7 Things We Should Stop Saying About Sex Workers

by JR Thorpe
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What do you know about sex work? Maybe you knew some girls who did escorting in college to pay the bills, or a friend did cam work for an extra income stream. Perhaps you've done it yourself. But whether you've seen the realities from the inside or not, you'll still be aware of the many prejudices, myths and flat-out bits of misinformation present in our culture about sex work — from prostitution to pornography and everything in between.

It's important not to judge sex workers, assume that we know what motivates them or what experiences they have had — especially when we're basing our ideas on film and TV depictions of sex work, as many of us are. It's important that we not think that we know what's best for them. It's equally important to not glorify what can be an intensely exploitative and dangerous industry for some people — particularly in countries and states where regulation doesn't exist and workers are operating without state or government protection of their rights and safety (like in most of the U.S.). Sex workers can be subject to exploitation — from people who have coerced them into sex work, from customers, or sometimes, from law enforcement officers who might blackmail or assault them. They can be left with few resources when it comes to reporting attacks by customers or others. They can have trouble accessing proper health care, reporting crimes committed against them, or getting jobs outside the sex industry should they leave it.

The situation of sex workers differs radically across the globe, depending on their legal status, particular arrangements, access to health services, and many other factors; it's one of the trickiest industries to get any firm statistics about. But the one thing that variety should press upon us is that we cannot generalize about sex work. No assumptions. No stereotypes.

Here are seven things you should stop assuming about sex workers. The realities are a lot more complex than you might imagine.

1. They're Only Straight Women

The modern stereotype of prostitute continues to be heterosexual women of color, but that's not actually the real story. The sex industry contains a huge variety of workers, and a study of 27,000 people advertising their sexual services online in the UK found that four in five identified as white, over a third identified as transgender or male, and less than 50 percent identified as heterosexual. That's a pretty big blow to the stereotype.

It's important to remember the male side of sex work, too; their participation isn't confined to paying for services. A 2004 study of sex work in the UK indicated that 80,000 women worked at "street level" — the term for negotiating sexual trade out in the open — compared with about 16,000 men, but that's still a significant number. And street level is only one part of the sexual work economy.

2. They're All Trafficked, Or All There By Choice

The realities of the global sex work economy are actually extremely hard to fathom accurately, because so much of it is underground, illegal and therefore out of the scope of proper data-gathering. But it's clear that there's a massive spectrum of people involved in prostitution and all other forms of sex work — from people forced into it to those who undertake it as a personal choice and sincerely love what they do. (High five!) It's not realistic to paint the whole industry with either picture. (Everyday Feminism points out that "sex worker" isn't actually a correct term for those in the industry involuntarily. It's more accurate to call them sexually exploited or trafficked.)

Getting good statistics on who's been coerced is difficult. The Ministry of Justice in New Zealand did a survey of a sample of people in the sex industry, and found that only 4.3 percent of women and 2.1 percent of men reported they'd been forced into it; but they add that, obviously, there's a big safety risk in admitting that to anybody. Needless to say, though, there are definitely many sex workers who do it out of choice and take pride in it. The story of every person in the sex industry is likely different, and you can't assume that all of them have been exploited or are completely empowered.

3. There's Only One Model Of Sex Worker Economy

I once got an email from a curious friend asking me to "explain how the economics works." For the entire sex industry. It's not a simple answer, and it's actually been studied by high-end economists; the famous Freakonomics team, for example, presented a study in 2008 of sex worker pricing on the street level.

Street work prostitution tends to involve either individuals or those working under a "pimp," who recruits new workers, sets up jobs and offers protection in return for a (significant) cut of the takings. (The Urban Institute has a detailed exploration into the economics of that, including average pimp income and the various restrictions pimps place on their workers.) Otherwise, there are brothels, which are dedicated venues for selling sexual services, typically run by a "madam", agency or team that organizes visiting clients for in-house workers. There's a massive spectrum of those along a huge price continuum, and workers can also be sent out on jobs. There are also dungeons that specialize in BDSM, escort agencies that don't have central premises but send contractors to hotel rooms or private homes, people who work for themselves out of hotels or their homes, and basically everything in between.

And prostitution is just one leg of the sexual work economy. We can also consider the billion-dollar pornography industry, which covers everyone from cam girls and boys to stars earning thousands per scene. Yep, that counts as sex work, too. In each one, the earning potential is different, who pays who what amount of money changes often, and the level of protection from abuse shifts. It's a really complicated picture.

4. All Workers Perform The Same Acts

Nope. This applies not only to different fields of sex work — a fetish model doesn't do what an escort does, for instance, and neither of them do the same thing as an exotic dancer, a sensual masseuse, or a cam girl — but to the specialties of sex workers within each field. Not all accountants perform the exact same job, right? The same goes for escorts, exotic dancers, porn actors, etc.

In the BDSM (bondage-discipline-domination-submission-sadism-masochism) spectrum, for example, specialization is key. (Full disclosure: every sex worker I have known has been in this particular area or doing organizational work at an agency.) Professional workers in this area can specialize in one particular role, like dominant or submissive, or be skilled in several. The variety of acts that fall under a BDSM heading vary wildly, and professionals obviously need to know what they're doing to tie somebody up or instruct in something complex and dangerous. Sex workers possess different skills, and different levels of expertise and experience.

And even in more straight-sexual situations, the variety of particular fetishes, acts and experiences is pretty vast. So don't assume that you know exactly what someone does just because you know they are a sex worker.

5. They're All Working To Support Addictions

The New Zealand Ministry of Justice can weigh in again on this one: only 16.7 percent of the sex workers they interviewed reported working in the industry to support addictions. This number may be lower than the reality due to the fact that it was self-reported and addictions are highly stigmatized; still, if you compare it to public perceptions, it is a pretty low number.

Drug use seems to be higher among women on the lower rungs of the sex industry, on the street level or operating on their own; one 2006 study found that 80 to 95 percent of women in the UK working at street level were "problematic" drug users. But only half of the women admitted to drug treatment facilities in the US in 2008 had a history of prostitution, and it's in no way a fair assumption to make about anybody. Motivations to enter sex work differ hugely and can change over time, and you can't generalize about anybody.

6. They All Have STDs

The Sex Workers Project actually puts this best: "Sex workers are often more knowledgeable about sexual health – and practice safe sex more often – than the general population. They often act as sexual health educators for their clients and should be mobilized, not demonized, in the struggle to control HIV/AIDS. Where sex workers are not treated as outsiders or criminals, they are able to pursue health care that does not stigmatize them or violate their human rights."

It's pretty understandable that for people for whom their sexual health is their livelihood, a condom and other proper protection is a very good investment. The notion of a sex worker population riddled with STIs is one of the preconceptions that sex workers most commonly rail against in public. In Nevada, STI screenings are often mandatory at legal brothels and condom use is non-negotiable. Generally, in decriminalized places, the incidence of STDs among sex workers is really low; but there are still risks. AVERT, an HIV/AIDS organization, recounts instances in criminalized countries where workers are paid double to have sex without condoms, and points out that carrying condoms can be taken as evidence of prostitution in places where it's illegal. But the automatic tie between "being a sex worker" and "having sexually-transmitted diseases" is a sh*tty one.

7. They Can't Be Sexually Assaulted

This is nonsense, and extremely harmful nonsense at that. The exchange of sexual acts for payment, or in an environment that results in pay (in porn, for instance), is still based on the idea that both parties are consenting. Even if the client pays, they don't have the right to do whatever they want without the worker's consent.

The myth that sex workers "can't" be raped because they've been paid for it surfaced alarmingly last year, when famous pornography actress and activist Stoya accused ex-boyfriend and pornography actor James Deen of rape, and some commentators announced that it wasn't possible for her to have been raped, because she appeared in porn. This makes no sense. Because a sex worker has at one time exchanged their services for pay in some capacity, is it therefore logical to think they're always "open for business" and consenting? Ridiculous.

Put bluntly: yes, sex workers absolutely can be raped, whether outside a business situation or within one. There's an entire campaign called Our Consent Counts about why it's important that sex workers' rights are respected. All sex work is not rape; people in the sex industry can and do consent willingly, and their right to determine what they do and do not consent to is a key part of their professional autonomy and safety. It's a stupid myth. Bust it.

Images: Kypros/Moment/Getty Images, Giphy