Most women have strong feelings about the sex industry, be they for or against. (And many, of course, remain undecided.) When dealing with such an emotionally volatile topic, it’s easy to inadvertently silence or even insult sex workers themselves. (As a participant in sex worker activism for the past four years, I’ve seen that in action and on the page.) There’s a way to debate commercial sex while respecting the industry’s laborers. Here are some suggestions:
1) Don’t diminish or mock sex workers’ agency. When discussing a person coerced or forced into sex work, a sensitive recognition of the violation they’ve suffered is definitely in order. However, it’s important to let individuals themselves make this distinction, rather than automatically assigning them a label that indicates lack of agency. For instance, referring to all sex workers as “prostituted” or “used” can be violating in and of itself if the person identifies their work as a free choice.
Similarly, language implying that sex workers are defiled or disgusting will quickly alienate them—for instance, calling porn an “institution that systematically uses the bodies of subordinate groups as sheer sexual objects at best, and open toilets at worst,” as this Ms. blog comment does. Even abused workers don’t want the public analogizing them to waste receptacles.
There’s a way to recognize the indignities wrought upon another human being without furthering those indignities. For example, insisting that every paid act of sex is rape, regardless of how the person being paid labels it, implies that her failure to label it rape is a personal failure. No sex worker deserves to be demonized for asserting the nature of her own experiences.
2) Don’t assume your problems with the sex industry are the industry’s only problems. Some of the most time-honored criticisms of the sex industry—it solidifies patriarchy or commodifies female sexuality—are significant considerations. But they may not be top concerns among sex workers themselves, who are usually more interested in avoiding harassment or abuse at the hands of law enforcement, finding the safest possible workplace and earning a livelihood. As sex worker and artist Sadie Lune has said, “Stop punishing me just because you may not be able to imagine being me.”
3) Use language with care. Some escorts might refer to themselves as “whores” or call their friends “hookers,” but sex workers don’t trust someone outside the industry employs those words. “Sex worker” was conceived as a judgment-neutral term and is usually a safe bet if you’re unsure of what phrase would be most respectful. Some anti-industry pundits object to it on the grounds that it “legitimizes” prostitution, stripping or performing in porn. But it’s important not to use your complaints about the industry as personal attacks on everyone within it. The workers in question are “legitimate” human beings, and any framework that doesn’t recognize that needs reconfiguring.
4) Educate yourself. If you’re going to be vocal about a matter that affects countless people around the globe, inform yourself about it. Visit the websites and blogs of sex workers, activists and allies, not just here in the U.S. but abroad as well. (Sex-workers movements are active in India, Argentina, Taiwan and Sweden, to name only a few. Some resources are linked below.) Take into account the direct voices of sex workers and not just of theorists or politicians. If you see a statistic cited, check the source and examine the ways in which data was gathered. Be critical and compassionate in equal measures. Even if you take issue with the type of work they do, you’ll be sure not to trample on a sex worker’s dignity in the process.