I write a lot about how persistent, unexamined narratives lead us to do ourselves harm. Today, I want to turn to look at how certain persistent, unexamined narratives harm our society and some of its most vulnerable members.
In this piece, I’m going to be talking about sex work. Ultimately, the only people who can talk about sex work with any sort of intellectual or moral authority are sex workers themselves; I would encourage you to seek out those voices (and I’ll be providing some links throughout). That said, I can speak with some authority about regulatory frameworks and legal hurdles — and also about public policy discourses — and those are the aspects of sex work I’ll be focusing on here.
I think it’s an important conversation to have, and especially so in the midst of this Democratic primary, which is in my estimation both unusually ideologically diverse and unusually willing to entertain progressive ideas.
What is sex work?
It’s not unusual to think of “sex work” as being just another name for escorting or prostitution — and certainly those things belong to the category of sex work — but the term is actually considerably more inclusive than that.
Sex work is any sort of work where sex is, broadly speaking, part of what’s being sold. A person who engages in sex work is a sex worker. Sex work includes sex-related work in which the worker isn’t actually having sex with clients — a prostitute is a sex worker, but so is an escort, an exotic dancer, a pro domme, a porn or cam performer, a phone-sex operator, an erotica author or narrator, potentially even a mainstream model or actor. The lines do get blurry in places, of course, but at the end of the day, if you think that Marilyn Monroe wasn’t selling sex, you’ve rather missed the point.
Some forms of sex work are criminal in most of the US (prostitution), some are regulated (exotic dance), and some are almost totally unrestricted (camming).
Like most other kinds of work, some people do sex work because they enjoy it and find it meaningful; some do it until something better comes along; some do it because it pays the bills; some are coerced by economics, or by threatened or actual violence. Usually it’s some combination of these things.
Suppose that, despite the general hostility of our culture to most sex work, you’ve decided to become a sex worker. Maybe you don’t feel you have any better options; maybe you have health concerns or family obligations that prevent you from seeking other kinds of work; maybe you just really enjoy bringing people pleasure or being desired; maybe you get a grim satisfaction out of commodifying yourself in a culture that was going to objectify you, anyway.
Whatever your reasons for getting into sex work, though, you’re safety-minded. You decide to engage in one of the safest forms of direct sex work you can think of: camming. Maybe you find a studio in your city that provides high-quality cameras, outfits or props, even a built-in audience to start with, in exchange for a cut of your earnings. Satisfied that it’s work you’d like to keep doing, but unsatisfied with giving a cut to a studio and/or a streaming site, you do what American culture has taught you to do: you start your own business.
Because you’re an upstanding and law-abiding citizen, you want to make sure your ‘i’s are all dotted and your ‘t’s are all crossed. So, what’s the next step for you?
Before doing anything else, you’ll need to figure out where you’re going to do your camming. If you’re like most independent cam performers, you’ll want to do it at home — it’s a safe, familiar environment, and it doesn’t require you to pay rent on another space. Most cam performers (who aren’t using a cam studio) have a dedicated space for performing somewhere in their home, just like most remote workers of other stripes have a dedicated home office area.
Next, you’ll want to form a corporation or LLC. This keeps your personal finances and liability separate from your new business, and is generally the best practice regardless of what industry you’re in.
Unless you’re in one of a small handful of states (Delaware, New Mexico), in order to form a business entity, you must provide your legal name and business address as part of your filing. This information becomes part of the public record. As a safety-minded person working out of your home — and doing work that’s not unlikely to attract the occasional creeper — this is less than desirable.
“That’s fine,” you think to yourself, “I’ll just form a Delaware company anonymously.” And that’s a fine plan, except that if you’re not actually operating in Delaware, you also need to register as a “foreign corporation” in your actual state — and in many states, that registration requires you to provide the same information. Even if it doesn’t, you end up having to make maintenance filings (“Hi! I’m So-and-so Corp and I still exist!”) and pay fees and taxes in multiple states; these numbers generally aren’t prohibitive, but can run you up to a thousand bucks a year that you wouldn’t otherwise be spending.
An alternative is to put someone else’s name and address on the paperwork, which works but also gives them some measure of legal authority over your business. Also not ideal, since the whole point of the exercise was to establish greater independence.
Some states, like Washington, have programs allowing victims of stalking or abuse to form business entities pseudonymously. Programs like this are good and it’s important that they exist. Unfortunately, their criteria tend to exclude people who aren’t currently experiencing stalking/harassment, but whose profession is likely to get them stalked or harassed if their name and address become public.
Step one is opening a business bank account. In order to do this, you have to have already formed/registered a business entity in your state. Many financial institutions will balk at working with a sex worker at all. After you’ve found one that’ll work with you, bear in mind that banking regulations prevent you from engaging them through your business- or stage-name.
Once you have a bank account set up, you’re ready to onboard a payment processor for your online business. Spoiler alert: many of the bigger ones will also refuse to work with sex workers. So you’re going to spend time finding one that’ll work with you, and then it’ll probably be a less reputable one. At the end of the day, it’s going to cost you more to get paid and the service is going to be less reliable than it would if you were in any other industry.
Legal and OpSec logistics
You’re gonna have to enter into agreements with all sorts of people — service vendors (like photographers), partners (like guest stars), and your customers, to name a few. Many of these people are likely to also be exposed to your legal name and address or other identifying information, whether through paperwork you sign or personal interactions or just something in the content you’re creating. So you’re going to have to be constantly vigilant to keep your identity confidential, and you’re going to have to put a lot of trust in the people you’re working with.
So far, we’ve been talking about issues faced by cam performers. These issues are, in essence, (1) anonymity/pseudonymity, (2) security, and (3) getting paid. While the legal framework puts up hurdles for cam performers in addressing these issues, they are in principle addressable by the individual sex worker.
They become less so as we move towards more direct (in-person), and more illicit, forms of sex work. An exotic dancer or a pro domme or an escort has to either accept a substantially higher level of risk or rely on third-party infrastructure (like a club, a dungeon, or a pimp/madam) to meet these needs, much like you began your cam career by going into a studio that handled the logistics for you.
Relying on third-party infrastructure is fine (though it leaves you losing a cut of your earnings), of course, but it leaves you reliant also on the provider of that infrastructure… and the more illicit your work is, the less recourse you have against exploitation and abuse by that provider. This is, essentially, the reporting problem: one of the dangers of engaging in in-person sex work in a jurisdiction where that kind of sex work is a crime — whether you’re engaging in that work voluntarily or are being coerced— is that it’s impossible to report a client’s or an infrastructure provider’s unlawful behavior without subjecting yourself to criminal penalties.
Which is to say that heavily regulating and/or criminalizing sex work — making it more difficult for individual sex workers to address their safety and security needs — makes sex workers more exploitable, not less.
Getting the green light
So if our goal is to reduce the exploitation of sex workers… how are we doing that? The short answer is that, for the most part, we’re not.
In the typical discourse around sex work, there are two main camps: legalization and decriminalization. They sound similar, but they’re very much not.
Among people advocating for sex-work-related policy change, the legalization approach wants sex work (which in this context is mostly used to mean prostitution) to be permitted in specific circumstances and subject to substantial regulation. The most popular legalization approach is known as the Swedish Model or the Nordic Model; under this model, selling sex is legal, but buying sex is not. The intention is primarily to address the reporting problem.
The underlying rationale is that sex work is inherently harmful to the people engaging in it, and the regulatory framework should protect sex workers by giving them access to legal protection while still discouraging sex work as a whole. Unsurprisingly, the legalization approach generally and the Nordic model specifically is unpopular among people who voluntarily engage in sex work.
The second of the two primary approaches, and the one most often endorsed by voluntary sex workers, is decriminalization. Under a decriminalization approach, sex work is treated the same as any other kind of work — it’s not unlawful to buy or sell sex, but of course it’s still unlawful to assault workers or consume their services and then refuse to pay, etc.
The underlying rationale is that sex isn’t fundamentally different from any other human activity, and therefore that voluntary sex work — which is understood to be a valid expression of bodily autonomy — doesn’t require any special treatment.
Important note: I’m describing these things from the perspective of the US legal system, which generally takes a stance of total criminalization when it comes to sex work. These camps look different in different legal contexts. For more information about this, check out this informative and powerful talk by activist Juno Mac.
Both camps want to reduce exploitation of sex workers and improve their safety and well-being. While decriminalization approaches regard sex work as a valid choice in itself and want to protect and empower the people who make that choice, legalization approaches tend to see sex work as inherently harmful and an option of last resort, and therefore want to protect sex workers by discouraging sex work. (If you’ve been keeping up with modern progressive discourse, the legalization camp maps reasonably well to second-wave feminism and the decriminalization camp, to third-wave feminism.)
Unfortunately, even as other progressive movements advance, the public (and therefore legislative) discourse around sex work for the most part remains unchanged. There’s reason to be hopeful, as queer groups gain sociopolitical clout and increasingly wield it in service of sex workers, but real change is still a long ways off. Why?
In large part, because of sex trafficking — or, rather, because of the role that sex trafficking plays in our public policy discourse. A person is being trafficked if they are being compelled to engage in sex work against their will. Trafficking is unquestionably horrific and a big problem. We should absolutely be taking steps to free victims, reduce the incidence of trafficking, and hold traffickers accountable. How are we doing that?
Also poorly. In 2018, the US passed a law known as the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act or, more colloquially, SESTA/FOSTA. It has had sweeping consequences. In general terms, the law holds websites liable for user-generated content related to sex, which sounds harmless enough. The rationale that carried the law through the legislative process (and the public discourse surrounding it) was that the internet was being used to facilitate sex trafficking; this law was intended to make it more difficult for sex traffickers to organize and to find clients.
The primary target of the law was a site called Backpage. Backpage was, essentially, the world’s booking platform for escorts and other in-person sex workers. In the absence of safe ways to report bad or dangerous clients, Backpage was also an important organizing tool for those sex workers, empowering them to share information about good/bad clients and generally coordinate to keep themselves and each other safe. (You can think of it as providing essentially Yelp or Amazon reviews for both buyers and sellers of sex services.) Sex workers and advocates warned that the adoption of SESTA/FOSTA would take away a safety measure they’d come to rely on, forcing many of them back onto “the street” to risk dangerous (unvetted) clients or seek protection from dangerous pimps or traffickers — in short, that the loss of places like Backpage would result in a concomitant loss of safety and autonomy for voluntary sex workers.
That’s precisely what happened. Backpage was shut down and sex worker mortality rates immediately spiked dramatically, worldwide (including, of course, many places where the US has no legal jurisdiction). The internet generally suffered an abrupt and significant loss of sexual expression, with Craigslist shuttering its personals section, Tumblr banning most sexual content (and thereby undermining much of what made it attractive to the overwhelmingly young, progressive, queer communities that had driven its growth in the first place), and many of the leading social media platforms adopting much more restrictive (and often arbitrarily-enforced) policies.
As an additional layer of predictable irony, the shutdown of Backpage and similar sites, by removing centralized hubs used by traffickers, has made traffickers that much harder to track and trafficking victims that much harder to save.
In short: a sweeping effort to curtail sex trafficking instead made trafficking victims more vulnerable while also subjecting voluntary sex workers worldwide to physical danger and economic instability.
There’s no consensus regarding the proportion of sex work that’s done by trafficking victims. This makes it that much harder to evaluate policy proposals putatively intended to address trafficking or otherwise engage with the sex industry. Further, criminalizing or otherwise driving the voluntary sex industry underground serves only to increase this opacity and make good data that much harder to gather.
And this matters, and it matters profoundly. Suppose we collectively decide that we’d like to eliminate child labor. Suppose then that we adopt a policy that boils down to “it is illegal to engage in any activity that a child has been exploited into engaging in.” The problems with this are obvious — in our well-meaning naivete, we’ve rendered our society unable to lawfully produce many of the goods and services on which it relies (and before you jump to object, note that there’s data suggesting that prostitution benefits society) — and it’s not at all clear that we’ve actually helped exploited children in the process. In legal parlance, this policy would be simultaneously overinclusive (in that it burdens people unrelated to the policy goal) and underinclusive (in that it fails to actually capture the group it intends to capture).
When a policy is proposed, we need to ask ourselves two questions: (1) would this policy actually help the people it intends to help? and (2) who would be harmed by this policy? Policies like SESTA/FOSTA, and others favored by the legalization camp, often fail to give satisfactory answers to either question (or to the questions that naturally follow, like “who is it exactly that we’re trying to help?” and “is the help we’re offering worth the harms it’ll cost?”).
(Bonus round: sometimes the people a policy is actually intended to help are just the politicians proposing it, just as we saw and continue to see with “tough on crime” legislation getting people elected despite being an abject failure in terms of reducing crime and generally a racist fiasco by any measure.)
Ultimately, I don’t think we can begin to meaningfully help trafficking victims — even if we disregard the needs and autonomy and dignity of voluntary sex workers as goals in themselves — as long as we’re lumping all sex workers together into the same cognitive and legal category, and treating them all as both victims and criminals.
In my experience, there are fewer people more committed to helping trafficking victims or more qualified to do so than voluntary sex workers. Further marginalizing those already-marginalized voices serves only to harm them, victims of exploitation (beyond the bounds we’ve deemed acceptable under capitalism), and society as a whole.