The False Allure of “Sex Work”

Nikki Bell

Alana Massey, a pro “sex worker” rights advocate, sent me her recent article in Allure Magazine regarding the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017 (SESTA), a bill that proposes amendments to the Communications Decency Act Section 230 to allow litigation to proceed against internet service providers that knowingly allow advertisements that traffic people for sex. She had what she thought were really valid arguments as to why this legislation is going to harm individuals in the commercial sex industry. My first thought was “How can she not see that it is the industry itself that is harming people caught in it?”

I guess that is something I will never quite understand. In the opening of her opinion piece Alana states that SESTA is hated by survivors of trafficking and advocates alike, but that is absolutely not true. I am a survivor of the sex industry — and note I use the term survivor — because I survived something that was meant to destroy me. Physically, emotionally, and mentally. I did not retire, I was not thrown a party to celebrate my decade being sold for sex, I survived with a whole host of trauma and other issues I now am forced to wade through. Alana also says that she does not publicly talk about her trauma from the sex industry because she doesn’t want to be labeled as “too damaged to be believed or heard.” That is another place where she and I differ. I speak of my trauma and the destruction the sex industry caused. This does not make me weak or unbelievable, it makes me strong and brave and hopefully gives voice to other survivors that want to speak out as well.

I know many survivors and survivor-led organizations who have signed on to support, and have been a part of, creating this legislation. I have sat beside many advocates who are fighting for SESTA to be passed, but most importantly I stand beside too many victims that are fighting on a daily basis to make it out of this violent industry alive.

Alana talks about choice in her article. Her version of choice differs drastically from the version of choice I see. You see, it is a choice of privilege to choose sex work. I fully understand how someone who chose to enter the sex industry while attending Yale and NYU doesn’t understand the woman being exploited because she doesn’t have money to eat. How can the lack of choice define choice? In other words, the options are to give a sex buyer (who absolutely disgusts me and does not see me as human) a blow job or starve to death? Pretty simple, huh? I have worked with over a hundred survivors during the last year and one thing they all have in common is that they want out of the sex trade immediately but feel as if they have no other options. Yes that is correct — it’s not choosing to delay going to Yale for a semester, it’s choosing to have a place to sleep, food to eat, shoes on your feet. Very different definitions of choice.

Alana also erroneously claims in her argument against SESTA that if the bill passes, it will make it more dangerous for those involved in the sex trade. My question to her is how can it possibly get any more dangerous? Prostitution has a higher murder rate than any other “career.” Alana claims that, if SESTA passes, individuals choosing to be in the sex trade cannot share information about dangerous sex buyers. That in itself is scary: the fact that you need an online mechanism to share information about customers that want to kill you. The sex trade is often compared to other types of service industries, but I cannot remember the last time I heard of a catering service having to warn others of clients wanting to hurt them. To be truthful, a pimp is not going to share information about a deadly sex buyer because he doesn’t care if this victim gets killed so long as he gets his money. I have watched women I know go back with sex-buying men who are deadly, because they had no other choice, because their “choice” was to starve, be drug sick, or sleep outside or potentially have their head kicked in: guess what they chose.

You see, Alana’s voice is being published in a mainstream fashion magazine and is amplified louder than our voices because of her privilege. Because she is Yale-educated and backed by pro sex work lobbyists with deep pockets. Our voices are not being elevated anywhere near the volume of hers and it’s hurting us — but we will not be silenced. You can sit in your ivory tower and try to frame this legislation from the perspective of the privileged few while we are in the trenches with our hands dirty helping victims survive another day.

I have yet to meet in person, through my work, one survivor who chose this life because she found it empowering. Truly. In speaking with the one hundred plus women I have worked with at LIFT, ALL of them want to stop, to get out of the sex trade. They hate it, they hate themselves, they hate the men that purchase them, and they are drowning because the trauma they experienced in the sex trade is just too much.

So Alana, you sit and talk about empowerment, and choice, and autonomy, but what I see is exploitation, abuse, and pain. You advocate for the privileged few and we work with the masses. The masses, who if we don’t do something to change the narrative around prostitution, may die like too many of my sisters.

Call your Senators and advocate for the passage of SESTA. Help our voices be heard and help the women trapped in the sex industry know that you hear them too.


Nikki Bell is the founder and director of Living in Freedom Together (LIFT), a survivor led agency dedicated to supporting survivors of CSE and trafficking.