Stripping Back the Myths

Saskia Hagelberg

“Disappointing my dad, but not yours”.

“No bad whores, just bad laws”.

These were the slogans I chose to chant on the streets of central London during the 2019 sex workers strike. Sex workers marched to reclaim the narratives about sex work that currently portray everyone in the industry as exploited and oppressed victims. We marched to challenge racist, sexist laws criminalising sex workers. We marched to demand recognition, rights, and respect. The strike highlighted how we will no longer allow people who do not understand our work and who do not represent us or our interests to silence and speak over us. It is time to problematise the continued misconceptions around sex work, which fuel prohibitive legislation and rhetoric. Instead of saving us, these abolitionist practises ostracise an already marginalised community and endangers us further by exposing us to violence.

Misconceptions about sex work plague the entirety of the sex industry - a diverse trade made up of escorts, cam girls (and boys), strippers, pornstars and full-service sex workers - and continue to be promulgated even by those who identify as ‘feminist’. Take the example of the ‘feminist’ campaigning group Object, whose tagline is ‘women, not sex objects’. They define ‘sex encounter venues’, also known as strip clubs, as “premises where men can pay to gain sexual satisfaction, or feelings of superiority, from viewing the objectification of women on display”. As someone who was a stripper, I completely disagree with this definition and the misconceptions that underpin it. Such views are rooted in misogyny and socially constructed and regulatory ideas of femininity and sexuality. These misunderstandings persist because we do not listen to sex workers. Instead we privilege the opinions of radical sex-work-exclusionary feminists, journalists, politicians, and academics with no experience of sex work and no direct stake in sex work policies.

Most conversations about sex work perpetuate the understanding of this industry either as being a site of oppression or empowerment. This is a false binary which is reductive and renders invisible the diverse experiences of workers (Phipps, 2017, p.306). Sex work can be empowering for many of the people who do it, but it isn’t always. Sometimes it is just a job, with good days and bad days, and this does not detract from its validity as a profession. As dancer and activist @Feministripper pointed out, sex work does not need to be empowering to be a justifiable livelihood, just like no other job ‘needs to be empowering’ in order to exist (Feministripper, 2018). Discussions about empowerment are useful because they are centred on women’s sexual agency and liberation, which problematises the persistent victimhood narratives that plague sex work debates. However, prioritising these arguments detracts from the need to recognise this work as work and from highlighting the need for workers’ labour rights, rather than understanding it simply as a sexually liberating act. “Ultimately, the worker is there because they are interested in getting paid, and this economic imperative is materially different from the client’s interest in recreational sex. Losing sight of that leads to a politics that is inadequate in its approach to workers’ material needs in the workplace.” (Mac & Smith, 2018, p.33). Moreover, questions of empowerment already suggest a certain privilege. Those who have a level of financial stability, or do not have to contest racial or other forms of discrimination, are more likely to have access to feelings of empowerment. Marginalized people may place most value on earning a wage and doing so safely. As Gloria Lockett, the co-founder of the California Prostitutes Education Project, says “I’ve heard some of my white friends say that they’re in prostitution because of the power. Well, for Black women it’s for the money.” (quoted in Mac & Smith, 2018, p.40). For these reasons, the concept of rights may be more helpful than empowerment, as it allows for the articulation of diverse needs of each worker, including fair wages, safety, and dignity.

Yet, a moral panic ensues every time there is talk of affording sex workers with the rights and respect they deserve. This panic is born through the wrongful conflation of the sale of sexual labour between consenting adults and sex trafficking. Many people believe that affording more rights to sex workers will impact the most vulnerable, subjecting them to greater risk of trafficking. This stance “constructs sex workers who fight for labour rights as a threat, and obscures the fact that their politics is focused not on the ‘right to sell’, but the right (…) to survive” (Phipps, 2017, p.311). Sex workers and allies who advocate for decriminalisation along with recognition of sexual labour as legitimate work, are fighting for measures that will make all sex workers safer, specifically referring to the most marginalised groups. Tara Burns, a sex trafficking victim and advocate for decriminalisation, has argued that “[w]hen we advocate for ourselves to be able to negotiate our own labor and work conditions, to have equal access to protection under the law, etc., that is advocating for us to have protections against trafficking and other labor abuses within the sex industry.” (quoted in Massey, 2014). This is why it is important that we allow sex workers to speak for themselves about their working conditions and the actions needed to improve their safety. Their aim, like the aim of those who experience the moral panic, is to improve the welfare of the vulnerable and to abolish sex trafficking.

In 2016, Amnesty International created the Policy on State Obligations to Respect, Protect and Fulfil the Human Rights of Sex Workers. It highlights the positive obligation of national governments to tackle sex trafficking and advocates for the full decriminalisation of adult consensual sexual labour. The policy also emphasises the need for states to realise the social, economic and cultural rights of their populations and thus to ensure sex workers are not working due to marginalisation, lack of choice, and lack of opportunities to exit the industry. The policy was welcomed by many sex workers because it reflected their interests. Sex workers have long called for decriminalisation of the sex industry, since it represents opportunities to fight for better working conditions, through for example, unionising. As decriminalised professionals, strippers have been able to achieve this already without fear of arrest. Criminalisation and abolitionism, on the other hand, increases the abuse of sex workers by authorities and makes them susceptible to deportation and incarceration. A 1992 poster slogan of the English Collective of Prostitutes sadly continues to be relevant today, reading “No one screws more prostitutes than the government”.

Despite the widespread support for Amnesty’s proposal from sex workers, there has also been an extensive backlash. Anti-sex work campaigners took to social media to voice their anger. The hashtag NoAmnesty4Pimps was used and the Amnesty logo was photoshopped to replace the candle with an ejaculating penis (Mac & Smith, 2018, p.13-14). Any effort to ensure rights that make workers safer are quickly misunderstood as representing interests of buyers and traffickers. This is what makes it so difficult to advocate for sex worker rights. Factual inaccuracies, false assumptions, and the emotions evoked in people at the mention of sex work means that harm-reductionist and evidence-based policies are hardly welcomed by anyone other than sex workers. Without solidarity and public support no changes will be made. It is therefore imperative for everyone to stop and think in a meaningful way. Sex worker and author of Revolting Prostitutes Juno Mac points out that “[p]eople get really hung up on the question: ‘well, would you want your daughter doing it?’. That’s the wrong question. Instead, imagine she is doing it. How safe is she at work tonight? Why isn’t she safer?” (Mac, 2016). We must stop moralising the nature of the sex industry and accept that many people do this work, and they need better laws to ensure their wellbeing. 

Like many before us, we want rights, not rescue.


Works Cited

Amnesty International (2016) . Amnesty International Policy on State Obligations to Respect, Protect and Fulfil the Human Rights of Sex Workers. (2016) Found online at: https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/POL3040622016ENGLISH.PDF

Burns, T. quoted in Massey, A. (2014) Keeping Sex Workers Quiet. Retrieved from https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/11/keeping-workers-quiet/

English Collective of Prostitutes Campaign. (1992) ‘No one screws more prostitutes than the government’. Found online at: http://prostitutescollective.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/ECP-A-Brief-History.pdf

Feministripper, (2018). Found online at Instagram. Mac, J. Smith, M. (2018). Revolting Prostitutes: the Fights for Sex Worker’s Rights. London: Verso.

Mac, J. (2016). The Laws That Sex Workers Really Want. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vc-n852sv3E&t=857s

Phipps, A. (2017) Sex Wars Revisited: A Rhetorical Economy of Sex Industry Opposition. Journal of International Women’s Studies. Vol. 18 (4), 306-320.