Why It’s Okay To Pay For Sex

I’m a professional dominatrix and an intersectional feminist, and I’d like to tell you why it’s okay to pay for sex — but I will be doing that using a rather idiosyncratic definition of “okay.”

This essay isn’t about how nice my sex work clients usually are, how sex work can be therapeutic, or how we sex workers often work with disabled clients. It isn’t about the etiquette or morality of paying for sex, and it doesn’t offer advice to prospective clients or their loved ones.

These things are sometimes important and vital to this discussion, but the biggest reason that paying for sex is okay has nothing to do with convincing anyone that it’s a virtuous, liberatory, or feminist act.

Paying for sex is okay because if you’re for shaming and arresting our clients — owing to the fact that you think sex work is, for lack of a better word, gross — you’re for putting sex worker lives at risk in the name of a misguided moralism.

Conjure the typical, stigma-ridden image of a sex worker’s client: a leering, sweating, perverted cisgender male. He’s an easy target. Attacking his desire for transactional sex with embarrassing publicity or criminal penalties sounds good to a certain kind of feminist; a feminist who, lacking a more pointed critique of capitalism, tries to raise a moral panic to police patriarchy out of existence, and sees state methods of control as the best, if not the only, way to do this.

Journalist Melissa Gira Grant, citing sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein, calls these feminists carceral feminists. The clue is in the name; they would criminalize everything from women’s sexual pleasure in pornography to Rihanna’s gory, triumphant #BBHMM. Carceral feminists align frequently with unpleasant reactionaries and bigots; they would love to make sex work extinct, and they’ve had a recent run of good luck turning their prurience into deadly policy.

But because arresting mostly-women sex workers doesn’t look so good in the public eye, carceral feminists seek to criminalize the act of buying sexual services rather than selling them. Popularly dubbed the “Nordic Model,” this approach — pioneered in Sweden beginning in 1999 — has been adopted in Canada, Norway, and Northern Ireland. Supporters call it the feminist model, because the mostly-male clients get arrested, not the mostly-women, queer, and trans service providers.

But a quick look beneath the surface shows that the Nordic Model is anything but feminist.

In the wake of Amnesty International’s adoption of a policy supporting the full decriminalization of sex work, sex worker rights are under intense debate and scrutiny. But falling to the wayside of this discourse is the fact that arresting clients isn’t the answer to any question that either side of that debate might usefully ask. It doesn’t decrease the risk of violence, rape, and arrest for sex workers. It doesn’t eliminate sex work, and it does nothing to end patriarchy, male entitlement, or rape culture.

In their research, Amnesty investigators spoke to sex workers in places where selling sex is illegal, and those in places where sex work is indirectly criminalized with bans on working together, buying sex, brothels, streetwalking, or clients cruising for street-based workers. Sex workers facing indirect criminalization reported reduced income, increased isolation, reduced negotiating power, and increased violence.

Protestors at International Day Against Violence Against Sex Workers (Credit: Steve Rhodes/Flickr)
Protesters at International Day Against Violence Against Sex Workers (Credit: Steve Rhodes/Flickr)

A 2014 Independent report quotes Silvia, a 35-year-old Bulgarian working as a prostitute on the streets of Norway who’s operating under client criminalization:

“Before we did not go far with the customer: we would go to a car park nearby. But now the customer wants to go somewhere isolated because they are afraid. I don’t like it. There is more risk that something bad happens.’”

Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, and the majority of international public health bodies support decriminalization as an issue of health and safety. Criminalizing clients, like anything that encourages sex workers to avoid police, pushes all sex work further underground. Anything that pushes us into the shadows — from raids to restricting the places and ways that we work — increases violence, makes underage or coerced workers harder to find or report, and, through stigma, discourages workers in trouble from seeking help from health workers or police.

I’m not interested in debating those who are repulsed by sex work. I simply demand the same rights as anybody else, and I don’t thank anyone who makes my job more dangerous in the service of their moral crusade. To feminists supporting policies that brutalize sex workers in a misguided aim to liberate women, I would say this: it’s okay to pay for sex and to sell it, because even if you think sex work is anti-feminist, you can’t build justice using the brutal tools of an unjust state.

So how do you build justice? You don’t force it by using the police as proctors in your own pet sociology experiment, because to abolish patriarchy or racism calls for a profound and lasting change in our social relations, and a challenge to capitalism. Feminists can’t sit in ivory towers wishing for utopia; we engage the world, with all its complications, and our engagement with the criminal justice system should be within context.

We stand with Black Lives Matter, for example, in the essential fight to save black lives from police violence, but that demand for justice does not mean that resorting to using the police as a tool is broadly legitimate. A critical engagement with the police on one issue doesn’t imply that trying to police sex work out of existence at the cost of the lives of sex workers — a cost that disproportionately includes the lives of queer and trans people of color — is feminist.

The carceral feminist strategy is doomed to fail. Even if girls everywhere grew up without seeing women in bathing suits on billboards selling cars, servers in short skirts, or porn stars faking orgasms — even in a world made safe for carceral feminists and the religious right alike — patriarchy wouldn’t blink an eye; it would continue to reproduce itself. Patriarchy would still create women’s work, in fields ranging from sex work to domestic work to war, that is repugnant to some — work involving circumstances that a pampered, white western feminist can’t begin to defend, understand, or champion. But sex workers don’t care about the wrinkled noses (or the erections) of those who consider the morality of our work from a lofty remove. All people deserve human rights, and social change policy must punch up, not down; even if some feminists might dislike sex work, as soon as they try to criminalize sex workers, it isn’t feminism. It isn’t justice.

If activists can’t parse out the policy reforms from the social changes they’re designed to bring about, how, if at all, should we engage with police? We can fight to try to force the police to stop killing black people, but if we use the police to run immigration raids on brothels under the guise of hunting for traffickers, we can’t call that justice.

Sex worker protesters at San Francisco's City Hall (Credit: Ellya/Flickr)
Sex worker protesters at San Francisco’s City Hall (Credit: Ellya/Flickr)

White feminism — tone policing, All-Lives-Matter spouting, pumpkin-spice-drinking white feminism — thinks it knows what’s best for everyone who isn’t itself, including sex workers, and it’s happy for the police to help it press its points home, no matter how many of our lives it destroys in the process.

Intersectional feminism, however, tries to have a different relationship with police. We’ll critique them, but we don’t turn to police as a tool to transform our racist and sexist society. Intersectional feminism demands that it’s okay to sell sex and to pay for it, because no other approach serves the human rights of sex workers and the reduction of risk and harm in our work. It’s okay to sell sex because under capitalism we all must fight for as much justice and humanity within its strictures as we can, without legitimizing its existence or its tools.

Sex workers know the horror and brutality of rape culture as well as anyone, and we know that sexualization and objectification are some of its building blocks. It’s understandable that someone wanting to fight rape culture would see sex workers, with our short skirts and our deft wielding of gender stereotypes, as a very visible part of the problem of rape culture, and would see our extinction as a joyful extinction of rape culture. But to extinguish us through criminalization without addressing the root of the problem would be yet another fruitless brutality.

The real problem is power, and those who have it: men, and whites. They’ve got the power. If they want to help fix things, it’s up to them to challenge the assumptions of their fellows, within the cloisters of the spaces to which they alone have exclusive access. If privileged white women and men say they hate patriarchy, they must fight rape culture in their workplaces; in their families. They must fight for abortion rights and for consent education in schools. They must hold men accountable for the way they violate the consent of all women, instead of play-acting feminism by defending the imagined honor of their idea of a sex worker.

Yeah, I know, that’s a lot harder than throwing men in jail, saying they’re perverts for paying for sex, and calling it a day. And that’s kind of the point.