Why You Should Care About Violence Against Sex Workers

[CN: sexual assault, anti-sex work stigma]

Last month, the Chicago Sun-Times published a shameful column by Mary Mitchell regarding a recent case in which a sex worker was raped by a would-be client. Unusually, the rapist was actually charged with rape. Mitchell refers to this as “making a mockery of rape victims” and states that she is “grateful [the rapist] isn’t being accused of snatching an innocent woman off the street.” She says it’s “tough to see this unidentified prostitute as a victim” and that “because this incident is being charged as a criminal sexual assault — when it’s actually more like theft of services — it minimizes the act of rape.” She also includes this amazingly contradictory bit of reasoning:

I’m not one of those women who believe rape victims are at fault because they dressed too provocatively or misled some randy guy into thinking it was his lucky night.

But when you agree to meet a strange man in a strange place for the purpose of having strange sex for money, you are putting yourself at risk for harm.

Anyway, that’s enough of that. I recommend reading these excellent responses from sex workers.

First of all, if you care about the issue of sexual violence, as Mitchell claims to, you should care about sexual violence against sex workers. Even if you aren’t one. Even if you don’t know any (although you probably do). We can’t restrict ourselves to caring about problems only when they affect people who look and act like us, or else things will only get better for the people who have the most people who look and act like them. (Who might those be?)

But even from a more self-interested point of view, it makes no sense for anti-rape advocates to excuse sexual violence against sex workers.

If you think you’re going to find success by portraying yourself as pure and good compared to those nasty women* who “sell themselves,” you’re mistaken. Sex workers aren’t stigmatized simply because there’s an exchange of money involved. After all, many of the women who cheerfully dismiss sexual violence against sex workers would be horrified at the idea that a woman “deserves” to be raped because she went on a date with a man to get free dinner. (Of course, though, there are plenty of other people who nevertheless accept both scenarios.)

Women who do sex work are stigmatized for many reasons, many of which intersect with class, race, and other social categories. One of those reasons is that their sexual behavior is “improper” and therefore suspect. We can’t seem to trust a woman who actively pursues sex (whether for pleasure or money or both) rather than letting herself be “chased.” People who don’t understand consent think that a sex worker can’t be raped because she already agreed to have sex (never mind that sex workers can be assaulted by people who aren’t clients at all). They believe that consenting to one sex act means consenting to all sex acts, forever, and that “putting yourself out there” as a person who’s willing to have sex means that people can do whatever they want to you.

But sex workers aren’t the only people impacted by these myths. You know who else’s experiences of sexual assault are routinely dismissed because of their perceived sexual “availability”?

Most survivors’.

If you’re assaulted after agreeing to do something else sexual with someone, you’ll be blamed for agreeing to that. If you’re assaulted by someone you’ve had sex with in the past, you’ll be blamed for having had sex with them in the past, even if you made it abundantly clear that you didn’t want to do it again. If you’re assaulted by someone you never agreed to have sex with but did go on a date with, you’ll be blamed for agreeing to go on a date with them. If you’re assaulted by someone you’ve never gone out with but did flirt with–or were perceived to be flirting with–then you’ll be blamed for flirting. If you never flirted but dressed “revealingly”; if you never dressed “revealingly” but drank alcohol; if you never drank alcohol but let yourself be alone with them for any reason; if you did none of the above but have a race, body type, or gender identity that people devalue and treat as sexually “available”…and on and on it goes.

The point is that as long as we treat a survivor’s prior sexual behavior, actual or perceived, as relevant to the question of whether or not they were really assaulted, nobody is safe. The justifications we use to dismiss assault of sex workers are basically identical to the justifications we use to dismiss assault of anyone else.

Sex workers pursue sex with people; non-sex workers pursue sex with people. Sex workers agree to do some sexual things but not others; non-sex workers agree to do some sexual things but not others. Sex workers may have had many different sex partners; non-sex workers may have had many different sex partners. Sex workers may have sex with strangers; non-sex workers may have sex with strangers. The only difference is the exchange of money.

And if you claim that these victim-blaming narratives suddenly become acceptable and proper when the exchange of money is involved, then you’re claiming that being a sex worker is so bad that it means you deserve to be raped.

In which case, you should just say that so that people know what you mean rather than obfuscating the issue needlessly.

Keep in mind that if you believe that sex workers deserve to be raped, you’re including the ones who don’t experience sex work as a choice. (While activists rightfully challenge that idea that all sex workers are exploited, some certainly are.) Can a sex worker forced to do sex work be raped? If so, why can’t one who chose sex work? Can someone who used to do sex work but stopped be raped? If so, why can’t a sex worker who’s not working on the day they are assaulted, or whose assailant is not one of their clients?

You can see how tricky things get when you claim that there are cases in which the absence of consent does not equal sexual assault.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t surprise me when people who have a vested interest in violating others’ consent oppose the idea that yes means yes. All those men in my Twitter mentions yelling “But that would make me a rapist”? Well, yeah. But it does surprise me when people who advocate against sexual violence twist themselves into the same arguments.

It is apparently tempting for some of these people to create hierarchies of survivors with themselves or the people they care about at the top. Maybe they think there is safety in that, in always having someone below them.

But there isn’t. The prejudice and violence of others is not a force you can harness and control so that it always points away from you. That’s why what we call victim-blaming is always invalid. If directing others’ prejudice and violence away from you were a real option, then there’d be no such thing as victim-blaming.

Besides that, though, it’s monstrous to use people who are more marginalized than you as shields. Too many people take it for granted that sex workers should serve as bait, to redirect male violence away from women who do not “deserve” it.

I can’t live at ease in a world in which we’re shifting the burden of violence onto other people rather than ending it. Of course, ending it is easier said than done, but it begins with acknowledging the problem whenever we see it, including when the victim is a sex worker.

We will not be safe if we throw sex workers under the bus. We will not be safe by creating categories of people who are rapeable, expendable. Those chickens are always going to come home to roost.

The only way to fight sexual violence is to keep centering consent in the discussion. Not what the victim looks like or acts like. Not what the victim did in the past. Consent. And once we’ve finally got that down, maybe we can even go beyond it.


*Although I’m mainly talking about female survivors in this post–because the tropes that Mitchell used are based on that–it’s important to note that sex workers are not all women, and that the violence and stigma faced by sex workers applies to sex workers of all genders.


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Why You Should Care About Violence Against Sex Workers
Damien Marie AtHope: Axiological Atheist, Anti-theist, Anti-religionist, Secular Humanist. Rationalist, Writer, Artist, Poet, Philosopher, Advocate, and Activist

2 thoughts on “Why You Should Care About Violence Against Sex Workers

  1. 1

    Theft of services? She called rape a THEFT OF SERVICES?

    If I am employed in a not-sex-work capacity, as, say, a landscaper, and someone forces me at gunpoint or through physical violence or threats or coercion to landscape their property, that’s not a theft of services. That’s a felony crime, which would probably lead to charges of kidnapping, assault, and/or battery. Theft of services would be, I willingly provide a service after mutual agreement and then, afterward, the client doesn’t pay me. Theft of services isn’t forcing someone to do something against their will, even if it is something they ordinarily would do as part of a business agreement, theft of services is refusal to pay for services willingly rendered.

    Her attempt at minimizing the rape of a sex worker by framing it as a civil complaint rather than a criminal one is disgusting.

  2. 2

    Sex workers are among the most frequently targeted for violence. You’d think it would be in bad taste to Other them in a discussion about sexual assault. Thanks for the takedown. I’d heard of the article, but never really wanted to read the original.

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