Across the left divide over sex work.
I’m putting on my op-ed hat for this. The following draws from my own history, but I think it helps provide some insight into the left-wing divide over sex work. I’m skipping over this very quickly, and I’m sure I’ll probably forget some important distinctions and nuances, so bear with me.
This is two parts in one: a personal experience for context, and then some important distinctions about the divisions among the left and among womens’ rights groups over sex work.
A Personal Experience: A Preface
It takes a certain kind of person to be able to do sex work, and that person isn’t me. It consumes a lot of personal and emotional energy (which, when compounded with the social stigma, is probably why drug use becomes common, I believe). It’s fine if you’re the ebullient sort who knows how to recoup and restore that energy, but I’m not — I’m actually a recluse by nature. Nevertheless, I did sex work at two different periods of my life, and in two very different sets of circumstances.
The first time, I engaged in street-level work at the age of twenty, and it was awful. Back then, I worked as a male-bodied person for male clients, and was engaging in sex work due to poverty, limited options and desperation. It was complicated by my own gender identity conflict, which caused serious personal issues with my body, as well as an awkward interpersonal dynamic with dates that did not fit my inner self (for one example, nearly everything my dates were attracted to were things I hated). Worse, street-level work is undeniably one of the hardest forms of sex work, with a particular moment-to-moment vulnerability, and the knowledge that no one would be on your side if something went wrong — not police, not friends, probably not family… you’re completely alone. And it was all too clear to the people around you who you were, and those people consequently made it all too clear what they thought of you. The street is not a place for pride and a sense of self worth. If it had been my only experience, then I might have thought differently about sex work.
In my later thirties, out of necessity (a sudden loss of an income while early into gender transition, making it particularly tough to find new work), I did some escorting to make ends meet. This time, it was quite different, working as a trans woman available to males who were at varying states of self-acceptance, and who were variously straight (or mostly so), queer and/or occasionally pre-trans themselves (that is to say, people who were a form of trans* but not yet comfortable with that or not yet decided on a course of action). At this time, interpersonal dynamics were different because I was finally who I felt I was supposed to be… and I was at far more peace with my body, even though there would still be some closure to achieve. I was more mature, and had different expectations. Additionally, escorting is more often date-like, with more substance and respect, and occurs mostly outside the view of condemning eyes. But what really stood out from the contrast between the two experiences was the difference in the amount of control I had over my surroundings and my own destiny — my autonomy.
The contrasting differences between those experiences revealed a lot to me about sex work. When I worked mostly from a position of poverty and survival, I was mostly helpless to the world around me, felt trapped, and would more or less have been easy prey, had I met the wrong person. When escorting, I was afforded more control of my surroundings, better ability to screen people, the opportunity to negotiate what I would and wouldn’t do, and the ability to quit when I wanted to. Having some sense of personal power over my life made a tremendous difference, and actually resulted in work that I could enjoy at times, personal energy issues notwithstanding.
There could have been a lot more autonomy, though: I still had to worry about police and how an arrest would affect my life; communicating was still risky, and a lot of negotiation was skipped over in the name of “discretion”; I still realized that if something went wrong, I couldn’t turn to the authorities and rely on them for help; I was still concerned for how the attitudes toward sex workers could poison my interactions with the people I needed for support. Decriminalization on its own does not fix all of these things, but it now seems to me to be a necessary step toward doing so. I can’t see how it would be possible to reduce the stigma that people experience, if they’re still treated as though their livelihoods are illegal… or in the case of the Nordic model, if they still need to operate under that pretext for the sake of their clients.
This contrast also drove home just how diverse sex work really is. It’s impossible to assess all sex work as a whole, since the everyday realities vary so completely from one kind to another. Acting in porn is far different from street-level work, which is far different from escorting, from stripping, massage, professional domination, etc.
The reasons that people might engage in sex work also vary, but I’ve tended to compare and contrast them between terms of poverty and opportunity. A person’s ability to be satisfied with their life in sex work — and to leave whenever they choose — is directly related to how much personal autonomy and agency they retain. There are still other factors that can affect a person’s ability to be self-determining, but taking the criminalization and institutional antipathy out of the equation is a tremendous start. And because a person becomes more empowered and has institutional resources they could theoretically turn to, it also helps reduce the manner, extent and ways in which they can be personally exploited.
These are the contrasting experiences from which I look at the issue of sex work, and the division among the political left, over it.
Across the Left Divide
It’s important to acknowledge that neither decriminalization nor “abolition” (which is probably a misnomer, since it wouldn’t completely eradicate sex work) will eliminate risk, nor will either of them completely eliminate the fact that exploitation occurs. This is important, because abolitionists will often point to the fact that a risk still exists as evidence that decriminalization fails, while erasing the fact that the same is true of abolition… and that the risk may in fact even be compounded by abolition-focused laws.
In a decriminalized environment, there are greater options, and more unconditional support for a person if they are wronged and seek help (although social attitudes toward sex workers can still be a barrier). Likewise, there is far less deterrent for a person to report exploitation if they are aware of it occurring. Harm is reduced through decriminalization simply by the virtue that it empowers people (well, more accurately, it eliminates much of the disempowerment that anti-prostitution laws institutionalize — it would take more to actually empower).
And an empowered person has greater freedom to choose (or create) less exploitative circumstances.
But I think where the divide among the political left and among feminists (and womens’ rights supporters under any other label) is resides in whether someone sees a sex worker’s autonomy as the desirable endpoint. Is it enough to place people in a position where they can better determine their own destiny? Or does government have a responsibility to eliminate all the variables, in order to save the few who might still find themselves in miserable circumstances — even if it increases the hardship and risk for everyone else? That is the question.
My belief is that government cannot possibly eliminate those variables, and it’s far more practical to give individuals the power they need to address their own needs based on their circumstances. What is needed is the freedom to communicate, to reduce harms and stigma, and to form independent support organizations that are worker-focused and better positioned to see and address them… something people are not very free to do in the current social climate.
The debate is further confounded (possibly deliberately) by the ever-increasing conflation between sex work and human trafficking, which are actually two very different issues. Equating the two is a serious derailment of the issue of actual human trafficking, by exploiting a real and urgent problem to attack a tangential population, and divert the funds that could have been used to address actual coercion, abduction and exploitation, directing them instead toward initiatives that will not provide any significant help to those who are genuinely trafficked.
This conflation occurs because the language from abolitionists deliberately equates sex workers with bought-and-sold commodities, portraying transactional sex as though it is the person themselves who is for sale, rather than the service the sex worker provides. The language that assumes that one is a traded product during commercial sex is understandably enraging. It would be natural to be infuriated about sex work if that were really the case. And this is often the way that abolitionists frame the discussion: as though prostitution sells people. In reality, sex workers sell an experience, from which a they ultimately walk away, with their capacity to direct their own lives intact and their ownership still in their own hands (as much as is possible for any of us, at least).
It is through this framing that the personhood of sex workers is erased, and replaced with a kind of infantilized victimhood in which sex workers are simply helpless and in need of rescue… even from themselves, perhaps. It is by portraying the worker as the commodity that is for sale, rather than the service they provide, that people can then argue that a worker’s consent is not actually valid consent. Individual will has ceased to matter.
Of course, there will always be a segment of people who view all sex work and anything that conforms to sexual stereotyping (perhaps even sexuality itself) as violence toward women. For those people, if they can’t see how patriarchal and patronizing — let alone disempowering — criminalization (which is a regulation of mostly female bodies and mostly female choices) is, then there’s probably no common ground on which we can meet. I know that there are some very painful experiences that lead people to those conclusions, and I don’t mean to be insensitive to that. However, my experiences simply lead me to different conclusions.
And while criminalizing the buyer might *sound* like a reasonable middle ground, I really can’t see how it would change the need to work and communicate out of view and in vulnerable or exploitative spaces. I also can’t see how it would change the level of respect in the dialogue about women (and men, and anyone in between) in the sex trade… other than continually casting them in this two-dimensional role of helpless victim. In reality, though, criminalization of the buyer is still criminalization. There’s still the need to work in secrecy, to protect one’s livelihood, to take chances, and to distrust and avoid contact with the authorities at all cost. For the life of me, as someone who has done this, I cannot see how the Nordic model would be any worthwhile change from the three unreasonable laws that were struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada. Rather, it is simply a more stealthy way to repackage those same harms and maintain them for the ten or more years that it will take to strike down this new face given to the status quo.
Abolition makes the classic mistake of addressing a symptom rather than the primary cause. Face it: when the choice is between $1000 a night or $1000 a month at McStarbuMart, that’s not much of a choice. As long as this is the reality, and as long as there is no political will to address poverty and the enormous gulf that has manifested between accessible incomes and life-sustaining incomes, there will be people who feel a need to engage in commercial sex.
I find that the left-wing and feminist divides over sex work boil down to a question of whether a person believes that a person’s right to personal empowerment and autonomy (including over their body and their life decisions) should be paramount, or if the government’s responsibility to actively protect women should be seen as justification to trump this, regardless of the sex worker’s will and the effect on their surroundings, their lives and their future.
What is being attempted with the Nordic system of criminalizing buying is to simply try to either undermine the argument surrounding a woman’s right to choose, or to allay those concerns. And for those who don’t look beyond the surface, there may be the temptation to believe that. Don’t you believe it.
The Federal Government’s slanted public consultation is online until March 17th. Tell them in no uncertain terms that the consultation needs to consider the experiences of sex workers, particularly those who are still working and seeking to make a safe life for themselves.
(Crossposted to Rabble.ca)