Sex work as work

Sex work is an all-encompassing term which refers to various different kinds of sex work. One may be on the streets, work in a brothel, answer house calls, or do phone sex; one may be a stripper, escort, dominatrix, porn star, nude model, etc. Each situation requires different skills, care, and needs. All in all, I want to argue that sex work should be recognized as work, rather than an illegal or immoral activity.

How can sex be work if we all do it for free? If we all do it for free, then how can one commodify sex?

I want to start by highlighting the liberal basis for commodification and marxist counterargument. John Locke’s conception of property allows for a person’s labour to be “property in his own person” and thus this property is open to commodification (Julia O’Connell Davidson, “The Rights and Wrongs of Prostitution,” p.85). However, Marxists argue against this liberal conception, claiming “that a person’s labor is… an inalienable property of the human individual” and is therefore inseparable from a person (Julia O’Connell Davidson, “The Rights and Wrongs of Prostitution,” p.85). In regards to prostitution, one’s sex cannot be commodified because it is inseparable from who they are as a person. When a person sells sex, that person sells their body and themselves.

However, are we really our body or sex? Is that what constitutes our humanity? I argue that we are more than our body and sex; what constitutes our humanity is our capacity for rationality, emotion, intelligence, and free choice. Our humanity consists of our autonomous will.

One may argue, “but that’s the thing, sex work does not involve free choice, rationality, emotion, intelligence, etc.”

It is abundantly clear through popular social narratives and media that sex work is not considered as a choice; rather, sex work is the result of economic coercion (or physical coercion). It is commonly argued that only those desperate for money go into sex work, and that sex workers therefore do not make a free choice to enter into the profession. However, in this sense, most people do not make a free choice to do any sort of work. As I argued previously, this exploitation exists with any other low wage and socially low class job. So what’s the difference?

I argue that being economically coerced into being a sex worker does not make prostitution inherently wrong – the presupposition that sex work is degrading makes the economic coercion wrong. Sex work has to be viewed as the lowest route one can take to survive, and that it is a shameful and emotionally damaging thing to do. Sex work has to be qualified as degrading in order for it to be a problem that people turn to it to make money.

In a post called “It’s not even for rent,” the blog Everyday Whorephobia writes, “Dig deeper into the “selling your body” trope and what you discover is people saying sex workers cannot be raped, cannot be assaulted, cannot be beaten up, because their autonomy over their own bodies ceases the moment money is exchanged.”

Furthermore, Wendy Chapkis makes a wonderful point by proposing that “mundane concerns like status differences between worker and client, employee/employer relations and negative cultural attitudes toward the work performed, may be at the root of the distress and damage experienced by some worker” (87). The criminalization of sex work leaves sex workers vulnerable to bad working conditions and confined to limited opportunities to leave and find other employment. Criminalization promotes economic coercion in sex work and reinforces unbalanced power structures.

Before sex work can be decriminalized, it must be recognized as work. Without labour rights, sex workers experience a lack of control over their employment and are vulnerable to power structures which subjugate their worth not only as workers, but as persons.

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