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Why sex work doesn't work

“I want to bring us back to basics. Prostitution: what is it? It is the use of a woman’s body for sex by a man, he pays money, he does what he wants. The minute you move away from what it really is, you move away from prostitution into the world of ideas. You will feel better; you will have a better time; it is more fun; there is plenty to discuss, but you will be discussing ideas, not prostitution. Prostitution is not an idea. It is the mouth, the vagina, the rectum, penetrated usually by a penis, sometimes hands, sometimes objects, by one man and then another and then another and then another and then another. That’s what it is” – Andrea Dworkin

The Myth of Sex Work


The idea of sex as work creates a foundation from which men can harm women with impunity. It is not possible to make prostitution “safer” for women. It is possible, however, to make it safer for men to profit off women in prostitution and safer for men to purchase sexual acts from women. This is because no brothel, no set of workplace best practices, no security camera, or any other measure taken to attempt to make prostitution “safer” for women can do anything to address a fundamental harm of prostitution: that is, a woman enduring repeated unwanted sexual acts with men she does not desire sexually or to interact with socially.


To begin to understand the fundamental harms of prostitution, as Vednita Carter and Evelina Giobbe describe in their article Duet: Prostitution, Racism, and Feminist Discourse, we need to acknowledge that it is an impossibility that every single woman in prostitution actually desires to engage in sex acts with every single man that is paying her to do so, in the way he wants, every single time a prostitution exchange occurs. In this way, the idea of “sex work” creates a socially-sanctioned opportunity for men to act on their entitlement to sex with a woman of their choosing, whenever, and however they want.


The Logic of Sex Work is Work


Scenario 1 – Working at a Clothing Store


A woman is employed at a clothing store and often doesn’t feel like going to work or performing her job duties, but most often does them anyways. This is because she needs the paycheque, because she doesn’t want to be reprimanded by her boss, because she doesn’t want to pass on her duties to her co-workers, or because she needs to keep her job, among other reasons. This means that she sometimes slaps a fake smile on her face the best she can and performs her job duties such as folding clothes, organizing the sales floor, assisting customers, or working at the cash register. She is not performing her job duties because she truly desires to do so but because she needs a paycheque to support herself and her family. This is evidenced in that she does not do this work without pay; she desires the paycheque, not the job duties. When she does this work that she doesn’t desire, she might feel annoyed, frustrated, or tired.


Scenario 2 – Working in a Brothel


If a woman is working in a brothel and doesn’t feel like going to work or doing her job duties, she most often does them anyways. This is because she needs the paycheque, because she doesn’t want to be reprimanded by her boss, because she doesn’t want to pass on her duties to her co-workers, or because she needs to keep her job, among other reasons. This means that she sometimes slaps a fake smile on her face the best she can and performs her job duties such as giving a man she’s never met before a blowjob, being penetrated vaginally or anally or both at the same time, stroking a man’s ego by agreeing with everything he says, or checking a man’s penis for visible signs of an STI (only the brothel worker is required to be tested for STIs, clients are not). She is not performing her job duties because she truly desires to do so but because she needs a paycheque to support herself and her family. This is evidenced in that she does not do this work without pay. She desires the paycheque; not the job duties.


This is where we can clearly see the danger of pretending that prostitution is“sex work”; a “job”; an “occupation”. If your job duties require that you engage in sex acts with a man you find unattractive and do not desire sexually or to interact with socially, or perhaps you just don’t feel like engaging in a particular sex act that day, or doing so in the location you’re in - what does this mean?


This means women as “sex workers” in a “job like any other” are obligated to engage in sexual acts, day in and day out, with men they do not sexually desire.


Sex Work and Rape Culture


Whether this happens once or multiple times, inside or outside of the sex industry, being in a situation where a woman is doing or receiving sexual acts to or from a man that she does not sexually desire is harmful. As many women, I have been in this situation and relied on the support of feminist friends and a rape crisis centre to help me better understand what happened; which for me, is an ongoing process. To a greater or lesser extent, sooner or later, these experiences of male violence have an impact on our health and well-being.


What does it mean to say that that the act of prostitution itself – that unwanted sex – is not harmful for women? Does this mean that women in prostitution are somehow different from other women – that “those women” are built to engage in undesired sex acts over and over and over with no harmful impact on their bodies, emotions, or sense of self? My answer to this question is unequivocally “NO”. To create a new category of women who are no longer women but “sex workers” creates false distinctions among women when in reality, we are women with differences who share common experiences of being born female and raised in a patriarchal culture.


Sex Work doesn't Work


Sex work ideology requires that men's entitlement to sex on demand is affirmed and institutionalized and also that women's "obligation" to fulfill these demands are also affirmed and institutionalized. How can we challenge "rape culture" while also supporting men's entitlement to sex on demand? Attempting to do so only sends the message that men are entitled to sex on demand with certain groups women if they provide some compensation but also that men are not entitled to sex on demand with other groups of women. Either we challenge this demand as part of working to end patriarchy or we accept this demand and work to accommodate it by creating a culture that embeds, normalizes and even promotes sex work ideology.


These are difficult but important discussions, and I hope that the safety and well-being of women takes priority over any discomfort one may feel when engaging with controversial issues.

©2019

by Cherry Smiley