Before you read on to the notes I wrote, advance apologies to anyone who might feel offended by the article itself, for other added ideas in later on – will be noted in one of the next blog-posts.
Here in this essay it will first write about my perceptions on feminism and sex work before I took the module on sex work, followed by the unkindness I read and witnessed feminism gave to sex workers. It will then began to talk about the types of sex work, how images of sex works being constituted to the stereotype we came to know, in hope to provide the possible explanation of how this effect sex worker’s relationship with communities. This would be followed by government’s response toward the sex work, and the problems the policies were causing. Along the way the essay would also talked of the worries feminists have on sex-related matter, especially sex workers.
I first come across sex work was when I was in final year of university, I was taking up a module on sex work and globalization. Until then my ideas were naïve in the understanding of sex work and feminism, like many people I encountered in the past, we often looked at sex work with disgust while we shared high regards on feminism.
According to my observation, feminism and sex work received their treatment from the society with a difference as opposite as heaven and hell. Feminism was like a goddess, we gained rights that we never dreamt of – such as the right to vote with the help of the suffragettes. It seemed logical of us to praise women who emphasized the rights of women to be treated equally, and therefore automatically shown disgust to anyone or anything against such nature. This included sex work, which to many women or possibly the public, something that existed to objectify women. In history and many portrayal from media such as films, it seemed extremely impossible of women to gain any liberty through sex work.
The reason behind my choice on that module was uncertain, I guess there has always been an aura of mystery when we talk about sex works. While part of me felt slight dislike toward sex work based on the stereotypes it gave me, part of me had been wondering if sex work had been what the media said it was. I was especially conflicted upon reading the memoir from Belle de Jour (2005), as it left me uncertain on what to believe on sex work – is that really a horrible thing to exist, or maybe it might not be so bad as it was make out to be?
Yet I did not have an accessibility back then, I did not know where to look to understand more of the world of sex work. Like many professional studies, it was often difficult for outsider to gain entry to study something specific such as Archaeology unless you were able to find a specific path. For example in my case, I got into sex work studies through taking a module on related area. Another thing I was certain of, was that the knowledge of sex work would be more than what Belle de Jour’s (2005) memoir could possibly provide. So I was very much seizing my chances as I saw the module listing on the module catalogue for my final year to choose, of course the fact that the assessment was essay-based also helped as I hated doing exams.
In the first lecture we were introduced to different sections of sex work, such as street sex work, indoor sex work (escort, girlfriend experience and brothel), lap dancing, sex tourism and massages parlor. Street sex work was definitely the most well-known part for the outside world on sex work communities; we came across images in films such as Jodi Forster in “Taxi Driver” which gave us ideas of sex workers often as someone who need our help. Indoor sex workers divided into escort, girlfriend experiences and brothel, often escort and girlfriend experiences are popular options for women regarding sex work alongside lap dancing, especially for women in university (Evans, 2013, Silverman, 2012). As for massage parlor, often workers might provide extra services for men, mostly hand relief or oral relief. Sex Tourism to me seemed have summed up the entire sex work industry, but it was distinctive from the category for it was most applicable on tourists (Law, 2000). I noticed that escorts often being portrayed as glamorous, when street sex workers often associated with negative images such as drug-addiction.
In the second lecture the lecturer spoke of feminism and sex work – The lecturer shown us arguments between feminists regarding sex work. I was appalled as I read the quotes from various documents or comments given by feminists toward sex workers. It led to series of questions – didn’t feminism believe in freedom and independence in lives of women? If so, why such hateful words being uttered and used? (Kelser, 2004)
However before proceeding to talk about feminists attitude toward sex workers, it is important to understand the contribution of the representation sex workers carried with them. The reason of doing so was that the representation not just contributed the stereotype that was well-known to the public, but also led to side-effects on aspects. In history sex workers have been receiving diverse perspectives from the society based on their positions, for example in ancient times sex workers who worked in the temples often being praised or seen as people with importance (Berkowitz, 2013). However in the current days, whilst indoor sex workers (especially escorts) seemed received little attentions from their nature of work, part from police raids. Street sex workers often hit the headline with stories such as being a victim of a vicious murderer, street sex workers also were being perceived as people that brought along with problems to the communities, such as the threat of security for residences who live nearby (Campbell and O’Neill, 2006).
As the course progressed I examined not just sex work itself, but also feminism – not just on how much they have improved lives of women, but also their manner of dealing with women who were sex workers and transsexual . Often women in sex work were treated with very little respects by feminists, with methods such as being dismissed as either victims or degrading women (Roberts, 1986: 14-5), or occasionally receiving series of verbal abuses. For feminists who were strongly against sex work, they feared greatly that sex work’s existence not just would promote sexist attitude from men to women, which therefore would push back the effort people have been making for gender equality. As the stereotype of sex work gave them the symbolism of gender violence, which was perpetrated through arts and media for example the portrayal in Grand Theft Auto (Cook, 2014).
There was a very frequent argument regarding reasons of women to choose sex work. It has been heavily emphasized in works of Sanders and Hardy (2014) that women chosen sex work because of largely the flexibility it was given to them. For students they might be able to manage their time better through sex work, while able to earn money at the same time. It was hardly a surprise, as many women in the case studies of Elizabeth Bernstein (2007) had paid off their educational funding through sex work. As for mothers, they might find it easier to manage child care especially in early stages where children need constant monitoring, in my personal experiences I often hear people complain that. While in employment some companies would have nurseries available, many often were hesitant to employ the mother based on the demand of the job itself.
Of course like jobs in other settings such as working in the supermarket, positive and negative experiences were found in sex work too. For example, the risks that were being carried out in varying degree when conducting different types of sex work. Sex workers often received potential harassments from streets or assaults, potential assaults from customers, strangers, their loved ones and in some cases police. While some seemed to enjoy it immensely, most of the sex workers were not very keen on the job nor totally unhappy with it. Like many jobs we have known in the world such as teachers and doctors, we shared good and bad days. Yet as Doezema commented in her work (1998:43-5), people struggled to accept sex work to be seen in the same way as other jobs such as domestic labour. The reason behind people’s struggle to accept sex work as work was very much divided into different reasons, firstly according Ronald Weitzer (2007) it seemed that any paid sexual services or performances are inherently oppressive and exploitative, for example generating men’s violence toward women. Secondly some women might find it impossible to imagine women to “sell” their own bodies, was because of the symbolism bodies carried toward women. According to Helena Kennedy (1991), women often found rape disturbing to the core of their being was because rape for them was an invasion to their bodies, whose intimacy could only be done selectively. For example, a chosen partner in the person’s own will. The contradiction was, if society could accept people sharing their intimacy with strangers, why did it become a problem when people begin asking for money to have sex?
Whilst arguing over whether sex workers were conscious of their situation (being restrained or have awareness toward their choices) at all, they often forgot about the fact that there are men who work as sex workers, or women who buy sex. These two groups often seemed to be left in the cold by majority of public for the opposite positions, despite that there are increasing amount of research being conducted regarding their nature. Whilst some such as Julie Bindel (2010) found it either impossible to exist, or this would not change the fact (according to them) that men remain the abusers and women remain victims of abuses.
Through the module I was also able to have a glimpse on sex worker’s relationship with the society within different settings, the relationship they have with police, justice system and communities were fascinating to me with unknown reasons. Through the module I was able to see how sex workers found it impossible to speak to the police, because of their words being trivialized. In fact, this situation applied to many women – According to Helena Kennedy’s “Eve was Framed” (1991), women often being doubted and questioned whenever they reported rape and all kinds of sexual violence, women’s sexual history contributed greatly the credibility of her testimony. These as a result not just contributed women’s chances of of justice being lessen, but also left them distrusting toward the criminal justice system for having failed them so badly.
I was appalled not just as a woman but also as a human being, ever since I was a child I was told numerous times by adults, from teachers to parents that if ever any problems go to the police right away. At that time I really believed in what they said about policemen, such as they were reliable and would do everything they can to help anyone. Looking back, I was grateful and feel bad for people such as sex workers not able to enjoy the right that they were born with as a citizen, as the right was so universal to my knowledge.
One of the biggest issues that feminists concerned of (along with politicians and law enforcements) was human trafficking, human trafficking and sex work were very closely related in certain arguments that sex work fueled the demand of human trafficking. This led to a series of legislations and procedures being made to combat human trafficking, most notably the criminalization on purchase of sex. However whilst it seemed managed to help women who are indeed coerced into sex work toward safety, it also disrupted the peaceful lives of voluntary sex workers. In various articles sex workers complained that they have been badly harassed by law enforcements, for example in Elizabeth Nolan Brown’s article (2014), she pointed out that many immigrant sex workers who were “rescued” dislike being arrested and have to go to court in certain days, some also annoyed by the fact that they cannot go to provided services free as they wish as they have to get to those services through being arrested and criminal justice systems. Other women just dislike the procedure altogether, as they felt that their rights and ability to make choices were being ignored.
However the idea of sex work contributed the demand of human trafficking seemed adored by the people who were against sex work for reasons such as hopping to restore morality. The model however caused nothing more than harms such as the industry being pushed further into the ground, therefore workers would not be able to seek assistance without the fear of being stigmatized over their profession, which they took with an innocent purpose. This also put traffickers in a more favorable position, as they could take full advantage on exploitation toward sex workers based on their vulnerable state. Also sex workers spoke of how criminalization cause the public health at risk, for example sex workers often have the condoms they prepared for work being confiscated by the police. This put them into a more vulnerable positions for the risks over their health, as they would struggle not just to keep themselves safe from sexually infected diseases but also the guarding between their work and private life. For example in Sanders’s research (2008), sex workers in her studies felt that condoms would protect them in a symbolic way – for example, keeping distance from their clients.
In response to sex work many countries taken the approach that was adapted by Sweden since 1998, to criminalize buyers whilst sex workers remain free from charges for selling. Countries such as Ireland and Canada seemed happy to take the method as they passed the law recently, yet I was left filling with questions. Firstly how would sex workers able to sustain their lives if everything else banned (for example, advertising)? Secondly how would sex workers be able to protect themselves, if their clients are in trouble? This question was based on the fact that street sex workers often have to jump into the car in split seconds in order not to be caught, this as a result they will have lesser chances to negotiate for their safety, for example able to take a good look at the clients on whether he or she is reliable enough to work with. Thirdly if sex workers had to give up sex work, is there any other job available for them that provide the similar amount of income, or flexibility they liked? On this case (especially applicable on people who were trafficked) some non-profit organizations provide solutions by giving these women job to work on aspects such as bracelet production. Yet I wondered if those women agreed to it in the first place, even Nolan argued that some women appreciated such services. Many academics and sex workers who stated clear about the harms criminalization bring along, also pointed out that decriminalization would bring better lives of sex workers, not just they are more likely protected by legislations and labour rights, but also enabled sex workers to be free from stigmas.
Some argued for legalization or decriminalization for sex workers, yet I noticed that many were often confused over the distinction between the two. Legalization meant that sex work is legal with series of regulations and restrictions being made to keep under control, whilst decriminalization meant that sex workers can conduct their work freely under the protection from law. Often sex worker strongly believed that decriminalization would bring them not just the peace and security they would receive at work, but they hope through decriminalization their work would less likely to be stigmatized and therefore less men would justified themselves the reasons of killing their fellow colleagues. According to Hilary Kinnell (1998), often men attacked or murder sex workers believing that it is ok to kill sex workers as they doubt the law enforcement or society would pay much attention to them. Such perspectives was reinforced by Helena Kennedy, she pointed out that in court-cases women were often in disadvantages on defending themselves – especially if their sexual histories were very active.
Other methods were suggested to address certain problems that sex workers encountered in their everyday lives, especially in dealing with police. One of the most talked of method was Merseyside Model (Jacobs, 2014), a model that was made to address the strained relationship between police and sex workers. The model was originated from a series of incidents which sex workers were killed. These incidents exposed two issues – firstly as mentioned before, the difficulty of sex workers to report incidents to the police. Often in different countries such as Sweden and United State, sex workers constantly have trouble with police, such as being fined for soliciting as one couldn’t afford a private space to work themselves. Secondly the purpose of that model was all about solutions for sex workers to ensure their safety. Often sex workers have to deal with uncertainties based on the potential violence they might receive from service users, they relied heavily on sex worker support organizations and colleagues to keep them up to date on clients that might bring risk. For example punter reports provided by MASH (Manchester Actions for Street Health) in Greater Manchester areas and National Ugly Mug Scheme, which sex workers use often to keep tract with the clients over their reliability. These methods enabled women to protect themselves, the organizations also acted as the medium between law enforcements and sex workers, in order to ensure the protection sex workers deserved and hopefully a more peaceful relationship between them.
It is important to recognize that both sex workers who said yes to the job with their own free will, exist along with women who were indeed been a victim to sexual exploitation. Many argued that the voluntary sex workers were relatively small in population, in comparison to victims who were being exploited, therefore their push for criminalization would be valid. However this shown one problem that has been existing within the social welfare settings in many places, we often tried to categorize what kind of problem the person have and categorize them into a certain process. When in fact people are complex – different feelings, different experiences made impossible to categorize them into a single section, nor give them one set of method. Services require a more liquidized way to suit the needs of many people, alongside the need of our understandings to be liquidized with flexibility.
Toward the end of the module I felt as if I undergone some kind of operation, having the understandings that I used to know re-wired. Through the module it brought to me the other side of feminism, the side that was less spoken of in public. The course also benefited me on understanding more of sex work, from its nature to how their situations were being constituted. For example how their identity and the associations they carried with affect their relationships with the society such as with communities.
As for feminism, it is important for us to think on long term work for gender equalities, beside Emma Watson’s (2014) suggestion on how men could be benefited from gender equalities such as encouragement to express their feelings. It is also important for women to be kind to one another, or be accepting to undesirable choices other women made, as long as they made it with their own free will and give them the help they request if needed to be. Often women in order to be accepted (based on the fact that their work would never be accepted as long as their past/present involve with any divisions of sex work), forced to apologize for the choices they took with innocent purpose.
This ideal was supported by Alison Phipps in her article (2014) regarding the dispute between Sex Workers Open University and Object on the organizing of 2014’s “Reclaim the Night” in London, it gave people the impression that women who are transsexual or work in sex industry are not allowed into the march. She commented that instead of excluding them from feminist movements, it would be wise for feminists to listen to the experiences those women have had. She argued such gesture not just would unite the women all over the world, but also able to make sense to different gender essentialism in the society. For example sex workers would be able to provide different experiences on how they use sex work as a weapon for their own independence and able to resist the usual understanding of women and sexuality.
In this essay I noted down my journey on renewing my understanding on sex work and feminism, by witnessing or reading the un-kind words feminists gave to sex workers,
The essay also the concerns that were carried by both sex workers and feminists, it is extremely important of both to learn each other’s difference and work together for women’s rights, one should not be excluded over differences.
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