Sex Workers’ Rights Are Workers’ Rights

Sex workers don’t need saving. They need what every other worker needs: the power to dictate the terms of their labor.

Thousands of protesters march down Market Street during a May Day demonstration on May 1, 2017 in San Francisco, California. Justin Sullivan / Getty

The gathering in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park on June 2, 2018 felt like a watershed moment: hundreds of sex workers and their allies showed up to commemorate the first International Whore’s Day since the passage of FOSTA/SESTA, a federal law that many sex workers say makes them less safe.

It was the largest sex workers’ rights demonstration Kaytlin Bailey, director of communications for Decriminalize Sex Work, had ever seen: “There were hundreds of people there instead of dozens,” she recalled. “Just to see the energy and the mass of people coming together in public space to declare themselves either out as sex workers or as their allies felt like a transformative moment. And it was caused, I think, by the immediate impact of FOSTA/SESTA.”

FOSTA/SESTA allows the government to hold online platforms liable for facilitating illegal sex trade, incentivizing websites to crack down on a broad range of users’ erotic content. Passed under the guise of halting sex-trafficking, critics say the law endangers sex workers by preventing them from finding and screening clients, as well as maintaining critical networks with colleagues that share resources, warnings, and other forms of support in an often perilous industry. As Bailey explained, unlike localized brothel raids or policing of street-based sex work, FOSTA/SESTA targeted all forms of sex work at once — inadvertently binding sex workers together by making visible their shared struggle.

For Bailey, the solidarity on display in Washington Square Park last year evoked the events in 1975 that later gave International Whore’s Day its name and which activists pinpoint as the advent of the modern movement for sex workers’ rights. Hundreds of sex workers in Lyon, France occupied a network of churches to demand an end to the brutal criminalization of their livelihoods, railing against police harassment, anti-pimping statutes, and hotel closures that made it all but impossible to build stable, dignified lives. For eight days, sex workers across the country went on strike.

That the sex worker-led actions in both 1975 and 2018 erupted as fierce protests against criminalization is no surprise, and as authors, activists, and sex workers Juno Mac and Molly Smith lay out in their new book Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights, decriminalizing the sex trade is an essential demand made by people who sell sex throughout the world. Not only are carceral measures ineffective, they argue, but oppressive, further marginalizing and impoverishing the very people they pretend to protect. Justice won’t be found in locking up sex workers, ending demand for commercial sex, or “exiting” sex workers into low-wage jobs in sweat shops. It will come from these workers themselves building power to gain control over their working conditions, and challenging the broader political context that pushes many of them to sell sex in the first place.

Mac and Smith provide a robust economic analysis of the sex trade, arguing that people sell sex for a very simple reason: they need money or resources, and sex work is the best option they have for getting it. If that sounds familiar, it should — it’s the same reason that anyone sells their labor to survive under capitalism. For higher-status workers, sex work is unlikely to be the most attractive professional option (although those for whom it is tend to advance the bourgeois “I choose to be an escort because it’s empowering!” argument that Mac and Smith skillfully push back against). Genuinely loving one’s job is a rare privilege, and most people do not.

Instead, those who sell sex typically do so because the alternatives are worse. The hours and pay may be better than minimum wage jobs or more suitable for family obligations, the wages come quicker and in cash, and the money can be a lifeline for those likely to face formal hiring discrimination, including unauthorized immigrants, drug users, the formerly incarcerated, the disabled, or the LGBTQ-identifying.

In other words, the people most likely to sell sex are often already on the margins of society, and their material needs don’t suddenly disappear when sex work is criminalized. In fact, bringing in the police exacerbates things by pushing their trade underground and exposing them to greater violence and exploitation.

As Mac and Smith illustrate, this dynamic plays out across a number of different legal regimes. In countries like the United States, Kenya, and South Africa, where buying, selling, or otherwise supporting commercial sex is illegal, prostitution-related rap sheets leave sex workers even less employable or saddle them with fines they may struggle to pay. Criminal records and periods of incarceration can threaten sex workers’ access to housing or custody of their children.

These consequences grow ever harsher for repeat “offenses,” sparking a vicious cycle where selling more sex is necessary. The need to evade the police creates a powerful incentive for sex workers to work alone and in isolated areas, where they are subject to theft and violence with little recourse. This drives some to seek the protection of a manager, against whom they’re unable to contest wage theft, sexual harassment, or other forms of workplace exploitation. Finally, criminalization heightens the abuses of police, who can easily leverage the threat of criminal charges or deportation to coerce sex workers into sex or bribes.

Similar dynamics play out in countries with other legal frameworks. The so-called “Nordic model,” which ostensibly decriminalizes selling sex but criminalizes buying and otherwise abetting its sale, has been hailed by some as a compassionate feminist alternative to full-scale criminalization. But Mac and Smith burst that bubble, arguing that the model replicates many of the harmful attributes of more punitive regimes.

Clients may be hesitant to provide personal information for screening purposes, or expect to meet in secluded, dangerous areas to minimize the risk of being caught. Sex workers may worry about being evicted by landlords who don’t want to face charges of harboring brothels, making it more difficult to work together (and more safely) at home.

Even in legalized and regulated jurisdictions like parts of the Netherlands and Nevada, harsh criminal penalties threaten those who work outside the sanctioned confines of legalized sex work, impacting those ineligible for work within legal brothels, such as people with criminal records, drug dependency, or HIV.

Finally, immigration and border enforcement creates a situation where undocumented migrants incur large debts traveling abroad, are shut out of most workplaces, and face severe risks including detention and deportation. This power imbalance means not only that sex work is among the few limited options for undocumented migrants, but that they pay an extraordinarily high price when they’re snatched up the police. As such, these workers are particularly vulnerable to abuses by handlers, clients, and law enforcement.

In short, the sex trade is disproportionately comprised of poor and marginalized people, and they’re made ever more so by criminalization. In making their case, Mac and Smith counter the talking points of organizations in the so-called “rescue industry” that try to save people from sex work, as well as carceral feminists who call for “ending demand” or broader implementation of the Nordic model.

Interventions that attempt to legally punish the sex trade out of existence, or to whisk individuals out of it by retraining them for other low-paid jobs, do nothing to challenge the lack of social and economic power that nudges people into sex work in the first place. As Bailey put it, “if you have a problem with someone doing something they otherwise wouldn’t for money, you don’t have a problem with sex work — you have a problem with capitalism.”

Of course, that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to have a problem with. But the way to address it isn’t by prohibiting society’s most stigmatized trades — it’s by building workers’ power to dictate the terms of their labor. By organizing in solidarity with one another, sex workers could live safer, more stable, and more dignified lives. They could fight back against the harms of clients and extractive managers, and fight to win resources that confer real agency over their lives by broadening their range of choices beyond “sell sex or die.” But decriminalization of sex work is a precondition for any of that, and must be centralized as a fundamental socialist demand.

It’s a demand sex workers themselves have been making for a long time. They deserve some solidarity.