Respecting Sex Work?

There’s a great article up at The Guardian right now about sex workers and the idea that when a man is patronizing a sex worker he is “buying her”. The article points out that in fact many people use their bodies for their work, but that we don’t consider them to be selling themselves. Similarly, it argues that we should accept that sex workers may use their bodies for their work, but that is not inherently demeaning, nor does it mean that they themselves are being bought and sold.

I personally find the topic of sex work to be a difficult one. I often find it hard to understand how a woman could allow someone to buy sex from her without feeling as if she is demeaned or as if her body is objectified, and those are both things that I aim to stop (demeaning and objectification of women). However I also realize that many women within the sex industry have used the only means available to them to be able to retain financial independence, and that some women find it empowering or practical. This article is a good reminder of the positives of sex work, which are often forgotten amidst guttural reactions against the business. I don’t want to advance any position about the inherent goodness or badness of sex work here, but I hope this article might open up some discussions. How can we challenge our stereotypes of sex workers? Is it empowering to be able to control your own future, or is it demeaning to sell your body? Should we be working to end prostitution? Should prostitution be illegal? I’d love to hear thoughts in comments.

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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com


  1. February 8, 2012 at 2:09 pm —

    The idea that sex workers are selling themselves has always been ridiculous. What they’re selling is their sexual labor, and that only counts as “selling themselves” if one thinks that the sexual side of a woman is all that she is. They’re no more selling themselves or their bodies than anyone who has a job is as you generally need your body to perform any sort of job.

    The fact of the matter is that sex work is basically like any other job, some people that do it love it, some hate it, and some are indifferent to it and are just happy it pays the bills. Unlike other jobs, people seem to think that if there are any sex workers who don’t absolutely love their jobs than it should be banned because they’re being exploited. No one seems to feel the same way about the millions of people who hate their office jobs…

  2. February 8, 2012 at 3:51 pm —

    First of all, prostitution is the oldest profession in the world. For some people, it’s a last resort, and for other people it’s just the norm. (In Zack and Miri Make a Porno, they have the conversation that their only two options are whoring themselves out or making a porno.)

    If a guy takes a girl out to dinner, pays for her meal and her movie ticket and everything, expecting to get laid that night, is that not another form of prostitution? Just a thought-provoker.

    I don’t think that prostitution should be illegal. It’s just like smoking cigarettes or getting a tattoo in the sense that people have a right to do with their bodies what they wish.

    Challenging stereotypes: Men can be prostitutes as well.

    Also, I view it less as selling one’s body, and more like selling one’s time.

  3. February 8, 2012 at 5:43 pm —

    I definitely DON’T think prostitution should be illegal, but I do have trouble seeing it as a job like any other. Except for maybe some health workers, I can’t think of any occupation where you are so often coming into contact with bodily fluids that pose an infectious disease risk.

    I bookmarked this a couple of weeks ago because I thought it was really interesting, and it outlines why I think making prostitution legal is the only sensible thing to do if you care about the health and safety of people working in the industry: http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/6292753/Sex-conditions-safer-but-prostitute-stigma-remains

  4. February 8, 2012 at 7:20 pm —

    Saying that prostitution is “selling yourself” is not saying that women are merely sex objects. I doubt anyone would limit that term to only female prostitutes, anyway.

    The problem is that maybe capitalism should not be allowed to reach certain intimate activities. Some things should not be commodified. I do think it’s degrading for a person’s sexuality to become a product that will go to the highest bidder, especially because it makes their sexuality entirely submissive to the will of the buyer. That’s the principled argument, anyway.

    There are also practical arguments regarding health and that sort of thing. However, it seems to me that those practical concerns way in favor of decriminalization. It’s like abortion; it will be way safer for all parties if legal and subject to regulation.

    So I’m not sure what I think. If it were up for a vote, I’d probably vote to decriminalize it.

  5. February 8, 2012 at 8:41 pm —

    “I do think it’s degrading for a person’s sexuality to become a product that will go to the highest bidder, especially because it makes their sexuality entirely submissive to the will of the buyer.”

    The problem with that train of thought is that prostitutes/escorts/porn stars can and do choose their clients. Rather than going to the highest bidder, they set the price and choose who to sell to like any other business. And once again, they are not a product, they are a person providing a service. Some may find it degrading, but a lot of people working at McDonald’s find that degrading as well. It isn’t, however, inherently degrading as many people who work in the sex industry do not find it to be so. I’m not sure why commodifying your sexuality would be degrading to it. Is working as a scientist degrading to your intellect because you’re selling it?

    I agree that there are risks of diseases, which is why in legal sex industries (legal brothels, porn) they test regularly for such things. It’s the fact that it’s generally illegal that makes it dangerous. Also, it’s hardly the most dangerous profession (coal mining springs to mind) so the risks are hardly a reason to ban it.

  6. February 9, 2012 at 6:20 pm —

    All types of sex work should be legal, from a safety and ethics perspective. We can disagree on whether the work itself is degrading, morally sketchy, truly different from other ways in which people sell labor, or capitalism creeping too far; but fundamentally that is the realm of philosophy not policy, and it is objectively better for the health and safety of sex workers to work within a legally protected area. And that is respecting sex workers and their human rights, whether or not you agree with sex work itself.

    Attempts to criminalize prostitution I’d liken to attempts to criminalize abortion: it still goes on and it goes on in a way that endangers the health and lives women by restricting their control over their own bodies.

  7. February 9, 2012 at 6:40 pm —

    And of the philosophical side of things, I don’t think we can separate culture from the formation of our identities, and sex in our culture–and perhaps in our biology, or in some individual’s biology–is set apart as intimate and apart from other types of physical ‘work’.

    At the same time, certain individuals deviate from that norm, and there’s no reason for those choices not to be respected in the context of informed consent and meaningful opportunity.

    That is not to ignore the commoditization of women, and especially women as sex objects, that is both historical and more recent in our mass consumer-culture especially with the proliferation of advertising that *saturates* our culture with one narrow view of sexuality: that of women as objects.

    But once again, that’s in the realm of philosophy, and if there’s a battle to be fought (which there is), it’s in the realm of ideas. Repressive policies over complex issues do not change the culture–especially when they fundamentally don’t respect the choices or protect the safety of the group they claim to be advocating for.

    It’s a nuanced issue, though– and there’s far more than one angle to approach it from. One that truly respects the diversity and personhood of the people involved isn’t able to draw a simple conclusion like “prostitution is empowering/good” or “prostitution is exploitative/bad”. There are too many historical and other factors involved to draw easy conclusions in the ideological realm. The only real easy answer is policy: legalize and institute common sense protections.

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