By Jakob Schabus

For centuries, sex work has divided societies into people who think it is a problem and people who think it is not. Conversations about sex work are often marked by pity, disapproval, disgust and anger. The typical image of a sex worker is one of a woman from a poorer part of the world, who is a victim of men and does not have any agency of her own. But is this image the whole truth? Does a typical sex worker exist at all? And why is this important?

Images of sex work and those who carry it out influences politics. In the United States and elsewhere, stigmatisation and criminalisation of individuals involved in sex work have increased significantly in the last decades. One reason is what the sociologist Ronald Weitzer described as a moral crusade against all kinds of sex work. In the US, a remarkable alliance of abolitionist feminists, the religious right and the US government has formed to eliminate sex work.

Claims made by activists of that alliance include: Prostitution is an institution of abuse and exploitation of women. Violence is omnipresent in sex work. Sex workers do not have any agency and do not actively decide to enter or remain in sex work. Also, voluntary migration for sex work does not exist. Finally, activists managed to link sex trafficking – the abduction of humans for sexual exploitation – to all kinds of sex work. Many of the claims made by leading organisations and activists have proven difficult to verify, unsubstantiated or downright false. Yet, researchers who criticised this view have been ignored or attacked.

Understanding the realities of sex work is difficult. Still, what we know hints to a complex picture that goes far beyond the one-sided claims made by anti sex work activists. Campaigners from that group often use the term prostituted woman. Among sex workers, some proudly call themselves prostitutes. Others refer to themselves as sex workers, as the term is less stigmatising. In many cases, sex workers come from the working class. Contrary to a widespread image, sex workers that are male or transgender make up a significant part of the industry, and the customers of sex workers are both men and women. Strong variation exists on how sex workers feel about their job. While some feel exploited, others make a conscious decision to enter the trade. Especially, employees of escort agencies, brothels, massage parlours and call girls tend to fall into the second category. The anthropologist Laura María Agustín argues that sex workers do not necessarily see themselves as victims until they learn that outsiders perceive them as such. Some see their life as difficult, which does not necessarily mean that they want to escape the industry.

Often, sex workers are migrants that originate from large postmodern cities. The conditions of migration relating to sex work also strongly vary and range from highly exploitative to intentionally and informed consent. In the worst cases, sex workers are threatened, their personal documents are withheld, and they are forced to have and sell sex. At the same time, in many cases, migrants that carry out sex work are aware of what is ahead of them. Recruitment into sex work is often done by friends or even family members. A study of 100 Vietnamese sex workers in Cambodia found that six of them had been duped. The rest listed motivations such as dissatisfaction with the rural life and economic incentives as decisive for their decision. After raids by rescue organisations, they usually returned to the brothel as quickly as possible.

The political scientist Eilís Ward argues that any policy arena that denies the agency of those targeted “will quickly get mired in contrary outcomes, confusions and contradictions.” Instead “any good public or social policy initiatives in this area […] will succeed only if it is based on a true picture of the complex reality of sex workers’ lives.” Legislation in countries such as the US, Sweden, and Ireland, reduces the complex realities of sex work to an image of sex workers as victims of male violence. This leads to problems: “The reason why most sex work legislation is a challenge to implement is because it is driven much more frequently by morality.” Discussions on sex work usually reverberate with our own attitudes to sexuality and sex: “The presence of a person who chooses to sell sex in any society deeply challenges many of our cherished cultural ideas about the incompatibility of sexuality, intimacy and commerce.” Developing rational solutions is difficult: “Sex work policy, unlike most policy areas is subject to sudden legislative changes driven often by public perceptions and media hype.”

New Zealand has become a widely discussed example in the fight for good sex work legislation. The country has shifted to a non-ideological approach that prioritises the well-being and safety of sex workers and that is subject to five-year reviews by an independent panel. The approach has delivered positive results “because it is informed by good baseline knowledge of the nature and extent of sex work in New Zealand”, argues Eilís. Another strength is that “it is collaborative with sex workers.” Characteristics of the approach are that “it decriminalises the act of buying and selling sex and utilises existing legislation to address any other attendant issues such as breaches of licensing laws, health and safety issues, violence and tax avoidance.” New Zealand’s take has been widely discussed as a potential solution to many of the existing problems. Yet, the question remains: to what extent can the approach be transferred to other countries?

The realities of sex work entail enormous differences, they are complicated and hard to comprehend. Some sex workers face difficult and even horrific working conditions. At the same time, many sex workers make a conscious decision to enter and remain in the trade. Sex work deeply touches upon our own images of morale, intimacy, and sexuality. All these factors make it difficult to implement solutions which function properly. One way or another, good sex work legislation needs to go beyond one-sided images, it needs to address exploitation and crime but also acknowledge agency. Policy debates often diminish sex workers to victimhood and ignore their view. To address the struggles related to sex work, politicians must not listen to those who feel uncomfortable with it or think it is morally wrong, but to sex workers. Nobody knows the realities of sex work better than they do.

Illustration: Sonia Engström

Jakob Schabus studies the Master’s Program in Peace and Conflict Studies. He is passionate about many topics closely related to the United Nations such as peace operations, food security and sustainability. For Jakob, a perfect (but admittedly long) day would include a lot of coffee, a hike, swimming in the sea, a jam session, cooking and a First Aid Kit as well as a Fleet Foxes concert.

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