Sunday Sex School is back! This month, Sex Work is front and center. What is it? Who does it? Why is sex work so stigmatized? Keep a look out every Sunday in July for a new installment in this series!
Sex work is an expansive label that takes many forms. Whether it’s prostitution, stripping, webcam modeling, fetish escorting, performing in porn, or sugaring, sex work of all kinds can be found all over the world, transcending boundaries of socioeconomic class, race, ethnicity, and gender. Still, however widespread it may be, essentially all forms of sex work are stigmatized in some form or another the world over. The reasons for and ramifications of that stigmatization are myriad and complex.
What is Sex Work?
Before we go any further, though, let’s breakdown some of different types of sex work:
The transaction of physical sex acts for payment. Those who work in prostitution usually work in brothels, off the street, via internet boards, through an agency, or some combination of those methods.
Performing sex acts on camera, whether the final results are photos or films. Porn is a massive and hugely diverse industry. Those who solely produce pornography, while still involved in the sex industry, are not themselves sex workers; it’s just not the same type of work, and it’s not stigmatized the same way.
Live streaming between two or more parties. Webcam modeling/performance has more or less replaced phone sex hotlines of the past. Essentially, clients can pay for private webcam chat sessions with models/performers who will then do what the client asks for. This can involve everything from propping feet up on a pillow to walking around a room in lingerie to a close-up shot of masturbating with a sex toy.
Dancing, usually on stage, and getting completely, partially, or mostly naked. Stripping does not usually involve direct sexual contact with clients, although it often involves lap dances. In most cases, no touching is permitted during these dances. Some clubs allow private dances, which may “unofficially” involve some type of direct sexual contact between the performer and their client. Most clubs, however, do not officially permit this.
Sex workers who focus on a specific fetish or kink, usually within the realm of BDSM. Fetish escorts usually work through agencies, and they may or may not actually have genital contact with their clients but instead may simply perform scenes with them.
Companionship with one person over an extended period of time. In sugaring arrangements, the person seeking companionship (aka a “sugar daddy” or “sugar mama”) provides monetary support and/or fancy, valuable gifts to the person providing companionship (aka a “sugar baby.”) Sugaring relationships usually have a sexual component.
Why use “sex work”?
Now, a person may be curious about the term “sex work” in and of itself. While some individuals’ stances vary, sex worker rights organizations have made it clear that the terms “sex work” and “sex worker” are preferred when referring to the sex industry and those who operate within it. Sometimes, a sex worker might refer to themselves differently, or may ask people to refer to them using different terminology. Until you’re told otherwise, it’s generally best to stick with “sex work” or “sex worker.” This is because the term “sex worker” positions sex work specifically and inextricably as work as opposed to some sort of ominous “other.” And, by extension, sex workers are then workers who should be afforded the same rights all other workers should be.
Sex work — especially prostitution — is illegal in most parts of the world. Since it’s illegal, business practices are almost always swept under the rug, and clients are almost never held accountable for any wrongdoing they might commit against a sex worker. This lack of regulation makes sex workers particularly vulnerable to violence at the hands of clients, and to exploitation by employers. On top of that, sex workers often have multiple marginalized identities. Sex workers are many times LGBTQ or otherwise queer, people of color, or struggling with mental health concerns and/or addiction. Many times, sex workers live or have lived in poverty, or are struggling to avoid homelessness.
The general public becomes very concerned with why people become sex workers, often at the expense of listening to their actual lived experiences. The reasons, though, vary infinitely; as is the case with essentially anything, every individual’s story is different. The chain of events that may have led a person to sex work could be long and complex, riddled with turbulence, anxiety, trauma, and doubt. Conversely, the story may be very short and abrupt–“I needed money. Sex work was an fast, accessible way to make money, so I chose to do it.” Sex workers’ relationships to their jobs may feel simple to them, or they may be fraught with complexity and challenges.
Sex Work, Feminism, and Labor Rights
Some individuals and organizations feel that sex work is necessarily exploitative — that there is something inherently “different” about sex work since it involves the commodification and objectification of sex and bodies. For a long time, there has frequently been a sense of morality attached to sex work. Anti-trafficking organizations, for example, feel as though no person in their right mind would “choose” sex work; they view sex work as inherently degrading, and that it should be made illegal.
Some allegedly feminist schools of thought declare themselves sex worker exclusionary as well. Those with this mindset are known as sex worker exclusionary radical feminists (SWERFs, for short). They have a similar mindset to anti-trafficking organizations who claim that they have women’s best interests at heart while they are in fact inflicting harm on sex workers with police raids and abolitionist laws. I will expound upon these damages with more depth next week.
Needless to say these views are, in many ways, myopic. Just as a person might not necessarily be thrilled to work in retail, a person might not necessarily enjoy sex work. Some sex workers absolutely enjoy the work they do, but sex workers often engage in sex work out of financial need. In essence, such sex workers are not necessarily choosing sex work from an array of potential options, but rather engaging in it because they have to in order to, say, avoid homelessness or to support young children. (This is known as survival sex work.)
Certainly, sex work and all the diversity it encapsulates is a specific kind of work that not everyone is cut out for. However, the same could be said about any other job; I’m definitely not cut out to be a professional fisherman, and I doubt a professional fisherman would be cut out to do my job. Our cultural ideology often dictates that all sex workers are, by definition, “selling their bodies.”
Under capitalism, all of us sell our labor — if you work, you are selling certain services and skill sets. Situating sex work as patently different from all other service jobs is more the result of societal/cultural ideology than it is the actual nature of the work. This means that there is nothing about sex work that is explicitly different from other types of work; the attitude has more to do with moral judgement and ideology than it does with the actual nature of the work.
That, then, leads us to the term “whorephobia.” In essence, whorephobia — a term coined by sex worker activists — is the fear or hatred of sex workers. Certainly, whorephobia can include explicitly hateful and/or violent attitudes toward sex workers, but does not necessarily only always imply explicit hatred or violence, however. Just as insidiously but more discreetly, it can also include viewing sex workers as hapless victims who cannot make decisions for themselves.
Next week, we will delve a bit deeper into history and explain how this mentality came to be, and how it currently manifests itself in public policy and the world around us. Stay tuned!