Sex workers are adults who receive money or goods in exchange for consensual sexual services. When we say “sex worker”, we appreciate that sex work is work.
Although there are sex workers who turn to sex work out of the need to earn a livelihood – the same reason most of us work even when we’d rather not and even when we don’t always enjoy our jobs – not all sex workers do it only for survival. There are plenty of sex workers who enjoy the vocation. Choosing to do sex work is an active decision about what they do with their bodies. They get to create opportunities for their clients to explore their desires and pleasure. Sex work includes bodily autonomy. Conflating sex work with trafficking undermines sex work as work, perpetuates harmful stereotypes and discrimination, and overlooks sex workers’ ability to make choices.
Sex Work Extends Self-Direction
Unfortunately, we live in a world where sex is clothed in shame and secrecy. We’re told we shouldn’t speak about it and led to believe that the pleasure of having sex is reserved for certain people under very particular circumstances only. This has resulted in values that pathologize and misrepresent certain sex practices such as kink and BDSM, and laws that criminalize sex between queer people and, of course, sex work. Essentially, this polices pleasure, our birthright to make choices based on what brings us joy and our right to secure our livelihoods. Sex work is one of the few forms of work where people feel self-righteous enough to impose their subjective values and the little insight they have about the industry to make blanket statements about sex workers' choices.
If we dig below the surface, we’ll see that often the misrepresentation and misconceptions about sex work are projections of people’s socialisation around the limitations of what a lot of us are taught about sexual ‘goodness’ and ‘badness’. Besides overlooking sex workers' choices, these narrow outlooks on sex work miss the fact that there are different forms of sex work too – it includes but isn’t limited to sexting and webcamming. Many sex workers enjoy the power to choose what sex work they want to do and the flexibility that can come with doing that work.
Sex Work Extends Bodily Autonomy
Autonomy, a person’s capacity to act on their values and interests, is a birthright. Each of us has the right to make informed decisions about our lives and bodies – and who has access to them.
Women and queer people’s bodies are disproportionately policed compared to cis-gendered men. This means that our sexualities and pleasures are policed too. It may be unfathomable for some but sex work can allow people to safely explore their sexual desires and their bodies as sites of pleasure in ways they sometimes can’t access through the dominant social norm of heterosexual, monogamous relationships. In a world where, as women and queer people, we are taught that our bodies don't belong to us and where we're constantly denied pleasure, enjoying that autonomy is powerful and filters into the pleasure and confidence that some sex workers carry into other parts of their lives. The self-knowledge and awareness that comes from exploring your sexuality and body can be empowering.
Sex Work Extends Care Work
Care work includes all tasks that directly involve care processes done in service of others and one’s self. Sure, some clients just want to have sex and climax, but that isn’t the case with everyone. Sex work can be care work. Some clients turn to sex workers because they would like to experience a particular intimacy that may not always involve sex, or they want to explore their desires. When we consider that sexual pleasure contributes to our wellbeing, we can see how the choice to create safe environments coupled with safe sexual practices for people to explore their desires and enjoy pleasure is care work.
So yes, there are sex workers who turn to sex work because their options are limited and they need to earn a living. There are sex workers who do not enjoy their job but that is not everyone’s story. We must acknowledge that there are sex workers who choose to do sex work.
There are sex workers who find joy, purpose, power, and freedom in choosing to do sex work.