When sex workers talk about their needs, safety usually tops the list. So why aren't we paying attention?
Alternet's Joanna Chiu reports on a UK study which found that 16.5% of undergrads would consider some form of sex work, and 11% would consider becoming an escort. Of course, considering something is different from doing it, and Chiu quotes one Canadian student who actually is an escort. He says, "The work is what you make it. I find it really rewarding to help clients explore their sexuality." He also tells Chiu that safety is his top priority, which is why he sees clients indoors even though Canada's laws make it risky: "Even though I'm worried about being arrested for technically running a brothel with the way the laws still are, in-calls are much safer because I have more control over my work environment."
It's a refrain you'll hear over and over again if you pay attention: in the US, the UK, and Canada (despite recent attempts at liberalization), current prostitution laws don't protect the safety of prostitutes — and in fact, they often do the opposite. And yet the safety of actual sex workers is often pushed to the margins of our discussion of sex work. Charlotte Shane illustrates this phenomenon in an essay for the Good Men Project, writing that, "I'm tired of seeing men and women buy into the lie that male sexuality is inherently violent and sadistic. My experience as sex worker has taught me the opposite." Shane shares "the biggest epiphany of my life: men had as much anxiety and shame around sex as women did," and explains,
The longer I've worked, the more it seems that the sex is often a front. It's an entry point that allows men to make their real request (for affection, understanding, and connection) while still satisfying stereotypical ideas of masculinity. What most men want is a great romance or, at the very least, a great friendship. They want to feel like they're falling in love. They want to feel loved in return.
Essentially, Shane's entire essay is a rebuttal to the idea that prostitution serves an evil side of male desire. It's a worthwhile response, and her experiences with clients are illuminating (though not, as she points out, universal). Still, it's a little unfortunate that such a response is necessary — why do we care so much what johns want, and so little about what sex workers need? Shane says "there is no other service arrangement in which clients are accused of hating those whom they hire," but there are also few other transactions where the supposed immorality of the buyer is used as an excuse for subjecting the seller to potential bodily harm (the drug trade is, arguably, another example). And if what we're most concerned about is the tendency of johns to abuse prostitutes, why aren't we discussing how to keep prostitutes safe from abuse?
For some, the argument is that prostitution is always exploitative, that there's actually no way to make it safe. But Shane and other sex workers are speaking up to say otherwise. We can ignore them, or pretend that we understand their working conditions better than they do — and sadly, many people from all parts of the political spectrum do just this. Or we can actually pay attention to what they have to say. What we learn may not be as reassuring as Shane's experience — as she points out, other sex workers do experience coercion, abuse, and trafficking. But if what we really care about is how supposedly bad sex work is for women, we need to be talking about what circumstances make it bad and how we can end those. And we need to be open to the idea that what many sex workers want is not salvation, but a safe way to continue doing their jobs.
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