Why Aren't We Talking About Sex Workers' Safety?

Illustration for article titled Why Aren't We Talking About Sex Workers' Safety?

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.


Students Turning To Prostitution And Stripping [AlterNet]
The Professional [Good Men Project]

Image via tadija/Shutterstock.com



BORING DISCLAIMER: I am a former sex worker, blah blah bliddy blah.

Many of the sex workers I knew, myself included, were "in the closet" about what we were doing, whether it be because we didn't want our families to know, or if we were charged with prostitution the state would take our children away, etc, etc. So when we were involved in dangerous situations where men committed what are frankly criminal acts against us, often the police wouldn't be involved.

One particularly stark incident I will remember forever, was one night when I was on phone duties, arranging bookings and sending girls out to appointments. The girl involved didn't check the "conventionally hot" boxes some of her colleagues did, and had to work a hell of a lot harder to make bookings, often doing things she wasn't comfortable with just in order to land a client. Like have anal sex, something which several girls at the place I worked refused to do outright. I wish I could say I was one of those lucky girls who never had to do anything I didn't feel comfortable with, but that would be a lie.

A request came in for a girl who would have anal sex. I sent this girl out on the proviso that if she wanted to change her mind, as in if he was too big for to take, she could cancel the booking. To cut a long story short, I got a call from her phone and answered it, to hear her being beaten and raped before the phone cut out. I frankly panicked and against company policy called the police and had a patrol car sent to the address.

The girl needed stitches and wasn't able to work for weeks. She didn't press charges, because if her ex partner knew she was prostituting herself he'd get custody of her children.

This I guess leads into my second point, which is the same that people below have made: there is no single uniform sex work experience. For people like Shane above, who found it empowering and illuminating, that's terrific. Good for them. But I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that Shane had the kind of privileges that enabled her to experience the sex industry at the more positive end of the spectrum: conventional good looks, good health and an able body, and a background that had instilled a sense of self-respect, autonomy and the ability to make informed and empowered choices.

I think I'm opposed to the sex industry, believe it or not, because at the end of the day I've been at the coalface and I'm deeply troubled at the thought of an industry where a person's worth is so starkly and literally based solely on their sex appeal.

But I still want it decriminalised. Because whilst I'm opposed to the industry, I am in full support of the rights of the people involved to be safe.