So there’s an article in one of the neighbourhood-specific papers today, featuring a couple of my friends from POWER as well as people from OCtEVAW and the Sandy Hill Community Center’s OASIS program (a weekly women’s drop-in frequented by street-based sex-workers, among others).

On thing that pinged my attention was a quote, from the OCtEVAW rep, that “Survival sex is not in the realm of choice or free agency”.

I… I think I know what she means. Survival sex – like survival street-corner-canvassing, survival working-at-KFC, or survival staying-with-your-abuser-for-another-month – is choosing the best of a bunch of shitty options.

But I really don’t like the attitude that making that decision – however crap-tastic (or not) it is for the person making it – is somehow not a decision at all. It’s a problem. The attitude held, it seems, by certain Helping Professionals, as well as vigilante neighbourhood associations and prohibitionist feminists, is that sexworkers (all sexworkers, some sexworkers, it varies) have no agency. And ideas like the one above, that choosing to do sexwork isn’t really “choosing” at all, only serve to reinforce that attitude.

Someone who can’t choose to start doing sexwork can’t choose to stop, either. Which leads to attitudes from “helpers” that sexworkers need “rescuing” (rather than, say, human and labour rights) and, from there, to refusing to listen when sexworkers talk about what they actually need.

Stepping Stone, a harm-reduction based advocacy and outreach group in Halifax, has this to say:

Survival sex workers have less control over their working conditions due to issues such as poverty and criminalization.

Like the mental healthcare professionals who consistently tell sexworkers that their mental health problems (depression, anxiety, whatever) would go away if they stopped doing sexwork, people who say that sexwork – in whole or in part – is a type of violence against women… are being short-sighted, to say the least.

Sexwork doesn’t cause depression. Doing a job you don’t enjoy or find fulfilling? That causes, or exacerbates, depression. Sexwork doesn’t cause anxiety. Having desperately few employment opportunities and a tenuous housing situation causes and exacerbates anxiety.
The intersection of sexism, classism, racism, transmisogyny, and whorephobia, coupled with the criminalization of sexwork, mean that many people choosing survival sexwork are doing so because they can’t find work elsewhere. It also means that, particularly due to the criminalization (but also stigmatization – see “prostiteacher”) of sexwork, that they are less likely to be able to transition out of the sextrade should they want to leave.

In a similar vein, sexwork isn’t violence against women, either. Rather, the stigmatization of sexwork and the marginalization and shaming of sexworkers for the work that they do, that’s violence against women[1]. It’s also, not to put too fine a point on it, an offering of tacit social approval of further, physical violence against women (women who do sexwork or women who are otherwise viewed as promiscuous or “too sexual” by society) because misogynist rapists and murderers know that they are more likely to get away with their crimes if they attack women who are marginalized, stigmaized, shamed, and blamed for their victimization.

Look. In-so-far as I’ve “done” sexwork – my work as a professional fetish/erotic model, one short-lived and ultimately fruitless foray into Financial Domination – I’ve had would-be clients whose concern about their own safety and anonymity very much came at the expense of mine. I say “would-be clients” because I don’t take work where I feel like my safety is being compromised. I’m lucky. I have other income streams and other resources that mean I have the financial freedom to avoid gigs like that.
Not everybody does.
But. I want you to think about what I just said. My would-be clients – guys who were doing 100% legal stuff, no loop-holes required – were afraid of people (undisclosed, imaginary people, no less) finding out what they were doing.
Think about how that effects people involved in criminalized sexwork. When you criminalize Communication for the Purposes of Sexwork in public places, street-based sexworkers move to isolated areas (where they are at higher risk of violence) to avoid being seen by police or “concerned citizens”. When you criminalize the hiring of sexworkers or the purchase of sexual services – see Swedish Model – street-based sexworkers move to isolated areas (where they are at higher risk of violence) because their clients won’t approach them unless they can avoid being seen by police or “concerned citizens”.

I don’t think that criminalizing sexwork, or sexworkers, or sexworkers’ income, or sexworkers’ families, or sexworkers’ clients, is going to do anything to help sexworkers… if helping sexworkers is actually what the people advocating for criminalization/prohibition want.

Ms S.

[1] And, duh, everyone else who does sexwork, since it’s not just cis and trans women who do it.