Some call it the oldest profession, and while this might not be explicitly true, sex work is certainly one of the oldest lines of work present in human history. Sex work also transcends cultures, from the Tawaif of India, the Geisha of Japan and the red light district of Amsterdam, people in sex work are present everywhere. Initially many of you reading this might recoil from thinking of sex work as a part of culture or histories, but the reality is that like most aspects of society, the reasons for entering the field of sex work differs for every person involved in it.
Currently in the UK the law allows sex work in the form of pornography, and the covert act of escorting but still the law criminalises the running of brothels and the solicitation of paid sex. This is a relatively progressive law for sex workers, especially in comparison to several other Western countries but still is deeply problematic in many ways. The criminalisation of sex work should, and in theory is, designed to protect those involved in sex work but by making it illegal to offer, as well as purchase sex, it places those in the vulnerable position of selling sex without major legal protection from harassment while working and makes it that much harder to set solid rules with clients about what they can and cannot do and establishing requirements to use contraception (especially condoms) which increases the risk of sex workers contracting STIs or in the case of biologically female sex workers, unwanted pregnancy.
With this in mind, sex work is far more diverse than street corner prostitution or pimping operations, and for some of those involved in sex work it is even considered empowering. The recent changes in pornography, shifting towards self produced material held in paying member online sites means that those involved in pornography increasingly see more money and autonomy over the content they chose to distribute and engage in. Similarly the rise of social media has allowed many of the people working in pornography to grow followings and successfully flesh out their presence as personalities and people instead of the sexual objects that a porn career often turns porn stars into.
One of the most surprising and successful examples of this is porn actress turned Bollywood star, Sunny Leone, who left pornography to pursue a career in India where she overcame widespread criticism from conservative groups to break the mould of what we perceive sex work as being able to do for those who work in it. Within the porn industry there has also been a rise of ‘woman friendly porn’ which is erotica and explicit film content designed by and for female audiences with the aim of overcoming the persisting standard of mainstream porn that focuses on the male gaze, male pleasure and the commodification of the female body as a tool for meeting male needs.
It must be noted though that while there is one side of porn that is becoming more and more progressive there persists a standard where the objectification and often the abusive treatment of women (and the bottom in gay porn) is a given, which creates an imbalance in the real world as more and more people around the globe, especially in more sexually reserved societies are introduced to sex through pornography.
Returning to the world of prostitution it remains a fact that people in sex work, especially the largest groups represented (women both transgender and cisgender and gay men) all are disproportionately victims of sexual violence, assault and homicide. I also remains a fact that already vulnerable groups such as transwomen of colour, who it is estimated a staggering 40% have been at some point sex workers, are overrepresented in the sex trade often due to financial desperation. This displays the reality that sex work is an inevitbility in many different communities and regardless of legislation, it will most likely always factor to an extent in people’s’ experiences.
This was highlighted when RuPaul’s Drag Race alum Jiggly Caliente discussed in a feature with Billboard her experiences of sex work and how law enforcement refused to help her when she was sexually assaulted by a client. This is why we need to change our understanding of sex work, who does sex work and why they do it. Sex workers also are routinely denied help from several homelessness centres, denied employment and often in countries without nationalised health care such as the United States are denied medical treatments. While these occurrences are becoming rare, it is still the case that in America 39% of transwomen in sex work were denied access to shelters on the basis of their participation in the sex trade.
When we buy into the perception that sex work is a dirty thing and treat it as a taboo subject, we are complicit in the damage sexual violence and discrimination against sex workers causes to their health, safety and their lives. The first step in making work safer for those who sell sex is by destigmatising selling sex, and creating a culture where it is not only safe to be openly a sex worker but more importantly where it is safe for sex workers to seek police protection without fear of prosecution. This needs to be done through legal change and most importantly social change, we need to support sex workers on both sides of the story. We need to uplift those who are empowered by their sex work and support those who turn to it out of desperation.
This is the only way we can ensure a future where the risks involved with the sex trade are significantly diminished. Not only is this important for active sex workers but it further helps improves the ability for former sex workers to progress and in the case of sex workers who sell sex out of financial desperation to avoid returning to sex work. The next time you watch or read media focussing on the stories of sex workers, be aware that the accounts you are witness to are not universal truths and that the stigmas attached to sex work hurts sex workers far more than those who purchase sex or manage the activities of sex workers as ultimately it is the sex worker who remains the centre of the story and in many cases holds the least amount of power in the interactions they are involved in.