SAFAFU: Why Do We Condescend To Sex Workers?

By Cathy Reisenwitz

At brunch recently, a friend recounted watching one of those Dateline-esq specials on human trafficking. At Reason, Elizabeth Nolan Brown has done phenomenal work on how cops, feds, nonprofits, and reporters have turned human trafficking in the new white slavery.

It’s one of those things where you’re writing treatises defining feminism and you think everyone knows this, right? Everyone knows human trafficking is what we call it when women make choices that make us uncomfortable.

But then you’re at brunch with a pretty normal person. But better educated and smarter than normal, smarter than you, in fact. But they’ve not heard that a conservative estimate for the average age at which women enter the trade is 25. They don’t know that even underage prostitutes start at an average of 15-16, and only 15% of teen hookers (themselves a small minority of all sex workers) enter at an age below 13. They’ve never had Maggie McNeill in their living room. In fact they’ve never talked to a person they knew was a sex worker.

So why do smart, well-educated people buy into the sex trafficking moral panic? And the larger question, why do we condescend to sex workers by assuming they can’t consent to sex work? Here are three reasons:

1. They challenge our views on sex.

Most people view sex as inherently meaningful. If pressed, they’d find it difficult to articulate that meaning, but that doesn’t mean they don’t project it in the form of morality.

For example, in 2014 according to Pew, 30% of Americans personally believe that sex between unmarried adults is morally unacceptable. It’s morally acceptable to 30%, and 36% think it is not a moral issue. The same poll found that more Americans thought homosexuality was morally wrong (37%) than thought it was morally right (23%) or morally neutral (35%).

Why would sex between unmarried adults or people of the same gender be morally wrong? Because people see sex as having an inherent meaning and the “wrong” kinds of sex subverting that meaning. Most people think that some sex is morally right and some is morally wrong, and they justify that belief by universalizing what they feel is true about sex for them. Some people think the purpose of sex is to bring two people together for life. So they oppose sex outside of marriage. Some people think the purpose of sex is procreation. So they oppose sex that can’t be procreative.

Most people like to think of sex as meaningful because it’s a pleasant thought that seems to align with our experiences and because that’s what we’ve been taught to believe about sex. And, to an extent, we are right. Sex is meaningful. Where we misstep is in universalizing our meaning. Sex is meaningful because we create meaning. There is no universal, inherent meaning to sex. There’s only what we create ourselves and buy from the culture around us. What sex means depends on the person, context, etc.

We buy the lie that sex workers are coerced because sex work challenges so many of our assumptions around sex, but the most vital one is that sex means to others what it means to us. We have this vision that sex is supposed to be separate from other services, a view articulated well by Katha Politt for The Nation: “Maybe there’s a difference between a blowjob and a slice of pie.”

For you, Katha. For you there is a difference and it is important. More specifically, what you think a blowjob means precludes you from looking at sex work as an attractive option for employment.

But sex means different things to different people.

2. We see only the most pitiful.


As it turns out, there’s a broad array of ways to have sex for money. Unfortunately, most people associate prostitution with one specific kind of sex worker: the streetwalker. Or, as the academics call them, outdoor sex workers.

Most sex workers find clients online. Outside is the most dangerous way to meet clients, as there’s no way to pre-screen or use a backup system if things go wrong. And of course sex workers don’t have the luxury of police protection. These workers have to lean most heavily on pimps to intervene if disputes arise.

Even though this is a small percentage of sex workers, it is the most visible and the most pitiful. People who are working outside are more likely to have substance abuse problems and generally fewer options for employment. And of course once you’re arrested for prostitution it’s even harder to find work in the white market.

So people look at streetwalking and think, “I don’t want to exchange sex for money like that.” And then assume that because they don’t, then no one does.

3. We don’t want to face reality


No one wants to face up to the reality that for some people, their best option is giving blow jobs to strangers in an alley and then paying some guy to make sure the recipient doesn’t kill you. Like, yeah, that sounds grim to me too. But so does cleaning shit off of walls in bathrooms and delivering enemas and caring for screaming infants. For all but the smartest and most educated, work sucks.

The solution isn’t to look at jobs we don’t like and call them slavery. It’s to afford workers police protection instead of incarceration so they don’t have to rely on pimps. It’s to stop seizing online marketplaces so workers can screen clients before meeting them. It’s to innovate and take risks in a market economy so we outsource shitty jobs to robots.

I’m not saying that coercion is black-and-white or that slavery doesn’t happen. Certainly it does. How much is impossible to know because researchers do a terrible job studying sex work. But from what I understand most “human trafficking” is really just people moving to do jobs we’d rather they not have to do.

Cutting through the superstitious bullshit around human trafficking requires admitting that sex is not inherently meaningful, that the sex workers we see are not representative of sex work as a whole, and that sex work is dangerous mostly because of its illegality. We also need to admit that we’re not at a point in our economic development where everyone gets to have a job that isn’t dangerous or unappealing in some way. Human trafficking laws aren’t going to change that. The only thing that can change that is economic progress.


Images: Sabine Mondestin/Flickr; Thomas Hawk/Flickr; Francisco Osorio/Flickr; Daniel Bentley/Flickr



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