Sex Work Simply Is

This is a guest post by Dr. Richard Wagner, Ph.D., a clinical sexologist and practitioner of sex therapy and relationship counseling. To read more perspectives on the sex work industry as part of Ravishly's special Conversation series, click here.

OK! I’m gonna go with the “a lot more complicated than either” option.  I mean, is it even possible to reduce any human activity, much less a time-honored institution, to an either/or proposition—good or bad, empowering or enslaving?  I don’t think so.

Lots of women are trapped in loveless and sexless marriages. And in some instances they are even their husband’s chattel. But, despite the difficulties and abuses inherent in patriarchal marriage, no one tries to make the case that this institution always enslaves or empowers women, right?

The same can’t be said of sex work. In fact, talking about sex work is like tap dancing in a minefield. Let’s be honest, it’s not because of the “work” part of sex work, it’s because of the “sex” part. Our culture is chronically ill at ease when it comes to sex. The only polite reason to bring up the topic is to underscore society’s prerogative to protect the virtue of our women folk, or safeguard the men folk from temptation.

Everyone has an opinion about sex work and most have an uncompromisingly harsh judgment about it. The fact that most of us labor under numerous stereotypical misconceptions about it doesn’t seem to dissuade us from our prejudices.

I propose that sex work simply is. It is, and always has been, a way for some people to find their way in the world. The sex workers I know tell me that their career choice generally boils down to economics. But who’s career choice doesn’t? Certainly abuses abound, and sex workers will be the first to admit that.  But what economic system doesn’t come with its fair share of inequality and exploitation?

Arbitrary moral standards aside, I think sex work is best understood as a labor issue. Practitioners of all genders are routinely discriminated against by laws that have no other purpose than to interfere with what some people do sexually or what they choose to do with their body. Imagine if we applied a similar code to other areas of commerce.

I suggest that we let people decide for themselves if, when, and how they will engage in whatever job that is open to them, including sex work. I propose that, rather than vilify or criminalize some career outlets; we provide people with everything they need to make an enlightened decision about how they will live out their lives.  Hey, I know! How about a vocational school for sex workers? There are plenty of historical examples of such to draw upon. And I suggest that if we have qualms about some career avenues, then it’s on us, not those who choose differently than us.

In the end, my advice to my fellow sex workers of every stripe is, just ignore any critique of your work by anyone who hasn’t been there and done that.  And unless the person poking his or her nose into your business is in a position to impede your business, that person’s opinions are irrelevant.

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