Why some critiques of the sex work industry don’t hold up

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Towards the end of last term, the Durham Student Union (DSU) was subjected to harsh critique by many political figures such as Diane Abbott MP, and Further Education Minister Michelle Donelan, for their Sex Work Workshops geared towards supporting students who already work within the field. It is not, and never was, about enticing students into commodifying themselves. It was merely a conversation on their rights and a means of establishing a support network. Durham student, Michaela Makusha, discusses this at length in her wonderful editorial piece for Beep.

I wish to tackle the words of the Further Education Minister, who accused DSU of “legitimising a dangerous industry which thrives on the exploitation of women“. These sorts of arguments against the sex work industry fall on the assumption that all sex work operates within the patriarchal imbalances of a female worker and a male client. Whilst there are certain client-worker relationships that do exploit women, sex work is not exclusively a field that commodifies and exploits women and their bodies. There are queer men who are sex workers and partake in this exchange exclusively with other men. In particular, queer male sex work is a highly successful industry with millions of individuals participating in the trade. 

It’s important that sex work is not perceived through a narrow lens

In his book Economics, Sexuality, and Male Sex Work, Trevor D. Logan finds that Rentboy.com (a now-disbanded male escort advertisement site) was reported to have netted $10 million in sales revenue from 2010–15, alone. This money was amassed solely from hosting advertisements and suggests that a significant portion of the sex work industry is taken up by male workers. Critiques from those like Donelan, in their misconception of the industry where women are the sole providers of services, are understandable — less than ten per cent of scholarship surrounding the industry mentions the presence of men within the field (Logan 4). With such little scholarship on the men who provide these services, it is unsurprising that this assumption is prevalent. This doesn’t speak to the reality of the industry, however.

My emphasis on the presence of the male-exclusive trade is not to say that the industry doesn’t facilitate the abuse of women at the hands of male clients. What it does assert is that not all sex work operates within this patriarchal function and arguing for the abolishment of sex work on these premises doesn’t stand. If anything, it only concludes that women should not be sex workers as a preventative measure to their potential exploitation, which is an entirely different argument. If you want to argue for the abolishment of sex work, your argument cannot rest on a premise that doesn’t apply to the entire field. If you want to abolish sex work, your arguments need to be stronger. 

In the capitalistic economic system of the UK, what is the easiest thing to commodify for monetary and social gain? It’s us — our bodies, our time, and our services. Within our economic system, sex work will continue to exist as there will always be people living in means where sex work may be their only option or, in some cases, sex work is a more profitable, or more enjoyable industry than a nine-to-five, at-the-office job. 

Not all people are pressured into sex work

Sex work isn’t a monolith where the worker is ‘forced’ into the field as a means of survival. It’s up to the individual person how far they wish to share themselves with a client and which services they will provide. Their reasons, too, may vary. Maybe one of your coffee-chain baristas sells feet pics on the side because it means they don’t have to take on another eight-hour shift making iced oat-milk lattes, and they get to spend that Saturday binge-watching Ru Paul’s Drag Race. Not all people are pressured into sex work — it’s just another form of work.

Some believe it is entirely plausible to abolish sex work in the UK by simply criminalising it. Yet this would only establish a preventative boundary on any potential harm that may come to a sex worker. Criminalising behaviours doesn’t necessarily mean that those behaviours are eradicated. They simply go underground, away from the public eye. Research, such as the article ‘The role of sex work laws and stigmas in increasing HIV risks among sex workers’, by Carrie E. Lyons et al. suggests that attempts to eradicate sex work via criminalisation only leads to more dangerous conditions for, and direct harm to, those who work in the industry willingly or unwillingly. If you wish to eradicate sex work to protect women, criminalising sex work doesn’t do this. It puts sex workers in further danger of being harmed. 

Some people have a gut instinct that guides their morality and that is okay — I admire those who have strong convictions. It’s important that sex work is not perceived through a narrow lens, but as a complex and multi-faceted industry filled with workers who are real people. I don’t want to discourage discourse on the ethics of the interpersonal relationships of the trade, but if both sides of the argument want to engage in meaningful discussion, then nuance is key. 

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