‘Sex work is work’
Increasingly this has become a visible mantra used by sex workers, activists and those seeking more equality for marginalised groups. But what exactly does it mean? And where do the legions of queer sex workers fit in? And should we, the queers and allies alike, care at all?
To put it simply, yes. For LGBTQ+ and queer people, sex work really does matter. Not least historically, but also in our current everyday life – sex work and its products are everywhere and here to stay. From internet porn and subscriptions sites like OnlyFans, to sex-themed clubs, to strippers and the arts like burlesque.
For centuries queer and trans people have had a rich and heavy history of being involved in sex work. Sometimes it was a means of empowerment and activism – to reclaim bodies and agency – or to generate art to challenge stifling societal norms, to drag us all forward into a more liberated mindset. At other times, it has sadly been a necessity for financial survival as the result of family and social exclusion and poverty. The necessity often has a stigma attached and sadly, a body count.
This trend of queer involvement for better or worse, has only been continuing and with the democratising power of the internet, it is reaching more people than ever as both sex workers and users of their services.
What is sex work?
So what is it when we say sex work? Broadly speaking, it is seen as a voluntary and consenting sexual transaction between adults of legal age. Whilst not an entirely sexy sentence, it is an important one.
When paying for sex work, you pay for a service, for someone’s time or product. You aren’t paying for a body or one-way ownership. Unless of course, that is part of the service or kink you’re both agreeing to enter in!
The “people selling their bodies” trope is both wrong and really quite dangerous the more you think about it. Think about how much scope it gives for abuse once someone thinks they own someone or are owed something by them. Given your average heteronormative and patriarchal take on sex that dominates – undereducated and overly-shamed, where penetration by a penis is the defining factor – sex workers are left in a rather vulnerable position. They’re both shunned and stigmatised, whilst desired by those in need without recognition of their own validity as contributing members of society. If someone is seen to be owned, they will be treated accordingly. And that is a rather scary concept.
Then the word trafficking appears. This is where it gets heavy. People are forced into sex. And by all means, this is not the sex work we are talking about. This is a modern slavery, a vile situation where money and bodies change hands across borders and thresholds. Increasingly with the drive to populism, laws about human trafficking and this modern slavery often deliberately target legitimate sex workers.
After all, what politician will stand up and defend sex? It’s an easy win to conflate the two, to shame those flaunting traditional values. Sure many a politician may engage in sex, and many a scandal highlights the hypocrisy of their private lives, but who will stand up for sex workers? The FOSTA-SESTA bill passed through the USA’s congress in 2018 was a drastic wakeup call. Built into into these bills targeting human trafficking was the deliberate removal of the safety nets sex workers depend upon.
Forums and networks to provide health, financial and practical help were closed down. People’s livelihoods were hit and too few stood up to say enough is enough. Sex workers once more were driven deeper underground. And as we know, what is driven underground isn’t stopped. It just becomes more dangerous for all. What is more dangerous than ever is for queer people, already marginalised and vulnerable, who volunteer and consent to be sex workers, often with hard work involved, to be forced further away from safety and stigmatised for no good reason.
Why even do sex work?
Yet why do people do it in light of the challenges? Well firstly let’s look at what sex work can be. Society often pictures ‘prostitution’ as the primary outlet of sex work. Yet by labelling all facets of sex work as indeed sex work, we not only can admit how wide-reaching it is, but also simply admit we like a lot of its products!
‘Prostitution’, escorting, gogo-dancing, strip, pole, burlesque, phone sex, cam sex, modelling and pornography are but a handful of what can count as sex work. On top of this let’s not forget the teams of people surrounding them – the marketers, the porn studio directors, the strip club bar staff – whilst many may not count themselves as sex workers, they most certainly are there in the provision of sex work.
Secondly there’s the all important concept of ownership and agency. Many queer sex workers do sex work because they choose to. Sex work is not easy – as with all work, sadly, it is work. Many sex workers are their own content creator, timekeeper, marketer, accountant, director and more.
It’s quite a liberating experience to own your own space, enjoy your body and desire. After all many queer people have to explore their own sexualities and sexual appetites as society doesn’t give us the tools. Society isn’t designed for us. So we must design it and so sex worker is a natural and rather exciting result of that.
There are obstacles – the fetishisation of trans bodies, the way you can become overlooked by those looking for the cookie-cutter body mainstream porn has trained us in. The gatekeeping within the industry itself by those with the reigns of power and money. But it is defined by a choice, a consent, and the desire for queer people to live with the opportunities others have.
How to care
In 2021 we perhaps could have a more enlightened approach towards sex workers, especially those from our own community. If we can recognise the stigmas belittling sex work and face up to our own desires for it – if they’re there – we can all benefit. We could subscribe and buy the services of our favourite sex workers, ethical porn sites or friends in the industry without shame. We could feel inspired to learn about our own desires, tastes and needs safely. The battle for LGBTQ+ rights, launched out of many a Pride, has had sex workers and sexual liberation at its core.
We must work hard to realign ourselves to the relationship between our fought-for rights over bodies and what to do with them. As queer people we must actively resist absorbing the unconscious stigma society wants us to feel about sex and ourselves. Allowing consenting adults to do what they want in the privacy of their space should not be so bold a statement anymore but it still feels it.