The Work in Sex Work

Sex workers are like any other member of the working class — they're just trying to get by in the face of an unjust economic system.

Demonstrators at the Red Umbrella March for Sex Work Solidarity in June 2016 in Vancouver, Canada. Sally T. Buck / Flickr

In the longest summer of my youth, I found myself in the passenger seat of a shoddy car with a stranger to the left of me, a stranger I would have to put all of my trust in. He drove us up and down Los Angeles’s Crenshaw Boulevard, waiting for a prepaid phone to ring. The men calling would ask for “the Asian one.”

Upon meeting, I would be paid $300, do my job, and walk away with 50 percent.

Over the following years I would go through the same routine in a number of cities. Sometimes I worked with a partner and sometimes I worked independently. Legally, I was engaged in sex trafficking. But for me, it was just work.

Recently, the cases of missing young girls in Washington DC went viral, driven by unsubstantiated claims that they were victims of trafficking. This kind of misinformation, while common, stems from a simplistic understanding of the sex industry that does little to help actual trafficking victims while buoying high-profile NGOs with a savior complex.

Misinformation about trafficking spreads quickly because data collection methods are inconsistent and not completely accurate. Polaris, the nonprofit organization that operates the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, has reported over twenty-two thousand cases since 2007. However, it mines its data solely from calls, emails, and web submissions. Most reports come from “community members” — not victims, their families, or case workers.

Other reports rely on figures from government and law enforcement agencies that pull hard numbers from arrests and court appearances. Because the legal definition of sex trafficking is intentionally broad, these data often include both consenting sex workers and genuine victims.

Legally, trafficking describes the recruiting, harboring, transporting, provisioning, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act. Driving a sex worker, doing a sex worker’s taxes, seeing a sex worker, working with a sex worker ­­— all can get you arrested on trafficking charges. In fact, when two prostitutes work together, each one can be charged for trafficking the other. This definition, capacious to the point of absurdity, muddies discussions about trafficking while stripping consenting sex workers of any autonomy.

The prevailing discourse uses phrases like “modern slavery,” but downplays the role of economic coercion in shaping the sex industry. It claims to speak for the oppressed, yet fails to understand why so many women enter this high-risk, criminalized line of work in the first place. Many sex workers would explain their decision the same way a Walmart clerk, an Uber driver, or a waitress would: they need the money. Financial imperatives — not an abusive pimp or international gang — are often responsible for strong-arming people into sex work.

I started working in the sex industry when I was seventeen because I owed a debt: not to a pimp, but to my college. The institution I attended refused to let me start my first semester until I paid a down payment on the $3,000 debt that my aid did not cover. I received this notice six days before classes started.

I knew sex work would yield quick results. Later in my life it would allow me to clothe, feed, and house myself, especially in my hardest times.

This kind of coercion is a symptom of capitalism, not just a feature of sex work. People are driven to work for a wage not out of want or desire but from need. The will to survive, to eat, to provide for our loved ones compels us to work.

Capitalism backs up this economic compulsion with an ideological story: if we can’t afford to get by, the fault lies with us; if we can’t afford life’s necessities, we didn’t try hard enough; if the state won’t assist us, it’s because we aren’t good enough. Like any member of the working class, sex workers are trying to get by, trying to attain a modicum of financial stability.

Sex workers, of course, carry out their job at great personal risk. They compromise their emotions, safety, and sometimes their morals to put a roof over their heads.

I didn’t enter the industry because I thought it would be fun or easy or because I wanted to make a feminist statement: I did it because I was desperate for money.

But I’ve also never considered myself a victim of trafficking, even if I’ve had to work with a couple of managers or pimps. It was my choice to work with them and it was my decision to leave when I did. I only felt exploited because my rights as a worker were so lacking.

Sex trafficking is not a human rights issue. It is a labor issue. Elites refuse to see this because they refuse to recognize transactional sex as real work.

They view those who are trafficked as victims of circumstance rather than victims of an unjust economic system. They support rousting sex workers off the streets and throwing them in jail, making them prey to a justice system that delivers anything but. These “victims” are quite often just women who, like myself, were trying to make a living wage — victim only to the economic and political structures that never stood up for them in the first place.

When I first entered the sex industry as an adolescent, I choked down my anxiety along with my personal beliefs, and held it there for years.

I learned that any day you don’t work, any client you don’t see, and any hour you don’t upsell could be the difference between eating and starving. When your survival depends on the money you make, every dollar counts and how you get it doesn’t matter.

Too many in our society have to make the same compromise every day.