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1. Representations of sex workers in pop culture are reductive.
Sex workers make for tidy metaphors. Whether you want to create a modern Cinderella fantasy (Pretty Woman) or portray the very real vulnerability of women to violence (like, every episode of Law and Order), a sex-work stereotype is always readily available. Just like any stereotype, these representations are usually dehumanizing, and they misinform the general public about what sex workers are really like.
Meanwhile, pop culture and advertising are filled with imagery as provocative as any strip club. Some of it is fabulous (Beyoncé’s “Partition” comes to mind), and some of it is…well, remember poor Britney at the 2007 VMAs? But all of it is used to sell products. Female sexuality is a powerful tool, and sex work is one way for women to harness that power for their own profit and control.
Stereotypes of sex workers tend to be reductive stereotypes of women, because we’re seen as easy targets. Need to convey desperation? Make her a stripper! Want to show a woman falling from grace? Have her dabble in escorting or simply hang out with escorts. These representations are lazy, and women deserve to see ourselves in complex characters, no matter what we call work.
2. Every woman deserves the agency to choose the job that’s right for her.
Many people assume that all sex workers are exploited or coerced. The reason for this is that people can’t relate to the choice to perform sex on camera or have sex with someone for reasons other than romantic attraction. Some other well-meaning people also assume that the so-called “Happy Hooker” gets a pass as long as she has a relatable reason to go down that path (tuition, a career in the arts, or a spunky sense of adventure). But look a little closer.
Sex work might be the best choice for someone who is economically disenfranchised. That doesn’t mean she loves every second of her job; it means it was one option available to her to get something she needed, and she chose it. She should not be criminalized for simply making ends meet in a capitalist society.
Furthermore, the sex workers I know can tick off a list of valuable skills they’ve learned from their work: entrepreneurship, money management, marketing, dressing for success, and collaborating with other women on business. It’s the stigma against the work, not the freedom to choose it, that leads to shame, exploitation, and regret.
3. Sex work stigma is a class issue.
There are so many different types of sex work: “full-service” prostitution, professional BDSM, stripping, cam modeling, and porn performing, just to name a few. Within the sex-work community, we have a word for the different ways that different kinds of work are perceived: the Whorearchy. And the stigmas associated with different levels of this hierarchy follow class lines: Think about the indoor escort who is labeled “classy,” and compare this person to the one who must work on the street who is dismissed as “trashy.” Obviously, our perceptions of class are connected to our perceptions of race. Black sex workers’ lives matter.
Decriminalization of prostitution would positively affect already legal sex work, such as porn performing and stripping, because it would destigmitize it. Less stigma leads to more — and better — options for women.
4. Misogyny against sex workers is misogyny against all women.
Since sex workers are more disenfranchised than the average woman, they often become targets of explicit misogyny and sexist double standards. Many violent hate crimes against sex workers are really hate crimes against women. As the World Health Organization reports: “Most violence against sex workers is a manifestation of gender inequality and discrimination directed at women, or at men and transgender individuals who do not conform to gender and heterosexual norms, either because of their feminine appearance or the way they express their sexuality.”
Sex workers have fought back against this in all kinds of ways, not the least of which is in reclaiming epithets like “whore,” “ho,” and “porn star,” much in the same way that “bitch,” “cunt,” “queer,” “dyke,” and other words weaponized against women can also be reclaimed.
If you’re not a sex worker, please think twice before you utter microaggressions, like, “You look like such a ho in that skirt.” You’re scapegoating sex workers for horrible things people say and think about all women.
5. Sex workers are scapegoats for rape double standards.
Maybe the most disturbing sexist double standard against sex workers is the idea that we can’t be raped. Look no further than the lawyers who tried to claim Christy Mack couldn’t be raped because she had consented to performing sex on camera, or the 2007 ruling by Philadelphia Municipal Court judge Teresa Carr Deni that the sexual assault of a sex worker at gunpoint was not rape but “theft of services.” Sexual assault laws are based on ideologies about sex, violence, and gender, and lawmakers will often use sex workers as scapegoats. When these standards are created, they affect everyone. After all, if a sex worker was “asking for it” by working, then any woman can be considered to have been asking for it by “dressing like a prostitute.”