Why We Must Unlearn the Stigma Around Sex Work

We live in a society where we're forced to sell our talents and labor in order to gain resources like money, housing, and health care. Due to the constraints of living in a capitalist society, leveraging money is an expected compromise for us to meet our basic needs.

We have more or less come to accept this arrangement: many of us try to gain employment, do odd jobs, and hustle in order to gain resources. Sex work is one of the ways that people sell talents and labor to gain access to resources.

Sex work has been around for a long time, but many people are often unable to imagine that the same arrangement they have been socialized to see as okay—the trade of labor for money to gain access to resources—is also what brings many people to sex work. Instead of seeing sex workers as the workers they are, society often deems them victims of sex trafficking (sex work and sex trafficking are not the same!) or labels them criminals undeserving of our care. These stereotypes are especially harmful for people who turn to sex work to survive after being exed out of “traditional” pathways to employment due to discrimination.

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This happens in our city, the District of Columbia. The majority of people who engage in sex work in DC are Black and brown trans and queer people who are unable to access the resources they need due to structural barriers, like employment and housing discrimination that prevents people from getting housing and traditional jobs.

And since our society takes away the rights of people who have been incarcerated or have otherwise come into contact with the criminal legal system, when survival sex workers are arrested for doing what they need to do to live, they face even more obstacles to housing and employment and are pushed even further into sex work.

We see this especially with sex workers who find clients by waiting on street corners or walking along the street (called “street-based sex work,” described in our list of the different kinds of sex work below). Street-based sex workers are most likely to be arrested by police, and they are also most likely to already be experiencing homelessness or housing instability. The criminalization of sex work increases the chances that street-based sex workers will have interactions with police and these interactions further exacerbate their housing instability and job instability, in addition to exposing sex workers to police brutality and harassment. It’s easy to see how the criminalization of sex work disempowers people in the sex trade.

In order to better address the needs of people who engage in sex work, we must collectively unlearn the stigma our society has taught us to believe about it. In this blog post, we’ll explore some different types of sex work. This list is not exhaustive, as sex work takes many forms, but these are some of the most common.  If we all work to better understand sex work, we can come up with better solutions for how to keep people in the sex trade and our communities safe and empowered.

Street-based sex work

This form of work is one of the first that people think of when they hear the words “sex work.” Street-based sex workers sell sex for money, shelter, or other goods, and find clients on street corners or by walking on different streets, referred to as strolls. This form of sex work is the most visible, and sex workers who do street-based work are more vulnerable to police harassment and violence, as well as harassment or abuse by the public.

The recent passing of FOSTA and SESTA, two bills intended to stop sex trafficking by making it illegal for websites to facilitate sex trafficking, has been pushing more sex workers into street-based work since they can no longer use websites to facilitate the work and screen clients. This is harmful for the worker and is one of the reasons why communities may be seeing more street-based sex work today.


Erotic dancer

This is another common form of sex work and one of the few legal forms. Erotic dancers often work in clubs where they dance with little or no clothing. While some exotic dancers are able to make a good amount of money, many face exploitation from their places of employment. As recently as 2011, dancers in a DC club had to go to court to make the owner of the club pay them wages. The owner believed that because the workers received tips, they were not entitled to proper compensation from the establishment for which they worked. These workers were also expected to pay a fee to the club, the bar and possibly other fees, without receiving wages.


Online workers

Sex workers who do most of their business online find and screen clients through different websites, and arrange meet ups at homes, hotels, or other spaces. This form of sex work has been diminishing due to FOSTA and SESTA, and many sex workers who would conduct most of their business online are being forced to move to street-based sex work.

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Escort

An escort, like the other types of sex workers, is someone who offers companionship for a fee, and this companionship can include sex. These workers usually work with agencies (although some choose to remain independent workers) that may take a significant cut of their profits, as they may charge a fee per client or a percentage of the rate for particular services. If these workers are with an agency, they are able to better screen their clients.


Camming

“Camming,” or sex work using webcams,  is a relatively new form of sex work that doesn’t have many laws, except that it cannot be done in public. Individuals that engage in webcam work can work remotely from their homes as they  film themselves either talking about life or engaging in sexual acts. These workers will charge people for exclusive access to their channel or ask for money or other goods to perform certain acts.


Phone Sex Operators

Many can recall seeing ads for this type of work on late night television. Phone sex operators take calls from clients and talk about different sexual acts with the client for a fee. Most of these workers work from home and are paid based on the length of time clients are on the phone. Phone sex operators can be anonymous, which allows them the ability to worry less about screening clients or other dangerous situations. But they are still vulnerable to exploitation. Last year, phone sex operators brought a class-action lawsuit against a national phone sex company because it was allegedly paying them less than the minimum wage in their states and stealing their wages.


Adult Film Actors

Almost everyone watches porn, and this is where people probably encounter these workers the most (if you’re watching it for free, you should consider paying for people’s labor). They are typically paid per film, just like other actors.

Though this list only contains a sample of what forms sex work can take, it is easy to see how vulnerable sex workers are to criminalization and wage theft because of how our society views them. It is not okay that we cannot ensure them job safety. It is not okay for workers to be arrested, harassed, imprisoned or otherwise criminalized for providing services that allow them to access the resources they need to survive. In the District of Columbia, where housing and job instability thrives, where income is stagnant and those who are considered disposable because of their race, gender identity, immigration status or other identity are unable to support themselves because of structural barriers, it is clear that criminalization and police involvement is not the solution.

Join us in supporting a solution that is a first step in keeping sex workers and our communities safe. Sign our petition and find out how you can support the campaign to decriminalize sex work in the District.

— Kendra Allen
Organizer with BYP100 DC