Some sex workers are desperate. They still deserve rights and respect.
In honor of International Sex Worker Rights Day, I wanted to write a little bit about the complicated nature of consent under capitalism.
See, I read yet another article making the argument that sex work isn’t a desperate choice. “Sex workers are healers!” it protested earnestly. “It’s the oldest profession!” This one makes some good points about how making sex work illegal does more to increase the dangers, not decrease it. It still hinges a lot on this idea that sex work is noble.
But why does it have to be?
I didn’t work 3 retail jobs standing in a mall for minimum wage and no benefits because I love standing. It wasn’t a noble decision. There was no great purpose to squirting lotion on people. I didn’t work 3 jobs because I was a go-getter. I did it because I was desperate. I did it because I was tired of getting food from the food pantry that had bugs crawling in it.
While not all sex workers are women, I think it’s important to notice how often the work women in particular are expected to do to make ends meet is undervalued and underpaid. I really wish these discussions made more space for the fact that sure, sex work doesn’t have to be out of desperation, but part of why it often is a last resort is because of a lack of flexible and sustainable work choices for women, particularly women with disabilities, women with children, and women supporting themselves through school.
We also can’t ignore that part of what makes it a “desperate choice” for women in particular is because of the stigma against women engaging their sexuality, and the legal issues that disproportionately impact women in poverty. That illegality and stigma also traps many women who want to leave the industry, with employers refusing to hire women deemed “inappropriate”, banks closing down sex worker accounts, and landlords refusing to rent to anyone suspected of sex work. We rely on being both public and secret, balancing on a log that is spinning beyond our control and hoping we don’t fall off today.
As long as it’s illegal and stigmatized, it will remain a choice that feels (and legitimately is) desperate for some.
To ignore and/or gloss over that financial desperation is a massive issue for many people (but especially marginalized women) that leads them to sex work is a disservice for sex workers and for a larger discussion about capitalism and coercion generally. Listen to sex workers on this issue, as they have smart things to say that will expand your understanding of what consent looks like in our capitalist, white supremacist, patriarchal society, especially when it pertains to employment.
Sex workers don’t have to be sacred healers or goddesses or whatever for them to deserve safety and respect. They can be doing it reluctantly because they have to, and they still don’t deserve violence or shaming.