Today on International Women’s Day I am celebrating the fact that I am a woman, I am a sex worker and I am a feminist. As a feminist I believe in respecting the agency and choices of other women- all women, including trans women, migrant women and women of colour. I believe in respecting the right to bodily autonomy and the right to choose. We don’t judge and belittle the choices of other women without seeking to understand their context, their lives, and their realities.
One of the major problems of the narrative that all sex work is exploitation by men against all women, (besides the fact it denies the realities of the sex and gender diversity of sex workers and our clients) is that it damages our ability to seek better working conditions, to access justice for crimes against us and to stand up for our rights as sex workers. When all sex work is framed as exploitation, how can we advocate for redress against actual violations of our labour and human rights? If all sex work is violence against women, then if we choose to sex work, by extension, we have consented to violence against us. Just because we have chosen to sex work does not mean we are in a permanent state of consent to any and all violence, sexual assault and exploitation. These assumptions create damaging stereotypes about sex work and increase violence, stigma and discrimination against us.
The reality is that sex workers negotiate sexual services in exchange for goods, services or money. Each sex worker has different boundaries about what services they consent to provide and what remuneration they expect to receive for this. We negotiate this in advance with the client, prior to the service taking place. Any contravention of these negotiated terms of the service constitutes a crime against us. Breaching the terms of our consent is a crime, sex work is not.
If we work for an employer, and they withhold our pay, or don’t pay us what was agreed for each service, or if they don’t allow us to refuse clients, or force us to work unreasonable hours- then these are examples of workplace exploitation. The fact that we have an employer is not in itself exploitation and framing it as such hinders our ability to demand decent workplace standards and to address actual workplace exploitation. And if we are subject to exploitative work conditions, it doesn’t mean we need to be rescued from sex work or that all sex work is bad. We choose to sex work. We do not choose to be exploited, to face violence, nor to be sexually assaulted.
The best way to protect the rights of sex workers is to fully decriminalise sex work, our workplaces, and our clients and third parties. Decriminalisation enables us to access industrial rights mechanisms, workplace health and safety standards and seek justice in the event of a crime against us. When sex work is decriminalised, we can prioritise our safety over police evasion. We can report a crime without fear of being arrested for being a sex worker. We can demand decent work standards and choose how and with whom we work. We can speak out against violations and organise for our rights. Feminists support the rights, agency and choices of all sex workers and the best way to support that is to support the full decriminalisation of sex work, our workplaces and our clients.