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Sex work and its biased stigmas

An industry that doesn’t need saving

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The stigmas surrounding sex work and sex workers have persisted too long and now hang in stale air. There are numerous arguments: How the majority of sex workers are underage; that decriminalization would lead to huge increases in human sex trafficking; or perhaps the most common one: that sex work is inherently exploitative to women. There are many facets of our society that create a systemic stigma toward sex work and, let’s face it, sex itself. Sex workers are not in need of rescuing, and criminalizing the profession gets in the way of individuals who love their jobs and who would benefit more from an increased public understanding of their job.

“[It’s] the best job I’ve ever had … I have control of my life, and I have control over my freedom and my time,” JD, a female sex worker in New York City, said. JD currently works as an escort and has been in the industry for over two decades. “And you know it sucks you have to work your ass off, but it’s easy to work your ass off if you like your job. We can sell our platelets, we can sell our blood, we can sell our organs, we can sell our hair, we can sell our sperm, we can sell our eggs –– and we can’t sell sex. We’re going to do it anyway.”

As a country and a society, our behaviors and our beliefs don’t add up. Porn is only one form of sex work, but it’s a $10 billion industry and is used by a huge percentage of Americans. One study showed a clear example of how opposing sex work can be hypocrisy: 67 percent of men and 45 percent of women view pornography as acceptable, but about nine out of 10 men and one out of three women reported having used pornography themselves. The idea of supporting or not supporting pornography, and other forms of sex work, often comes from our predisposed opinions of what the sex work industry is like and what we think it means to become a sex worker.

Pornstar Stoya once commented while on a podcast, “If you’ve been told your whole life that porn is inherently exploitative to women, and if you haven’t met any porn performers, then how could you know that’s not true?” While porn isn’t the only facet of sex work, this is not a job industry full of disadvantaged individuals without alternatives. This can be a very fulfilling career just like any other. Almost everyone has sex, but the fact that these individuals show a positive relationship with sex seems to make people really uncomfortable.

“I knew from a very early age, as soon as somebody had told me what this was, I knew that that was what I was going to do because I seem to have a gift for it,” Lilly Vrega, a sex worker in Michigan who has been in the industry on-and-off for over two decades, said. “I don’t have all of those negative feelings of shame about myself that other people have about sex, and I don’t think it has anything to do with the way I was raised because I was raised with all the same weird kind of morals that everyone in the area was raised with … I mean there’s gotta be some point where we say, ‘Hey look sex isn’t bad, it’s a biological function and its necessary for some people to have a regular schedule.’”

Vrega has been at the forefront of change in the sex work industry for decades. Having begun her career here in Seattle, she was a part of starting the first sex workers union and, with the infamous Seth Warshavsky, was the fourth girl to ever go live on the internet doing what is now known as “webcamming.” She advocates for the decriminalization of sex work, something that was done with great success in New Zealand. Enacted in 2003, this legislation didn’t significantly increase the number of sex workers in the country, nor the number of underage workers, and yielded reports of workers feeling safer saying “no” to clients as well as feeling more protected and supported by the police.

In 2014 a sex worker in Wellington, New Zealand, sued a brothel operator for sexual harassment and successfully won a $25,000 settlement. There is a limited ability for sex workers in the United States to take legal action in the case of harassment or assault as a result of criminalization of their profession. Tragically, one-third of all U.S. sex worker homicide victims in 2015 were transgender women. A study conducted in 2014 shows that the criminalization and stigmatization of sex workers can lead to the feeling of being less able to call the police and can “create a climate of tolerance of violence.” It also found, at the time, that the lifetime prevalence rate of any workplace violence for sex workers around the world ranged from 32 percent to 55 percent.

“I get a lot of heartache, like a lot, about [my job] from my family,” Vrega said. “But I don’t think they quite understand my reasoning, and even if I explained [to] them I don’t think that they would even be able to understand them … I feel like I wear a scarlet letter every day.”

All this begs the question of what the United States is doing right now. In an extremely quiet process last April, the Trump administration put the FOSTA-SESTA bill into place (Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, respectively). This act essentially stripped away some First Amendment rights on the internet by reversing the 1996 Community Decency Act which used to state that the publisher or owner of a site is not responsible for what a user says or promotes.

“Really the bill is about censorship,” JD said. “It’s really just about free speech and net neutrality … it was so quiet. It’s too broad, it affects startups, it affects tech, it doesn’t just affect the so-called human trafficking world but it affects everybody.”

In the name of supposedly suppressing human trafficking, which is still a huge problem, this bill has shut down well-known websites like Craigslist Personals and other platforms which were used by consenting, adult-age sex workers for the solicitation of services and screening of clients. This is because the owner of a website or online forum is now essentially responsible for what is said or posted, and many web services have been shut down so that the owner doesn’t put themselves at risk for legal action.

FOSTA-SESTA claims to target human sex traffickers and individuals who create or post child pornography, but that isn’t the reality of its effects. Within two months of its signing, a federal lawsuit was raised by a group involving the Internet Archive and Human Rights Watch, accusing the bill of being “unconstitutional, too broad, and poorly worded.”

“In my opinion, in the last 22 years we have taken a huge step back as far as sexual revolution is concerned,” Vrega said. “It must be a lot of very powerful people with a lot of money who want people out of their way. But day to day, from what I’ve noticed in the industry, I feel like five years behind when I first started as far as the oppression is concerned but we have a lot more people talking about it and there’s a lot more dialogue.”

While the New Zealand model shows the legal possibility of decriminalization and the protection it could provide workers, our own country is currently split on the issue. According to, Americans are split 44 percent for and 46 percent against legalizing prostitution. Ideally, the number for legalization would be higher and will continue to grow. The most damaging view toward sex work, which sits at the heart of many stigmas, is the thought of desperation. There is an idea about the sex work industry that most individuals aren’t there by choice; that there is some force that made them choose that job like abuse that prevents them from leaving or doing it solely for the money. The problem is that these aren’t blanket truths and we could help both successful and disadvantaged individuals with decriminalization and a little less judgment.

“These are — not just young, but all ages — entrepreneurial women that are basically running their own businesses and have control of our lives, and we’re not being abused,” JD said. “This is another business and we’re totally on point and this isour world. We don’t want to hear any element that, ‘We’re struggling, or we’re putting ourselves through school.’ Most women in their 40s that [are] doing it are making the most money, it’s not just a young woman’s game. Like people, it’s a legitimate job with educated masters, Ph.D. people.”

It’s time we look at our own opinions of sex and where along the way these were ingrained. Where do we internally draw the line between good and bad sex, or a normal person and slut? These lines aren’t fixed for everyone and the assumption that a sex-positive person who works in the sex work industry is bad or damaged is destructive and ignorant. By having such a strong stigma about sex workers, we are getting in their way more than we are helping them. With decriminalization, sex workers would be able to access legal services and health care more easily, and perhaps not experience so much judgment. The path toward a career you enjoy shouldn’t be paved with insults and barriers, especially if being a sex worker could be much simpler by us taking time to consider how we formed such negative opinions.

“Maybe I’ve taken a lot of shit for being so open about it, but in the long run I think if every girl who really did this did it for the right reasons and spoke just a little more openly about it, if we could find the little ways to not be so scared and to tell people then it might start to really change how people view sex work,” Vrega said.

Reach writer Grace Harmon at Twitter: @grace_viv

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