When it comes to the intersection of sex, demand, and currency, the public often shies away from engaging in thoughtful, intelligent conversations and instead, resorts to slut-shaming. Stepping away from the stigma, social hang ups on sex, and the taboos of sex as a business, sex work is a profession at its core. Like any other, it’s an occupation in which one person offers a service and the consumer pays to receive the benefits of that service. It’s a vocation that’s based on a financial exchange, but meets exclusion, discrimination, and prejudice for its product, sexual favors. But it’s also a diverse profession, spanning prostitutes to exotic dancers, practiced by more than just women, and responsible for employing millions across the globe.
Is it fair to criminalize sex workers and deny them social services for engaging in a profession by choice or coercion? What’s the real issue that Americans have with legitimizing sex work? Because there are numerous occupations that parallel the profession in terms of risk, yet non-sex workers receive better healthcare, legal protection, and law enforcement support.
Often called the world’s oldest profession, it’s clear that sex work is not going anywhere, whether it is legalized or not. Despite its ancient history, the contemporary public still classifies sex workers as “un-people,” unworthy of adequate social services, undeserving of unbiased healthcare, and unfit to be legitimately recognized in the national economy. In numerous other legal mediums, it’s clear that sex sells, whether it’s music, film, advertising, adult entertainment, or another popular pastime. Sex, as an industry, is powerful, lucrative, and a driving force in inspiring financial consumption.
Yet those who literally sell sex face startling realities because their work is not legalized in the United States. According to a report by the Urban Justice Center, “Behind Closed Doors: An Analysis of Indoor Sex Work in New York City,” 46% of indoor sex workers experienced violence in the course of their work, 42% had been threatened or beaten for being a sex worker, and 14% reported violence at the hands of police. In another report, “Revolving Door: An Analysis of Street-Based Prostitution in New York City,” 80% of street-based sex workers reported experiences or threats of violence while working. When asked about police support, they reported that law enforcement did not take their complaints seriously and instead, told them that they should “expect” violence. Additionally, 27% of respondents reported that they had experienced violence at the hands of the police, which included officers physically grabbing, kicking, beating, stalking, throwing food, raping, and sexually harassing prostitutes. Despite these occurrences, the classification of “victim” rarely applies to a sex worker. The popular consensus is that they “deserve” any violence that comes to them for participating in illegal activity.
But it goes deeper, as sex workers often experience discriminatory attitudes toward their profession by medical professionals. U.S. federal policies do not adequately address the fact that sex workers may be at increased vulnerability to HIV transmission and other health risks. In fact, the U.S. National HIV/AIDS Strategy outright ignores sex workers as an at risk population, resulting in a lack of prevention and harm reduction services for this community and customers receiving its benefits. Federal policies often work against sex workers’ efforts to protect themselves and the public health, as the “anti-prostitution pledge” requirement of the Bush era mandated that organizations working to prevent human-trafficking take a pledge to not provide prevention and health services to sex workers or be blocked from receiving federal aid. While human trafficking is a huge concern within the realm of sex work, it’s still dangerous to suggest coerced sex work and free-will sex work as synonymous. Not only does the “anti-prostitution” pledge call for financial restrictions, but also it mandates that these organizations not speak of solutions for different legal approaches to prostitution. Thus, it stops conversation and progress, while leaving a certain community of people as vulnerable along with its consumers.
The United States is a nation that’s supposed to promote agency and choice. It’s a country that was built on the verbal foundation of equal protection for all. How is it possible that sex workers face repeated discrimination and lack of services, simply because they sell what people naturally want for a living? More than anything, it feels as if the federal stance on prostitution is just another attack on a population of people that don’t fit the tight definition of what an American should look like, behave, and be. It’s a deliberate attack on sexual agency, means of controlling the types of sex that people can engage in, and scapegoat for the moral “downfall” of society.
But it’s not simply the government’s fault when the public is not willing to learn historically accurate accounts of sex work in ancient societies, how sex work has in the past and currently operates with far less violence and danger to its participants in countries that legalize it, and sex work’s intersection with other social issues, such as race, gender, class, and homophobia.
So when sex workers experience violence, inadequate healthcare, and failed legal protections, it’s easier to just shrug and say: it is what it is. Imagine if other mainstream professions experienced the same level of discrimination. Maybe then, this country could move past stereotypes and see sex workers as human beings.