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Understanding Sex Work as Work

by Hanna Carney //

Sex work as a profession is widely misunderstood in the United States. Many stereotypes that surround the sex trade are harmful and inaccurate. For example, people tend to imagine women when they imagine a sex worker, but all gender and sexual identities are represented in sex work. Moreover, sex workers are often stereotyped as immoral, dirty, unintelligent, drug addicts who can’t get a “real” job. In other words, sex work is associated with immorality resulting in moral blame being placed on sex workers. Conversely, society also tends to simultaneously victimize these individuals, stripping them of their own bodily autonomy.  

Sex workers can have agency just as anyone can, and to reduce sex workers to be mere victims of some oppressive circumstance and nothing else denies them that agency.

It is true that people with marginalized identities (such as women, the LGBTQ+, and BIPOC) may have more difficulty finding jobs in the US, so they may feel that making a living from sex work is a more viable career option. However, people fail to recognize the differences between sex work and human trafficking. Sex workers can have agency just as anyone can, and to reduce sex workers to be mere victims of some oppressive circumstance and nothing else denies them that agency. Some individuals may “pursue sex work to explore or express their sexuality,” as Open Society Foundations astutely points out. Not everyone’s reasoning for working in the sex trade is the same.

We have a lot of educating to do on the nuances of sex work in America and around the world. A good starting point is examining current bills in the New York State Legislature that could decriminalize sex work. 

Stop the Violence in the Sex Trades Bill

This bill is sponsored by New York State Senator Julia Salazar. What is distinguishable about this bill is that it aspires to decriminalize not just sex workers but their clients and managers as well. These specifications—including clients and managers in decriminalization—are vital for the protection of sex workers. If clients, for example, could still be held criminal for hiring a sex worker, sex workers would have less clients and lower wages. This would inevitably lead to harsher working conditions. Specifically, as Open Society Foundations publishes in “Understanding Sex Work in an Open Society,”

Criminalization makes it difficult for sex workers to report rights violations, especially by the police, because they are vulnerable to incarceration, further abuse, and retribution. This perpetuates stigma, violence, and impunity, which further endanger sex workers’ health and safety.

Decriminalizing sex work and all consenting individuals involved is essential for protecting these individuals and promoting a safe, sex positive environment.

Sex Trade Survivors Justice and Equality Act

New York State Senator Liz Kreuger is promoting the Sex Trade Survivors Justice and Equality Act. In contrast to the Salazar bill, this one would only decriminalize sex workers, excluding managers and clients from this protection.

For the reasons mentioned above, this bill is inadequate, considering how it would not successfully protect sex workers as it supposedly intends to do. The New York State Legislature should also consider how this bill would disproportionately endanger sex workers of various identities, as BIPOC, the LGBTQ+, and undocumented individuals would be particularly vulnerable to the stigma and violence that would continue if this bill were passed. Supposed “activism” in favor of sex workers can sometimes actually life harder for sex workers. That is why it is so important to understand the nuances of the sex trade in America.

Sex Work During the Time of COVID

During lockdown, many sex workers had to stop any in-person work, because if they chose to continue working in person, the legal and health risks increased exponentially. Not only did they risk catching COVID-19 but it also became more difficult to get regular STI testing as hospitals were overwhelmed with COVID patients.

Since we saw the first cases of COVID-19 in the US, the unique vulnerabilities that sex workers experience in this country became apparent. Like most of the country, sex workers were put under financial stress as things became uncertain. During lockdown, many sex workers had to stop any in-person work, because if they chose to continue working in person, the legal and health risks increased exponentially. Not only did they risk catching COVID-19 but it also became more difficult to get regular STI testing as hospitals were overwhelmed with COVID patients. These reasons help explain why so many sex workers relied on online platforms to continue work. However, the criminalization and stigma surrounding the sex trade continued to make life especially difficult for sex workers during pandemic.

In August 2021, OnlyFans announced that they would be banning pornography on their website. This came as a blow to many sex workers who found some financial stability through their posts on OnlyFans. The website reversed this decision only a few weeks later, assuring that they would still allow porn on their websites, but online platforms can still be unstable for sex workers. Social media sites such as Instagram and Twitter constantly take down the posts of sex workers despite allowing similar content from other users. 

It is no question that sex workers deserve respect and safe working conditions. But some believe the question still remains of whether or not the sex trade can be an empowering profession within the patriarchy. Cecilia Gentili’s testament below outlines some of the more positive aspects of her experience as a sex worker.

An Empowering Service Industry

Cecilia Gentili, who wrote the guest essay “This Is What Will Make Sex Work in New York Safer” in the New York Times, shares her former experiences as a trans woman in the sex trade. Her eloquent and honest testimony sheds light on how the sex trade can be an empowering industry—not just for workers but clients as well:

“Sex work is a service industry. We often help people with social anxiety or a disability and those who are figuring out their sexuality or gender identity. Clients and co-workers (who are often prosecuted as traffickers) very often provide care to sex workers as well. It was a sex worker who helped me escape from a trafficking situation, not the police. It was a client who encouraged and helped me get into a drug treatment program, and it was a client who gave me my first immigration legal advice and helped me open my first bank account.”

Some enter the sex trade to empower themselves. Some do it to empower others. Some because they feel they need to. But no matter the reason, all sex workers deserve respect, understanding, and safe working conditions. 

Gentili and many others appreciate how the sex trade holds the opportunity to empower the individuals involved. On the other hand, some believe that sex work can only be oppressive in a patriarchal society, while others fall somwhere in the middle.

#SexWorkIsWork

Regardless, sex work can be a viable and respectable way to make a living. Some enter the sex trade to empower themselves. Some do it to empower others. Some because they feel they need to. But no matter the reason, all sex workers deserve respect, understanding, and safe working conditions. 

Click here to read further about how you can be an ally to sex workers.