Talking About Sex Work

I’ve been following the Rhode Island debates about whether to criminalize indoor sex work lately. Actually, a lot of why I’m following it is because the effervescent Megan Andelloux has been on the receiving end of a lot of hassle over the opening of the Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health, an educational organization somewhat akin to our local Center for Sex and Culture.

A lot of her difficulties in opening the CSPH stem from Donna Hughes, the University of Rhode Island professor, who takes exception to Megan’s speaking out against criminalizing sex work on the grounds that it makes the lives of sex workers worse. Prof. Hughes, by the way, likes to use scare quotes when talking about people who identify as sex educators, presumably as a way to denigrate a perfectly valid career choice. Given that Megan is highly-trained and is certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors & Therapists, I don’t see why Hughes feels the need to put her down, but then, I’m also certified by AASECT and I’m a sex educator, so maybe I’m a bit touchy. Nah. In any case,
it has started to look like Hughes got angry with Megan for speaking against her and has stirred up trouble for her.

Anyway, one of the things that I see over and over in the controversy over sex work is that the anti-sex work folks focus a lot on the trafficking and lack of choice that many women face around it. And I 100% get that. Being forced or tricked into having sex for money is an awful situation and there is no justification for it. I would love to live in a world where nobody ever had that happen to them.

And at the same time, I invite you to step back for a moment and think about all of the other people who are forced into labor that they don’t control. The migrant laborers who harvest our food, for example. Or the housekeepers who are brought to the US in order to work for below-living wages and without the resources to escape. Or the people who work in factories around the world who get paid a pittance in order to keep costs down so people in wealthy countries can have lots of disposable stuff. Or the women in the sweatshops who make clothing for minimal pay. These are also terrible things that are happening right now in this country and in other countries around the world.Take a look at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Global Report on Trafficking in Persons for an in-depth analysis of how trafficking takes place on a world-wide scale.

But when we look at non-sex work trafficking situations (although we rarely do since the issue is often ignored by the general population), I’ve never heard anyone say “people who are trafficked to work in sweatshops should be locked up.” Nor have I ever heard anyone say that all garment manufacturing is evil and should be abolished. Instead, people focus on the unfair wages, the lack of agency, and the structures that make it possible for people to be treated as slaves, separately from the nature of the work that they’re doing. After all, there are some fortunate people who create garments or cook food or work in factories who love (or at least, like) what they do, who choose to do it out of a genuine desire to do the work, and who are paid well (or at least, sufficiently) for their labor. And there are people who engage in those kinds of labor because they need the money. The fact that they would quit if they suddenly won the lottery doesn’t make their decision to do the work less valid. Any reasonable person understands that and recognizes the difference between being forced into labor and choosing to do it for whatever reason.

Similarly, I’ve never heard anyone talk about sweatshop workers “selling their bodies.” After all, can you truly be said to sell your body if you still have it when you go home? sex workers don’t sell their bodies anymore than garment-makers, housekeepers or, for that matter, lawyers. To call it “selling their bodies” is a scare tactic designed to foment a moral panic but it’s ultimately disrespectful of the people under discussion.

What we need is an approach that addresses the real problems of people being forced to have sex for money through violence, drugs use, economic circumstances, etc. without criminalizing them. And we need an approach that makes room for the people who are making informed choices about what they want to do with their bodies. If we start with the premise that some people who work as housekeepers, garment makers, or sex workers are choosing to do so, for whatever reason, then we can begin to look for ways to deal with the fact that other people are forced or tricked into those kinds of labor.

Similarly, if we start with the understanding that some people hire housekeepers, garment makers or sex workers out of a desire to meet a valid and justifiable need, that they pay people fairly for their time and skill, and that they treat them with respect, then we can look at the changes that we could make to increase the frequency of those situations. And if you believe that no sex workers ever have clients treat them that way, you probably need to learn more about sex work by listening to the stories of the people who do it. is a good place to start.

Yes, I get that these more fortunate situations are not as common as I’d like. But they do happen and I think that the best way to move forward is to ask ourselves what we could do to make them more likely. Denying that they happen only makes it easier to come up with overly-broad laws that criminalize people who aren’t doing anything wrong.

Of course, if you believe that the act of selling sexual services for money is inherently wrong, you’re probably not convinced by any of this. If you consider sexual labor to be different from any other kind of labor, perhaps you can take a look at why that is. But that’s a topic for another post.

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