The real work of sex work.

A few thoughts on "sex work is real work" and why I think stigma should be here to stay.

If there has been one constant throughout the history of humankind, and even well before anything even resembling a "human" existed, it's that sex is reasonably the most important act we ever engage in. This has meant that sex has been worshipped, feared, praised, and denigrated - and not least, transacted - throughout every age. 

In a way, there is nothing more "trad" than prostitution. 

The modern, acceptable, thinking-person take on sex work (and I'll use this concept because this is the thing that is supposed to be "real work", though I don't agree with the catch-all nature of the term) is a variant of live-and-let-live libertarianism: Sex is a choice, the choice is free, and consent is the gold standard of sex choosers.

Sex is thus freed from both romantic notions and patriarchal chains, to be enjoyed as what it really is - a, umm, sporty, life-affirming, vigorous - choice. 

But this is not our only attitude to sex: to compensate for the wild nature of our new found libertinism, we've cultivated more and more sensitivity around autonomy, consent, and harassment. A hand on your knee can spark not only termination, but the less-than-gentleman may never get a job again. Our new-found freedom has found a thorny landscape to navigate and, when navigation fails, to regulate under the iron fist of consent. 

Our culture holds two opposing positions and pushes both: 

Sex is now both more sacred and more meaningless. 

So, can we hold these two opposing values in tension?

Suppose our intuitions about sex being an act unlike any other are simply a failure of reason or just projections of our insecurities onto the fulfillment of others. Why can't we expand this rationality onto the act of rape and see it as it "really" is, the equivalent of a mugging with potentially less property damage? 

Can we square the fact that rape is one of the most egregious crimes we can imagine, that sexual harassment warrants ostracism, and - that having sex with someone is as casual as a back rub and just another service? 

If we've decided that consent is the only dial on this thing and, therefore, the final frontier in the complex moral domain of sex, then is consent the level at which sacredness lies?  

Prostitution is essentially a "creation" of consent where none exists for a large enough sum of money. If "taking" sex without consent is abhorrent, is consensual sex, where the only difference between consent and non-consent is a $100 bill, morally neutral? Is bought consent a particular type of consent or none at all? 

The concept that sex work is (just) work quickly leads to intuitively abhorrent things, like this case in Germany, where unemployment benefits were withheld from a woman because she did not want to take up employment that was available - as an escort. A future where being a sex worker is on a shortlist for your daughter's high school guidance counselor may be a chilling vision, but if destigmatization efforts succeed, this may not be too far from reality. 

Many libertarian feminists assert that consent, beyond its apocalyptic moral weight (never questioned), is subject to transaction. Consent is both the most vital force in the universe, unequivocal and unquestionable, and something to be haggled over on the street corner and traded for just enough cash. 

Does the mental and physical harm of commoditized sex lie merely in its stigma? Will treating escorts like accountants fix the problems that arise from selling consent for cash? I don't believe it will - I don't think the anxiety, depression, PTSD, and substance abuse so common in these communities will disappear with better PR. 

The stigma associated with sex work, beyond its sting to individuals, is a pro-social coordination mechanism. It is a signal to the individual, prospective sex worker - there be dragons here - and it is a way for cultures to deter individuals from socially destabilizing life paths that affect not only them but also the wider community. 

Should sex work be illegal? 

I don't think it should.

Adding the state's monopoly on violence to the problem adds a bit of deterrence, of course. Still, it drives the industry underground, essentially giving over the reins to hyper-violent organized crime and putting the lives of women in danger. I think sex work for adults should probably be legal but highly regulated and subject to strict standards of transparency. 

Should sex work be stigmatized? 

Yes, I believe it should, and vigorously so. 

Stigma and other informal norms set up a basic package of signals for individuals that may not offer guaranteed happiness but offer insurance against patented forms of misery. Most people follow the informal norms of their society willingly or blindly, as they are the “default”. If we set the default to “choose your own adventure”, the knowledge encoded in the previous prohibitions is lost and people are essentially led to the equivalent of jogging through a minefield. “Hey, but it’s their choice.”

I don't think our children need to rediscover evergreen forms of suffering because our societies choose to worship at the altar of choice. 


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