This series of posts from the community is in preparation for Paradigm Shift’s next event, “Sex Work and Human Rights: Feminist Advocacy Strategies” A panel discussion and screening on TUES, March 30th, 7pm, NYC. We want to hear your stories! View call for submissions- deadline 3/28-
by Morgan Boecher
Sex work is a divisive issue among contemporary feminists. Is it a job that enables independence and empowerment or is it a compromised position for women that reiterates sexist roles? The heated debate from various sides indicates that the answer is not simple. Sex work has had a decidedly positive impact on some women’s lives, while other women have never known the meaning of empowerment through sex work. The myriad experiences of those involved with and affected by sex work cannot add up to a sum total of “sex work = good” or “sex work = bad.” However, patterns emerge and sex work begins to mean something.
For me, sex work means danger. There is someone very close to me who is a sex worker, and she is not empowered. She is not free or independent. She is controlled by boyfriends and drugs and insecurities. She hurts herself and those around her all the time. Her idea of what a woman should be like – sexy, fashionable, cute, rich – is a cocktail of TV stereotypes. It’s as though she consumed the most literal hourglass-shaped template from mainstream media.
But to say that the poor thing had no choices is terribly condescending. Of course she had choices, even though they were embedded within a culture that partially promotes the glamorous porn-star-gangster image. Out of many options, she chose to focus on that one image of what a woman can be in American society.
This is where I get caught up in the idea that sex work is dangerous for women. The media portrays a specific, one-sided, degraded image of what a sex worker is, despite the vast diversity in individual experience and personhood among sex workers. This misogynist portrayal incites people to copy it, thus producing a pattern that gets us no closer to a feminist future. Of course there are sex workers who are aware of the messages that are propagated by the media, and actively decide how to respond. No sex worker is without choice, but the invasive effects of the media cannot be ignored either.
So is sex work inherently more dangerous than other businesswoman-customer interactions? Besides the physical and emotional complications that are usually involved with intercourse, no. But within the context of a sexist society that naturalizes sex work as something that women were meant to do (how many times have I heard that lame “it’s the oldest profession!” excuse?), well, that’s another matter.
I question whether sex work in any form can be a way to empower women as a whole. I feel like I can be convinced otherwise, but right now I am doubtful that it can. I have seen the heinous ways in which the one I care about was violated, and how that violation led to her downward spiral of which sex work is a part. If anything is to change, though, sex workers must be the ones to define themselves, not the misogynist media. And the sex workers who have the well-being of women in mind, namely feminist sex workers, will be the ones to redefine the trade for the better.