalized groups. All we do is make it harder for people to do their job safely, since going to the police would most likely mean getting arrested and losing their source of income.
As allies, we have three responsibilities:
- Listen to sex workers. If a sex worker is telling you about their lived experience, don’t talk over them. When looking for information about sex work, try to find articles written by current and former sex workers. This is their lived experience, and they can tell us best how to support them.
- Educate yourself on the issues. Find out what organizations are working to help sex workers and promote sex worker-friendly policies. Examples include the Sex Workers Outreach Project and the Global Network of Sex Work Projects.
- Educate others. Use the knowledge you’ve gained from listening to sex workers and doing research to engage more people in discussions about decriminalizing sex work.
Feminists can’t claim to be intersectional if we don’t support freedom and safety for all marginalized groups and acknowledge the simple fact that sex workers deserve to be treated with respect, just like everyone else.