Photo courtesy of caans.org
In many ways I feel incredibly lucky to have attended UC Santa Cruz. For one, it’s simply a good university; high quality, good instructors, wonderful campus, good facilities, etc. I received a damn fine education there at a quite reasonable price. (It’s not particularly reasonable now, but that’s a post for another time.) I met some–hell, most–of my lifelong friends there. All good things.
But in many ways the most important thing was living in Santa Cruz, and being absolutely immersed in a social matrix that was wildly, spectacularly, incredibly left-wing. A place where the majority of the town council was, like Bernie Sanders, openly Socialist–That was their party affiliation, not just their political philosophy–and given this was spang in the middle of the Reagan era, that tells you just how leftist it was. A place that was doing “take back the night!” marches in the early 80s, that occupied the campus library in 1985 to protest Apartheid and demand divestment of UC assets from South Africa; a place that was my introduction (as a Freshman) to loud, emotional protests (for tenure for a professor name Nancy Shaw, in I believe Women’s Studies); a place that had a class called “Birth of a Poet”, where you were required to write down your dreams every morning.
That kind of place.
And I’m glad, so very glad, I went there, because even though my parents were quite liberal (and my dad amazingly so for a Naval officer born during the Depression), growing up as a military brat narrows your view of the world pretty considerably. Middle class all my life, rarely exposed to many minorities, almost totally unfamiliar with religions other than Catholicism, it was a major eye-opener, to put it mildly. And a time I absolutely cherish.
Which brings me, in my time-honored style of burying the lede, to sex work.
It is a cliche to call sex work “the world’s oldest profession”. But the fact is, we all know about the existence of sex work, and like any teen I was familiar with the bold outlines when I started college. Indeed, I probably had a somewhat different view than most, as I had read a lot of science fiction in which sex work was either a normalized part of life, or even societies where it was an honored and exalted profession (viz. how it is treated in “Firefly”). But like everyone else, I had imbibed by osmosis the Madonna/whore dichotomy, along with the usual john/pimp/ho’ cliches. I probably wasn’t as bad as some, but I was still a pretty ignorant middle-class, white, teen male.
But it was at UC Santa Cruz where I was first exposed to the actual concept of sex work as it collides with the real world. It was there that I first encountered the term “sex work”; there that I was first exposed to actual sex workers; there I saw sex workers supported by non sex workers, advocating for their rights, the organization COYOTE setting up tables and giving out info on campus, students writing papers and articles in support of sex work and sex workers rights, and so on.
And to be perfectly frank, all that in combination to the already-fertile, science fiction-tilled ground of my brain, radicalized me. The arguments of sex workers seemed so logical and reasonable when weighed against the almost-hysterical inveigling the anti-sex work crowd engaged in. Sex workers wanted their victimless, consensual, non-coercive work to be treated as exactly that: Work. Difficult work deserving of dignity, recognition, and a lack of persecution. Work that they had chosen, and that they believed was deserving of treatment equal to a schmuck like me toiling away in a cafeteria dishroom to put himself through college.
Seemed pretty reasonable to me.
By contrast, the anti-sex work crowd had many, many arguments against it but, not unlike arguments against marriage equality boiling down to “I think butt sex is yucky and no one should do it”, it always seemed at base to rest on “It’s against my moral code”.
Now, it didn’t matter that we separate church and state in the country. It didn’t matter that it didn’t match the moral code of plenty of other people. It didn’t matter that many of the people espousing draconian punishment against these Evil Whores used their services themselves (think David Vitter). And it certainly didn’t matter that the “oppressed” providers were themselves saying, “Hey, no; I’m not oppressed! I want to be paid a fair wage for my difficult and involved work and not be at risk of harassment and arrest just for my work!” Or as they put it now: Sex work is work.
I am bringing all this up for two reasons: There have been a raft of laws proposed or passed recently (like #C36 in Canada, or the law in Alaska) in an effort to eliminate sex work, and today is Speak Up for Sex Workers Day (h/t Maggie McNeill).
Now, like every other political effort nowadays, this isn’t what the proponents of these new and draconian laws say. The efforts in favor of what is called “the Swedish model” or “the Nordic model” say that by following this model will “end demand”–i.e. they target the clients rather than the sex workers–and thus give the oppressed sex workers the incentive to find “legitimate” work.
That “end demand” hasn’t worked with alcohol, cocaine, crack cocaine, crystal meth, marijuana, or any other thing we’ve tried to “end demand” on, doesn’t detract these social warriors. That prohibition doesn’t work is something they don’t acknowledge. Hell, they outlawed absinthe, and people are drinking it again. And we’re talking about sex here, not drugs. Do they really think putting laws in place will cause people to stop? They know this is nicknamed “the oldest profession”, right?
They are convinced it will work, and refuse to listen to the sex workers who keep telling them a) It makes their work more dangerous and b) They don’t want rescuing, thank you very much. They are convinced they have The Solution, a solution that literally has eluded every single society since the beginning of history. I mean, seriously, think about that.
After much reading on the topic it’s pretty clear that the advocates both on the far right (religious folks) and far left (radical feminists) both just think sex work is eeeeeeeevil, and this is one way to try to eliminate it. I’ll leave as an exercise for the student the weirdness of radical feminists and fire-and-brimstone Christian fundamentalists being in bed together on this (and yes, that was deliberate). But their purported reasons don’t hold up; they want to remove the choice of work from the sex workers. They know better. The sex workers to these people are “fallen women”, victims, deluded; they only think they want to be engaged in sex work. Once they realize the error of their ways–either that it’s immoral, or an oppressive continuation of the patriarchy, depending on who is arguing about it–these sex workers will be happy to be church secretaries or telephone sales people or whatever. They’re just deluded and need to be educated, or victims needing to be saved.
I’ll let you go ahead and think about the epic level of condescension required for the point of view. Me, I am immediately suspicious when Person A purports to be doing something for Person B’s “own good”. “It’s for your own good” is generally a smokescreen behind which lays “I think what you’re doing is icky and wrong”.
One of the big ways anti-sex worker activists (and their name is legion) push their agenda is by intentionally blurring and obscuring the line between human trafficking and sex work. (Not to mention continually repeating the same exploded myths and statistics about sex work, like “the average age of entry is 13”, which is just flagrantly untrue.) Let me be crystal-effin’-clear here:
Human trafficking is evil. I tell you three times and what I tell you three times is true: Human trafficking is evil; human trafficking is evil; human trafficking is evil.
But here’s the thing: The majority–the vast majority–of human trafficking is not for sex work. Nope. 22%. Yes, that’s still terrible; but why are we harassing sex workers who are in that business by choice (i.e. they are by definition not trafficked) and their clients over that 22%? Further, since the vast majority of sex workers being abused by the police and courts are in that job by choice, we are not even helping that 22%! And why are we so focused on that 22% that we are basically ignoring the other 78%, who are stuck in garment factories in lower Manhattan, or out on farms living in hovels in essential slavery in the Southwest, or doing dangerous construction work all around the world? Aren’t those people deserving of our attention? And why are we wasting money and effort on sex workers who aren’t trafficked and are doing their work by choice when that effort could be spent helping all those other trafficked people? Where’s the logic?
And the answer is, the unholy left-right anti-sex worker alliance isn’t using logic; they think sex work is icky and should be ended, and there’s no evidence to support the idea that they give a rip about the other trafficking victims.
So what can we do, here on this particular day during this particularly time when seemingly every small hamlet and big city wants to “crack down on those prostitution rings”? Glad you asked!
First, you should read up a bit and not swallow the anti-sex worker propaganda whole. Here.
You can’t argue against someone who has religious convictions; like in the anti-abortion fights, the best you can do is fight against them. And the folks who believe that sex for pleasure is evil are living in a completely different universe than the one I occupy. Frankly, I think they need clinical help. If God gave you the ability to get pleasure from sexual stimulation, doesn’t it make you more godly to seek that pleasure? Where in the Torah does it say self-pleasure, or pleasure with a partner, is evil? (Pro Tip: It doesn’t. But boy, you should read some of the rationalizations some folks try to use to justify their “no masturbation!” perspective!)
But you can shine a bright light on government agencies (police departments, prosecutors offices, etc.) who waste enormous amounts of money running “sting” operations on “crimes” that have no victims. Is that what we want them doing, rescuing “fallen” women who haven’t asked to be “rescued”, and busting men who are just seeking pleasure and are willing to pay for it? Wouldn’t public monies be better spent, oh, hey, I dunno: Serving and protecting? (And this isn’t even going into the profound, astonishing, ridiculous hypocrisy where the same police officers who expect to use a sex worker’s services for free later turn around and bust the same sex workers. And yes, it happens all the time.)
But most importantly, you yourself should start treating sex workers–in your own mind, and by your behavior–as workers, just as deserving of respect as tech writers, or computer programmers, or electricians, or police officers, or soldiers. Sex work is work. Like with any work, sex workers are doing it to pay the bills (though many enjoy their work), and how many of us love our work? I mean, I do, but I’m well aware I’m in the minority. Sex work is work. Keep telling yourself that.
And then go out and tell others. Cuz that’s the only way the word will get out.