Isn’t “Sex Work” work?

Prostitution is as old as time – but still, today, it carries a stigma.

Perhaps if we stopped being so narrow, judgemental and moralising in our understanding of prostitution,  if we dragged prostitution out of the shadows and started thinking about it as work, as the simple, free market exchange of payment for services… then perhaps the stigma would fade. 

“The practice of using human bodies as a marketplace has been normalised under the neoliberal economic system.” 1The Guardian, J.Bindel (30.04.2018) Prostitution is not a job. The inside of a woman’s body is not a workplace

Julie Bindel, radical feminist

This school of thought reframes prostitution as ‘sex work’ 2A.Mathieson, E.Branam, A. Noble (2016) Prostitution Policy: Legalization, Decriminalization and the Nordic Model Seattle Journal for Social Justice: Vol. 14 : Iss. 2 , Article 10. and sees legitimising and professionalising it as important means of reducing prejudice towards those in the sex trade, as well as protecting their rights and improving their access to health, safety and social services. 3Although it should be noted that these represent both ‘managers’ i.e. brothel-owners and pimps, and workers in a clear conflict of interest.

This agenda has been pushed in recent decades by the ‘sex workers rights activists’ behind all serious legislative efforts to legalise / decriminalise prostitution. The term ‘sex work’, popularised in the late 1980s, is now used by the majority of police officers, media outlets and human rights organisations”, often in an effort for them to show respect and avoid causing offence or eroding workers’ rights’ as writer and activist Julie Bindel observes. 4The Pimping of Prostitution, Bindel, Palgrave Macmillan; 1st ed. 2017 edition p.66

Respect for the individual spills over into respect for the sex trade. And why not? After all, isn’t ‘sex work’ work? Why shouldn’t women offer their services as part of free market capitalism? Where’s the harm, and why should we interfere?

“Sex work” is not like any other kind of work

Over the past couple of centuries, Western countries have evolved strict laws and standards that regulate all forms of professional labour to ensure the physical health, safety and wellbeing of workers and to protect them from harm. Over the past decade, particular attention has been given to the serious harms  caused by sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace. In the post #MeToo world, we are scandalised by men like Harvey Weinstein who abuse their money and power for the purposes of sexual coercion and abuse. 

However, when it comes to the sex trade, there’s a blatant double standard. As researcher and clinical psychologist Dr.Melissa Farley points out: “sexual harassment is what prostitution is”. 5M. Farley (2018) #MeToo Must Include Prostitution Dignity: A Journal on Sexual Exploitation and Violence: Vol. 3: Iss. 1, Article 9. DOI: 10.23860/dignity.2018.03.01.09 Presumably, we allow ourselves to entertain this cognitive dissonance because we believe that somehow, what ‘ordinary’ women experience as harmful (i.e. committing sexual acts with complete strangers), other kinds of women can somehow enjoy – or at least put up with for cash. By endorsing the sex trade, we are accepting (or even defending) a women’s ‘right’ to be raped, so long as she’s paid. 6Il Manifesto, M.Mianiti (11.10.2017) Prostitution is paid rape, and men know it

By the sex trade’s own logic, since ‘consent’ is contingent on financial compensation, rape is merely theft. 7J. Bindel (30.04.2018) Prostitution is not a job. The inside of a woman’s body is not a workplace The risks and harms that the vast majority of Western workers are protected from by strict occupational laws comprise the core duties and conditions of ‘employment’ for those in prostitution; their basic human rights to freedom from violence and coercion are effectively superseded by the sex buyer’s right to sexually abuse them. 

Treating prostitution ‘like any other occupation’ masks its inherent abuses. As author Kat Banyard explains: “The sex work frame demands that people think and speak about the practice of men paying women to have sex with them as if it were a mundane consumer transaction. It demands a denial of the misogyny, objectification and sexual violence of its core, and functions as a kind of linguistic crowd control.” 8K.Banyard (2016) Pimp State: Sex, Money and the Future of Equality, Faber & Faber

“The narcissistic delusion that sexual harassment and prostitution are her “free choice,” or that “it was consensual” is the ideology that keeps prostitution – and the subordination and silencing of women – running smoothly.” 9M.Farley (2018) #MeToo Must Include Prostitution Dignity: A Journal on Sexual Exploitation and Violence: Vol. 3: Iss. 1, Article 9. DOI: 10.23860/dignity.2018.03.01.09

Dr. Melissa Farley, researcher and clinical psychologist 

Working in the Sex Trade is Dangerous

A 2016 paper by Ane Mathieson expresses: “Women in prostitution, unlike labourers, face the perpetual risk of violence at the hands of both their employers and their ‘clients.’ This risk is not incidental, but arises from the literal commodification, not of a woman’s labour, but of her body and self.” 10A.Mathieson, E.Branam, Easton; A.Noble (2016) Prostitution Policy: Legalization, Decriminalization and the Nordic Model Seattle Journal for Social Justice: Vol. 14 : Iss. 2 , Article 10.

“The violence in prostitution is complex. It’s not just being hit, kicked and raped… It is psychological and verbal… physical… sexual… material… financial.”Tanja Rahm, prostitution survivor  14P.80, T.Rahm, Internalising the Violence pp.79-90, Norma and Tankard Reist 2013

Working in the sex trade is harmful to mental health and well-being 

“It sucks you dry; you become this empty shell. They’re not really looking at you. You’re not you. You’re not even there.” 19Farley (2003)

Anon, woman in the sex trade

The fact that prostitution is harmful is not contested. Even those who defend ‘sex work’ resort to arguments around ‘harm reduction’, aiming to keep those in the sex trade as safe and healthy as possible.  However, the risks are not only staggeringly high, they’re also inherent. What’s more, Nordic Model campaigner Anna Fisher points out that “street prostitution activity never happens entirely in the visible, well lit public domain. The sexual nature of prostitution makes spending at least some time in dark, hidden corners inevitable.”  20Nordic Model Now, L.Fein (22.12.2019) Has the Nordic Model worked? What does the research say?Talk of safety is empty rhetoric where there’s no realistic hope of implementing robust occupational health and safety standards. 

“Talks about trying to reduce the levels of violence in prostitution is pointless and inane. If physical violence was never encoutered in prostitution, if nobody had ever raised a hand against a woman in the history of prostitution, violence would still be inescapable for prostituted women, because prostitution is violence against women.”

Rachel Moran, sex trade survivor

In countries where the sex trade is legal and regulated, the rates of death, violence and trafficking for women are high. 21S-Y. Cho, Seo-Young and A.Dreher and E.Neumayer (2013) Does legalized prostitution increase human trafficking? World development, 41 . pp. 67-82. ISSN 0305-750X DOI: 10.1016/j.worlddev.2012.05.023 For example, in Germany, where the sex trade has been legal since 2002, there have been 91 murders and 48 attempted murders of women by pimps and punters.22 The Sex Industry Kills In the legal sex trade of the Netherlands, 60% of prostituted women suffered physical assaults; 70% experienced verbal threats of physical assault; 40% experienced sexual violence; and 40% had been forced into prostitution and / or sexual abuse by acquaintances.  23Vanwesenbeeck, Ine (1994), Prostitutes’ Well-Being and Risk, Amsterdam: VU University Press. 

Who then would choose to work in the sex trade? Unsurprisingly, it’s mostly women who have some kind of vulnerability and limited life options. As sex trade survivor Rachel Moran explains in her memoir, Paid For, “Those who have had a very high level of education and have excellent job prospects are unlikely to be found in prostitution in the first place, at any of its levels; these women are so rare in prostitution that I have only ever read of them in the media and entertainment depictions of prostitution…”  24R. Moran, Paid For (01.12.2015) W. W. Norton & Company (1 Dec. 2015) p.134

  • Women in the sex trade are often victims of previous abuse – whether physical, sexual or emotional. 25Silbert and Pines (1982a) Child Abuse as an Antecedent to Prostitution in Child Abuse & Neglect 5(4):407-411 Childhood abuse is an extremely common precursor to prostitution. 26 K. Tyler, A. Kimberly, D. Hoyt & L.Whitbeck (2000), The Effects of Early Sexual Abuse on Later Sexual Victimization among Female Homeless and Runaway Adolescents Journal of Interpersonal Violence Vol 15, Issue 3, 2000
  • The average age of entry into the sex trade is young: globally, women are often “well below the age of consent” and, in Britain, around 50% are younger than 18.  27Cf, Annex 3, P.97, Home Office 2004. L. Cusick., H. Kinnell., B. Brooks-Gordon. And R Campbell,. (2009) Wild guesses and conflated meanings? Estimating the size of the sex worker population in Britain. Critical Social Policy. 29: 703.
  • Poverty, homelessness and drug addiction are significant factors in prompting engagement in prostitution and two of the main barriers to stabilizing the lives of prostituted women.  28Home Office (2004) A review of the literature on sex workers and social exclusion

What about stigma?

There are those who argue that it is the stigma attached to sex work that does the harm. However, as journalist Lucy Mangan observed after watching the 2020 Louis Theroux documentary Selling Sex, harm to those in the sex trade “is done much earlier and causes the kind of emotional cautery required to undertake the harmful ‘work’ of being prostituted.”  29The Guardian, L.Mangan (12.01.2020) Louis Theroux: Selling Sex review – employment, empowerment or exploitation?

Accepting prostitution as ‘work’ will do nothing to remove the stigma that attaches to a person who is used as a commodity for the sexual relief and gratification of strangers. It’s telling that, even where prostitution is legalised, studies have found that many women in the sex trade still feel a profound sense of shame and mostly prefer not to register for tax or officially disclose their identity to the authorities.  30The Guardian, L.Mangan (12.01.2020) Louis Theroux: Selling Sex review – employment, empowerment or exploitation?

“And they call this ‘sex work’? Attempts have been made, overwhelmingly now by the pro-prostitution lobbyists, to make this a term of dignity for the prostituted. However, whose dignity does it really serve? We are prostituted. The word is ugly and visceral. Put simply, it is truthful. This is why the pimps and johns don’t want us to use it, and why the general public may not want to hear it. We do not owe dignity to the pimps and johns.”  31S.Watson, Incest Was the Boot Camp for My Prostitution in Norma and Tankard Reist (eds) 2013 Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade, Spinifex Press Pty Ltd, North Melbourne

Simone Watson, sex trade survivor

We cannot condemn sexual exploitation, sex trafficking, sexual abuse and sex inequality whilst tolerating prostitution.

“I cringe when I hear the words ‘sex work.’ Selling my body wasn’t a livelihood. There was no resemblance to ordinary employment in the ritual degradation of strangers using my body to satiate their urges. I was doubly exploited – by those who pimped me and those who bought me.”  32New York Times, R. Moran (28.08. 2015) Opinion | Buying Sex Should Not Be Legal

Rachel Moran, sex trade survivor