Demonizing Sex Work Harms Sex Workers

Illustration for article titled Demonizing Sex Work Harms Sex Workers

Although the term "sex work" very obviously includes the idea that it's labor, we tend not to see it as such: the way in which the media conceptualizes the sex industry is plagued by stigmas and toxic misunderstandings, one of which is that doing sex work is fundamentally and necessarily different from any other job.

Thus argues Melissa Gira Grant at The Nation — as she points out, the way we tend to perceive and discuss sex work is both restrictive and reductive. In the first place, lumping together everything that falls under the general umbrella of "the sex industry" — escorting, street hustling, all types of porn, stripping, performing over webcam, domination, trading sex for goods and services, etc. — into one nebulous category is deeply inadequate. "To collapse all commercial sex that way often risks conjuring something so flat and shallow that it would only reinforce the insistence that all sex for sale results from the same phenomenon — violence, deviance or desperation," she writes.

Sex work, Grant argues, should be seen as a form of service work. Certain activists who cringe at the idea that sex work is like any other job do so because they're comparing it unfavorably to their own "more respected labor administering social projects, conducting research and lobbying," which they wrongfully value above low wage labor. Denigrating sex work stems from the same classist logic that views some types of labor (manual labor, service jobs, etc.) as somehow less dignified than others — which a particularly salient point when you consider the fact that a lot of sex workers also perform nonsexual service work and switch between the two fields intermittently. Grant quotes author Susan Dewey, who observed that several strippers at a club in upstate New York quit their jobs at the topless bar in order to do low-wage, service sector work — only to return because they preferred the working experience at the club. In fact, they found that the work they did outside of the sex industry was far more "exploitative, exclusionary, and without hope for financial security." This isn't meant to uncritically embrace sex work as always positive (which it isn't, obviously) — it's merely pointing out that many criticisms of the sex industry come from a position of uninformed privilege.


In an interview with The Cut, Grant decries damaging representations of sex workers in the media, which tend to perpetuate a troubling conflation between sex work and sex trafficking:

[The media] absorb[s] a lot of the myths that I think we already have about sex workers — that they're all victims, they're all coerced, and they need us to intervene and rescue them from their situation...

I think the thing that's missing most is thinking of sex workers as agents in their own lives, and people who have demands — who aren't just the object of somebody's gaze, or the object of violence, or the object of a politician's downfall.

When we view sex workers as passive, helpless victims, we justify violence against them because we refuse to acknowledge that "those who do sex work, in all of their workplaces and in varied conditions, deserve the rights and respect accorded to workers in any other industry." And criminalizing sex work permits and perpetuates such violence: in the same interview, Grant notes that serial killers have historically specifically targeted sex workers because they know that authorities will neither notice nor care.

Furthermore, all too often, those who purport to "rescue" or "rehabilitate" sex workers end up doing far more harm than good. One particularly horrifying example is Project ROSE, which arrests sex workers in Phoenix in order to "save" them. As Molly Crabapple reports at VICE, over 100 police recently targeted sex workers as part of the program. The sex workers were then "forced to meet with prosecutors, detectives, and representatives of Project ROSE, who offered a diversion program to those who qualified." Anyone with a previous prostitution conviction is automatically ineligible for the program; thus, Project ROSE funnels hundreds of sex workers into the criminal justice system, where they're likely to face months or years in some of the nation's most brutal prisons. Those who are eligible are effectively kidnapped and forced to complete the diversion program in order to have their charges dropped. Only 30 percent are able to do so. So, whom exactly is this program benefiting? Certainly not the sex workers jailed or held against their will under its jurisdiction.


Insisting that sex workers have no rights in order to justify trampling on them is beyond hypocritical, and speaking for sex workers just to proclaim that they're voiceless only serves to silence them.

Image via Getty.

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Curious Squid

It's probably just because of the social awareness halo effect of the circles I mix in both on and offline, but isn't "sex workers as empowered and autonomous" kind of the dominant discourse now?

I'm a former one, and have noticed the dichotomy that sex workers seem to be subjected to in the media. The focus seems to be on either extreme end of the scale. You're either a hapless victim or a glamour girl who earns thousands of dollars a night and has a "Braggings - Uh I Mean Confessions - of a Call Girl" book deal pending.

What does make me uncomfortable sometimes is that the sex workers who get the advantage of a platform on which to speak of their experiences as wholly positive and empowering don't always address or acknowledge the privileges they had that helped make their experience a positive one.