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State of the Debate: Sex Work Edition

The interesting thing about being a sex worker on Twitter is how entitled complete strangers feel to opine on your job, offer commentary on your character, and ask intrusive questions. I’ve been queried about what I would be doing if I wasn’t a prostitute, how my family feels about my employment choices, and what my thoughts would be if my non-existent child was to choose sex work for a living. I’ve been called selfish, immoral, a trafficking apologist, a pimp, and several far more foul slurs. And of course, I’ve been told how horrible my job is – both for me and for the whole of humanity.

In addition to those ignoramuses, others who clearly have no experience in sex work and have done little to no real research on the topic attempt to entangle you in endless debates by citing anecdotal evidence, long since debunked stats, or poorly thought out radical feminist rhetoric that is often ironically anti-feminist.


As a rule, I rarely take the bait on these when the initiator is what I deem a “low value target,” that is, someone with little platform (non-journalist, low follower count, etc.) and/or someone who clearly can’t be persuaded no matter how much data you provide. I did, however, want to point them somewhere should they attempt to engage me since they will often report the lack of a reply as a triumphant victory to whatever miserable audience they’ve managed to amass. To that end, and hoping to head off at least a few of these encounters, I pinned the following Tweet a few nights back:


Unsurprisingly, it took all of one hour for some random person with an opinion on sex work to show up. Engaging in Twitter debates is boring enough; reading about Twitter debates is downright painful, so the last thing I’m going to do is re-hash the discussion here.

This morning, though, another random showed up with this to say:

Illustration for article titled State of the Debate: Sex Work Edition

Errant comma aside, the only reason this is remotely interesting is that it’s completely emblematic of how sex work prohibitionists so often argue their point – poorly.

First let’s start with the charge of experience and research fueling confirmation bias as there are two significant problems with this line of thinking. The first is that sex work prohibitionists paint sex work as the most wretched form of labor imaginable – should they even afford it the dignity of referring to it as labor at all. If sex work truly were the nightmarish, depressing, revolting, soul-annihilating, undignified career choice they claim it to be, how would my decades of experience create a positive confirmation bias toward the job? Shouldn’t I actually be biased in the opposite direction?


Second, holistic academic study is never limited to literature that affirms a single point of view. Even material that is generally sympathetic to sex work typically explores the research of those who are not; perhaps if the individual accusing me of confirmation bias had ever read an objective piece on the topic, she’d be aware of that. In addition, I seek out and examine oppositional work extensively, having, for example, poured over studies by Farley et. al. noting their poor methodology, faulty premises, limited populations, leading questions, and all the rest of their flaws. Having entertained multiple perspectives, most sex workers I know who study the topic are far better educated on the structural issues that create opportunities for exploitation than someone who’s satisfied themself by thinking the most horrific examples of those situations represent the full spectrum of experiences.

Confirmation bias appears to be yet another discrediting tactic, akin to the charge of false consciousness so often deployed by prohibitionists. The argument fails miserably, however, both due to a lack of internal consistency with respect to experience and due to invalid assumptions made about generally accepted study methods. But what’s more telling is what’s not said – at least not explicitly. If experience and study aren’t enough to qualify someone to speak about the topic of sex work – if establishing your credentials by stating you’ve done the work and studied it is patronizing – what alternative is left? Only one: Victimhood.


The reality is the only voices prohibitionists want heard in the debate on sex work are those of victims and those deemed worthy enough by the rescue industry to speak on their behalf. Realizing they can’t win the debate on their merits because the data shows that their proposals actually do far more harm than good, and realizing that objective organizations who’ve done the research agree with sex workers that decriminalization is a superior harm reduction approach, the only strategy left is to trot out victims of the most egregious abuse while declaring their experiences to be the norm – and frankly, it doesn’t even matter whether those victims are real victims or not.

Now, let me be clear: Force, fraud, or coercion in any industry is reprehensible. Victims’ voices absolutely must be heard when we are talking about ways to end trafficking, to end coercion, and to create the broader, extrajudicial changes necessary to expand employment choice set and reduce opportunities for exploitation. I’m certainly not suggesting victims be silenced; I am suggesting that the voices of those engaged in sex work who are not victims – those of us who selected our employment under the same constraints as anyone who lives in a society that requires one work for a living – also deserve to be heard. And further, I’d suggest we should be central to discussions of sex work, just as victims’ voices should be centered when we’re discussing the topics mentioned above and how they intersect with larger commercial sex markets.


That’s not going to work for the prohibitionists, though, since their goal is neither harm reduction nor minimizing abuse, but elimination of commercial sexual exchange entirely. It just won’t do to have us whores with our experience and our pesky facts speak for ourselves; should that happen, the public would eventually realize we’re just like them insofar as we choose the job that works best for us at any given time in our life, and that choice is often multifaceted, with consideration given to income, flexibility, working conditions, management structure, work/life balance, our abilities, aptitudes, circumstances, and needs.

Prohibitionists know that if anyone is really suffering from confirmation bias with regard to sex work, it is society. For years sex workers have been depicted almost exclusively as either vile, lazy, conniving vectors of disease or as powerless, manipulated, infantile victims - for many, those are the only images of a sex worker they’ve ever known. Having that narrative challenged is frightening for prohibitionists because a public disabused of its own biases and stereotypes – a public that realizes sex work is just work and whores are just people – is a public that will be less inclined to continue supporting sex work criminalization, and correspondingly less inclined to financially support organizations that do. It won’t be sex workers that are out of a job, it will be those employed by the professional rescue complex. The potential to have their agenda derailed and their paychecks evaporate is the real reason facts are despised by prohibitionists, education on the subject is mocked, ignorance is considered a virtue, calls to emotion trump truth, and sex workers are routinely silenced.


Unfortunately for them, the attempts at silencing are failing. We are dominating the dialogue on social media, we are calling out journalists whose articles simply reproduce debunked stats and law enforcement talking points, and we are appearing in the media more and more frequently when we’re not creating the media ourselves. We are asserting our agency and fighting back against our oppression. Having patronized us perpetually by claiming we’re unrepresentative, delusional, or both, it’s a rich irony to see the prohibitionists themselves now claiming to be the real victims.

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