Our society’s relationship to sex work is often characterised by appalled hysteria and a prurient titillation. The media is mostly interested in stories of either unthinkable violence and trauma, or those of privileged, model-esque, very well-remunerated sex workers who idly do half an hour’s work once a month for a new designer handbag. Given that this is the level of nuanced discourse usually on offer, the ill-informed outrage directed at Durham University this month came as no surprise, egregiously stupid as it was. A training session titled “Students Involved in the Adult Sex Industry” was launched, primarily targeting staff who support students, to help them to receive disclosures appropriately and to provide informed guidance. The Times reported that Michelle Donelan, the minister for higher and further education, had described this coaching as “promoting training for sex work”. In 2018, the newspaper reported on a similar safety initiative at Brighton as “offering tips on how to be a prostitute”. Donelan and the MP Diane Abbott were among the many who voiced their condemnation.
It seems amazing to me that there can be any argument about whether it is acceptable to provide support to people already engaging in an activity, whatever your opinion of the activity itself. Why is it seen as a bad thing to offer compassionate, practical help to often vulnerable people? This outrage seems to stem from a belief that acknowledging the lived reality of sex workers is wrong, because we ought to be always pursuing an ideal society without sex work in it – a society very different from the one we live in now. This is the only explanation I can identify, aside from the one which says they would rather that sex workers should go without safety measures, exposing themselves to greater dangers, hopefully just dying off or disappearing so we can begin our new utopia without them. Can anyone really believe that acknowledging the existence of something is promoting it enthusiastically? On a basic level it’s true that one has to be aware of something to engage with it, but I can’t believe there are many adults, even 18-year-old students, so naïve they don’t know that people exchange sex for money and goods.
Once we have, shock horror, heard that sex work exists, are we immediately encouraged into doing it ourselves? If a person does not want to do sex work but is forced to by their poverty and financial responsibilities, this is indeed a terrible and tragic situation. It’s a lonely and desperate feeling to know that your resources are limited to the bare bones of yourself. If you are not temperamentally suited to doing sex work, or your position is such that the only work you can do is ill-paid and dangerous, of course this is dreadful, of course I wish it never took place.
But the difference between me and opponents of sex work – who believe sex work should be criminalised and further stigmatised – seems to be that I perceive the necessity itself as the pressing and intolerable issue, rather than the outcome of the necessity. The need which forces someone to do something with their body they do not wish to is the problem. The effect is not the cause. If a person is in such dire straits that they have to do something which they deeply hate to survive, our concern must be for the pathetically tattered state of social protections.
Let’s say that we agree to ignore the undeniable reality that sex work exists, and stop arguing for a moment about the apparently controversial idea that it is better for sex workers to have resources and information than to be silent and neglected. What about this utopia then, if we want to imagine it? In any ideal world I can think of, nobody would do any work that caused them misery, whether it had to do with sex or not. If we imagine that in our utopia nobody is compelled to do anything out of urgent financial need and a lack of options or support, how can we say that sex work is inherently, fundamentally wrong or harmful? It’s my belief that anything a person or people wish to do with their bodies, which doesn’t cause harm to another, doesn’t require my judgement or validation. It ultimately doesn’t matter what I think it would be like to do sex work, whether I find the idea uncomfortable or wonderful.
I wonder if part of the problem for those who vehemently support total criminalisation is a failure to take the imaginative leap, to accept that their own feelings of revulsion are not universal. If we can agree that sex work is not inherently morally wrong, then the only outrage that remains is over circumstances where sex work is compulsory or forced, either by personal circumstances or by another human being. The state of compulsion is the true problem, rather than the act of selling sex.
Discussing the revulsion with which they feel many anti-sex work feminists speak about them, sex workers and writers Juno Mac and Molly Smith wrote in their 2019 book Revolting Prostitutes:
“We live in a culture where it is assumed that to penetrate someone sexually is intrinsically an act of dominance and to be sexually penetrated is to be made subservient. This means that the mistreatment of sex workers begins to seem natural. If we who sell sex are already degraded through penetration, then the further degradation of being written about as garbage cans, fleshholes, sperm receptacles, orifices or blow-up dolls is seen as fact rather than as actively reproducing and perpetuating misogynist discourse – and all in the name of feminism.”
Much of the reaction to sex work is clearly to do with disgust rather than a sincere desire to keep women safe. So-called feminists who claim to be anti-sex work in the name of protecting women have spoken in alarmingly degrading terms about the very people they claim to wish to protect. If their concern was truly about well-being, instead of rooted in archaic revulsion, they would never even speak with such hatred about those who are, according to their own terms, perpetual victims.