In recognition of a 2001 event which saw over 25,000 sex workers congregating in India, today is International Sex Workers’ Rights Day. I lack the expertise to seriously document the ways sex workers are abused internationally, but I can write a little bit about the American social left.
Political and social barriers to sex workers’ rights are intertwined and often indistinguishable. In many places, prostitution is illegal but in high demand, and the men and women who meet the demand are faced with threats from the police themselves and from clients who are aware that prostitutes frequently lack basic police protections. Powerful social stigmas impede efforts to legalize prostitution or at least shift penalties away from sex workers. Even forms of sex work which are more legal in the United States, such as pornography, carry similar stigmas.
There are serious social problems which contribute to demand for certain types of paid sex and certain arrangements of sexual media, many of which do perpetuate problematic stereotypes related to gender and sexuality, but the blame for these problems does not rest with sex workers. I fully expect social conservatives to be anti-prostitution, but it is time for anti-sex-work progressives and feminists to reconsider their attitudes. Sex workers, stereotypically but not universally female and poor, are not helpless victims of patriarchal abusers, nor are they brainwashed into complacency with oppression. Everyone’s employment decisions happen in the context of powerful economic systems — state-sanctioned and otherwise — and involve various forms of risk assessment. Considering the obvious parallels between sex-work-stigmatization and the slut-shaming associated with the more general sexual double standard, it’s safe to say that feminist justifications for criminalization are not exempt from the influences of mainstream sexism.