I’ve found a pretty divided camp every time I bring up sex work within feminist circles, and I probably bring up sex work more than most. Yesterday (Dec 17) was International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. The day itself serves as not only a good opportunity to acknowledge the pervasive violence against sex workers and honour those lost, but to start changing the stigmatizing discourse about sex work.
The two ‘camps’ usually look a little something like this:
Camp 1 – “How can you say that anyone would consent to participate in prostitution? It’s all some form of oppression, coercion, and exploitation.” (Note the usage of “prostitution,” versus sex work. Victimizing.)
Camp 2 – “Sex work is work, and sex workers deserve the same rights that other workers enjoy, including equal protection, access to healthcare, housing, economic rights, safe working environment, among many others. And in the same way that I care about the exploitative labour conditions many women find themselves in, I care about making sex work safer for women.” Judging by the title of this blog, you can safely assume that I belong most squarely in Camp 2.
Let’s be clear. There are actual systems in place to perpetuate violence against sex workers, including laws that prevent them from reporting violence. In addition, brutality and sexual violence from police and law enforcement officials are a global problem for sex workers, often resulting in bribery, intimidation, and silencing. Police even use condoms as evidence of sex work in states where it is illegal, seizing them from sex workers and preventing them from working safely.
Pervasive stigma and discrimination against sex workers, and ideas about ‘the sort of person’ who participates in the sex industry mean that sex workers can’t access services, including vital sexual and reproductive health services.
When groups of people organize to demand their rights, it doesn’t make you (Camp 1) look very good to invalidate that movement. By definition, a human rights-based approach to an issue and its corresponding advocacy should come from those most affected. We must listen to sex workers, versus relegating them to second class citizen status. When we frame sex work as exploitation, we take away sex workers’ agency. And I think it’s safe to say that there are few feminists who would agree that taking agency and consent away from women (and men) is a good thing.
Should we reach a point where laws about sex work aren’t laden with morality and we end violence against sex workers, perhaps December 17 will be a commemorative moment for a different cause.