Over the weekend, Halsey posted on her Instagram stories with the #supportsexworkers hashtag. This is controversial. This is controversial! THIS IS CONTROVERSIAL. Clearly, because soon after, she wrote in a tweet that has since disappeared, “getting a lot of shit because I posted #supportsexworkers on my story last night.” She followed up: “Just to be clear. I DO support sex workers. I support consenting humans in the field. My statement obviously excludes people forced into sex work. It all comes back to autonomy and choice.” It is not so obvious to many people.
This is so often how the “debate” over sex work goes: Even the use of a supportive hashtag is swiftly strong-armed into a discussion of the evils of sex trafficking.
Much of the outrage in these cases comes from people who refuse to conceive of sex work as consensual, for any number of reasons, including, but not limited to, religious beliefs about “correct” sex, assumptions about the nature of women’s sexuality, and highly selective moralizing around the potential abuses of capitalism. Some of these folks are arguing in bad faith, knowing full well that Halsey, or whomever, is not in favor of sex trafficking, while nonetheless emotionally manipulating a full-throated declaration of support for sex workers into a contrite acknowledgment of sex trafficking being heinous.
It is akin to turning every single conversation about sex into a conversation about rape. It is akin to refusing the very existence of consensual sex.
Most disastrously, this monopolizing of conversation around sex work doesn’t just happen on celebrity Twitter. It happens in our legislature, as we saw with FOSTA/SESTA, which imposed criminal penalties for websites that “promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person,” purportedly with the aim of curbing sex trafficking. FOSTA/SESTA, signed into law last year, has led to the shuttering of several major platforms used by sex workers to advertise, as well as to vet clients. It has put sex workers, as well as victims of sex trafficking, at greater risk.
What happens when the conversation about sex work is always, inevitably strong-armed into talk of sex trafficking? Consensual sex work, and the rights of consensual sex workers, are erased.
There is no shortage of celebrities interested in putting their star power behind the issue of sex trafficking. Amy Schumer, Seth Meyers, and Tony Shalhoub filmed a PSA in favor of FOSTA/SESTA. Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore founded an anti-trafficking organization. Anne Hathaway, Kate Winslet, Lena Dunham, and Meryl Streep called upon Amnesty International to reject a proposal to support the decriminalization of sex work, largely with the argument that it would support trafficking. It is much rarer to see celebrities stand up for the rights of sex workers, perhaps in no small part because anti-trafficking advocates have succeeded in collapsing the debate, publicly enshrining this destructive conflation, and making #supportsexworkers feel like a risky proposition.
Shortly after voicing her support for sex workers, Halsey, who has spoken about her past experiences with sex work, took a misstep. “Part of #supportsexworkers means regulating the field so it can be a safer environment for the people involved,” she wrote, no doubt feeling the heat of the backlash. She had the right intent, but “regulation” is not what is advocated by the majority of sex workers’ rights organizations, as well as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Instead, these organizations call for decriminalization, which is quite different from legalization or “regulation.” If we could meaningfully step beyond the conflation of sex work with sex trafficking, we might be able to focus instead on the push for decriminalization, which is gaining traction in New York. We could focus on actually supporting sex workers.