Sex work, exploitation, and slavery.

So with this BloggyWriMo thing, I’ve been putting of writing a lot of posts until the 1st. I decided that jotting down notes, bullet points and all sorts of underlines didn’t count, so over the next few days you’ll be getting a lot of posts that have been hanging about on notebooks just begging to be fleshed out for days. It’s amazing how it’s the moment you decide you’re not allowed to write for days that you get all the ideas that had been hiding away.

Anyway. Here, we’re talking about sex work and trafficking. We’ll be needing a trigger warning.


The other day, I was sitting in Tara St station waiting for a Dart to take me to Bray. I was just off the bus from Cork, and there was that special kind of chill in the air that meant winter had definitely arrived. There was a poster from Anna Was 14 (part of the turnofftheredlight campaign) several stories high on a building across the river. Got me thinking.

So here goes.

I am troubled by the conflation that campaigns like this- and the people who espouse them- make between abuse of children, trafficking and slavery, and work that people make reasonably free-ish decisions to do. I feel like it misses several major points, and suffers from incredibly ill-thought out perspectives on sex and autonomy. I think, in essence, that people take on our social taboos around and disgust relating to commercial sex. And that that this means that they fail to see several incredibly important points.

If Anna was 14, then what was done to her was child abuse, plain and simple. I’m not sure whether abuse for money or for personal gratification is more abhorrent. Probably for money, when you consider how that can be systematised and the disturbing implications of that. Then again, is systematic abuse for money worse than systematic abuse simply to hold on to power? Or systematic abuse covered up for that reason by so-called moral guardians? At least there’s an horrific honesty to money.

But either way, if Anna was 14, then what was done to her was systematic abuse. Even if it wasn’t systematic, it was abuse, and that cannot be condoned. In other words, coercing- or even allowing- a 14 year old to sell sex services is seriously fucked up.

If we’re talking instead about trafficking and sex slavery, the case is the same. A 14 year old can’t consent by definition. An adult has the right to give or withold consent as they damn well please. Kidnapping a person and forcing them to do work against their will is called slavery, and is something worthy only of our disgust and condemnation.

However- and if I ever had a catchphrase it’s this- here’s the thing. Abuse of children is abuse whether it’s physical, emotional, sexual, or a combination of the three. Slavery is slavery, no matter what you’re forcing a person to do against their will. Rape is rape, no matter what language you wrap it up in. Each of these things is messed-up because it violates consent, bodily integrity, and the sovereignty of a person over their life.

A moment to discuss terminology

A person who engages in sex work does not sell their body. My body is mine. Yours is yours. They cannot be bought or sold. That’s called slavery, and it’s rightly as illegal as it is immoral. What we all do, instead, is make agreements to provide certain services to others using these bodies and minds of ours. Agreements which, by the way, we tend to have every right to back out of. I may be being paid to use my body and mind to be, say, a shop assistant or a builder or an accountant. While it may be inadvisable for my finances and reputation to do so, I have the absolute right to walk out of those jobs any time I please. So a person who engages in sex work sells sexual services. Which are different to building or accountancy services. Building and sexual services, by the way, are also very different to accountancy services. And so on.

So, sex work then.

One of the things that you hear against sex work is that it’s somehow different to all other kinds of work. Because sex is special. In our society, it can seem like sex has to be either sacred and intimate, or else something dirty and tawdry or downright abusive. As a culture we don’t have many spaces to talk about sex in a neutral fashion, or in a positive way that doesn’t involve close relationships and preferably monogamy. In short, we have hella hangups about sex. I’m not saying, by the way, that the alternative to hangups is some kind of free-for-all where we all cheerfully buy and sell sex and sleep with anyone on the street who takes our fancy. I’m saying that things are probably a lot more complicated, and a lot more diverse, than we give them credit for. I’m saying that how I perceive sexuality is probably different to how you do and how the person across the street does.

And that’s important.

I may imagine that engaging in sex work would be a horrible thing that I would only consent to under duress. I wouldn’t know- I’ve never done it. But I can’t see it being something I’d be too happy to do. On the other hand, I’ve got friends who’ve been sex workers who’ve had all sorts of experiences with it- a similar range of experiences that I’ve heard of in other fields, really. Maybe more polarised.

Let’s talk a little bit as well about consent and free will, and how we apply these concepts to work. Almost all of us need to work. We may like our jobs or despise them, but no matter how much we love them we generally show up because we have to. We may do work that we love. We may do work that we figure is okay. We may have jobs that we go to solely to clock in our 9-5. And we may have jobs that we do just ’cause they give us the cash to get on with all the other things that we do with the rest of our lives.

But sex work is different.. isn’t it?

People say that sex work is a special case, because sex work is special. And that sex work is a unique kind of ‘selling your body’. But I’ve been in jobs- a lot of jobs- where I’ve had to produce a certain kind of emotion on demand. I’ve been in jobs that were physically demanding. I’ve been in jobs that were both physically and emotionally demanding. I’ll bet that you have too. And for each of us, there are jobs that demand a lot of us that suit us down to the ground, and jobs that we can’t stand. I’m pretty damn good at customer service, but by god do I hate it. On the other hand, I jump at the chance to get up in front of a roomful of people for an hour- something that many people view with more than a little trepidation. I’ll bet there are things that are not in the least related to sex work that you would never ever do for money unless you had no other choice. I’ll bet there’s also a few things that you’re surprisingly fine with.

People say that sex work is a special case. Sex workers who feel anything other than absolute love for what they do aren’t given the benefit of the doubt that they might think of their job the same way most other people think of theirs. You know, good sometimes, alright other times, would sometimes rather be at home, but shure it pays the bills.

Let’s go back to the start.

Trafficking, child abuse, slavery and rape are unconscionable. In all cases. There is no circumstance where it is anything but goddamn fucked up and profoundly inhuman to do any of those things. But those are entirely different to an adult who, of their own free (or as free as we can be in this society) will decides to engage in sex work.

This is important.

This is important because, as long as we conflate choosing to do a particular kind of work with slavery, we’re going to be missing the point when we look into dealing with them. Laws around sex work will criminalise sex workers and drive their work underground so that it’s easier for rapists and abusers to do their abusive, rapey things.

If Anna was 14 when she was trafficked into sex slavery, then we need to be serious about dealing with child abuse, human trafficking for all kinds of work, and actually preventing and prosecuting rapists.

If we’re worried about people who feel like they have no choice but to do sex work, then we need to get serious about providing more options for all people to get into work that they don’t hate. We need to start thinking of decent working conditions and honouring the choice to not do a particular job if it’s bad for your mental/physical health. We need to take that seriously. We absolutely need to make sure that jobs that can mess with your head aren’t jobs that people have no choice but to do.

And finally, if after all that we’re still worried about sex work, then we should start by working against stigmatising sex workers. We should listen to the reasons why people do this kind of work. We should believe them equally when they say that it’s destroyed their life, when they say it’s just a job that pays the bills, and when they say it’s fantastic. We should provide the services they say they’re looking for, and acknowledge that that will mean more than one thing. Y’know, the way we do with everything else.

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Sex work, exploitation, and slavery.

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