Content warning: this article discusses sex work, including sex work for survival, and sex work by those under the age of 18, and sexual assault — including childhood sexual assault.
I want to start by briefly talking about the terminology I’ll be using in this piece, and what these words mean to sex workers and harm reduction activists.
Sex work includes all levels of (consensual) sex work, such as workers in porn, escorting, sugar babies, professional BDSM, strippers, adult massage, phone sex operators, etc. This includes workers who are doing it because they love their job, as well as those who choose to do it as it’s their best option for survival.
Human trafficking is not considered to be sex work. Human trafficking is slavery plus movement, and is present globally — even here in Canada. It is not necessarily sexual by nature. Forced labour is much more predominant in other parts of the labour force, such as farming, mining, factory work, and domestic service. I will not be discussing human trafficking at length, nor will I be discussing in detail sexual exploitation by individuals.
The Swedish Model of sex work laws, also known as the “Nordic Model”, is often touted as being the most feminist model as it decriminalizes sex workers, but criminalizes their clients. This means it’s legal to sell sex, but illegal to buy it. This not only hurts sex worker’s income, but it puts them at additional risk by removing from the pool of clients law-abiding people, leaving only those who will risk jail.
Sex work in Canada is in a legally grey area that is similar to the Swedish Model, where selling sex is legal, but buying sex is criminalized, along with not allowing sex workers to advertise, which hinders a sex worker’s ability to ‘screen’ their clients and look to their safety.
Decriminalization is favoured by sex workers and harm reduction activists. The difference between decriminalization and legalization is that decriminalization allows for all activities surrounding sex work to be handled without any regulations or laws about where they can operate or how. Legalization, as seen in Nevada, USA, increases the amount of regulations and ‘hoops’ that a sex worker has to jump through to be able to operate. This includes registering with the government, which opens sex workers up to the potential of being outed to friends, families, future employers, landlords, banks, etc.
The myth of choice
Feminists against sex workers or sex work often talk about things in the theoretical. They believe that sex work is both a symptom and cause of female inequality. Some feel that by increasing stigma against clients, and danger of sex work, they can force sex workers out of the industry and into what they consider to be better choices.
This doesn’t take into account the fact that sex work can be the better—or only—choice for some people, or a stepping stone towards financial independence and equality. In fact, sex work is one of the few jobs in which women can make more than men, and at a young age. This is, of course, a side effect of a patriarchal capitalist society, but knowing that doesn’t change the reality.
I want you to consider, for a moment, that you can’t work a traditional job. Maybe it’s because you’re disabled, maybe it’s because you have a mental illness that prevents you from working stable hours, or maybe you have a drug addiction. Maybe you’re being discriminated against in the hiring process because you’re a person of colour, or you’re LGBT, or maybe you never completed high school. Maybe you have children and you need a flexible schedule.
Now imagine you found a job that paid well, and you could do it when you needed the money, but the downside was that you would be cut out of society, had to keep your job a secret from friends and family, and feminists—the people who fight for choice—think that you made the wrong choice and should be shamed for that. You might face threats or potential assault, and you don’t know if you can trust the police, or if the police will arrest you for loitering, for drug possession, for public indecency, or for holding too many condoms.
Sex workers choose their job for a wide variety of reasons, but the one that links them all is that they feel that this is the best choice for them, economically, at that period in time. This is true whether a sex worker is doing it 100 percent by choice, because of economic or time based pressure (sex work by necessity), or because they need to survive (survival sex work, which often includes trading sexual acts for a place to stay, a meal, etc.).
Without addressing these economic pressures and providing women more options, we further harm at-risk women and ignore the voices of the people we claim to want to protect.
Classism, stigma, and sex work
Sex work is, down to its very core, a class issue. We can’t talk about sex work without considering it within the framework of a capitalist society, and the fact that every single one of us not born into wealth needs some way of earning money in order to live, or we otherwise must rely on friends, family or the government to help us get by.
Whether you love your job or you hate it, you work at it, in part, because of a need to pay for shelter, food and comfort. Most of our lives and careers would be very different if we didn’t have to work for money.
There’s also a lot of pressure to work in a ‘traditional’ job. Much of society considers the 9-5 job to be the pinnacle of success, of what we’re all to strive for. People who don’t work 9-5 jobs are constantly devalued and stigmatized, even without being sex workers. However, most other non 9-5 jobs still require a person to have a set and unmovable schedule, and even those who work non-traditional jobs are still required to work their schedule no matter what, or face consequences.
Think about fast food or retail, for instance. You get your shift schedule, and calling in sick means a loss of income or, if it’s habitual, potential job loss.
Many types of sex work allow people total and complete flexibility of hours that few other jobs can possibly provide. The higher potential hourly income allows people to make money quickly, which allows flexibility for people with children, or those who have to work around mental or physical illness and disability.
Pretend for a moment that you have a poor immune system, and you wake up, every day, feeling exhausted and drained. You can’t move, you can barely make it to the bathroom without aid, but you might have a couple good days a month when you have energy and drive. You don’t know when those days will come. You need a job because disability payments barely cover your rent—let alone living expenses—but most days you’ll be unable to work.
Sex work would allow you to still earn money, maintain autonomy and have some reprieve from total disability.
A ‘traditional’ 9-5 job, or even a non 9-5 job, would require you to call in, or force yourself in when you’re ill, expending energy on days you don’t have any to spare, causing unnecessary pain and trauma.
Sex work, in this case, is a choice, but it’s a choice guided by economic pressures, disability, and maybe even the social pressure to be a productive member of society. Sex work might become a long term choice because being hired in a ‘traditional’ job becomes harder as you have to explain a gap on your resume without outing yourself as a former sex worker.
There’s also an assumption that those who have been sexually abused might be over-represented in sex work. However, since child sexual abuse can often lead to PTSD, and mental illness can lead people into needing flexibility, sex work might then just be pursued as employment not because of a “fucked up sexuality,” but a need for a job that can operate on their terms.
We can’t police how other people respond to their trauma, or take away the choices they have available to them, without building a better framework for society. To protect people who are at risk, we must offer more options, not less.
Some sex workers have found sexual power through sex work, and reclaimed their sexuality as a sex worker recovering from sexual abuse (see Bat Rose’s story), and we shouldn’t be invalidating that.
Unlike workers in other retail jobs with a set schedule and a boss, where customers can get away with treating workers terribly, sex workers have more control over the person they serve, and on what terms. As is the case in all jobs, the most vulnerable and desperate face a higher potential for abuse from clients, but this is something that transcends career and is more a symptom of poverty rather than job.
I know several individuals who were working in a fast food job who desperately needed money for childcare, and they put their health and safety last as they tried to work sixty hour weeks, despite illegally not being paid overtime. They didn’t fight back for fear that they’ll lose the hours they desperately need.
These people were more likely to take on physical, emotional and financial abuse in order to keep their job, as opposed to someone who had other financial supports because they lived with their parents or spouse.
While the fast food employees were making the choice to remain in an abusive job situation, they were doing so out of fear that the only other option (joblessness, homelessness, losing their child, etc.) would be worse than simply putting up with the abuse at work.
Stephin, a sex worker who has shared their story of being raped and degraded by a client who wanted to make another appointment, highlighted this point in their account published in the Mine to Define zine:
[H]ad I been in a more [financially] desperate situation I probably would have seen the abusive guy again. I know this is the moment when all the [sex work] abolitionists go ah-ha! I knew it! But that statement doesn’t mean that sex work is inherently evil — it means capitalism is. The thing which creates the inequalities causing those situations. For everyone, sex worker or not, the lower down on the economic/migration status food chain you are, the fewer options you have when in situations of extreme difficulty. Just because in a desperate moment a person may return to an abusive client because it is a better choice for them than being rendered destitute/homeless/deported doesn’t mean that the choice to be a sex worker should be taken away from them.
Stigma correlates with the presumptive risk and acceptability of the type of sex work. Street-based sex workers are the most vulnerable group, and the ones most likely to experience stigma and violence at the hands of their clients, their community, and police.
Meanwhile, sugar babies who service rich clients are seen as a more acceptable form of sex worker, and the assumptions made about the type of people who rely on sugar babies — and what a sugar baby looks and acts like — will be very different than the assumptions of what type of person relies on — or is — a street-based sex worker.
This is a class based assumption which relies mostly on stereotypes and media presentations. I’m sure more people would rather dream of being Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, where a rich man buys her everything she wants and proposes at the end, versus being Alabama Whitman in True Romance who has a violent pimp that her new-husband kills.
This also guides our sympathies for people who are being trafficked, and our assumptions of what trafficking and exploitation look like. We assume that exploitation comes from an individual — a partner, a pimp, a family member — when it’s more likely that the exploitation comes in far more mundane methods such as increasing inflation, lack of access to jobs or housing, unplanned pregnancies, etc.
This transcends age as well. The story of the exploited youth by a pimp is the one most commonly associated with those involved in street level sex work, but this ignores the multitudes of reasons why children are involved in sex work. Joannah Westmacott, who works with a homeless youth service program in New York City, laments that we ignore many of the real issues in favour of retelling the one story over and over.
“The story that is most sympathetic to wealthy white people in the suburbs is the story of a straight white middle class girl taken from a suburb or wealthy middle school,” she recently told Deseret News. “But that leads to laws and solutions that do nothing for a person running away from an abusive group home, or LGBTQ youth with nowhere to stay.”
It feels easier to fix a problem if there’s a pimp, or someone exploiting and forcing a youth into sex work. However, it’s more likely that a child will be forced to choose sex work because of a desperate need for survival. Childhood poverty, abuse, neglect, and homelessness is a much harder problem to solve, but it’s vital to talk about when discussing why someone is involved in sex work.
Alexandra Lutnick, author of Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: Beyond Victims and Villains and a researcher at RTI in San Francisco, told Deseret News for that same article that she found only about 10 percent of cases to be forced, and that the myth that pimps or others force young people into sex work has created a narrative that presents “no accountability for systemic and structural factors.”
We need to protect those who are involved in [sex work] at any level, we need to ensure that people who prey on sex workers are criminally prosecuted, and we need to listen to sex workers’ voices to keep them safe.
These assumptions of exploitation, risk and benefits also frame the conversations about sex work for survival vs. sex work by choice. Most people don’t choose their work 100 percent by choice, and most people work because of a mix of need for survival and because they enjoy their job, some days more than others — or simply because it’s the best option available to them at the time.
Sex workers often feel like they can’t speak plainly about the positives and negatives of their job without giving anti-sex-work advocates and politicians ammunition to use against them. This further stigmatizes sex workers who feel like they can’t complain about a bad day, a bad client, or a bad experience—something everyone in every job does—without their friends, family, or government using it as an excuse to be “Captain Save-A-Ho” (someone whose mission in life is to save a person from sex work without taking into consideration the sex worker’s desires).
At the same time, sex workers who speak positively about their experiences on the job are written off as being foolish or naive, or otherwise ignored and looked down upon. I’ve seen many people say that sex workers who love their jobs are just being stupid, and that they’ll change their mind in the future.
In fact, even well meaning people can further increase the risk of sex workers. Sex workers value their privacy and safety above most anything, and many strategies that outsiders think will help them don’t take their needs for financial security, privacy and safety into consideration. That’s why organizations like SHOP (Safe Harbour Outreach Project) are so important, especially with the Living in Community initiative they’re bringing to St. John’s.
In the end, there are many jobs that are dangerous, including Newfoundland’s former bread and butter; mining and fishing are two of the most dangerous jobs in the world. There are many jobs that are susceptible to human trafficking — farming and manual labour being the highest. There are many jobs with risk, some that come with the risk of death in the case of the military or fishing.
When someone doesn’t protest those jobs, or shame the worker for doing their job or choosing a dangerous career, then we have to ask ourselves why. Why is it acceptable for someone to take on the risk of dying in a fluorspar mine, but not to sell their companionship? Why is it we call on companies to be more responsible, to make the work safer for the employees, rather than calling for the abolition of the work?
Because we, as a society, recognize that to operate under capitalism, we need a job. We want to protect our industries, while at the same time making it safer for them to operate.
We need to do the same for sex work. We need to protect those who are involved in it at any level, we need to ensure that people who prey on sex workers are criminally prosecuted, and we need to listen to sex workers’ voices to keep them safe. Sex workers are one of the best lines of defense that we could possibly have against sexual slavery, and they have the capacity to get dangerous people off the street, as long as they have a good relationship with the local police and are respected and trusted in our judicial system. They are in the know about everything going on in the area — clients and workers talk — and they can notice ‘slow periods’ if there is a trafficking ring nearby. They have a financial interest in getting these people off the streets, if nothing else.
As it is now, there are scandals all over the world about sex workers being exploited by police, arrested for having too many condoms, run out of safe places, and some are even having sex with undercover police officers believing them to be clients before being arrested by them. Fear of the police is very real, and is seen as a way of staying safe for some sex workers.
We need the laws to change—and to be enforced, in the case of assault and exploitation—and for police forces all over the world to start supporting sex workers. And we need to hold politicians and peacekeepers accountable to bring about a safer world for those who choose to be sex workers, and those who are forced into slavery.
Equality demands decriminalization
The Nordic model doesn’t protect sex workers. Under the Nordic model, women are losing their children, being told they’re in denial about how damaging sex work is to themselves and their family, and losing their lives because sex workers are judged to be irresponsible and stupid by the police. Capitalism is used as a tool to outright punish sex workers. Their landlords are forced to evict them because they might otherwise be criminally prosecuted for living off the avails of prostitution. Sex workers might be denied bank accounts or loans because of their job. Even partners of sex workers are at risk of being arrested as a pimp in Sweden if the sex worker contributes towards rent or bills.
This puts sex workers at severe risk of physical, emotional and financial abuse and blackmail.
The Nordic system treats women as victims who are in denial and need help, and those who continue to choose sex work as if they’re not smart enough to know what’s best for them.
Feminist analysis of the Nordic model often doesn’t take into account the very real financial need that people have. Independent (UK) journalist Joan Smith went on a ride-along with police near Stockholm to see Sweden’s sex worker laws in action. Pulled up at a car park where sex workers work, Smith said she saw a “textbook example of the way Sweden’s law banning the purchase of sex works in practice.
“The driver of the car, who’s brought a prostituted woman to the island to have sex, is arrested on the spot. He’s given a choice: admit the offense and pay a fine, based on income, or go to court and risk publicity. The woman, who hasn’t broken any law, is offered help from social services if she wants to leave prostitution. Otherwise, she’s allowed to go.”
This best-case-scenario quote, of course, ignores the fact that the woman has invested a lot of time, energy and money into finding and securing this client, only to lose out on her income and be told that she should be grateful for that fact. She now has to either work longer and risk the same thing happening again, or be unable to pay her rent, bills or groceries.
While we theorize about how much of a choice sex work truly is, sex workers are dying, being criminalized, stigmatized, and cut off from their friends, family, and communities.
As well, in practice the Nordic model deters good and safe clients from breaking the law, leaving potentially violent and volatile clients who are less concerned with committing a crime. This puts sex-workers at a two-fold risk of not being able to survive, or having to take on riskier and riskier clients in order to do so.
What sex workers want, and need, is total decriminalization of their work and of their clients. They need to be able to have stable housing and security. That means no more laws about living off the avails of prostitution. Sex workers may need the services of a driver, of a security guard, or of a brothel in order to be safe.
We already have laws in regards to human trafficking and assault, and to have sex worker specific laws increases stigma and institutionalized discrimination. This is especially true with our low conviction rate for sexual offenders, including those charged with human trafficking.
Clients internalize society’s treatment of sex workers. That’s reflected in how they treat them. By treating sex workers better as a society, and regarding them with respect, dignity and agency, their clients will make their work safer and more enjoyable. If we act like sex workers are all dirty, or bad, then clients will treat sex workers as if they’re dirty and bad.
This means we need to stand up against dehumanizing language in regards to sex work. It means we have to stand up for sex workers who don’t wish to out themselves. It means we must take action, and ensure that feminism is a safe place for sex workers, a place that respects their lived experiences.
Call out friends when they’re being shitty. Call out our politicians and police when they’re talking over sex workers’ experiences and desires. Believe sex workers when they say they’ve never been raped or assaulted, and believe sex workers when they say that they love their job, even if they were assaulted or raped while working!
In the end, our politics and public policies can’t be developed to work in a perfect world. In a perfect world—or merely a different one—where no one had to work a job they loathed just because they needed a job, we could have a much different discussion. But while we theorize about how much of a choice sex work truly is, sex workers are dying, being criminalized, stigmatized, and cut off from their friends, family, and communities.
Our politics must always be trying to make things better for the people who exist now, while we all work for a better and fairer world in the future.
(This article was adapted from a presentation delivered on Aug. 27 as part of the FemFest NL conference and festival. The event was titled “Sex Work and Feminism: tumultuous bedfellows” and was hosted by the Safe Harbour Outreach Project.)
Michelle Keep is an eternal optimist, believes humanity deserves better, and hopes to have a small hand in helping improve the lives of the working poor and marginalized people. A Jill-of-all-trades, she’s written well over 2 million fictional words, runs a small publishing empire with her husband, and takes beautiful photos in her spare time.
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