Women’s History Month: What is sex work and why should feminists care about it?

Sex Work

Image courtesy of Groundup.org.za.

I spent a little over five years living in Nevada, the only jurisdiction in the United States where prostitution is legal. Out of Nevada’s 16 counties, 10 counties permit brothel prostitution but only eight have active brothels. There are 21 active brothels in Nevada and yes, I have actually been inside of one.

Let me explain.

During my last couple of years living in Nevada, I began moonlighting as a political consultant and ended up working on a series of local and statewide campaigns. Right along with my various candidates, I knocked doors in the Nevada heat and battled caliche to plant campaign signs. I rubbed elbows with potential donors at private house parties in Anthem hills and shook hands with constituents at town hall meetings on King Blvd. I primed candidates for on-camera interviews and rocked cowboy boots at Reno mixers. It was exhilarating; I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

One campaign event was a barbecue at the Chicken Ranch, a brothel located just outside of Pahrump which is about 60 miles west of Las Vegas. While I was expecting something like a mix of a Benny Hill episode with The Mack, the event proved to be just like any other political fundraiser. I hung signs, convened with other campaign consultants, schmoozed, had a cocktail, and then packed up and went home. There was no parade of prostitutes, no fur-coated johns, no impromptu orgies, and nothing that could even remotely be construed as “macking.” Pretty much the owner of the Chicken Ranch supported my candidate and agreed to lend his business to host a fundraiser. His business just happened to be prostitution which was perfectly legal in Nye County. The fundraiser proved successful because everyone is curious about sex work…whether they want to admit it or not.

According to Sex Workers Outreach Project -USA (SWOP), a national social justice network that advocates for the fundamental human rights of those working in the sex trade, sex work isn’t just prostitution but is rather defined as “any type of labor where the explicit goal is to produce a sexual or erotic response in the client.” Sex work therefore includes:

  • Prostitution
  • Erotic Dancing (Pole, Burlesque, Striptease, etc.)
  • Adult Film
  • Phone Sex Operation
  • Pro-dom/Pro-sub
  • Webcam Work
  • Sensual Massage
  • Sugar Babyhood

Anyone who has ever streamed porn or been to a strip club has participated in the sex trade. But we all know that many, many, many people are doing much more than watching PornHub otherwise the sex trade wouldn’t be as lucrative as it is. According to Simply Hired, the average sex worker salary is $64,961 a year. Low earners make about $30,944 while top earners make about $136,373.

Now…everything I just wrote above was a total revelation to me.  As I was scrolling through the SWOP website, I realized how ignorant I was about the nature of sex work and the circumstances under which people adopt it as a vocation; I know I’m not alone. The conventional wisdom is that the overwhelming majority of sex workers are young exploited and trafficked teen prostitutes who most likely have a history of abuse and/or a drug addiction; are primarily women or girls who are slaves to pimps; and are subjected to a constant state of violence and abuse at the hands of pimps and clients alike.

But, again, not all sex workers are prostitutes. Regarding prostitutes, many of the adolescents or youth that go into prostitution are male and transgender and are not coerced or forced by anyone else into doing so. Violence within sex work is NOT the norm. The violence a prostitute experiences is most likely to be perpetrated by a small percentage of actual clients, folks pretending to be clients, and law enforcement officials.  Remember that Oklahoma cop Daniel Holtzclaw who serially raped and abused Black women with histories of prostitution? Yeah, he’s not a rarity at all.

Please watch the video at the link here.

DecrimNow is working to decriminalize sex work and educate more people about the nature of sex work because:

The central cause of violence is institutional alienation of sex workers from law enforcement protection and a justice system that leads most sex workers to distrust and fear law enforcement officials. Violent individuals do not fear repercussions and prey on sex workers in particular. Most interactions between sex workers and law enforcement involve arrest, and law enforcement and judicial system officials frequently ignore or doubt reports by sex workers. So sex workers either do not report sexual and physical assault to law enforcement or law enforcement officials do not sufficiently respond to complaints, and individuals remain free and continue to perpetrate crimes against sex workers.

 And also because:

Policing and criminalization of sex work is one of the primary sites of racial profiling, police violence, and mass incarceration of Black and brown women, girls, and trans and gender nonconforming folks. This violence is compounded when they are also denied access to housing, health care, transportation, healthy food, and other basic human needs based on discrimination and stigma. The decriminalization of sex work is one step in ending this violence.

 The violence that’s happening within sex work mirrors the violence we’re hearing  in the #MeToo movement, yet the stories of sex workers are not being incorporated into the #MeToo movement because of the stigma and myths surrounding sex work.

Look. People aren’t going to stop having sex. And many of those people who are having sex are doing it by foregoing dating and relationships and simply paying for it…whether it is legal or not. Prohibition never worked for liquor or pot and it definitely ain’t ever going to work for bumpin’ uglies.  For some sex workers, sex work is the only trade that does not and will not discriminate. For others, it is a springboard to other work opportunities as this awesome and highly enlightening episode of the Double Shift podcast explains. So whether we are comfortable with Chicken Ranch establishments or not, sex work is gon’ be around.

Am I completely at ease with the idea of trading cash for booty? Naw, I definitely have some qualms about it but I’m in no position to judge. However, I do consider myself a feminist and because I believe in equality for all genders everywhere, I do also believe that all sex workers including prostitutes should have the right to practice their trade without threat, harm, abuse or violence of any sort perpetrated upon them.  #SexWorkerLivesMatter

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