Sex work has become a controversial topic within the feminist movement. Should it become fully legalized or decriminalized? Should it even continue existing? No matter which side of the argument you might fall under, the toxic and often abusive attitude towards people in the industry is clear.
When we think of sex work, we think of it as a dangerous, life-threatening profession. Although it can be dangerous, that does not mean that the entire industry is immoral. These observations translate into how we view workers in the industry. We believe workers regard it as either a last resort or have no respect for themselves.
However, it should not matter why someone takes part in this line of work. Instead, we must figure out how we can make it more comfortable and safe for the worker. One way to do this is to unlearn preconceived ideas about the industry. Many people who become sex workers choose to do so from their own initiative for various reasons. It is empowering, generates financial independence, and allowing creativity to express sexuality. Platforms like OnlyFans have helped sex workers gain more control over their income. Conducting their work from home, which can be helpful for many during a pandemic.
The deep experience of sexual pleasure is important. Human beings are social creatures. When we are alone and isolated, we cannot thrive. Therefore, the service of sex is important, whether it may be in person or virtually.
We continue to look down upon or determine sex work as exploitative or degrading, assuming this will motivate sex workers to leave the industry. Sex work will continue to matter how we view it. Advocating for the criminalization of this work will only make it more dangerous for those who take part in safe and consensual sex work. Instead, we should look at how to change our perception of the industry.
Sex work dates back to the earliest list of professions, around 2400 B.C.E. Sex work is a by-product of human social formation. It often appears in societies where sexual activity is limited or regulated. Sex work began in Mesopotamia, where ancient fertility cults existed. They took part in goddess worship, creating “sacred prostitution.” However, we will call it sacred sex work instead. It’s possible sacred sex work dates back even further to the Neolithic Ages. There were several cults of the Mother Goddess or the Great Goddess. They deemed the sexual activity conducted on behalf of the Gods or Goddess in their various manifestations.
There is historically valid evidence of sex work in ancient Mesopotamian and Neo-Babylonian periods. The worship of a goddess corresponded with the practice of sex work, a regular activity for a priestess. They believed the Gods and Goddesses would dwell in the temple. The staff at the temple cared and fed their deities. They prepared and set out daily meals for them, made their beds, and played music for entertainment. For those who regarded fertility as sacred and essential to survival, this meant devotion to their Gods required sexual services.
The public considered sexual activity on behalf of the gods or goddesses beneficial and sacred to the people. Commercial sex work also flourished as it developed in or near the temple. In the Old Babylonian periods, they appointed the daughters of rulers as high priestesses of the Goddess Ishtar. Often these daughters were unmarried, performing something known as the Sacred Marriage.
Some devoted their practice to the Goddess Inanna, who would marry the God Dumuzi. The priestesses would represent the Goddess, and the men they would sleep with represented the God. The sacred marriage was a symbolic union of the two deities through their disciples. People depended on this celebration of the sexual power of this Goddess in union with her lover. They hoped this would make their crops flourish.
It is important to note the rich history of sex work. We understand those who took part in this work were highly respected, holy, and worshipped in society.
We need to observe how marginalized individuals face discrimination regarding their personhood and sex. We view sex workers as the breakdown of the traditional family, sources for STDs and STIs, drug use, and the subversion of youth. The origins of this stigma likely originate from deep-rooted beliefs on sexuality. This often ends up harming women, immigrants, Indigenous people, Black and Brown individuals, disabled persons, drug users, those with STDs, and LGBTQIA+ individuals, specifically trans women.
Pre-colonial societies often took a liberated approach to sex and sexual identity. Sexuality and sex were not a problem compared to western civilizations. For instance, in Egypt, mummified bodies dating as far back as 2400 B.C. of two men embracing each other as lovers. They also acknowledged the existence of a third gender.
However, it is not uncommon for us to know little about precolonial societies’ patterns of commercial sex or non-marital sex. Historical research points to some practices prior to colonization, temple sex work, for instance, that “differ” from sex work, but share many similarities. There were three categories of sex work in pre-colonial communities. Sex work for money, a practice that closely resembled it (religious practices or cultural traditions), or no sex work because the society had little to no money, therefore, no one could exchange money for services.
Most times, the public entertainers, who engaged in the occasional exchange of sex for money, disappeared through colonial control. Women who engaged in such professions became fetishized, sexualized, and forced into a system that regulated their work. Colonial legislation often regulated precolonial non-marital sex and industrialized sex work. The term “prostitution” is derogatory when discussing sex work. Used by colonizers to shame and degrade women who took part in their field. Work dehumanized through colonization.
In India, women who lived and entertained in salons became known as the center of music and culture. They provided some sexual services to upper-class clients. As the Indian courts lost their control to the East Indian Company, the women lost their support, and the roles became strictly sex only. They became a threat and danger to public health.
Temple sex work and traditional dance were both classified by the Brith as prostitution, despite these practices being a part of Indian culture. European settlers eroticized and sexualized practices instead of respecting their cultural significance. They took their traditions and attempted to pervert them under the colonial system.
Colonization of the economic systems devalued women and forced them into domestic submissive roles. This economically marginalized most women. This drove many to sex work to support their families. Whether sex work is purely for survival or through choice, sex work is about accumulating money and property. Like any job.
Historically, sex work has developed as a means for women to gain social and economic independence. This is in response to demonizing female autonomy in patriarchal systems. African culture rejects Eurocentric “work culture” by discarding the notion of “respectable work” for “illicit” or “illegal” employment.
Colonialism controlled many communities economies. Therefore, sex work developed in resistance to colonial wage labor. One thing to understand about sex work is not to treat those in the industry as victims, but as empowered, independent individuals with agency. In Kenya, sex workers became heralded as “urban pioneers”, the first residents to live year round in Nairobi.
They often came from powerful families and would send money home to bolster family fortunes hit by natural catastrophes or the conquest of the British empire. Others would purchase cattle or build houses, founding the revolutionary idea that women can control their own fortune and be the head of a household. Their access to housing and property mattered, not their line of work.
They often imitated marriage with baths, food, sex, security for money. Rather than most women in marriages would do thankless labor for free, sex workers did not have to worry about this. This promoted values of respect and community that these women attempted to form in a colonial scene to meet African women’s needs. While we understand this is only one community’s one culture’s story, the point here is the economic power these women embody taking part in the sex industry.
For example, in Thailand, they regard sex workers as crucial economic actors. Contrary to most modern Western cultures who vilify them, which makes it hard for them to find employment outside the industry. However, sex workers in Thailand can easily pursue other career opportunities later in life.
As development policies shaped Thai society, economic opportunities for women in rural Thailand were scarce. Instead, they moved into urban areas and helped legitimize the field. Women’s actions have helped shape sex workers as a valid career path. Their families expect them to provide with a respectable income, while women hope to gain financial independence as providers.
When we treat the job as ordinary or standard, the possibilities and opportunities for women after sex work broadens. This is because there should be no shame or stigma surrounding the vocation. It should simply be treated as any other career path.
Instead of treating women, especially those in what we classify as third-world countries, as exploited people or socially deviant, imagine treating them as self-sufficient individuals, as people in charge of their own path. They can have a strong connection to their family and family values, while providing a service like anyone else. We must often consider the opportunities presented to women, transgender people, and gender-expansive individuals throughout the world. Some may have less access to opportunities, including education or work.
However, this does not make this work any less valuable. It often means it will reduce their jobs to gendered roles, like biological skills. Unpaid thankless jobs. That is why sex work is a viable option. Even if certain societies provide the means and access to other careers, besides sex work, benefiting from men while they want and sexualize you through financial gains is empowering. Exploiting the desires of men, the same one who have exploited marginalized genders for centuries, is another factor to consider.
When we recognize sex work as a legitimate form of work, we open many more possibilities for women, transgender women, and gender-expansive individuals to have autonomy over their lives and bodies.
As sex workers make money off their own sexual objectifications. The sex workers will then view their clients as nothing more than wallets. The same as many consumers will regard sex workers as nothing more than sex.
Sex work can be mentally draining. They are constantly holding space for another person to develop and sustain each relationship. While this is a legitimate form of work, we must also acknowledge the negative sides of it. Often when sex workers face social inequities through discrimination or poor client behavior, it is hard to find support against the client’s actions through law. Socio-structural factors, like stigma and criminalization of the industry, increase the likelihood of mental illness among sex workers. For even more marginalized sex workers, including trans women, will experience transphobia as well. The law should start protecting sex workers, so they have more access to resources.
Health and Education
A common assumption about sex work is how dirty the job is. It is more likely to promote the spread of STD and STIs. However, due to insufficient protection of the sex industry, each worker handles their clients and hygienic practices individually. A study in Maiduguri, Nigeria showed most sex workers taking the survey stated they received injections of antibiotics to prevent the spread of STDs. Only around 7.04% claimed they had an STD in the past. The spread of disease is small within the sex trade.
Sex workers will take their experiences and educate themselves along with fellow sex workers in HIV/AIDS prevention, safe, consensual sex, and personal hygiene. A perfect example is Ceyenne Doroshow, a trans woman, a former sex worker, international speaker, media figure, and the founder of G.L.I.T.S. in Queens, New York. One of her organization’s goals is to help trans sex workers through education, harm reduction, economic empowerment, and social justice. This is all to ensure the health and resilience of trans sex workers.
An increase in sexual activity could put someone at risk of acquiring STDs and STIs, but that does not mean that those working in the sex industry automatically become carriers. They are much more aware of their sexual health and activity due to the risks posed.
In this first article of many, I hope to educate and influence those who have a limited perspective on sex work. Consider sex work as a legitimate, respected field, not a criminalized and demonized industry.