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Sunday Sex School: The history of “Sex Work”

July 12, 2015
The Posting Maven

Now that we understand some of the basics of sex work from the first post, let’s take a look at the history of the term “sex worker,” it’s place within feminism, and some information about the way human trafficking is used to obfuscate sex worker rights.


Where did “Sex Work” come from?

The terms “sex work” and “sex worker” are said to have originated in 1978 with feminist artist, author, activist, and filmmaker Carol Leigh (aka “Scarlot Harlot”) at a conference in San Francisco. (She is the founder and director of BAYSWAN, the Bay Area Sex Worker Advocacy Network, founder of the Trafficking Policy Research Institute, and a spokesperson for COYOTE. Unrepentant Whore is the title of her collected works, if you’re interested in reading more of her work in depth.) The following is an excerpt from an essay first published by Carol Leigh in 1997 in the anthology Whores and Other Feminists. In this selection, Carol Leigh recalls the conference at which she coined the term “sex work:”

I found the room for the conference workshop on prostitution. As I entered I saw a newsprint pad with the title of the workshop. It included the phrase “Sex Use Industry.” The words stuck out and embarrassed me. How could I sit amid other women as a political equal when I was being objectified like that, described only as something used, obscuring my role as an actor and agent in this transaction?

At the beginning of the workshop I suggested that the title of the workshop should be changed to the “Sex Work Industry,” because that described what women did. Generally, the men used the services, and the women provided them. As I recall, no one raised objections. I went on to explain how crucial it was to create a discourse about the sex trades that could be inclusive of women working in the trades. I explained that prostitutes are often unable to reveal themselves in feminist contexts because they feel judged by other feminists. The workshop participants were silent and curious. One woman, another writer and performer, came up to me after the workshop to tell me that she had been a prostitute as a teenager but was unable to discuss it for fear of being condemned.

This selection highlights the crucial nature of the term “sex work.” Until this point, sex work had essentially been dismissed across the white, straight, upper-middle class, ivory tower feminist community as “dangerous, degrading, and entirely undesirable.” There wasn’t much room for critical thinking about the nature of sex work and the ways in which sex workers should be included in the feminist movement.

Sex Work and Feminism

Sex work was a one of money polarizing topics debated in the Feminist Sex Wars that began in the late 1970s, peaked around 1985, and continue on in many ways still today. Essentially, the Sex Wars divided feminists into two basic camps: “anti-pornography” radical feminists and “pro-sex” or “sex-positive” feminists. “Anti-pornography” radical feminism held that power should be equal in all sexual interactions, and that many different types of sex were inherently patriarchal. Porn was touted as a main illustration of a harmful, inherently patriarchal sexual interaction between men and women. Conversely, sex-positive feminism holds, simply put, that “anti-pornography” feminism contributes to sexual repression. In the road to sexual freedom, we shouldn’t run from sexuality. Of course, the lines were not always that clear; still to explain the Sex Wars as easily as possible, those were the two basic camps that divided feminist scholars and activists.

Following the dogmatic logic of feminism in the late 1970s, sex workers “shouldn’t” have been included. According to this school of thought, women selling sex to men (although that’s certainly not the only configuration that exists) was a black-and-white, cut-and-dry illustration of traditional patriarchal power dynamics. This, according to these feminists, was inherently degrading. Early sex-positive feminists like Carol Leigh combated these ideas. Still, the “anti-trafficking” movements and organizations that came out of anti-porn/SWERF-y feminism have gained much traction in the last thirty years or so.

Sex Trafficking is a Red Herring

Anti-trafficking organizations essentially contend that all sex workers have been somehow forced or coerced into sex work. As one white, blonde, neatly coiffed anti-trafficking activist said to me when I contested her claim that all sex workers are victims, “Who in their right mind would choose this type of work?” As I alluded to last week, this sort of generalization is incredibly myopic, whorephobic, and harmful to sex workers.

Sex trafficking and voluntary sex work are not the same thing. Both legally and in the media, however, they are portrayed as though they are. Many anti-trafficking organizations go so far as to say that voluntary sex workers don’t even exist. This, of course, has more to do with personal morals and reservations than it does with the lived realities of sex workers. Although it’s not convenient for anti-trafficking organizations, voluntary sex workers absolutely do exist, and they’ve been organizing politically for themselves for a very long time. Putting sex work and sex trafficking into the same category ultimately helps no one.

Some sex worker rights activists have gone so far as to label anti-trafficking organizations as part of the “rescue industry,” which is, as one anonymous blogger wrote in 2013, “capitalist, statist, racist, misogynist, colonialist, and exploitative.” The rescue industry exploits tropes of women as hapless victims, as well as racist and/or transphobic stereotypes. It is definitively exploitative in a capitalist sense, too. The criminalization of sex work contributes to the problem it claims to solve, but there’s a lot of money to be made in “rescue” efforts.

Understanding the lived experience and struggles of sex workers also often involves recognizing the gray area between “trafficked” and “voluntary.” The economic, family, and personal situations of some sex workers may have pushed them into sex work, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve been trafficked.  No matter how long sex workers have been organizing, we still live in a profoundly whorephobic culture. As such, the voices of anti-trafficking and anti-sex work organizations drown out those of actual sex workers.

In a 2010 “national action plan,” an activist group called Demand Abolition wrote: “Framing the campaign’s key target as sexual slavery might garner more support and less resistance, while framing the Campaign as combating prostitution may be less likely to mobilize similar levels of support and to stimulate stronger opposition.” This clearly demonstrates that emphasizing sex trafficking is simply a tactic to garner support for the abolition of sex work. In a word, anti-trafficking groups are simply seeking the abolition of sex work. They’ve admitted it. If you look at the policies and their impacts, there’s no way around it.

Let’s take a moment to talk about inflated statistics. Many anti-trafficking/abolitionist organizations state that the average sex worker enters the industry at thirteen years of age. This is absolutely, unequivocally false and—actually—mathematically impossible. These organizations, too, often claim that there exist anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 trafficked children in the US. This number is, again, warped. It originated in a 2001 study that estimated that there were 100,000 to 300,000 “children, adolescents, and youth (up to 21) at risk of sexual exploitation.” In this study, the researchers actually said that trafficking was the least prevalent of all risk factors. Forms of “exploitation” defined by their parameters could include stripping, gay sex, or even simply viewing pornography. Needless to say, this is not merely a leap made by anti-trafficking organizations—it is a blatant lie. In fact,it has been estimated that the number of minors actually abducted was extremely small—in fact, as small as “a few hundred people.” Trafficking of domestic workers is a much bigger issue in the U.S. and around the world, but it’s not as morbidly intriguing to the general public as sex trafficking, so it doesn’t get talked about as much.

As I said before, the basic ideological split between sex-positive feminists and SWERFs remains intact still today. We have our very own abolitionists who hate The Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health — Donna Hughes, Melanie Shapiro, and Margaret Brooks from Citizens Against Trafficking are among them. Anti-trafficking organizations generally dislike the work that The CSPH and other such organizations do. I don’t say this to make you feel any type of way; by all means, you’re free to do your own research and believe what you want. Still, it’s important to highlight what exactly we’re talking about here.

Many people have moralistic attitudes about sex work. Here’s my stance: a person cannot be wholly “anti-sex work” without being, by definition, “anti-sex worker.” There are plenty of people who would fight me on that, but I’ve got to say: if you fight against sex work you end up fighting against human rights for sex workers. If you contribute to the work of so-called “anti-trafficking” organizations, you end up infringing on the human rights of sex workers.

In my view, and in the view of The CSPH, second-wave, SWERF-y perceptions of sex work are at best paternalistic and at worst outright violent. Sex work has always existed. It’s not going away. Sex workers have stated time and time again that they want to be respected as workers.

Next week, we’ll talk more about the specific demands sex workers have made over time, and how important it is to listen to their voices, concerns, and political demands.

5 Responses to “Sunday Sex School: The history of “Sex Work””

  1. […] and some information about the way human trafficking is used to obfuscate sex worker rights. Sunday Sex School: The history of “Sex Work” (The Center for Sexual Pleasure & […]

  2. […] and some information about the way human trafficking is used to obfuscate sex worker rights. Sunday Sex School: The history of “Sex Work” (The Center for Sexual Pleasure & […]

  3. […] and some information about the way human trafficking is used to obfuscate sex worker rights. Sunday Sex School: The history of “Sex Work” (The Center for Sexual Pleasure & […]

  4. […] and some information about the way human trafficking is used to obfuscate sex worker rights. Sunday Sex School: The history of “Sex Work” (The Center for Sexual Pleasure & […]

  5. […] 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! […]