I am a sex worker who hates the sex industry. As an anti-capitalist, I hate all industries. It’s not quite as if I’d prefer another system in place of capitalism. If I had to describe my ideology in positive terms, I’d call it fatalistic socialism, which I define as the belief that socialism would be really nice if we wouldn’t inevitably fuck it up. (Maybe I’m a Voluntary Human Extinctionist.) However, just because I have no solution to the current state of affairs and happen to be a misanthrope of the highest degree, doesn’t mean I can’t keep my hate-boner for capitalism in general and the sex industry in particular.
I’m not alone in my hatred of the sex industry, of course. Sex work abolitionist feminists* (see note below) — or as they are often known, the Antis — are right up there with so many religious zealots, conservatives, liberals, anarchists, and ecofeminists in the anti-sex industry brigade. They’re known as “Antis” because they’re also anti-porn, anti-prostitution, and anti-sex work in general (and typically anti-kink, anti-transgender, and even anti-penetrative sex as well.) A particularly perverse sort of second-wave radical feminists, Antis are a loose collection of mostly white, middle-class, able-bodied women from the Global North, the vast majority of who have never been in the sex industry. Still, they make it their mission to eradicate the industry by “ending demand” for ALL sexual services, so as to free ALL women from coercive male sexuality.
I find plenty of their theoretical points (if not their attendant practical solutions) agreeable to my own ideology. The sex industry is about satisfying male sexual desire at the expense of female sexual desire. Its continued existence is predicated on the economic and sexual exploitation of women, particularly queer women, trans women, poor women, disabled women, and women of color. But, just like I wouldn’t try to tear down capitalism and free all the “wage slaves” by burning down factories and leaving the workers jobless, I’m not going to destroy patriarchy and “save” myself and my fellow sex workers by scaring off—er, re-educating our sources of income. If sex work abolition succeeds, it will liberate millions of women (and men, third gender, and agender folks as well) right into homelessness. Further, in the interim, advocacy for abolition results in the kind of social marginalization and shitty public policies that exacerbate the discrimination and violence we as sex workers face on a daily basis.
I don’t think Antis should just throw up their hands and join the Voluntary Human Extinctionists though. Despite my generally defeatist attitude, I can think of lots of ways they can channel their stated concern for sex workers for our benefit and, therefore, for the benefit of women in general. That is, assuming they actually care about sex workers. The longer one interacts with them, the clearer it becomes that their primary concern with our exploitation is venting their own feelings about it. It makes them feel angry! It makes them feel sad! It makes them feel icky! It makes them feel objectified! They will share those feelings incessantly, will advocate based on those feelings, will push to legislate those feelings, all in an attempt to exorcise them and make themselves feel better. Their yapping has nothing to do with sex workers or our wellbeing.
If it did, however—and this is an open challenge to every self-proclaimed feminist who advocates for sex work abolition to prove that it does by listening up—it would behoove them to consider some of the suggestions below. I’m not a policy expert; I didn’t even crowd source this list. This is just a handful of ideas I came up with off the top of my head that would do far more to help sex workers and women as a whole than the bullshit Antis currently espouse. It’s not meant to be a proclamation, but an example. It’s meant to spark dialogue… among sex workers, with Antis sitting back and learning from our discussion.
To that end, the first point: Antis need to LISTEN to sex workers. Actively listen. Listen to understand. Listen to each and every sex worker who speaks, and believe us about our own experiences. Yes, this includes listening to the most privileged sex workers—the independent, high-priced, White, Western escorts with college degrees who gave up careers in accounting because they just loved sex work so much. It means believing when they say they find it personally empowering and enjoyable. It also includes listening to the least privileged sex workers—the women who are working the streets, working for pimps, working across the Global South and in the poorest areas of the Global North, the women of color and trans women and disabled women who had no other options. It means believing when they say Antis’ advocacy is not helping and they prefer to organize for themselves.
Listening also includes paying attention to the rest of us, the majority of us: those of us who fall somewhere in the middle. Antis need to listen to those of us who have few options or shitty options and so chose this option. They need to listen to those of us who got into the industry pay for college, those of us whose disabilities make it tough to hold down a full-time job, those of us who enjoy it half the time and hate it half the time, who might like to leave sooner rather than later. Listening means not separating us out into the falsely dichotomous categories of Privileged Collaborator with the Patriarchy and Helpless Victim of Oppression and hearing us when we say there are other, better, helpful things they can do before taking our jobs away.
For example, advocate for decriminalization before “ending demand.” As sex workers, we argue about the relative virtue of our clients “demands,” but if there’s one thing most of us agree on — sex workers of all sorts, from all locations, from all walks of life — it’s that full decriminalization will keep us safest while we’re in this industry. Criminalization makes it impossible for us to report physical and sexual violence, wage theft, and all sorts of other workplace issues. Legalization gives too much power to police and often results in de facto criminalization of sex workers with fewer resources or those who simply can’t keep up with the frequently draconian regulations. Partial criminalization, where only the buying of sexual services is made illegal (also known as the Swedish Model or Nordic Model) has also been proven ineffective for protecting sex workers. The one-sidedness of the policy gives the clients leverage during the screening process (“Oh, I’d LOVE to give you a positive reference from another provider, but that would put me at a far greater risk than you, so just trust me that I’m safe, okay?”) and it leaves sex workers reluctant to report abuse, lest ALL of our clients be rounded up. Given the outrageous level of violence sex workers face, it is imperative that we have full access to the recourse of the law immediately. That means before Antis get around to eradicating the entire industry and the patriarchy itself. That means NOW. And if they would like to go a step further, they can also advocate for hate crime laws for sex workers. The disproportionately high rates of abuse we endure and the disproportionately low rates of prosecution, conviction, and punishment that follow need to be remedied as soon as possible.
Another current, vital issue that no Antis are willing to address: establishing non-judgmental organizations to counsel sex workers in crisis. As someone who has searched for these kinds of resources myself and had other sex workers call up yet even more sex workers to search for me, let me tell you what’s out there: nothing. Okay, that’s not entirely true. There are Christian orgs and radical feminist orgs that are willing to aid me on the condition I listen to some bullshit about Jesus Christ or accept the fact that I am a ‘prostituted’ woman. I refuse to do that. After being assaulted by a client, the last thing I need is to subject myself to more abuse, and that is exactly what hoarding resources from those who refuse proselytizing and victimizing is. Aiding people involves meeting us where we’re at, even if Antis don’t agree with how we feel about being there. They need to cut the condescension and approach us with nonjudgmental compassion and an understanding of the particular issues we face. We are owed respect.
Respect also means referring to sex workers by our preferred terms, not in ways that dehumanize us or deny us our autonomy. Lots of us prefer the term “sex worker.” Some of us have more specific job titles as well. Fewer and fewer of us embrace the word “prostitute” and just about none of us will stand for being called ”whores” or “prostituted women.” “Prostitute” is outmoded and has connotations of illegal activity, framing our work identities in the terms of the people who prosecute us. “Whore” is an obvious slur meant to dehumanize, and “prostituted woman” is a passive term constructed to highlight the exploitation we are all assumed to face at the expense of the agency we do have. It conflates victims of trafficking with sex workers, which is an insult to both groups. Finally, no one should ever, EVER say that a sex worker “sells her body.” It doesn’t even convey some (real or imagined) passivity but simply reinforces the same notions that undergird the violence against us: that we maintain no control over our physical selves and, therefore, anything and everything can be done to us. Promoting respect means using the right terminology, and insisting that others do so as well.
It also means advocating for accurate and diverse portrayals of us in the media. Yes, even if it undermines Antis’ horrifically oversimplified position that all sex workers are victims needing to be saved instead of actors in a fucked-up system who are compromised to differing degrees by a matrix of intersecting oppressions.
“But Lori,” an abolitionist is typing into the comment box right now, “you ARE a victim needing to be saved! Calling you a ‘sex worker’ won’t save you! Stopping those nasty men from buying your body will!” As one of those sex workers who would actually prefer to do something else, you know, yes, I would appreciate not having those men paying my rent. But, as I pointed out earlier, I would also appreciate not being fucking homeless. If an Anti wants to save me from my “exploitation,” she damn well better set up something up for me in its place first. Until that happens, Antis are encouraged to hit the delete key and refrain from commenting.
*I use ‘abolition’ here in a value-neutral sense, but it’s worth pointing out the connotations of righteousness it often carries. This is especially true when used by sex work abolitionists themselves, who frequently compare the sex industry to slavery. I want it noted that I don’t mean to give credence to that viewpoint, because that’s offensive in at least three different ways.