In 1978 Carol Leigh (AKA Scarlot Harlot) coined the phrase ‘sex work’. Now, over four decades later the expression ‘Sex work is work’ is enshrined in social consciousness and has been championed by many influential figures, but how many civs really believe this to be true?
‘Sex work is work’ is often recanted in ‘liberal’ and ‘activist’ spaces. but despite the push to legitimise sex work through language, legalisation still fails to protect sex workers, jokes about the industry are still commonplace and sex workers are often taunted for sharing their experiences, proving that society still struggles to view and treat sex work as actual labour.
The same ‘feminists’ that vocalise their disdain for SWERFs, also joke about needing a sugar daddy or their secret desire to become a stripper. The irony would be laughable if it weren’t for the very real dangers of reducing sex work to a fantasy get-rich-quick scheme where men desperately hand out money getting little to nothing in return. This ideology silences the violence and exploitation sex workers face in the industry and glamorises one of the most dangerous and long-lasting professions.
When so many sex workers are shunned from their communities, de-platformed and murdered for their occupation, we are reminded time again that most civilians do not listen or create community with sex workers, thus keeping the industry on the periphery and perpetuating harmful beliefs and an unnecessary air of mystery around sex work.
Over the last few years there has been a spike in the fetishing and romantising of stripping (yes I’m talking about the omg yes hoe! such a girl boss! I wanna be a stripper! ) kind of civilians. This fetishing in itself presents sex work as a fun, frivolous and empowering experience. This denies the realities of a job which is incredibly labour-intensive, physically demanding and often financially exploitative.
It’s clear a lot of people do not consider the violence workers face and instead frame it as a misandrist fantasy. Within this fetishisation there is a hierarchy of sex work that is glamourised and sex work that is looked down upon with disgust. This ranking is underpinned by the same systems of anti-Black oppression that influence every industry in the world.
The glamorisation of stripping cannot be separated from the fat-phobic, ableist and anti-Black beauty standards that decide who can dance in a strip club and who cannot. These same standards are the reason why dark-skinned, trans-feminine and poorer workers are incredibly over represented in statistics of homicides and violence against street sex workers. The violence they face has been normalised and turned into a trope for entertainment; from ‘pimps and hoes’ fancy dress parties to video games like Grand Theft Auto where players can literally murder sex workers, violence against sex workers is treated as a jokey cliché, inevitable and just.
Diminishing this violence allows little room for sex workers to be seen for their humanity and burdens us with stigma and shame. When all sex work is viewed as labour and sex workers are given proper legal protection, it encourages society to see us as the nuanced, multifaceted individuals we are, making space for our different experiences in the industry and the complexities within each experience. Many sex workers feel silenced when we speak about the violence we face. SWERFs use our publicised trauma as an opportunity to reduce all sex work to sexual exploitation, stripping us of our agency, while ‘socially conscious’ civvies engage to vicariously live their fantasies through our experiences and virtue signal through ‘discourse’ around the violence we face, particularly when working on the street.
Some sectors within sex work have been somewhat legitimised by civvies because of the physicality it takes to do the work is tangible. I have interacted with many civilians who attempt to voice their appreciation of my stripping work by comparing me to an athlete. This proves that my ability to do pole tricks, split and twerk are valued in a way that my ability to touch, talk and create an erotic fantasy are not.
Where does this leave full service workers, street workers and disabled workers who are inevitably discredited as their work no longer aligns with ableist, whorephobic ideals of work? Why do civilians only attempt to value sex work when it is in proximity to other forms of labour. Whorephobia and whorearchy are deeply rooted in our society and they define how different forms of sex work are perceived and the legislation surrounding them.
The statement sex work is work will only ring true when we can see safe conditions for and acceptance of all sex workers in society. When workers can be fully seen as people, and people can be seen beyond the jobs they work.
Sex work glossary:
Civs/ civvies/ civilians: Non-sex workers
Whorephobia: Marginalisation of sex workers that especially affects full-service street, sex workers.
Whorearchy: The belief that different forms of sex work are inferior to others based on whorephobia and classism.
Workers: Abbreviation of sex workers
SWERF: Sex worker exclusionary radical feminists