This is a guest post by Kate D'Adamo, a community organizer and advocate for sex trade workers. To read more perspectives on the sex work industry as part of Ravishly's special Conversation series, click here.
As a community organizer I've had the opportunity to speak to a range of different audiences about sex work, often for the first time. Everyone comes in with ideas about the sex trade and those involved in it (many who may or may not define themselves as workers or what they do as work), but most importantly many come in with an open mind and questions. And very often it begins with one question: What IS sex work?
It is natural for someone to look at a puzzle, one that touches on a multitude of other issues and personal beliefs, and try to make it fit into the understandings that we have. As we are faced with opposing and often contradictory narratives of people's experiences, we too often ask to set them as a representation for the entire concept of sex work and ask: Is sex work empowering or exploitative? We ask not only for a simple, mutually-exclusive breakdown, but to decontextualize their experience, and then have it stand in for every experience of every person who has ever traded sex.
I can more easily answer what sex work is not. Sex work is not a paradigm or a receptacle for our personal feelings on sex and commerce. Sex work is not a didactic exploration of abstractions. Sex work is not a representation of cultural fears and social attitudes. Sex work is not a stagnant, isolated experience which can be summed up as a mutually exclusive experience between two imposed terms.
Sex work is something many people across many spectrums experience in complex and evolving ways. For one person alone, sex work is at times an escape, an informal job, a profession, a life line, a secret, a shame, a lifestyle, a hindrance and a place to escape from. As individuals transition in and out of other work and relationships, transition gender identities, age, have children, move, finish their degrees, their experience in the sex trade can shift radically, creating a complex constellation of experiences which may never be encapsulated as either "exploitative" or "empowering."
When we ask this question we are missing the point. We are asking for an answer where there is not a simple one to give, and we are demanding something personal be revealed for our own sake. The questions we should begin with are "what do you need?" And "is there anything I can do?" and then respond. But until then, all we are doing is encouraging a dialogue which leads nowhere.
As service providers, family members, friends, academics or just curious people, the obligation is not to understand being a sex worker. Our only obligation is to give support where we can to those in the sex trade on their terms, whatever those terms may be.