Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Stigma of Sex Work

[Content note: dehumanization of sex workers, rape culture.]

I don't often write about sex work. I think it's an area of feminism that is best left to people with more knowledge. I remember when I first started thinking critically about feminist issues, I read a piece where a woman was discussing how too often feminists talk about sex work without actually talking to sex workers or listening. I don't want to fall into that space, and I hope I don't.  But I need to write about this, because my blood is boiling.

Earlier this week, I shared an example of horrendousness at my Tumblr project. Some douche had posted, "If somebody rapes a prostitute, is it considered rape or shoplifting?" I felt that this kind of comment spoke for itself as problematic, but apparently I was wrong. One of the people who reblogged the post wrote that it "is a valid legal question...though he's still a dick."


I went to the guy's page and saw that he's an 18 year old, so I thought, "Oh hey, maybe an honest mistake. I have it in me to try to correct this one..." And needless to say, despite the best efforts of myself and some other feminists, his comments spun out of control. At one point, when told that he was dehumanizing prostitutes by asking this question, he wrote:
I’ll tell you what’s dehumanizing: their jobs. They don’t sell themselves as advisors, counselors, or anything of the sort. Generally, they’re paid to perform sexual acts. Some are so desensitized that they barely care. But does the main body of their buyers care about the prostitute’s well-being or mental state? No. They’re used, generally, for sex.
The statements here are just so upsetting to me and I can't stop thinking about them. What a shining example of the continued stigma that society places on sex workers. This young man here didn't come to these revelations on his own. He was raised in a culture that transmitted these deeply misogynistic messages to him. He truly believes that sex workers (a majority of which are women) are used like objects...that their lives are reckless and despondent and wretched.

Now far be it from me to suggest that all women who enter sex work do so freely and are empowered by it. Most of us know that the system of sex work prohibition we have in the US often creates toxic situations where young women are not freely choosing their lots in life. I think that there is a way that discussion can be had without condescending or concern trolling...and ladies and gents, the way he went about it is not that way. I mean, when is it ever helpful to frame discussions about sex workers as items? And what about all the women who choose sex work freely, find it empowering, and are happy with their lives? How can you have a non-misogynistic discussion about sex work if you automatically assume that it is something no one would ever choose and you silence women who share their experience?

It's no surprise that I'm utterly over the way society tries to police women's bodies. But there are certainly a few issues where this trend is most frustrating. The dehumanization and stigmatization of sex workers is toward the top of the list. I mean--questions like the one above and dead hooker "jokes" are a thing! People really buy into these ideas because sex workers are so devalued that their lives are seen as disposable. A woman who owns and utilizes her sexuality is apparently worthless and should be scorned.

It disgusts me. I'm not sure what else I can say.

Related reading:
Why Feminists Should Listen to Sex Workers

Studying Down: Thoughts on Sex Work, Steinem, and Self-Representation


  1. This morning I spotted this article via Twitter:
    But I agree with leaving it to people with more knowledge about this field.

    1. The stats in that are appalling, and the whole piece is skewed, here is a good link looking at the many problems with it.

    2. No it doesn't. You'd have better luck checking actual SW advocate sites and blogs. They're almost unanimous in their disdain for the Nordic model and have pointed out a lot of issues with this recent work.

    3. There also hasn't been any kind of silence. A number have written about it

  2. In 2007 one judge apparently also thought it was a valid legal question when she threw out a gang rape charge and convicted the perpetrators of "theft of services" because the victim was a prostitute.
    I suspect that if one forced an auto-mechanic to perform car repairs at gunpoint, it would be considered more than "theft of services."

  3. Wow, GREAT article! Here’s the deal, if I’m walked fully naked down Main street at Noon or Midnight does someone have the right to rape me? It’s a pretty silly question, and a very obvious answer. I was just reading a related article at and she brings up some great points as someone who is a provider. But here’s my question to you… Does my opinion matter any more or less if I’m a sex worker, or if I’m the president of a major corporation? Because I am both. And AMEN to this author!! You are exactly right, I too am “utterly over the way society tries to police women's bodies. “

  4. The statements here are just so upsetting to me and I can't stop thinking about them. What a shining example of the continued stigma that society places on sex workers. This young man here didn't come to these revelations on his own. He was raised in a culture that transmitted these deeply misogynistic messages to him. He truly believes that sex workers.
    seo toronto

  5. I am the Legislative Liaison for RI Amnesty International, and a former advocate for woman and children. Just writing this will get me in trouble. Why? Not all of the Amnesty Chapters are in agreement with the sex work policy. It has layers and layers of complexity and controversy. One, let me say I AM all for a woman being in charge of what she does with her body. I can't stress that enough to you, all in! However, and there are a lot of however's to discuss, what you don't know is the global impact of the sex work policy. Trafficking of woman has drastically increased with the passing of laws in Germany and other countries , the pimps are riding on the back of our policy and children, yes children are being snatched off streets and sold into slavery. And now the pimps and brothel's have carte blanche to continue to exploit our fellow sisters. Yes sisters the whole thing is a big mess of proportions we can't begin to fathom. I am on a gag order to not discuss my opposition to the sex work policy , which by the way, is shrouded in secret meetings and a veil of subterfuge. Sex workers have banded together, and rightly so, to stop the abuse and stigmas they deal with from society and the judicial system. My opposition is to the details of the policy, the way it was forced down our throats on the local chapter level and now we are all under a gag order to keep our mouths shut or face losing out membership. Amnesty has gotten off the beaten path. Our initial goal has always been to advocate for Prisoner's of Conscience, that is and was out goal, now am I to defend a pimp his right to use woman, children and even sell them in the black market of slavery? Not likely! Now other groups are joining amnesty in bulk to further their agenda. THE NRA has attempted to buy membership to gain control, who is next? Well, did you know that a back door member, one of the biggest Pimps in Europe, is on the board? No wonder the language of the policy is to exonerate pimps from litigious action both criminal and civil with the passing of this policy. As I said, the layers of the policy and the controversy are far reaching and $$$$ signs are at the root. And of course, the continued dehumanizing of woman and children. Most of whom, do NOT choose this work. Example, when your daughter's reached the age of 17 and you started to look at colleges to attend did anyone ask their daughter if they wanted to major in Economics or Prostitution? I doubt prostitution was on the table for discussion. I worked with a lot of prostitutes as an advocate for victims of crime, most wanted out , most did not choose it, it chose them. Most felt trapped by the emotional damage to their self esteem, most felt they could not earn as much doing anything with the skill set they had. Most, told me they wish they could quit. It is complex. It does not , in most cases, raise the bar for self development or self esteem. I just wanted to chime in as I am getting ready to put Amnesty to task on overturning the policy.


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