Our society’s relationship to sex work is often characterized by dismayed hysteria and lascivious titillation. The media are mainly interested in stories of unthinkable violence and trauma, or those of privileged, highly modeled, and highly paid sex workers who lazily do half an hour of work once a month for a new handbag of Creator. Given that this is the level of nuanced discourse usually offered, the ill-informed outrage directed at Durham University this month has come as no surprise, silly as it is. A training session titled “Students Involved in the Adult Sex Industry” was launched, primarily targeting staff who support students, to help them receive disclosures appropriately and provide expert advice. The Times reported that Michelle Donelan, the Minister of Higher and Complementary Education, had qualified this support as “promotion of training in sex work”. In 2018, the newspaper reported a similar safety initiative in Brighton as “offering advice on how to prostitute”. Donelan and MP Diane Abbott were among the many who voiced their condemnation.
It seems amazing to me that there can be an argument as to whether it is acceptable to provide support to people already engaged in an activity, regardless of your opinion of the activity itself. Why is it considered a bad thing to offer practical and compassionate help to those who are often vulnerable? This outrage seems to stem from the belief that it is wrong to recognize the lived reality of sex workers, as we should always seek an ideal society without sex work – a society very different from the one we live in today. This is the only explanation I can identify, other than one that says they would rather sex workers do without safety precautions, expose themselves to greater danger, hopefully just dying or to disappear so that we can start our new utopia without them. Can anyone truly believe that acknowledging the existence of something is promoting it enthusiastically? On a basic level it is true that you have to be aware of something to engage in it, but I cannot believe that there are many adults, even 18 year old students, so naive that they don’t know that people exchange sex for money and goods.
Once we have, horrified, heard that sex work exists, are we immediately encouraged to do it ourselves? If a person does not want to prostitute himself but is forced into it by his poverty and his financial responsibilities, it is indeed a terrible and tragic situation. It is a feeling of loneliness and hopelessness to know that your resources are limited to yourself. If your temperament is not suited to sex work, or if your position is such that the only job you can do is poorly paid and dangerous, of course it is appalling, of course I wish it didn’t never happened.
[See also: Sex Actually with Alice Levine goes inside the pandemic sex industry]
But the difference between me and those who oppose sex work – who think sex work should be criminalized and stigmatized more – seems to be that I perceive the need itself as an urgent and intolerable problem, rather than as the result of the necessity. The need that forces someone to do something with their body that they don’t want is the problem. The effect is not the cause. If a person is in such a dire situation that they have to do something that they deeply hate in order to survive, our concern must be the pathetic state of social protections.
Let’s say we accept to ignore the undeniable reality that sex work exists, and stop arguing for a moment about the seemingly controversial idea that sex workers are better off having resources and information than they are. shut up and neglect oneself. What about this utopia, if we want to imagine it? In any ideal world I could think of, no one would do a job that caused them misery, whether it was sex related or not. If we imagine that in our utopia no one is forced to do anything out of urgent financial need and lack of options or support, how can we say that sex work is inherently, inherently bad or harmful? ? It is my belief that anything that a person or persons wishes to do with their body that does not cause harm to others does not require my judgment or validation. In the end, it doesn’t matter what I think it would be to do sex work, whether I find the idea uncomfortable or wonderful.
I wonder if part of the problem for those who vehemently support total criminalization is not to take the imaginative leap, to accept that their own feelings of disgust are not universal. If we can agree that sex work is not inherently morally wrong, then the only outrage that remains concerns the circumstances in which sex work is compulsory or forced, either by personal circumstances or by another human being. The state of coercion is the real problem, rather than the act of selling sex.
Discussing the revulsion with which they feel that many anti-sex work feminists are talking about them, sex workers and writers Juno Mac and Molly Smith wrote in their 2019 book Revolting prostitutes:
Content of our partners
“We live in a culture where it is assumed that sexually penetrating someone is inherently an act of domination and that being sexually penetrated must be enslaved. This means that the abuse of sex workers is starting to feel natural. If we who sell sex are already degraded by penetration, then the further degradation of being described as garbage cans, flesh holes, semen receptacles, orifices or inflatable dolls is considered a fact rather than as an active reproduction and perpetuation of misogynist discourse – and all in the name of feminism.
Much of the reaction to sex work is clearly linked to disgust rather than a sincere desire to protect women. So-called feminists who claim to be anti-sex work in the name of protecting women have spoken in alarming and degrading terms of the very people they claim to want to protect. If their concern was truly for welfare, instead of rooting in archaic loathing, they would never even speak with such hatred of those who are, on their own terms, perpetual victims.
[See also: OnlyFans is abandoning the sex workers who made the platform a success]