I came out to my parents as a sex worker in 2017. The show I host on the topic, The Oldest Profession Podcast, was gaining traction, and I knew we needed to have the conversation in person.
My mother set up a family therapy appointment so we could have professional guidance for what we all knew would be a difficult conversation. When my mother asked, “How could you sell your body?” I answered her honestly. “I didn’t, I still have it.”
Today, I spend much of my time reminding people that sex workers are, and have always been, contributing members of the communities we’re a part of, which is all of them.
So when I read Pamela Paul’s recent op-ed in The New York Times, titled “What It Means to Call Prostitution ‘Sex Work,’” it got my attention. In the piece, Paul argues against the use of the phrase, citing a source who argues that “it is neither sex nor work.” Actually, it is both.
Sex work is a broad term that includes criminalised prostitutes or escorts who see clients in person, brothel or massage parlour workers, dominatrixes, fetish models, and legal but stigmatised workers including strippers, porn performers, phone sex operators and online content creators.
The term was coined by beloved sex worker and gay rights advocate Carol Leigh in the late 1970s to push back against prohibitionist feminists who were using the phrase “prostituted women.”
Prominent (mostly white, mostly wealthy) feminists joined conservative and deeply misogynistic Christian leaders to advocate for the criminalisation of pornography and prostitution as symbols of violence against women.
An earlier generation of (mostly white, mostly wealthy) feminist leaders during the Progressive Era advocated for the criminalisation of bars and brothels alike and ushered in an era of violent prohibition. This led to vice squads and morality police who institutionalised, imprisoned and sometimes lobotomised thousands of women for crimes such as “promiscuity” and “wantonness.”
Women suspected of promiscuity could be, and often were, picked up by police officers who subjected them to forced gynaecological exams. If the doctor suspected they might have venereal disease, or just a bad attitude, they could be detained indefinitely.
Paul is part of a long line of moral reformers committed to the idea that anyone who engages in this work is a victim of violence, patriarchy or “false consciousness.” She can hardly imagine the “sordid circumstances” that might “drive many women to sell themselves.”
Her visceral disgust drives her to focus more on eradicating erotic labour than the circumstances of exploitation that unite so many marginalised workers across labour sectors.
Like Paul, I can describe lots of jobs in a gross way. For example, I imagine that the lived experience of a housecleaner, manicurist, gardener or nanny could all be described in a denigrating way. But being able to describe a job in a disempowered, judgmental way does not in fact deprive anyone, or any work, of dignity.
Like all consensual, intimate acts between adults, sex work should not be surveilled or criminalised, even if money is exchanged.
Today, criminalised, full-service providers are not the only ones fighting for their rights, but also erotic content creators, sex therapists and educators. The term “sex work” unites all erotic labourers around the stigma we share.
Sex workers all over the world want to be able to report crimes committed against us. We want to be able to safely schedule and screen our clients. We want to work together to share information about dangerous clients and to advocate for our safety and health. But we cannot do these things if we, or our clients, are criminalised.
Sex workers have been asking for the full decriminalisation of sex work for decades. Decriminalisation removes criminal penalties for adult consensual sex work. It does not remove criminal penalties for rape, trafficking, assault, kidnapping or any other crime. In the last decade, organisations like Amnesty International, the World Health Organisation, Human Rights Watch and Freedom Network have come to agree that the full decriminalisation of sex work is the only policy that reduces violence.
Reducing criminal penalties and allowing sex workers to operate more freely has been shown to dramatically lower STI rates and violence against women. For example, a study on the impact of Craigslist Erotic Services found that the female homicide rate dropped an average of 17% when sex workers were able to easily advertise their services, schedule and screen their clients.
New Zealand decriminalised sex work in 2003, and a study conducted in 2015 found that over 90% of sex workers reported having more rights and better access to services. In addition, 64% of sex workers said they found it easier to refuse clients, and 57% said that police attitudes toward sex workers had dramatically improved, making it easier and more likely that sex workers would report crimes committed against them.
Where sex work is decriminalised, violence against women goes down, because all of us are less vulnerable. The arguments that Paul and people like her are making do not reduce violence or exploitation in the sex trade; they only make the world’s oldest profession less safe.
Many laws criminalising and censoring sex work have been passed under the guise of “protecting” women and children, but these laws inevitably hurt the people they claim to speak for.
When Paul articulates her objection to the phrase “sex work,” she complains that, “instead of women being bought and sold by men, it creates the impression that women are the ones in power.” She doesn’t like this framing because she doesn’t believe sex workers have agency, and dignity, over their own lives.
But all people, whether they have ever participated in sex work or not, should have access to services and support to avoid exploitation, stay safe and make choices about their own lives. Decriminalising adult consensual sex work allows us to advocate for our own health and safety, and access the building blocks we all need to move our lives forward.
People of all genders, sexual orientations, nationalities and socioeconomic backgrounds engage in this work for a wide variety of reasons on a spectrum of choice, circumstance and coercion.
What the phrase “sex work” reveals is that we are not selling our bodies or our souls, but our labor.
Kaytlin Bailey is a sex worker rights advocate, former sex worker, comedian, writer, and founder and executive director of Old Pros, a nonprofit media organization working to change the status of sex workers in society. She also hosts “The Oldest Profession Podcast” and created “Whore’s Eye View,” a 75-minute mad dash through 10,000 years of history from a sex worker’s perspective.