I believe it’s crucial to distinguish between conceptual models of sex and actual sex work, and in doing so, affirm that I support sex workers’ rights.
When I wrote Why Conceptualizing Sex as Commodity Dooms Consent, I had a couple of phrasing options. I could’ve gone with Sex as Object, Sex as Transaction, Sex as Reward, and so on. I chose commodity because I believe it got at the heart of the problem: in this pervasive paradigm, sex is viewed (often unconsciously and unintentionally) as a thing, a thing which women “have” and men seek through various courtship behaviors that often make the sex into an object of exchange, or a commodity.
I want to be 100% clear: I am describing a broad cultural phenomenon, not talking about or passing judgment on sex work.
Also to clarify: when I say sex work I don’t include sex trafficking in that statement. Trafficking is obviously non-consensual and awful and should be stopped, whether it’s sex trafficking or labor trafficking. Unfortunately, our law enforcement branches aren’t always up to the task, as I cover in an article on sex trafficking here.
As a cultural scholar and feminist, I firmly believe in letting people speak for themselves, whether trans women or sex workers as I explore here. So when I see adult women who haven’t been trafficked saying stuff like “I think I’d know if I was being harmed” (quote from Laura Lee, a sex worker and sex work activist, interviewed here), I… believe them.
Once you remove any religious or moral objection to selling sex, the arguments against it grow flimsy. Various parties have argued that it’s against sex workers’ best interests to sell sex, but last I checked it wasn’t illegal to do something that’s against your best interests.
Many of the objections I see to sex work also just boil down to objections about capitalism, such as oh god it’s awful you have to do that with your body to earn a living! I mean…have you seen coal mining?
Taking a rather cheeky Marxist perspective, I’ve argued that all sex is transactional in a capitalist society. I think it’s a useful thought exercise if nothing else…. and in line with yesterday’s post arguing that we need to uncover the subtle ways in which we’ve become accustomed to thinking of sex as an object, commodity, what-have-you.
I believe we can both critique the implicit cultural sex-as-commodity/object/reward model, and support sex workers who by definition trade on an explicit sex-as-commodity model. These stances are not contradictory, and I wanted to make sure that I clearly stated both this fact, and my support of sex workers’ rights.
Though I’m still learning, I’m doing my best to be an ally to sex workers and sex worker activists. I’m sure, as is the case with many non-participant ally situations, I’ll muck it up here and there, but I’ll try to be open to correction so that I can do better in the future (while also acknowledging that when a member of a dominant/mainstream group fucks up, it’s not always on a member of the marginalized group to educate/correct, since they often already do a lot of uncompensated emotional labor).
I don’t write about sex work all that often, and it’s not one of my research areas, in large part due to the icky colonial legacy of anthropology and folklore scholars swooping in to study marginalized populations as quaint, exotic, etc. But because I have these fancy letters behind my name, legitimizing my opinion and voice in the eyes of many, I like to amplify the voices of stigmatized populations, those discredited in the eyes of the mainstream by virtue of a facet of their identity. So, if I can help further the conversation, I try.
If you’d like to learn more about sex work activism, Bustle has an article describing three key activist groups. SWOP’s Learn about Sex Work page, particularly the Sex Work 101 document at the top, is excellent. Amnesty International explains why it’s adopted a Sex Workers Rights Are Human Rights perspective (which I agree with completely).