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sex work and the right to choose

Posted at 20:40 on 6 Dec 2008 by Pandora / Blake

Tags: Gender politics, Politics, rant, Sex worker rights

I was recently fascinated to read this article, in which a sex worker ('Lara') tells her story in response to the recently-published "Big Brothel report" on non-street-based sex workers in London. This report lands at the same time as new legislation making it illegal to buy sex from a trafficked or exploited woman.

I am pro-choice when it comes to sex work. That doesn't mean that I don't think situations where choice is genuinely removed aren't horrific - of course they are. But all sex workers are often lumped in together as if they were incapable of consent - or as if it was impossible to consent to something so unpalatable as sex work. (It's worth noting at this point that the same attitude led to legislation making it illegal to consent to ABH. Of course consent is key and we all have personal choice and personal responsibility, but didn't you know that our consent isn't valid if it makes normal people feel uncomfortable?)

This interpretation is obscured by claims that the majority of sex workers in the UK are victims of trafficking or exploitation. This makes the issue nice and straightforward: of course trafficking and exploitation isn't okay, therefore clearly sex work isn't either.

But it's not that straightforward, and it's not true that most sex workers don't have a choice. For a start, it has been demonstrated that Julie Bindel's article in the previous paragraph indulges in exaggeration when talking about the figures of migrant sex workers (and migrant does not necessarily mean trafficked). There are no binary categories here: sex workers are not divided into kidnapped victims and Belle du Jour. For most people life is more complicated than that.

Lara's voice is just one voice from the broad range of experiences. Not all sex workers are their own boss, and not all of them have their own home. There is as broad a range of experience within the sex industry as within any other industry - retail, for example. Exploitation is a danger in any industry, particularly if you are from a marginalised or oppressed group. Very few people obliged to work long hours for little pay would choose to do so if they suddenly became rich and powerful. And yet generalisations about sex workers, painting them universally as victims incapable of making informed consent, abound.

I don't think Lara's story is representative of the majority of sex workers - it represents a point on a spectrum. But the more that spectrum is revealed, the better. The illegality and taboo nature of sex work has forced that spectrum underground: on the surface of society we are left with only the most misleading, sensationalistic generations about it. I applaud Lara for standing up and challenging those generalisations. The more voices are heard, the better.

Lara's story resonated with me, particularly when she described abandoning her soul-destroying, exploitative PA job to be her own boss. I can sympathise with that. I can tell you now, having just spent another two months giving it a go, that I find being a PA far more exploitative, unpleasant and oppressive than being a professional porn actress. For me, spanking modelling is a far better option.

I'm not a prostitute. I don't mean that to sound defensive - there'd be no problem if I was, but it would be misleading to put that name to what I do. But I am a sex worker, just as a stripper or a cam girl or a pro-domme is a sex worker. My business is getting people off - and because this is me, I try to do it as creatively and responsibly as possible. And, of course, to have as much fun as I can get away with while doing so.

So this is me, standing up and challenging those generalisations: I'm a sex worker, and I freely choose to be one. Don't try and tell me that choice is invalid, that I must be oppressed or desperate or exploited to consent to what I do. I have quite a range of options. This is the one that suits my temperament, my talents, my likes and dislikes best. It is a real choice, no less real than your choice to pursue whatever it is you do for a living. It is no less a real choice than my choice to be a self-employed designer, or writer, or artist or musician, or any of the other myriad ways I make money during the average year. If my choice to freelance as a web designer is my own then so is this choice. There is no coercion here.

I'm not saying it's an unproblematic choice. I live in an imperfect, patriarchal world, and of course it's not ideal that for a lot of women their highest worth is placed on their body. It's not ideal that young, educated, middle-class women who conform to patriarchal beauty standards have more options available to them than women who don't conform, or who are from oppressed groups. I'm not saying it's okay that vastly more women than men have the option of freeing themselves from wage slavery by making Lara's choice; and it's not okay that that imbalance arises from the objectification of women's bodies and sexuality through patriarchy. I'm not saying it's okay that single parents find it so soul-destroying or impossible to earn enough through socially-approved means that they have to seek risky, underground, illegal options. I'm not saying it's okay that so many workers are so underpaid and exploited, enduring such crushingly long hours and commutes, that selling sex seems like a more palatable choice.

And yet ... In a sense, Lara is more free than most people in this society. None of us are free, but she is at least empowering herself to the best of her ability within her range of options. The way our society structures work is completely dysfunctional. But it is not wrong or invalid, in this imperfect world, for Lara to make the choice she has, any more than it is wrong or invalid for a migrant person to take risks that compromise their safety in their desire to move to another country.

A migrant who ends up working as an underpaid, illegally hired kitchen cleaner is in danger from the law and at risk of exploitation. So is a migrant who ends up finding work as a prostitute. That's not to say that the passive victims of kidnapping and rape don't exist. But "coercion" is a complex issue, and not every "trafficked" woman is a hapless prisoner.



(This poster on "rescues" performed by law-enforcers on migrant sex workers illustrates the point poignantly and succinctly.)

What we have here is a spectrum, ranging from very poor or oppressed women living on the poverty line, with children or a drug habit to support, to Lara and Belle du Jour.

"Trafficking" does not only refer to hapless victims; it includes a range of people who are making complex choices in an imperfect world. Sex sellers are, for the most part, doing the same thing, and I don't think taking their livelihood away by making it illegal to employ them is going to help anyone.

My story doesn't trump the women in this country who are abused, exploited, or raped. My story does not invalidate the reality that a substantial proportion of sex workers in this country would do something else if they had better options. But even someone turning to sex work out of desperation is going to suffer if we take that option away from them too. And the invisible spectrum of people making complex choices, making the best choice they can, will have that choice compromised in the process.

I'm not deluding myself that all or most sex workers are happy hookers, who are as privileged as I am. But I think legalising and regulating prostitution, and offering increased structures of support to the whole spectrum of sex workers, is the best way of helping those who aren't.

Comments

[...] “So this is me, standing up and challenging those generalisations: I’m a sex worker, and I freely choose to be one. Don’t try and tell me that choice is invalid, that I must be oppressed or desperate or exploited to consent to what I do. I have quite a range of options. This is the one that suits my temperament, my talents, my likes and dislikes best. It is a real choice, no less real than your choice to pursue whatever it is you do for a living. It is no less a real choice than my choice to be a self-employed designer, or writer, or artist or musician, or any of the other myriad ways I make money during the average year. If my choice to freelance as a web designer is my own then so is this choice. There is no coercion here.” sex work and the right to choose – Spanked, Not Silenced [...]

[...] Porn, like sex work, defies easy generalisations Sex work and the right to choose Posted in Fairtrade porn, Gender politics, Kink activism, Politics, Sex worker rights [...]

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