As a new generation of autonomous individuals seeks sex work as a legitimate means of employment, they face overwhelming backlash and a pitiful lack of protection. In a society obsessed with the notion of normality, sex workers often lack legitimization of their service, which consequently demeans and diminishes its respectability. The idea that some people would choose to “prostitute” themselves is often faced with complete incomprehension. This may be because sex work is viewed not as a category of employment but as an entire state of being. Yet shockingly, not only do some find enjoyment through sexual encounters, but many within the industry feel liberated. The discovery of an occupation that allows them to revel in their sexuality while simultaneously redefining an industry so muddied with ridicule is freeing for many sex workers. Sex work can conform to a wide range of lifestyles and empowers individuals of any sexual orientation to create their own unique work schedules within a personalized comfort range.
It is important to keep in mind that this seemingly abnormal profession is not always voluntary. Some sex workers face few alternatives to monetarily sustain themselves and, in extreme cases, start because of extremely pressuring or forced circumstances. However, this distinction between elective and forced prostitution does more harm than good to all involved, because the dichotomization of sex workers becomes a tool to justify denying sex workers their rights. Current international legislation fueled by anti-trafficking campaigns has focused specifically on the protection of women forced into prostitution, making all sex work seem like a type of abuse. In 2018, two bills that became known as the FOSTA-SESTA package were solidified into law. FOSTA, “Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act,” and SESTA, “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act,” seek to fight sex trafficking by regulating online platforms and restricting online advertising of commercial sex services. In its wake, lawful online speech is mercilessly policed, and consensual sex workers face discrimination more than actual sex workers face punishment.
Though some global organizations do preach sex work legitimacy while supporting the right of individuals to self-determine, one of the most famous being the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, there is still much more of a widespread emphasis on stopping forced female prostitution over protecting sex workers’ rights. Not only does this put sex workers’ well-being and safety at risk, it also downplays all other gender and sexual identities in the industry. As many international sex workers’ organizations specifically use “women” in their names, it’s clear that women hold the utmost attention in the world’s eye regarding sex work.
While it’s unquestionably important to target sex trafficking and all the horrors it entails, this particular mode of targeting casts false and potentially harmful divisions within the sex worker community. Voluntary prostitution becomes associated with guilt while involuntary prostitution is associated with innocence. The guilty are then judged as deserving of whatever mistreatment they may face — after all, they only have themselves to blame for getting themselves into their situation. However, in thinking of sex work only in terms of choice and freedom, the establishment of the victim’s innocence is prioritized. Situations arising from abuse to sex workers’ liberties automatically seem synonymous with forced prostitution rather than with a violation of human rights. Are only those forced into prostitution worthy of protection?
This dichotomous dogma must not allow sex workers to be divided into “whores” and “Madonnas” — those who are guilty and undeserving of defense pitted against those who are innocent and thus deserving. Even if the greater population chooses to remain blind to an individual’s right to control their life to their liking, those with the authority to create legislation and influence others to protect and extend sex workers’ rights cannot remain apathetic. The current positioning of sex work, as well as the societal focus on women in prostitution, ignores the variety of persons who become involved and only further promotes stereotypes of an industry already riddled with falsities and negative connotations. Inclusivity and heightened awareness must first replace this restrictive model for a true reformation of the sex industry. Simply put, it is imperative to remember that sex workers’ rights are human rights.
Miranda Jackson-Nudelman is a sophomore majoring in political science.