Sex Work

I’ve been avoiding writing about this topic, because I know it is so sensitive and I am, quite frankly, afraid of putting a foot wrong just to speak my mind.

It is something I am undecided on, and that I find it so difficult to be decided on. I figure it’s partly a good thing, as it maybe means I’m more open to listening than on topics where I have vehement opinions.

Feminism in London (2015) took a stance on the issue by giving a platform to women who support the Nordic model, including ex-sex workers, and women who have been trafficked. When I saw this, although I didn’t agree with 100% of the methods, I was completely convinced.

At Women of the World this year, they showed both sides through performance, but didn’t try to have a panel on it (due to past occurrences I think). In turn, this meant it didn’t take a position on the issue. And I got the impression that Founder and Artistic Director, Jude Kelly, didn’t really know where she stood on this matter either.

I recently watched this video below and I couldn’t recommend it more.

It runs through the following options when thinking about sex work and legality:

-Full criminalisation: seller, buyer, third parties.

-Partial crimination: selling and buying legal, but other activities (e.g. selling on streets, in brothels) banned.

-Nordic model: criminalising buyer, not the seller.

-Legalisation: all legal!

And what do sex workers want? Decriminalisation. 

One of the issues FiL picked on with this, was how it differs to legalisation, and they argued that it doesn’t (but have a read of this). Whilst I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for people trafficked into sex work – including one speaking at this event – Toni Mac makes a good point that people are trafficked into other industries and nobody calls for a ban on the entire industry itself. But then again, I read that 95% of victims of trafficking are forced into sex work. Needless to say that most of these people are women. So, it shows that this is to do with women’s position in society; the fact that it’s a gendered issue is obviously going to provoke ideas that all sex work is a form of violence against women. But some women do choose it, so where do they fit in? Often people point out the issue with capitalism and that sex work is simply another form of exploitation. It begs the question of whether it matters whether its sex work or not.

What I find difficult may be a process of unlearning. As much as I don’t want to add to the stigma against sex workers, I am uncomfortable with what I have heard  about legalisation in Germany, where sex has been marketed within a deal where you also get a beer and a hot dog, dehumanising the women involved. That this advertising will be seen with young children, that on family tours these children will see themselves reflected differently. I really hope that decriminalisation won’t mean the same thing happening. As someone who works with young people, I can’t see myself promoting sex work as a viable career choice to those that I work with, especially when wanting to encourage young women not to limit themselves or see themselves as objects. Women are already objects in advertising for tech job recruitment and more, so how, in an unequal society, with women making up a majority of sex workers, can we make progress so that fewer women are exploited for their bodies?

For me, sex work is like no other work, which is what makes it so difficult to get my head around. However, if this is to do my relationship with sex as an act that is uniquely intimate, then perhaps what is needed is better understanding, more voices from sex workers, about the work they do and how they negotiate it with other aspects of their lives. At FiL I heard statistics about the mental processes of sex work, the disassociation, that it takes 3-7 years for sex workers to see themselves as being exploited, that many will tell themselves they enjoy their job etc. It is also where I heard the term “prostituted women” and thought I understood the phrase, only then to read something that argued that by saying that of all sex workers, you take away their agency.

Part of what I’m uneasy about is the idea that if we decriminalise sex work, that we are accepting that we can’t do anything about its existence. FiL argued “we don’t want a reform, we want a revolution.” But when that revolution appears to be impossible, it seems to make sense to do whatever it takes to protect those most in danger of suffering at the hands of these four failed models. After all, Toni Mac states that “Prohibition barely makes a difference to the amount of people actually doing those things, but it makes a huge difference as to whether they’re safe when they do them.”

She goes on to say that “you can’t simply legislate a better world into existence.” You simply can’t disagree with this statement because so much of this is cultural, and changing attitudes is massively challenging. I can see everyday with my work with children how ingrained sexism and misogyny (as well as so much more) is on this young people. Again, Toni Mac makes a very powerful point about the question “Would you want your daughter doing it?” which has been my thoughts, not necessarily in terms of my daughter, who doesn’t yet exist, but more about the young women with whom I work. But Toni Mac turns it around and gets you to imagine that she’s already doing it, asking “How safe is she at work tonight? Why isn’t she safer?”

New Zealand is the only place that has decriminalisation in place, written in collaboration with sex workers, and I guess all we can do is see what happens and hope we finally have a solution. So far, things seem to be working well. I admit, I have been guilty of seeing sex workers as either victim or privileged, and this post itself definitely isn’t perfect. But I’m trying to understand, and where I can, to learn about sex work from all voices who have the experience to speak; I will listen and try to be a better ally.

“If you care about gender equality, or poverty or migration or public health, then sex workers’ rights matter to you.”