Sex work is probably one of the most controversial topics of our times, the oldest profession in history. The past 100 years have seen many shifts in public perception of the sex industry from good time girls to girls for sale.
As a sex worker of 10 years who has been involved in activism and policy work, I have heard the full gamut of assumptions people make about the industry, which is easy to do — the media does not allow much room for nuanced portrayals of the lives of sex workers.
Such perceptions can lead to increased stigma, dangerous laws and discrimination, however, so let's go over nine of the biggest lies told about sex work.
1. Sex work is not real work.
Unlike the romanticized or sensationalized depictions of the media, sex work is actually a job that requires many more skills than lying down and waiting for sex to happen to you.
In my work as an independent escort and a porn performer I personally use the following skills: I have to be a skilled writer to convey myself to my audience in advertising and written communication, letting people know who I am, what I do and what my limits are in ways that are exciting and clear, while being careful to not do so in a way that is incriminating.
During a booking, my job is to provide physical and psychological pleasure and have the other person leave feeling attractive and refreshed. In each booking I ascertain what that person needs to get out of this time together. This requires counseling skills, negotiation techniques, sexual health education skills, teaching skills and of course sexual technique because a blow job isn't just putting your mouth on a penis. I am anything but unskilled.
2. Sex workers need to be rescued.
Kittens need to be rescued. Sex workers should be granted the agency to make decisions about their own lives.
In order to provide an environment where people who wish to exit the industry are able to do so, educational and economic resources must be provided, affordable housing made available and there must be good employment options for mothers, immigrants, youth and the formerly incarcerated.
The idea that you can "rescue" a sex worker by arresting them fails to address the underlying reasons that people engage in the sex industry if they don't want to — many of which will likely still be there when the system has spit them back out. Only now, that person will have an arrest record, making accessing employment and housing all the harder, keeping them trapped in street economies.
Attempts to rescue sex workers can also lead to the stereotyping of certain communities, particularly the transgender community. And it perpetuates the notion that sex workers cannot help themselves.
3. Most sex workers are victims of human trafficking.
A victim of sex trafficking, generally, is defined as "the recruitment, transport, transfer, harboring or receipt of a person by such means as threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud or deception for the purpose of exploitation."
Data on the number of victims sold into sexual slavery is hard to come by, since much of the transactions are hidden. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime claims that a "conservative estimate" is 2.5 million. However media accounts often sensationalize the problem, without evidence, at times reporting on anecdotal estimates that rely on speculation.
Anecdotally I know hundreds of people involved in the sex trade — not one of them is under the age of 18 or doing so against their will, any more than under the iron hand of capitalism that we all do jobs that sometimes we aren't thrilled about. This doesn't mean that human trafficking in the sex trade doesn't exist, but it's not everyone, not by a long shot.
Sex trafficking absolutely needs to be addressed but increased criminalization of sex workers doesn't do that. It drives the industry further underground so that anyone who sees situations of abuse are afraid to come forward about it, for fear of also being implicated.
4. Most sex workers have pimps.
The common pop culture image of prostitution would not be complete without a swaggering, violence-prone pimp hovering in the background. However, research suggests this phenomenon might not be nearly as prevalent as television would have us believe.
In a study of underage prostitutes and young adult sex workers, researchers found that only 10% of the 249 participants had pimps, and 47% of participants did not even know a pimp.
5. All sex workers are women.
Sex workers are all kind of people, cisgender and transgender women and men, and intersex people, too. Straight, gay and queer. Young and old. All different body sizes and races, every type of economic and educational backgrounds. I myself am a transgender man, although I entered the industry as a cisgendered woman.
6. Supporting the decriminalization of sex work is anti-feminist.
In some countries like South Africa, sex workers claim that police use the threat of arrest to rape and abuse sex workers. Meanwhile, women who have a history in the sex industry are assumed to be bad mothers and have their children taken away from them. In the U.S., women have even been arrested for carrying condoms, taking away their right to reproductive choice and safer sex.
The criminalization of sex work is based on the idea that consenting adults should not be able to choose what they do with their bodies, something which flies in the face of a major tenant of feminism. Whether or not you are in favor of prostitution, acknowledging that it does exist and that decriminalization will reduce the harms for those in the industry is a completely feminist standpoint.
7. Sex work is always a job of last resort.
Imagine a job that you could make your own hours and where if you play your cards right, you can make a lot of money. It doesn't require an expensive university education, there is a lot of potential for travel and your job is giving people pleasure.
I have never done sex work as a job of last resort, although I have definitely done it in the face of limited options. In the last 10 years working in the industry, most of the time it has been my primary form of income, although I continue to do porn and escort work. I like the work, and as a person from a working-class background, it provides me the ability to build savings, which I wouldn't have otherwise.
8. Sex workers spread sexually transmitted diseases to the general public.
Sex workers have long been blamed for the spread of venereal disease, but rates of HIV/STDs amongst sex workers seem to be dependent on the environment they are working in.
In Australia, where prostitution is legal in some states and decriminalized in others, HIV/STI rates are extremely low amongst sex workers due to "the work of community-based sex worker organizations and projects conducted in partnership with state and territory governments," reports the Global AIDS Progress Report. This, despite the fact that sex workers are generally much more vulnerable than the general public to such infections, according to Gottfried Hirnschall, director of the HIV Department of the World Health Organization..
If we want sex workers to be less vulnerable to STIs, and therefore their clients and all the people their clients have sexual contact with, we need to create room for people to be able to negotiate safer sex.
9. Nobody that you know is a sex worker.
You have absolutely met someone who has done sex work. You probably didn't know it; maybe they didn't tell you for the fear of how you would react or maybe because it simply wasn't relevant. Sex workers are mothers, sons, even grandmothers.
The idea that you can tell who has exchanged sex for money just by looking at them is a falsehood. St. James Infirmary, a San Francisco clinic for current and former sex workers, published an ad campaign in 2011 targeting this myth.