It’s labour day! When folks think about about labour, they often struggle to understand how sex could be a “real job” and why we do it–forgetting that like everyone else, we need jobs! Here are a few reminders about what it means to look at sex as a form of work.
1. Whether it’s hated or loved by anyone including those who do it, it’s a job. when people do it, they talk about “going to work”. When they leave, they are “off work for the night”. This is so confusing to people that hilariously even customers will ask THE SEX WORKER THEY ARE PAYING: “So, what do you do for a living?”
2. That means that where sex work happens is a work site. Street corners, strip clubs, back seats, motels, film sets=work sites.
3. When someone gets hurt doing sex work (eg knee & back pain from high heels) it is a work place injury.
4. Things that makes sex work safer are occupational health and safety issues. eg second-hand smoke in clubs, the confiscation of condoms by law enforcement or bylaw regulations in the porn industry
5. Like most workers, sex workers have managers, bosses, supervisors. Some people have really bad managers and some are satisfied with their arrangement because someone else is handling the business end. This isn’t a matter of luck but of how much power each party has. For some this is a strip club manager, for others it’s the person they call their pimp. The issue of pimping is complex–in part because it’s a totally misunderstood part of street culture and people not from the street don’t really get the nuances. Here’s a really smart essay about what it means to one sex worker to “have a man”.
6. Other people we work with are our colleagues. Where we can and where it’s legal, sex workers also have workers associations and unions. And whether it’s legal or not, there is always community.
7. lingerie, heels, lube, porn and sex toys are work materials, are supplied in some work places and are business expenses. Get over it.
8. Like everyone else, sex workers change jobs and careers. When we do this, however, we’re told we are “exiting” the industry and the social workers are so excited about it!!! In fact, we change jobs for some of the same reasons other people do–and this may or may not involve a big lifestyle change (eg if we’ve always worked nights or been paid immediately in cash or drugs). Most poor and working-class people have jobs they feel pretty m’eh about–at best. When sex workers don’t like our jobs though, we have to deal with all the Captain-Save-A-Ho’s trying to “rescue” us. If we do want to leave the industry, we will face discrimination about our past work experience including ideas that it was not work, had no value to society and involved no skills.
9. Wages are impacted by global economic trends and can stagnate or drop. When this happens, sex workers often have to hustle harder, find a second job if they can, offer more services for less $ or reduce expenses. If you have personally ever heard a labor organizer say “we really need to address wage stagnation in the phone sex business. Wages haven’t gone up in nearly 10 years!” please tell me about it.
10. Sex work is skilled work. First of all, sex is a skill that one learns with experience. Second, some of our jobs don’t involve sex and for those who do have sex, it can still be a pretty minimal aspect compared to everything else that goes into the job like finding customers and the emotional labour. Workers tend to get better at it over time and figure out how to make better money. This varies widely but for many, prime earning years are in our late 20’s to late 30’s and sometimes 40’s. Even sex workers ourselves have a hard time naming what we do as skill–but we sure notice it when we aren’t making the money because we haven’t mastered something important to the work.
11. Like many other industries, the sex industry is strongly stratified. Except that in some sectors women are better paid than men–sex work reflects all the same occupational oppressions in any other industry. People with less social power are paid less, work in less desirable parts of the industry and face more danger including law enforcement. eg youth, people of colour, trans women, migrants, drug users, HIV+ people.
How much status the work has and how much it’s criminalized will be much more affected by things like race, class, gender, age & immigration status than by the work itself.
12. Workers make decisions about what services they will offer based on the industry’s economy, our financial needs and competition. eg if everyone in your workplace starts offering condomless blowjobs as an extra, you will likely either start offering them too, find something else you can offer instead, make less money because you don’t offer them–and if that’s a problem then leave for another part of the business (eg go independent instead of escort agency). You’ll make your decisions based on your preference around that sexual service, what kind of money you need and your other employment options.
In our jobs, our sexual decisions are work decisions. Note to HIV educators: Don’t tell sex workers to “always use a condom” when we might not have the option or we might lose business and you have not also addressed the financial implications of that decision! We often understand safer sex better than anyone–and we’re having sex because it’s work so our sexual decisions need to also make financial sense (eg keep as much $$ as possible while staying safe). Offer suggestions that reflect our work place realities such as how to hide the condom from a client by putting in your mouth and applying it discreetly.
To understand our work, people often try–and fail–to understand our psychology rather than seeing the obvious. We do sex work because it is a job and so our decisions about sex are primarily economic. As with your job, money is not the only factor (e.g. we need work that our bodies can physically do, that accommodates our child or parent-care, we want to enjoy our work too) but it is certainly one of the main factors! Like the rest of the world, it is a bonus when some of us get to enjoy our jobs and find it fulfilling.
13. We struggle to get paid in part because so many folks don’t see our work as work and they sure as fuck don’t think it takes any brains–so why would ya pay for it? Instead anti-sex-work feminists have turned it into a feminist issue. As a feminist, I think everything is a feminist issue–but this is first and foremost a job and it is a labor issue. This also means that the sex workers rights movements is a working people’s movement–primarily a working-class women’s movement! So when (non-sex-working) feminists, the anti-trafficking movement or law enforcement attack sex work sites (like Craigslist or massage parlours), they are attacking workers. It is an anti-labor aggression toward a group of marginalized workers and something that all working people ought to stand against. It matters that most anti-trafficking raids do not identify any trafficking victims but do result in deportations of migrant working women.
14. Sex work can be liberatory or oppressive work. This is not because sex work is liberatory or oppressive but because work is liberatory or oppressive–but typically more oppressive for those with little social power. But if you would like to introduce me to all the liberatory and non-oppressive industries we can be a part of, I’m so keen to hear about it! Especially all the options that are accessible to undocumented people, LGBTQ youth and trans women of colour. Like medicine or law where only documented people who can afford a million dollar tuition can be in practice? Like athletes who’s bodies are traded back and forth and then dumped when they are injured? Like the trades where women and people of colour are systematically excluded? Didn’t think so. All workers deserve to be free and respected, including sex workers.
So no matter how we get them off, please respect our work!
SPECIAL MEDIA BONUS: a “prostitution ring” is just an escort business, everyone. Chill.
Sex workers: what else am I missing here? Please feel free to add in the comments!