Is sex work really consensual?

April 4, 2019 HUMAN RIGHTS , Opinion , OPINION/NEWS




Luciana Grosu



Is sex work really consensual? Should we speak of it as a lifestyle preference or even upgrade it to a career option? What do we risk if we pretend prostitution does not exist?



A new trend: the tolerant-egoist


Once upon a time feminists did not embrace sex work. They viewed it as a source of gender inequality, power abuse and illegitimate violence.


Contemporary feminists seem however to be afraid of speaking out…In order not to offend the victims who should no longer be seen as victims. But what if this fear of offending is actually a form of comfortable egoism disguised as tolerance?


If tomorrow you lost your job and were offered to take sex work instead, would you happily agree? Is our “tolerance” actually rooted in blind individualism and the refusal to acknowledge inequity and injustice?


Should we side with those who affirm sex work is the best possible outcome for a jobless undocumented migrant or the only possible means of survival for a poorly educated Roma woman?


If there is no problem, there is no action being taken to solve it. It is more convenient to turn a blind eye while pretending to care about human rights.


So what’s behind the “do not discriminate” commandment? Is it actual concern for human beings?



Blurred limits, fading personal freedom


Sex workers’ rights and sex work as a violation of human rights– here are two different issues which some activists intentionally conflate and confound.


Sex workers have rights. Their rights are constantly violated pretty much everywhere around the world due to inadequate laws and unsupportive social structures. This is a fact and it must be addressed.


But sex work is still a synonym for prostitution which still is (and will always be) a violation of human rights. Prostitution abolishes the right to own one’s body and mind. It cancels the right to unrestrained sexual choices and it undermines one’s health, dignity and self-esteem.


No choice often leads to “this choice”. The left-outs are the first “willing” victims. Denying the reality of prostitution is the equivalent of voting in favor of slavery.



No ethics: just exploitation


Advocating for sex workers’ rights should not be confused with promoting prostitution as a lifestyle choice or career option.


There is no ethical reason behind demanding a person to sell sex. There is no natural or social justification, at least no more than there ever was any justification for slavery, the caste system, forced marriage, FGM or child labour.


The above mentioned violations had all been “justified” at their time, but fortunately for mankind, the arguments in favor of oppression had been proven fake. Slavery was abolished and sex work may also disappear, granted everyone enjoyed the same rights and freedom.


What about harm reduction? Harm reduction philosophy should not be applied to human beings who are born free and equal. There is no harm to be addressed in the first place. People are not born sex workers and no one is supposed to stick with it simply because there are “no other options left”.



Do we all have the same rights?


Human rights are supposed to be universal and all-encompassing.


In this case, there is a fundamental fallacy in affirming “sex workers have rights, therefore sex work is good and acceptable”. The logic beyond this statement is quite broken. Sex workers are accepted and should not be discriminated. But sex work is not an acceptable status for a free human being.


If we all enjoy the same rights, then all people have the right not to choose prostitution, while those who have chosen it, should still enjoy all their human rights. Including the right to get out of it, of course.



Commercial consensual sex: a linguistic nonsense


Is commercial consensual sex work truly consensual? No, because it is a commercial transaction.


There are no free, mutually-agreed, equally-desired acts. Even if the seller agrees to the “work” part, there is no real consensus for the “sex” part.


Commercial sex is not consensual because there is coercion. This coercion might as well be self-imposed as in “I have to do it in order to make a living”, but is still a situation in which one does something against one’s will and preference in order to get paid. Take the money out of the equation and there’s nothing left, no sex and of course, no work.


Surely, one may argue that most of our daily jobs go against our will and personal preferences. Nevertheless, while going to the office might be unpleasant, it is still not a violation.


Furthermore, money is not a natural drive for sex in human beings. Desire, love, curiosity, need, attraction, hormones or religion are all reasons which can lead to consensual unconstrained sexual acts. But commercial sex is not unconstrained as it is not fueled by any emotions or instincts (apart from hunger and maybe fear). Even in cases when sex workers are free to select their clients, they are still bound to sell “services” they wouldn’t otherwise provide for free. “Services” is an inoffensive word aimed at masking the reality of the absence of personal freedom.



Sex work may never be safe


Sex work is dangerous. Many sex workers have been victims of beatings and extreme violence. Some have been killed. Not to mention STIs and even unintended pregnancies.


Sex workers are often not in the position to negotiate their safety. They are confronted with life-threatening risks without the benefit of actually enjoying their “profession”, “work environment” or “organizational culture”.


Even if sex work was legalized and offenders would be dealt with, the occupation will always be based on unequal power relationships and thus may never be considered risk-free.


Studies have shown that sex workers are more likely to engage in substance abuse as a way of coping with the on-going trauma. Psychologically, sex work is nothing other than a repeated violation. Many sex workers acknowledge feeling emotionally numb, angry or depressed. Is this only because of society’s discrimination or is the very nature of their “work” engendering these negative emotions?



Embracing a forced choice?


Some sex workers have openly spoken in favor of their occupation, claiming to like it. Many other sex workers choose to call themselves “activists”, supporting decriminalization of their only source of income and an upgrade of their status in an unfair and unequal society.


Nevertheless, how many of them genuinely love their work and would not change it for any other job?


Even if there are exceptions, most people have been drawn into prostitution in a moment when they were vulnerable and had no other options. This should be kept in mind before labeling sex work as “a career choice”.



Sex work should never become a career option


The “tolerant egoist” approach is likely to undermine the rights of the most vulnerable of us.


Let’s imagine the most likely future scenario.


Poor, low-educated, disabled, mentally-ill, drug addicts, migrants, refugees, homeless, victims of violence and abuse, ex-offenders, all those who already fall through the cracks of our brutally unequal societies are going to be further pushed into prostitution whitewashed as “stable employment”.


Prostitution will no longer be discussed as abuse or institutionalized rape. Many more disadvantaged persons will see themselves forced to sell sex in order to survive. There will be no support offered to get them out of this situation because sex work will have long been accepted as an honorable career option.


A young mother lacking “qualifications” will be offered a job as a prostitute while none will bat an eye. Teenagers who have dropped-out of school will regularly engage in sex work. Parents will be supportive because they will have gone through it themselves. Many young people will resort to sex work in order to pay for college education or cover rent.


Public employment agencies will list sex work jobs. Vulnerable persons will be denied access to welfare services based on their refusal to accept these perfectly legal employment offers. Public funding will go to brothels and other legal establishments of the same type at the expense of other income-generating projects which will no longer get financial support.


Nonprofits will have moved on to defending pimps’ rights (as they are also sex workers) and most advocacy campaigns will focus on presenting the exploiters as responsible and caring employers. Career counseling services and quality education investment will no longer be considered necessary as many disadvantaged communities will have embraced sex work entrepreneurship with millions working in sex tourism, pornography or “old-fashioned” street prostitution.


The victims of abuse will remain silent in a society where sex work will be considered the best free choice for “vulnerable” citizens. New forms of slavery will have emerged where the economical factor will decide who can have sex with whom and ultimately who owns other human beings. The few rich will benefit from everything while not being held accountable for anything.


This is not a science-fiction prognosis, but the very world that we are building now.



The word which is NOT working


While it is undeniable that sex work is very hard labor (read: exploitation) the language is not right. Labeling prostitution as “work” only cosmeticizes an essentially abusive practice.


Sex workers have rights and their daily efforts and struggles are far above and beyond those of many other people who like to think of themselves as professionals. Nevertheless, legitimizing it as actual “work” is likely to open the door for more (not less) slavery and exploitation.


New and better laws are much needed, but human dignity should remain non-negotiable. Recognizing sex workers’ rights is as important as not upgrading prostitution to a career status. At least, as long as we claim to support sexual freedom and human rights for all.





Luciana Grosu

Luciana Grosu is a Romanian journalist, psychologist and women rights activist. She is a Women Deliver Alumni and an International Relations graduate. Luciana is a passionate advocate for gender equality, democracy and social justice. She loves writing about gender-based violence, mental health and poverty. She strongly believes everyone has the right to an informed opinion.

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1 Comment

  1. nick brown April 13, at 16:55

    Luciana is right. There is no decent profession or job called "sex worker". It's only an excuse for taking advantage of poor, jobless people. A simple remark: no mother dreams for her newborn child to become a "sex worker".


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