They call it the oldest profession in the world. Yet anytime we open the conversation on sex work, it feels as if we’re talking about some horrible well-kept-secret. We know it exists, but we don’t like to talk about it. And being more open about it doesn’t seem to help. Even in the most sex-positive progressive communities there is a divide between those who are for decriminalization and others who wish to abolish the industry altogether.
In past centuries, sex work was probably much more normalized than it is today. There were the saloons and brothels of the nineteenth century. The courtesans appeared to have a better life than most women in the upper echelons of their times. All in all, it appears that until the twentieth century we saw sex work as another job. It might have been frowned upon, yet it was an industry that did not hide in the shadows. Now when we think of sex work, we’re filled with images of human trafficking, abuse, and substance addiction. Yet most of those afflictions are recent developments brought on by the criminalization and law enforcement attempts to “crack down” on prostitution.
Regardless of where you stand on sex work, the truth is that nobody deserves to be judged by their line of work. And before we all get on our high horse regarding human trafficking, why aren’t we doing more for other industries that also create victims? According to journalist Melissa Gira Grant, “The International Labor Organization estimates that more than three times as many people are trafficked into work like domestic, garment, and agricultural labor than those trafficked for sex.”
The reason probably lies in the savior complex people adopt when discussing sex work. Most of the time the programs meant to “save” and “rescue” victims of sex traffic are not regulated to the point where they actually assist the people they’re supposed to be helping. In an interview with Gira Grant, Ros Sokunthy from the Women’s Network for Unity explained that celebrities or documentarians who come into the most marginalized communities in the world to capture the lives of the people involved in the sex industry end up doing more for their private organization’s funding and visibility than for the actual people they’re visiting.
In 2015, several famous names opposed Amnesty International’s proposal for decriminalization of the sex trade. They believed that it would only allow for more abuse from the part of those who control and profit from sex workers. The problem seems to be that we continue to see the sex trade as a Yes or No question. You’re either for it or against it. And when you say you are for decriminalization you’re considered by the other side as someone who agrees with people being abused by pimps and clients. But what if there was another way? What if we could begin to see it as a profession that if decriminalized can also be regulated? Where sex workers do not have to worry about not being able to tell the police about abuse and rape, or where they could openly denounce these actions.
Currently sex work is on the rise in college co-eds and young professionals. The high cost of living combined with the digital age has allowed this kind of side-gig to emerge in a big way. They can connect with potential clients through particular websites and classifieds, marketing themselves and setting up competitive rates. Yet the problem is that without regulations, they are also left at risk for potential aggressors and rapists. The landscape seems grim all around because, on the one hand, these are freelance workers who choose who they involve themselves with and on what terms. But since several clients know they cannot go to the police if something goes wrong, they are left completely vulnerable.
Liesl Gerntholtz from Human Rights Watch explains it best when she says, “Would I like to live in a world where no one has to do sex work? Absolutely. But that’s not the case. So I want to live in a world where women do it largely voluntarily, in a way that is safe. If they’re raped by a police officer or a client, they can lay a charge and know it will be investigated. Their kid won’t be expelled from school, and their landlord won’t kick them out.”
So what is the solution? While the laws like the ones in Germany and Scandinavia looked good on paper, they are still lacking in being actually of service to people who make their income from the sex industry. It’s a very clinical approach that only allows for someone else to use it against the workers. Also, something that several activists and others who are against decriminalization don’t take into account is that this is a not a female-only issue. There are also men in the sex trade who are mistreated and abused by clients and pimps, as well as harassed by law enforcement. Like I said, we cannot look for a simple solution for such a widespread and complex problem.
We need to be allies of the people in the sex industry. Not just trying to “save” them or turning a blind eye and letting them be. There needs to be more awareness of how we can assist them, whether they choose to continue their work in the industry or not. We need to be supportive rather than judgmental about their choices and decisions. We definitely need to be open to the chance that there is no over-arching solution, but one that is different case by case. We need to be willing to listen rather than preach. By acknowledging their humanity, we might actually be able to connect with them, and begin to truly understand all that has lead them to where they are. That way, we will actually help those who want to leave but don’t know how, as well as understand those who have chosen it as their career.
You might be interested in reading:
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Why are women considered to be bad at science?
The New York Times
The Daily Beast
Valerie Scott’s Tedx Talk