Sex Work Is Real Work
We must not prioritize the sensibilities of sex-worker exclusionary feminists above the personhood and safety of actual sex workers.
The most recent attack on the legitimacy of sex work attempts to indict the word itself. Sarah Ditum recently penned a piece entitled “Why we shouldn’t rebrand prostitution as ‘sex work.’ She lists various reasons for wanting to formalize and normalize the word “prostitute” instead. As some in the sexuality field may already know, many sex workers find the term “prostitute” offensive, and even consider it a slur. For this reason, there is a petition for AP style guide to change their official term to “sex worker” instead of “prostitute”. This petition is led by sex workers and their advocates and allies, and is one crucial step to decreasing stigma around this industry.
Ditum’s insistence that sex work is not in fact legitimate work — and that we all call its workers by a word with a hurtful, stigmatized history — leads me to wonder how frequently Ditum herself has engaged in any sex work, since she feels so comfortable speaking on their behalf. It doesn’t appear that she has any meaningful experience in this field, at least from her prior writings and her website. How ludicrous would it be for someone with no experience in graphic design to write an article on the best policies for graphic design implementation, and what graphic designers should call themselves? It would be laughable. So why do we allow it in regards to sex work?
Even Ditum acknowledges that we should listen to the voices of sex workers. She feels that “you can only listen to those who volunteer their voices,” and that the majority of sex workers aren’t interested in speaking, which is something on which we disagree. There are many reasons that sex workers who aren’t miserable or overly oppressed don’t want to speak up, not least of which is the crushing stigma of being open about sex work.
The opinions and needs of sex workers must always be valued above the voices of those who claim to speak for them. Allies, or those who think of themselves as such, do not belong at the forefront of decision-making.
I need to be crystal clear on this next point: I feel for Daisy, the anonymous woman Sarah Ditum speaks for in her article, and every other person like her. Says Ditum, “for Daisy, this emotional damage was profound: while in prostitution, she says she was incapable of forming intimate relationships.”
What Daisy experienced was not consensual sex work. It was abuse.
Let’s call it what it is. I don’t care if she wasn’t physically forced into it; she did this work under duress, and at a great emotional and sometimes physical cost. That is awful, and inexcusable, and I hope that we can all agree that her experiences should absolutely not be labeled as empowering or considered just a job like any other.
However, the crux of Ditum’s argument rests upon the premise that Daisy’s experience — abuse — is the case for an overwhelming majority of sex workers. Says Daisy, “No woman is a ‘sex worker’. It’s not work, it’s abuse.” Now Daisy claims to speak for every other sex worker, and this is where I must disagree. This premise is based on zero hard data, and in fact, contradicts the statements of every sex worker I’ve ever met.
Daisy also tries to undermine the legitimacy of sex work as a whole by claiming that nobody could ever love a sex worker. “How can you share someone if you love them?” she asks. That’s also a faulty premise: I know so many sex workers, current and former, who have beautiful loving relationships. Somewhat relatedly, I also know a great many couples who aren’t monogamous, and who are perfectly happy in that arrangement. I’m one of them. It’s heartbreaking that Daisy feels that way, and I can understand her position, but she by no means speaks for all.
Ditum argues that outspoken sex work activists can’t be trusted to speak for sex workers, since “their largely benign experiences are unusual.” Is this assertion based on any hard data? Are there any studies that suggest most sex workers, former or current, feel this way? The answer is no. We have a severe lack of any meaningful data on the experiences of sex workers; there are a variety of reasons for this, but that’s another article entirely. The end result is that this statement is based on nothing but personal bias.
To say that all sex work is abuse is to say that all sex is rape.
It removes consent from the equation entirely. This sentiment ends up objectifying the very sex workers whom it’s trying to save.
Another glaring flaw in Ditum’s arguments is her critique of the umbrella nature of the term “sex work”. Having an umbrella term isn’t necessarily problematic. Look at the term “queer,” which can mean anything from bicurious to homoflexible. But Ditum includes “dildo retailers” in her classification of sex workers, which leads me to believe she hasn’t done her homework. Sex shop owners and workers aren’t sex workers in the same sense as others in the industry, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a sex worker activist who would tell you otherwise.
Similarly, her assertion that the gender neutrality of the term “sex worker” is inherently flawed. Why shouldn’t we include all folks who work in this field under this identity? She’s correct: prostitute does subtly imply female. But what about male sex workers ,and nonbinary sex workers? Should they not be included? Purposefully choosing to exclude other genders is cisexist and only showing part of the picture.
Ditum attempts to devalue sex work itself by calling it unskilled, unproductive, tedious, and insignificant. She propounds that in a sex-for-money exchange, “the only thing produced is a man’s orgasm.” This is one of the clearest indicators that Ditum hasn’t thoroughly researched sex work; it can be deeply therapeutic for clients, and “men come in looking for companionship and connection.” She further argues that sex should be “a pleasure rather than a tedious obligation.” This would hold water if we were talking about sex for pleasure, not, you know, work.
Another nail in the coffin of Ditum’s thesis is it that it “confers no prestige on those who do it.” If prestige or lack thereof meant something wasn’t legitimate, many folks would be out a job. Furthermore, the denigrated and stigmatized nature of sex work isn’t innate. It’s a cultural bias. Perhaps Ditum isn’t familiar with courtesans, geishas, or kedeshim, but in other cultures and times, sex work was prestigious, even revered.
People should be allowed to choose whatever word suits them and their identity: they should use whatever makes them most comfortable. Who is Ditum to decide this? If a straight, cis man decides that “gay” isn’t an acceptable label, and gay men should instead identify as “dandies,” nobody would take him seriously. If a white woman declared that black folks shouldn’t identify as “black” anymore, she’d be roundly mocked and ignored by people of color. The overwhelming majority of sex workers would like us to use that term. There should be no further argument, even if some (self-identified) feminists like Didum are offended by it.
We must ask ourselves which is more important: The sensibilities of sex-worker exclusionary feminists like Didum, or the comfort and safety of actual sex workers?