Sex Worker Stigmas, Misconceptions & The Truth

When you think of a “sex worker”, you likely have a very clear image pop into your mind. Something between Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman and the red light districts that are popular in many European countries is a very common idea for what a sex worker is. 

However, if you look at the term, it really can be defined as something broad like “using sexual behavior as capital - a client pays for a service and a sex worker performs it.” Using this terminology, people who create adult content for sites such as OnlyFans and Pornhub could also be considered sex workers. Not all sex workers have sex with their clients. In fact, thanks to the (very slow) destigmatization of sex workers, sex work is being used more as an umbrella term now than ever before. 

Sex work is work...actual work.

“Sex work isn’t real work.” Hold up, hold up, hold up...this is just so inaccurate. Sex work is most certainly work. Do you consider Youtubers to have jobs? Do you consider Twitch streamers to be employed? The government does! The idea of what can and cannot be considered a job has changed and a lot of people didn’t get the memo. Not only has sex work always been an entirely valid form of work, but there really should be no question about it these days when jobs range from a cashier at a grocery store to a Youtuber who lands million-dollar brand deals. 

The dictionary defines “work” as ‘performing work or fulfilling duties regularly for wages or salary’ - and who are we to argue with the dictionary!?

Are most sex workers single women who don’t want to get married or have kids? Nope.

Sex work doesn’t have a gender. Males, females, trans people, and nonbinary folks can all be sex workers. Additionally, not all sex workers are single, and some have spouses and families. In reality, many of their spouses will be aware of their work as well - the stereotype of a single woman who doesn’t want marriage or kids turning to sex work is so outdated.

Sex work is actually legal in some places...

While mainstream media has done nothing but propel the myth of back-alley sex workers and people who hide what they do from the world, there are actually places where sex work is entirely legal and done out in public. This, in my opinion, is how society should function because it takes so much of the fear, stereotypes, and danger out of the profession. 

New Zealand - prostitution has been legal since 2003. Australia - prostitution is legal there, too. In Austria, it’s completely legal for people above 19 years of age - there is even an ability to register and pay taxes as a sex worker. Belgium & the Netherlands - not just legal, but these are countries that have actively been trying to limit the stereotypes by having brothels running in areas of larger cities such as Brussels and Amsterdam. There are lots more places where prostitution is slowly coming out of the shadows and into the light, and in my opinion, it’s the safer (and inevitable) path. 

Sex work is not “degrading” and for people who have no other options. 

This idea that sex work is a desperate trade many people fall into because they have no other options is another outdated ideology that draws in a lot of misconceptions around sex workers. This article nails it on the head when it explains: “dignity in work is incredibly subjective.” Most people do jobs they don’t like at some point in their lives. And some people are fortunate enough to land a job they love. 

Whether or not a sex worker enjoys their job is as subjective as to whether or not an office clerk or secretary enjoys theirs. It’s personal preference and not based on what the work actually is, but more based on if the person wants to be doing it. The belief that sex work is this degrading thing that no one wants to do and some have to is pretty closely linked to the societal stereotypes of sex and kink in general. 

Did you know criminalizing sex work is expensive and actually not that helpful?

It’s actually expensive AF to make something illegal (and enforce that), and it also does more harm than good most of the time. Remember that time called the prohibition where drinking alcohol was illegal and people found very dangerous ways to continue to market and consume alcohol until the government realized it was far safer to monitor alcohol use than to ban it completely? Well...I don’t want to be all “history repeating itself” but...there are some startling similarities here.

The idea that criminalizing something (anything, really) makes it safer is...sometimes misguided. I’m not saying all things should be legal and we should live in a state of unsuspended law...but there are certain things (like the consumption of alcohol and the sex work industry) that are just going to happen regardless of the various laws in various countries. Instead of prohibiting something, sex work could be made a lot safer (and more accepted) if it was legal. Criminalizing something doesn’t make it go away, it just kind of sweeps it under the rug. 

Not to mention that criminalizing something is quite costly. In 1985, when researchers calculated the costs of prostitution law enforcement, they realized that each city was spending about $7.5 million per year (around 90,000 people were being arrested every year for sex-work-related charges). Adjusting for inflation and a nearly 30,000 person drop in prostitution arrests today, that number is estimated to be about $250 million. 

Can you imagine if that money was put towards something else (such as securing safe places for people to conduct their sex work or law enforcement against violent sex crimes? 

What is FOSTA-SESTA and why are sex workers upset with it?

While having sex work remain an entirely criminal thing is negative, legalizing it won’t magically solve the issues sex workers face. Many of the “government-issued protections” for sex workers actually put them more in harm’s way.

I’ve covered the controversial 2018 FOSTA-SESTA system before (you can read my article here explaining the bill), but a TLDR of it is that this is a law that had a good premise but very poor execution. The idea behind this bill was simple: make it more difficult for sex traffickers to find victims. What it did instead was shut down any online networking that sex workers could do themselves. 

As soon as FOSTA-SESTA was signed into law, the websites where sex workers often vetted and arranged meetings with their clients could be held liable for the actions of the millions of people that used their sites. This resulted in many places (such as Craigslist, etc) shutting down any ability for sex workers to find their clients through these safe channels. This obviously pushed more sex workers into unsafe territory like meeting clients in public without knowing anything about them first.

Sex work and feminism go hand in hand, you know.

This sentence is just...it makes my brain hurt. A feminist, by definition, is someone who believes in equality (social, economic, political) of the sexes. 

“A true feminist can respect and acknowledge that each of us has a vast and unique spectrum of beliefs and experiences, and that each of us is still worthy of dignity, safety, and compassion no matter who we are or what we do.”  

This quote is a damn motto and I intend to spread it far and wide. So-called SWERFS (sex worker-exclusionary radical feminists) and/or TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) are people who use the feminist drive to suit their own agenda and bias. Both terms are the epitome of an oxymoron. You can’t be a feminist ~except for people who do sex work~. You can’t be a feminist ~except for people who are trans~. I’m sorry to break it to you, but that’s not how this works. 

Even the law can have unfair biases against sex workers.

Judges, law enforcement, and juries often hold a bias against sex workers. For example, in Philadelphia, a judge called a gang-rape of a sex worker at gunpoint “theft of services” and refused to allow prosecution for aggravated assault charges. The outcome of that case would have been drastically different if it were a secretary or hotel maid who had been assaulted. Instead, they chalked it up to “they didn’t pay you for that service, so it’s theft” instead of “they did not have your consent to do this, so it’s rape.” This kind of prejudice against sex workers is highly ingrained in our society in ways we sometimes don’t even realize. Additionally, sometimes when sex workers do report cases of assault or violence, they themselves are arrested for trafficking or soliciting and the assailant goes free.

Sex workers and sex trafficking victims are not the same.

A sex worker is someone who works in the sex industry. A sex trafficking victim is someone who has been coerced or forced into the sex trade against their will. They are not the same thing. People in the sex work industry have gotten used to working together to stay safe. They organize “bad date” lists and look out for each other. They conduct their own research as best they can. Sex workers are not people who need sympathy. They don’t need to be rescued - they need someone to help them fight for their basic human rights to live and work how they please. 

Sex work can be pretty damn empowering. 

I’d argue it’s even kind of feminist to be pro-sex work. Sex work can be about celebrating yourself, your body, building confidence, and promoting intimacy and love, and respect for other people. 

Stereotypes of sex workers are changing...but we have a long way to go.

The idea of sex work has changed a lot in the last decade or so. The stereotypes are slowly fading and people are becoming more tolerant of people who choose to work in the sex industry. 

However, there is still so much stigma and prejudice around sex work (prostitution especially) and there is still a long way for us (as a society) to come in terms of sex worker’s rights and freedoms.

Sex is a basic human need. Is paying for it really that bad?

Sex is a basic human need and desire. We’re biologically programmed to feel pleasure. The clitoris serves NO OTHER PURPOSE except for pleasure. Is paying for pleasure from a sex worker really that different than paying for pleasure at a spa during a massage? Is visiting a chiropractor or getting your nails done harmful? For some reason, people think of sex work in a different light than say a tattoo artist or a spa masseuse, but really, how different are they? 

What happens between consenting adults really shouldn’t be an issue.

If you can charge someone to come to clean your house or babysit your children, why can’t you pay someone for sex? What is the difference? At the end of the day, it’s a service that’s being provided, and the reality is that just because you wouldn’t hire someone to be your date for the evening, doesn’t mean someone else can’t or shouldn’t. 

Simple AF Ways to Support Sex Workers In 2021

  • Educate yourself. 
    Being open to learning about things you know nothing about is how we break stigmas and become a better society.
  • Pay for your porn. 
    “But I can get the real thing for free anywhere else online” is a cheap excuse for being cheap. Sex work has moved online, people - and if you’re looking for ways to support your favorite adult film stars, OnlyFans creators, Pornhub models, etc -- pay them for their hard work! Tip them, buy their content and make sure they know they are appreciated and valid in their profession.
  • Stop the spread of misinformation. 
    If you see or hear someone spouting misinformation, politely correct them. Offer them resources, give them a chance to learn just as I hope this article has given you a chance to learn. 
  • Watch Netflix documentaries and get some insight. 
    This is a very simple way to learn because you’re literally just watching Netflix (as you probably would be doing anyway. “Pose” on Netflix is a great example of a show that explores the history and context of trans people of color in the sex work industry. 
  • Follow sex work organizations and keep an eye out for how you can help. 
    There are different kinds of campaigns and fundraisers to raise awareness - follow some of the sex work organizations listed below to keep up-to-date on what’s happening in the sex industry. 
    NSWP - Network of Sex Worker Projects
    TAMPEP - European Network for the Promotion of Rights
    Scarlet Alliance - Australian Sex Workers Association
    SWOP USA - Sex Workers Outreach Project (USA)
  • Understand the difference between decriminalization and legalization.
    Are they the same? No, not at all. Most people in the sex work industry are for decriminalization instead of legalization.
    “Legalization would mean the regulation of prostitution with laws regarding where, when, and how prostitution would take place. Decriminalization actually eliminates all laws and prohibits the state and law-enforcement officials from intervening in any prostitution-related transactions unless other laws apply.”  -- Business Insider 
  • Donate money and supplies to sex workers who have had a hard time during COVID. 
    COVID meant meetings with clients could not happen in a lot of places and many sex workers fell into financial hardships. If you want to help, check out this list of places you can donate.

If you’re interested in more information on sex workers, the industry, or how to help end violence against sex workers, check out this article.