The other night, I was lying in bed, drifting in and out of sleep, while noncommittally scrolling through my phone’s Twitter feed. As I was browsing, a video caught my eye that a fellow user reposted. The content was shocking enough to shake me from my nighttime stupor.
The video began with a couple of young men in a car coasting through an urban cityscape. While at a stoplight, one passenger looked over and noticed a woman who seemed to be searching for something, or someone, near the street. The two men decided she was a sex worker and called out to her from their window. She approached, her voice quizzical as she asked whether or not they were potential customers. Under the guise of seriousness, they proposed several services and offered to pick her up at a curb down the road.
The video then cut to the car slowing down at the meeting point, and the woman walked over to the car. Before she could speak, the passenger closest to her pulled the lid off a fountain drink and cruelly threw its contents on her, soaking the woman with what appeared to be soda. The people in the car sped away laughing as the video ended.
The post, which has since been deleted from Twitter, left a lasting impression on me, prompting me to write this piece. Sex workers are not deserving of the dehumanizing treatment and portrayal they so often get by the media and from the general public. It’s time to start viewing sex workers as complex, feeling, working human beings who are more than a one-dimensional, “hooker” trope.
A popular argument those that are against sex work propose is that the criminalization of sex work will eliminate the issue, and that keeping prostitution out of sight and out of mind will solve the supposed problem of sex workers on the street. Sex work, however, cannot be criminalized without violating human rights. According to the Open Society Foundations, if sex work were to be criminalized, it would “drive sex work underground,” furthering abuses that may not be recognized by law enforcement.
Open Society Foundations also explains how individuals participate in sex work for a variety of reasons. Many choose to participate in sex work to explore and express their sexuality, while others participate in sex work due to its flexible working conditions. Some individuals don’t have the luxury of choice and pursue sex work due to poverty, inadequate education or lack of an economically viable job.
Open Society Foundations also writes that sex workers are “often treated as less than human, both in cultural attitude and in public policy.” Marginalized groups may suffer from pre-existing biases held by employers or law enforcement, including people of color and transgender or gender-nonconforming people. According to reporter Paul Harris of The Guardian, undocumented immigrants are especially vulnerable because of their citizenship status and may be afraid to approach law enforcement for help should they ever be in a dangerous situation.
These circumstances and reasons paint a picture of a very diverse group of people whose work influences their lives in a multitude of ways. Regarding sex work and the empowerment that workers can derive from it, I found a very interesting collective of writings focused on “black or brown womanists — women and femme, cis or trans — who are pro-sex and/or are sex workers and support sex worker rights.” The collective in question, titled “Heauxthots,” was written by blogger Suprihmbé on empowerment exclusive to people of color and the ownership of their sexuality and bodies. Proheauxism, the term that Suprihmbé coined for the movement, encompasses the de-stigmatization of black bodies as well as the decriminalization of sex work. Suprihmbé’s work is important, as it uplifts marginalized voices and allows for a positive space for the sexuality of people of color to be embraced and de-fetishized.
You may be wondering how one can be respectful and take action regarding the support of sex workers. Remember, first and foremost, that many sex workers have agency over their bodies. Monica Shores from alternet.org wrote about the importance of letting a sex worker decide for themselves whether or not they have been coerced or forced into sex work. Shores also advised against using terminology such as “used goods” or “prostituted” when discussing the body of a sex worker. Degrading language like this implies a sex worker is dirty, which is extremely alienating.
Support can also be given with education. Visit blogs and websites of sex workers to understand their experiences firsthand. Look into activist groups dedicated to the safety and welfare of sex workers as well. A lot of unnecessary hatred and bigotry comes from a lack of exposure — the fear of unknown territory.
Education is empowering.
Education is liberating.
Education is humanizing.
Of all the ways to respect sex workers, listening to their stories and experiences, and thus empowering their voices, is the most poignant. Sex work is work, and sex workers are workers.