I use the term "sex work" because it acknowledges sex work as work.
I think when people hear that sex work respects the rights of sex workers to be protected by the same regulations that respect the labour rights and working conditions of other individuals, honours diversity, and does not contribute to stigma, they have a really visceral reaction.
A lot of people have a lot of preconceived notions about what a sex worker looks like. A lot of people think sex work is inherently bad, damaging for society, particularly for those directly involved, specifically women. They often see female (and today I am primarily talking about women sex workers) sex workers as victims, people who don’t know any better, who are unable to make choices for themselves, who are troubled or diseased, who want out but don’t know how to exit, who need their help, who are maybe even coerced into sex work against their will.
And you know, sometimes it is hard to blame them for thinking this.
Sex work is often conflated with trafficking in the mainstream media. Conflating the two has serious implications for the rights of women involved in sex work. However, in order to have productive conversations about sex work, we first need to understand the difference between sex work and sex trafficking. Loosely speaking, trafficking covers coercion, forced labour, and slavery. Sex work is the sale of sex, usually with consent/without coercion.
I am talking about all sex work. Not just street-based, which is often the second thing people think of when they think of sex work. Street-based sex work actually only accounts for about 20% of all sex work. I’m talking about all types of sex work including:
- indoor prostitution (escort services, brothel work, massage parlor work, bar or casino work, what some people call “survival based sex work”), phone sex operation, exotic dancing, lap dancing, webcam nude modeling, and adult film performing.
Besides confounding sex work and sex trafficking, there is much stigma and discrimination surrounding sex work/sex workers.
Everything from our legal system (the fact that there are so many criminal offences surrounding prostitution), to movies, to charities, to our health care, to our language around sex work, promotes negative and harmful stereotypes about sex workers. People often assume people who work in sex work could not possibly make informed decisions about their lives because they are seen as victims and in need of rescue.
This sentiment is clearly evident in the preamble for the new proposed prostitution law bill C-36, as it states that “prostitution is a form of sexual exploitation that disproportionately and negatively impacts on women and girls” (Department of Justice Canada, 2014). Sex work is continually presented as exploitative, rather than empowering.
Truthfully, the very thought of women even liking sex and actively seeking it out is hard for much of mainstream Canadian society to understand, let alone a women choosing to go into sex work because of the freedom, flexibility, assurance, livelihood, independence, and self esteem it may offer.
People’s reasons for getting involved in sex work vary greatly, just as their experiences working within it do. People’s circumstances are unique. The communities that people belong to, their identities (including race, gender identity, sexual orientation) and their social location are also going to inform these experiences, as well as what supports and resources they can access, and how they will be criminalized (Power, The Toolbox).
Some people identify as sex workers, some don’t. There is no sex worker prototype. A quote from Power’s (prostitutes of Ottawa/Gatineau work, educate, and resist) “the Toolbox” really illustrates this diversity:
“Our experiences in the sex industry vary greatly. For some of us, sex work is just a job. For others it may include violence, coercion, survival, getting by, empowerment, a source of pride, and everything in between” (p.4)
A lot of people outside of (and even inside) of sex work, get really hung-up on the debate of choice; do people choose to go into sex work, or are they forced to by extenuating circumstances?
In some instances, this is important to know because the services and resources sex workers need may be guided by their “choice” in getting into sex work. For example, the sexual health needs of a woman who works in an established brothel where she is able to use condoms with her clients (they are supplied/encouraged) and feels safe to negotiate their use, are going to look different than a woman’s who engages in quick, secluded outdoor condomless sex with someone because she needs money quickly to pay rent/buy food/get a hit.
However, in a lot of ways, the conversation around choice is less useful, because choice is always constrained by the social, economic and political context in which we live. My “choice” to get into social services was largely determined by factors such as my location, my identity, my economic status, my political views, my hippie parents, among many others. In some ways, I think it is more helpful to address sex work from a harm reduction lens and to frame the discussion as a human rights issue. I think
Joanne Csete and Meena Saraswathi Seshu (2004) sum up this argument quite nicely:
“There is no question that the motivations for sex work are complex and varied, and that some women enter prostitution because of poverty and because other livelihood alternatives are extremely limited. But to reduce prostitution to something involving no choice or agency on the part of the women practicing it is as demeaning and as much a human rights violation as the violence and stigma that sex workers regularly face”.
And I think that is why most of us got into this work. Because we believe that sex workers deserve the same basic rights to health as anyone else. Because we want to learn about barriers to health experienced by sex workers in our community. Because we understand the complexity of making healthy sexual “choices” on what Jessica Yee (2008) calls the backdrop of poverty, race, culture, and oppression. Because we believe that people are agents in their own lives and experts in their own experience and are best suited to dictate their own needs.