Sex is humanity’s oldest profession. As much as it sometimes pains our Western minds to conceptualize, as soon as people learned they could fuck we’ve been selling sexy time to make a little bit of cash. It is still seen today in virtually every form of commercialism. Apparently, as long as sex furthers the cause of capitalism, it is A-OK. But let the world find out people are doing actual things with their actual genitals then it’s cause for alarm and, apparently, Homeland Security.
By now, you might have heard about the raid on the Manhattan headquarters for Rentboy.com, a website catering to gay men and their escorts. The raid, in which NYPD teamed up with Homeland Security and tag-teamed Rentboy, arresting 7 people and confiscating a whole bunch of suspicious-looking boxes, has reopened a national discussion about sex work and the people who both seek and offer it.
This isn’t a new conversation.
It isn’t the first sex work scandal this year.
In April, television network A & E debuted its new reality series 8 Minutes, in which ex-cop-turned-pastor Kevin Brown went undercover as a “john” to convince sex workers to turn away from their jobs in exchange for health care and housing opportunities—all of which are denied sex workers. The good pastor’s heart must not have been in the right place, however, because the show was cancelled after just eight episodes. Fitting, I’d say. And the sex workers he “helped?” They never received the services they were promised…less than a victory in Jesus, if you ask me.
Sex workers themselves, however, have a rich history of sticking together, as those on the fringe of society often do. Let’s never forget it was sex workers who were some of the first rioters at the Stonewall Inn, and they tend to be right there in the background whenever a human rights violation happens.
It’s a funny paradigm these civil rights we fight for—those they are afforded to tend to hoard them all to themselves and neglect the meek who stood with them.
Sex work comes in many different forms, and yes, I’m looking at you porn consumers. Yet the moment we find out someone is paying actual money for actual sex then our boners deflate and we are suddenly filled with this righteous indignation that leaves us demanding someone’s head on a pike. But those aren’t prosthetics you’re looking at on your screen. Or maybe they are. Different strokes and all. The point is:
Sex work is a multi-billion dollar a year industry that isn’t going anywhere—and it is the least protected.
Because of the nature of sex work, sex workers are at greater risk for violence and criminal activity. They are denied things such as housing opportunities, proper health care, and fair treatment under the law. If a sex worker is gay or trans or a person of color, then the world becomes all the more dangerous. And how do we combat these dangers? Why, prohibition, of course! You know, because of prohibition’s historical efficacy. The truth is prohibition drives a market underground and opens the seedy channels for criminal activity like human trafficking.
In parts of the world where sex work has been decriminalized, governments have made it increasingly more difficult on sex workers and their clients. Sweden, for example, decriminalized prostitution in 1998, turning the long arm of the law on clients rather than sex workers. In this Nordic View, sex work of any type is a “form of exploitation and violence against women,” defining even consensual sex as rape. This makes actual violence and rape more difficult to prosecute as the sex workers involved are already “abused” as defined by the very nature of their jobs.
Ah, consent, you elusive bastard.
It doesn’t help, either, when studies like this one out of UCLA surface to say that, overall, people who pay for sex show more signs of being sexually aggressive than those who don’t. Of course, the researchers’ goal is to end prostitution altogether, something counterproductive to the violence they’re trying to curb.
Yes, violence is a very real aspect of the sex worker experience. Another study found that more lax prostitution laws actually increased trafficking rates, concluding that the “clandestine nature of both the prostitution and trafficking markets, [make] it difficult, perhaps impossible, to find hard evidence establishing this relationship.” That’s because there will always be sadistic assholes who cannot be bothered by things such as “legality.” I’d argue legalized prostitution could, in theory, provide a safe environment for both the trafficked and client to report such abhorrent abuse.
But to say men who pay for sex are overall more prone to violence is like saying porn makes us more violent, which, as we know, just isn’t true.
People don’t go to sex workers just for the O of it. Yes, blowjobs and intercourse are still the most popular items on the menu, especially when someone isn’t getting any on the reg. But sex workers provide a number of safe, viable options for people with sexual fetishes and fantasies that may be otherwise out of the societal norm. Like BDSM, a practice that, unless done safely, could be risky in spite of those tinglies in your nether regions. Let’s not forget Reverend Gary Aldridge who asphyxiated to death after a solo breath play session went terribly wrong. If only he had a professional mistress there with him the good reverend might still be alive.
According to sex work activist SWAAY:
“Professional BDSM workers need to learn basic safety including how to safely perform “bondage” (tying a person with ropes or leather restraints for the purpose of immobilization), how to correctly use many of the tools of the trade (i.e., whips, cane) in a way that excites the masochist and satisfies they’re desire for erotic pain but does not cause permanent damage or serious injury. Many of the activities offered by professional dominants are inherently risky and most BDSM professionals are trained in basic first aid and CPR.”
Other potential clients on the taboo superhighway are people with disabilities. As a culture we tend to castrate people with disabilities, viewing them as “asexual” rather than persons with the same cravings for human touch and sexual appetites as the rest of us. Granted, a disabled person’s resources for sexual pleasure may be limited, especially with spinal cord injuries, but more and more research is beginning to suggest these people are still capable of pleasure and, yes, even mind-blowing orgasms. In this case, both sex worker and client can be trained in the art of sex play.
Enter sexual advocates:
“The best scenario is if the disabled person has seen a ‘sexual advocate’ beforehand, someone with whom they can work out exactly what they want, what they need, and how they want the experience to be, as some disabled people (like non-disabled people) cannot think beyond ‘I want sex’, and have expectations that can never be met, so will end up disappointed.”
Sex workers often provide services that exceed the quick rendezvous in some seedy hotel room. The film, The Sexual Lives of a French Family, paints this portrait all too well when they depict an aged grandfather and widower who seeks out sex workers as a sexual outlet after losing his wife. Toward the end of his life, my own father had a sex worker friend. And when he drew his last breath, she was by his side.
Sex work has a face.
It isn’t always pretty, but it is always human.
Last month, Amnesty International—an advocacy group working to secure the human rights of sex workers across the world—voted on a resolution that would eventually develop a policy that would see all aspects of consensual sex work decriminalized. It’s been slow-going, and there is a long road ahead for sex worker rights. Especially here in America, where our Puritan roots run deep, that road looks even longer.
But it’s a start.