Sex As Work? The Fascinating Story of How Sex Workers Changed Our Cities


The work of sex work is never done, but its history keeps getting rewritten. In recent years, trading sex for profit has gained more acceptance, and along with that has come more work chronicling the rise of a sex worker movement. Twitter handles by sex workers and allies have multiplied and the conversation and actions around sex as work have widened in scope and intensity.

Melinda Chateauvert’s Sex Workers Unite is a necessary and comprehensive look at the many ways sex workers have been organizing for decades in North America. Here, sex workers are not the sad and abject creatures so popular in certain feminist circles and television shows, but they’re also not the brazen and stupendously wealthy call girls also popular in other kinds of feminist circles and television shows.

There’s a tendency, among those who write about sex work, to erase its queer history. And there’s a tendency among gays and lesbians and their allies to erase the role of sex workers in the movement. But as Chateauvert points out, Stonewall came about because of transgender sex workers like Sylvia Rivera and gay hustlers who “fought back against yet another rousting by the Morals Squad” at the inn in 1969. The same was true at Compton’s Cafeteria, in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, where trans sex workers finally lashed out against the cops harassing them. [Rest.]

Yasmin Nair is a writer and activist based in Uptown, Chicago. She’s a co-founder of the radical queer editorial collective Against Equality and the volunteer policy director of Gender JUST. Her writing can be found at

Sex As Work? The Fascinating Story of How Sex Workers Changed Our Cities

“With every night that goes by you begin to feel less and less like a human being

With every night that goes by you begin to feel less and less like a human being. I truly believe that the reason men pay for lap dances is not because they are titillated visually by the sight of a naked woman, or even because the sexual contact is particularly stimulating. They do it because they get a power rush from the act of paying a woman to take her clothes off. She is vulnerable, he is powerful, and that’s the real allure – that’s the real reason the clubs are getting so popular. Lap-dancing clubs are places in which you can all pretend that feminism never happened.

- ‘Lucy’ (lap dancer), The Equality Illusion, Kat Banyard

"Prostitution harms women": RadFem UK and the Nordic Model

Prostitution harms women, and the majority of women who are prostituted have already been harmed through poverty, homelessness, the care system and sexual abuse. Once in prostitution women face violence, emotional and psychological harm, causing them to use drugs and alcohol to numb their pain and ‘disassociate’ from what is happening to them.

As Rachel Moran, a survivor says: “Prostitution is quite simply a misogynistic institution that relies on a constant supply of women and girls who have been previously abused in every imaginable way, including physically, sexually, emotionally and psychologically, and also socially disenfranchised, usually racially and educationally.

“I was a homeless fifteen-year-old child when I was first prostituted on the streets of Dublin. The ‘choices’ open to homeless young girls are as constrained as it is possible for choices to be, and I saw the same reality reflected back to me in the lives of every girl and woman prostitution ever brought me into contact with.

“Prostitution is simply a hell hole in which women and girls are relentlessly abused for the financial and sexual benefit of older, more relatively powerful males – and those who view it in any other way are detached, often willfully, from the reality of what prostitution is.”

We need laws and services that support women – and it is mainly women who are in prostitution – to increase their safety and help those who wish to leave do so. [Rest.]

(Photo: SecretLondon123)

“Prostitution harms women”: RadFem UK and the Nordic Model

More penalties for prostitution won’t help victims of human trafficking

On theguardian:


In most states, there are already laws against prostitution. To shoehorn trafficking into this framework ignores the crucial elements of force, fraud and coercion. For example, a person whose car is used for prostitution is not a trafficker. Criminalizing those involved in prostitution where there is no force, fraud, or coercion, or where no minors are involved, may prevent people from identifying and reporting trafficking as a crime or assisting in investigations.

Within the commercial sex industry, policies must recognize the unique circumstances of the trafficking survivor. Because trafficking victims are often forced to commit various crimes under coercive circumstances, states should protect survivors from criminal prosecution by allowing them to assert an affirmative defense in prostitution prosecutions if they can show they engaged in prostitution as a result of human trafficking.

States should also pass policies that ban condoms from being used as evidence in prostitution-related crimes, including human trafficking. In order to maintain control, traffickers often forbid victims from carrying or using condoms, putting victims at risk of unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases.

However, effective anti-trafficking policies must go beyond increasing penalties for prostitution. One step in the right direction is California’s recently enacted supply chains law, which requires businesses be more responsible about eradicating human trafficking and forced labor from their supply chains. It would also cause customers to be more conscientious as they shop. [Rest.]

Sunday feminist roundup (29th December 2013)

So, I took the week off, from everything really. The whole world could have ended and I might not have noticed. It was good to switch off and I know I’m lucky to be able to do so. Here’s a roundup from the last week. It’s been quiet, needless to say, but that’s more likely because people haven’t been blogging and the papers have been off rather than there being nothing afoot. There’s always something afoot.

Last of the year, folks.

Sunday feminist roundup (22nd December 2013)

I’m looking forward to a long break over the festive. Hope you are too. x

- The London clinic fighting back against female genital mutilation (newstatesman)

- A year after the Delhi gang-rape, more must be done to stop abuse of women (commentisfree)

- Rochdale child grooming report should be a wake-up call for police (commentisfree)

- The Politics of Gender and the Policing of Sexuality in Turkey (criticallegalthinking)

- FWSA Blog » Prostitution, Pornography and the Illusion of ‘Choice’ (fwsablog)

- Virginity Is A Social Construct (bellejar)

- Stars in court: Some stellar reputations are shatterproof (independent) – on the slating that Nigella has received for a bit of coke and the apathy towards the horrific allegations made towards R Kelly.

- Mi bombo es mío: feminism, culture and choice (glosswirch) – on abortion in Spain.

- Domestic abuse: half a million victims ‘too terrified to come forward’ (theguardian)

“Men who buy sex often think that women in prostitution have no right to…

Men who buy sex often think that women in prostitution have no right to make emotional demands on them. This attitude may free the men from the expectation that they acknowledge or respect the personhood of the woman they buy. “Money displaces the emotions. It frees you from that bond, that responsibility,” explained a man who was interviewed after buying sex in the United Kingdom. “The distance you get from exchanging cash for sex means that afterward you don’t contemplate the impact on the prostitute” (Spurrell, 2006).

—  Farley, M., Macleod, J., Anderson, L., & Golding, J. M. (2011, March 28). Attitudes and Social Characteristics of Men Who Buy Sex in Scotland. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0022645. (p. 10 – 11)

Arguing Against the Industry of Prostitution – Beyond the Abolitionist Versus Sex-Worker Binary

Some good points here. Submission by Finn McKay on feministcurrent:


Prostitution has long been a contentious issue in the Women’s Liberation Movement, splitting feminist individuals and groups. This is largely because the debate is often reduced to an either/or argument between what is called ‘harm minimisation’ in a legal ‘sex industry’ – the legalisation argument – and on the other side, arguments for the abolition of prostitution. Those veering towards the latter view are often accused of moralism, conservatism and, worse, of a disregard for women’s safety. It is perhaps timely then to revisit the feminist understanding of prostitution as a cause and consequence of inequality, and this post will attempt to address some of the contemporary challenges to this political stance.

What is the abolition argument?

Abolitionists are those who believe in the criminalisation of demand for prostitution, with a view to reducing prostitution, or perhaps ending it in the future. This is not just a feminist argument, many Socialists and anti-capitalists also subscribe to this view and look towards a future without the prostitution industry. Abolitionists usually view prostitution as a cause and consequence of inequality, including gender inequality; they do not view it as work like any other[1]. This is a political stance, it is not a religious, moralistic or conservative stance.

What is the criminalisation of demand?

Many feminists, including abolitionists, are advocating what is called the Nordic approach, calling for the complete decriminalisation of all those exploited in prostitution and instead for the criminalisation of demand. In 1999 Sweden outlawed the purchase of sexual acts in prostitution, effectively criminalising punters, while decriminalising all those selling ‘sexual services’. To put it plainly – the women aren’t criminalised, but the men are. This move was in line with Sweden’s understanding of prostitution as a form of violence against women and a symptom of inequality, as well as being part of their commitment towards tackling global sex trafficking[2]. Any such legal move must go alongside a large and dedicated financial investment in both harm-minimisation and exit services, and this is no less than what those people exploited and harmed in prostitution deserve, many of whom have been let down consistently by the very state services that should have protected them. [Rest.]


Sex workers need better protection against violent clients

On commentisfree:

With chilling clarity, Jill Meagher’s husband has answered the question that has surely hammered him since Adrian Bayley raped and murdered his wife – how could this have happened?

“I’m aware his previous victims in previous cases before Jill were sex workers, and I’ll never be convinced that doesn’t have something to do with the lenience of his sentence,” he said on the day Bayley was sentenced. “Put it like this: if he’d raped five people like Jill that many times in that brutal a fashion, I don’t think he would have served eight years in prison.”

Meagher has given voice to an issue that is seldom spoken of in Australia – the normalisation, and acceptance, of violence against women in the sex industry.

Working at Project Respect, an organisation challenging violence against women in the sex industry, we see this everyday. In the last two years, we have made 631 visits to 71 licenced and unlicenced brothels in Victoria, been in contact with 1,709 women in the sex industry, and provided 2,637 hours of counselling. When women talk to us, two themes are constant – violence and stigma. [Rest.]

Facebook Says That Page Trafficking Women Doesn’t Violate TOS (NSFW/ TW)

On the powderroom:

Just this week, there’s been a lot of press surrounding Facebook’s crackdown on hate speech after companies threatened to pull their advertising dollars from the site. Facebook admitted it hasn’t been adequately policing reports of hate speech, particularly pages that focused on women. They put up a blog post about it last Tuesday. NSFW follows:

So I won’t say that this is ironic, but it is absolutely puzzling that just a week later, Facebook is claiming that a page featuring graphic sexual photos of prostitutes in the red light district of Sonagachi doesn’t violate their terms of service. You may be familiar with Sonagchi in Kolkata, India, as it was the focus of the acclaimed documentary, Born into Brothels. [Rest.]


Men Who Buy Sex: Who They Buy And What They Know

This is a research study of 103 men who describe their use of trafficked and non-trafficked women in prostitution, and their awareness of coercion and violence.

Authors: Melissa Farley, Julie Bindel and Jacqueline M. Golding, December 2009, Eaves, London, Prostitution Research & Education, San Francisco.
A sample of 103 men in London, England, who used trafficked and non-trafficked women in prostitution were asked about their experiences and awareness of the sex industry. Almost all (96%) bought sex indoors. Many reported that they were aware of pimping, trafficking and other coercive control over those in massage parlour, brothel, and escort prostitution. These men were frequently aware of the vulnerability and risk factors for entry into prostitution including childhood abuse, lack of alternative job choices, coercive control and homelessness. The men listed effective deterrents to buying sex which included time in prison, public exposure and being issued an ASBO. They described their ambivalence about buying sex and their ambivalence about the nature of their relationships with women. Some of the attitudes expressed by the interviewees in this study have been associated with violence against women in other research.

“What do you think about his choice?”: uncovering the men who visit prostitutes

This link (the Invisible Men Project) makes for some really upsetting reading. The Newstateman’s piece (also linked) mentions that research on, and discussion of, sex work has often been criticised for omitting the voices of the workers themselves. The Invisible Men Project does nothing to redress that imbalance. Yes, it is illuminating and “valuable data” and all the rest of it but its very existence as a piece of work (complete with artistic presentation) suggests that the perspectives of punters are still more important than those of the women about whom they speak so callously. That’s patriarchy, if I’m not mistaken.

The Invisible Men Project is gathering a selection of posts from Punternet to ask a simple question: never mind the debates about the ethics of sex workers themselves, what do you think of the men who pay them? As the site puts it: “Without seeking to prove, disprove or debate choice on the part of the women described, we invite you to consider: what do you think of his choice?”

The reports do not make for easy (or safe for work) reading, but if you are interested in the debates about prostitution, both moral and legal, then you should look through them. It’s utterly crippling that in this debate – as in the ones over online abuse, or about teenagers and porn – “polite society” can’t talk about what people actually think and say on a daily basis.

The most recent post is particularly shocking: a sex worker reveals that she now prefers to offer clients anal sex, because she is so small-framed that “some idiots bang her pussy so hard it bruises her cervix, which is really painful for her”. (I’ve checked on Punternet, and this comes from a genuine review, quoted fairly.)

A second reviewer describes choking a woman during oral sex, while another says that he “found her ‘disinterest’ a real turn on”. “She kept herself propped up on her elbows with her back twisted to the right as if she were on guard against some possible dangerous act and needed to be able to escape quickly,” reports another, adding petulantly: “This defensive posturing prevented me from properly enjoying the experience of massaging her.” [Rest.]

Sex work as any other job

I wouldn’t do your filing for free either” – sex work as any other job.

On the:  The FWSA Blog:

It is difficult to add anything new to the debate surrounding the ethical & legal status of sex work or prostitution (the very terminology one uses is heavily freighted with political meaning). The conversation is voluminous, highly polarised, and tends to lack nuance. A relatively minor, though still highly contested, area for debate is that which surrounds consent.

On their face the claims of both sex work advocates and abolitionists or Nordic model supporters are logical. On the one hand, it is a nonsense to suppose that all women engaged in selling sex are coerced beyond any capacity to give informed consent. To deny women (and men) agency to this degree is in some sense to deny their humanity, and is bad progressive politics. On the other, it is equally undeniable that in any other context sex that is engaged in without desire, or even contrary to desire or sexual attraction, is not fully consenting sex and the addition of economic coercion will often push even sexual transactions that don’t involve out and out force or trafficking into the category of rape.

The irreconcilable nature of these claims comes, it seems to me, from a lack of exactitude in using the word “consent”. In the pro-sex work narrative, consent does the work of describing the sex worker’s actions – whether or not she or he knowingly & consciously entered into an agreement to perform certain sex acts. In the abolitionist view, consent stands for the internal state of wanting or desiring sex; a psychological condition similar to appetite or tiredness, not susceptible to generating on demand & therefore not tradable for money. [Rest.]

But are things what they seem? (BBC reporting.)

I’ve been annoyed by this “cartoon” in the BBC magazine all morning. This is a new way of reporting the news on the BBC it seems (or at least new to me) and while I don’t have an issue with the medium, I do have concerns about the tagline of the story. One victim’s account of being kidnapped and trafficked in Nepal. But are things what they seem?” (emphasis added). Yes, things are what they seem. Laxmi, a 14 year old girl from Nepal, was kidnapped, trafficked, sold, and put to work. What do you mean by the question? I read the story and while it indicates that the profiles of the trafficked and the traffickers may have changed, things are still very much exactly how they seem, for Laxmi and thousands others.

Why, then, has the BBC/ the artist implied in the tagline that it might be otherwise? Consider also that such is the nature of the BBC site and reporting-lite that many visitors may read just the tagline and assume that the BBC/ artist are questioning the authenticity of Laxmi’s story or the issue of human trafficking. Shoddy.

Link and screenshot (question highlighted):

But are things what they seem...?

Sex worker calls out Kate Nash; gets condescending reply

Kate Nash

Kate Nash (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As something of a challenge to what I’ve just posted about calling out, privilege etc., I see a post (below) where a sex worker writes a letter to Kate Nash to question her about her song “I’m A Feminist, and You’re Still A Whore” and gets some condescending tweets in reply. Really, Kate? That kinda chat sorta makes those feminist credentials of yours a bit suspect. Also, way to express your privilege there. Badly done indeed.

I was at your gig last night in Glasgow, and it was super awesome; thank you. I went to a gig of yours down south in 2007ish, back when I was wee, so it felt really nostalgic and strange – in a good way – to see you play again.

One thing, though! You played a song called I’m A Feminist, and You’re Still A Whore, and, well. I really liked what you were saying throughout the gig about not slagging off other women, and supporting each other, and all that stuff, but that song really made what you were saying ring a little hollow for me, as if I had a paper cut and you know when you temporarily forget and move as if you don’t, and then it hurts? That.

Coz like, I am a whore. And a feminist. I actually prefer the term sex worker, and I also would prefer it if people didn’t use the term whore as an insult. What’s so insulting about being compared to me? I helped set up and run Glasgow Ladyfest. I have the best friends in the world, and I have two lovely cats, and basically what I’m getting at is that I don’t think it’s okay to insult people by saying they’re like me, because I’m pretty sure I’m not a bad person. I’m a sex worker and I’m an alright person. (Even if I was a bad person, it wouldn’t be okay to use ‘whore’ as an insult, because being a sex worker isn’t an insult – it’s a job. If I was a bad person and a bus conductor, it wouldn’t make sense to use the phrase ‘bus conductor’ as an insult. Sex work is work. We’re just people with jobs.) [Rest.]

The brothel worker: “I regret not working in the sex trade as soon as I got here…

Sex work had transformed Ah Ling’s life. She had paid off all her debts within a year and was earning £600 a week. Her current aim was to pay for a new house back home for her family, and return after two more years of sex work. At the same time, she admitted there was a high price to pay. “I have to watch out for my health,” she said. “Some of the punters play tricks wi[quote] The brothel worker: ‘I regret not working in the sex trade as soon as I got here’th you and take off the condoms. Four times, punters have ejaculated when their condom was taken off.” “Have you done anything about it?” I asked. “I will. I am going to go for a health check … but I think it’s OK,” Ah Ling said, shrugging and trying to be optimistic. “This kind of thing happens to every xiaojie.” She told me that she frequently gave oral sex without a condom, charging a £10 tip. She didn’t seem to think it was unsafe. Grace [the brothel owner] told customers on the phone that it was available, and certainly never warned the women about the health risks.

- From: The brothel worker: ‘I regret not working in the sex trade as soon as I got here’

Saturated market ‘putting prostitutes at risk’ [TW]

A report says that sex workers in Westminster are at greater risk of violence because of a fall in demand and an increase in those selling sex.

The study by Westminster Council shows the recession has led sex workers to cut their prices, accept more clients and take greater risks. The police, the NHS, council workers and sex work projects contributed to the report. It recommends increased training and joint-agency work.

The report says: “Saturation of the market has had the impact of increased competition, meaning some sex workers are now selling sex for less money and providing a wider range of services.”

It’s not surprising that this report calls for the setting up of multi-agency models to tackle violence against sex workers, and other similar ideas, in the usual government-speak (“strategic politics agreed”, “proactive and reactive support”, “embed policies that result in” etc. etc.) without considering and/ or critiquing the patriarchal foundations of the sex trade. That would be too much to expect from government-led research, I know, but “embedding policies that result in…” is a fairly futile recommendation unless these issues are considered. Some first-hand accounts in the report allude to these problems (for example, “People think because you do what you do they can do what they want to you because you’re lower than the low in some people’s eyes” (Woman, street sex worker, Age 36)) but, unfortunately, they were used quite factually and descriptively in the report. Its crass discussion of where savings could be made is not very helpful either.

Report: Westminster City Council – Westminster Sex Worker Task Group, via BBC.

An Open Letter to the ‘Good’ Punter

If you like sex, this is not a letter to you. If you like women, this is not a letter to you. If you’ve somehow put these things together and decided they give you the right to buy what you like, this is a letter to you.

If you’re a misogynistic bastard who gets off on hurting women, this is not a letter to you. Apart from the fact that nothing here would get through, I wouldn’t waste my fucking writing skills on you.

If you’re a man who buys sex and thinks you’re engaged in a mutually beneficial transaction that’s causing no harm, I’m talking to you.

I met many of you. So many. Too many. And I always wondered about you. I wondered, how could you justify this to yourself? How could you tell yourself – and believe it – that I was happy to have strangers’ fingers, penises and tongues shoved into the most private parts of me? How did you convince yourself that I’d be happy about something you’d never, in your wildest nightmares, wish on your own daughter? I wondered, most of all, how could you look at me and not see me?

[Read the rest: theprostitutionexperience]

We need to face up to hatred of prostitutes – among feminists, too

Sunday was International Sex Worker Rights Day. This year it provided an occasion for sex workers and erstwhile colleagues including Brooke Magnanti (Belle de Jour) to highlight the vicious abuse they have received under the Twitter hashtag #whenantisattack.

Writer and former call girl Magnanti is forced to live in secrecy, her number taken to the top of any 999 summons list because of the innumerable threats she has received. One recent example proposed that she should be gang-raped and then executed. She has been accused of being responsible for rape, sexual slavery, and prostitution itself. Her family’s privacy has been invaded to find the “causes” of her choice and her personal appearance derided, not least within what might otherwise be called the sisterhood.

Magnanti reminded us of Julie Burchill’s observation in her 1987 essay “Born Again Cows” in the book Damaged Gods: “When the sex war is won prostitutes should be shot as collaborators for their terrible betrayal of all women.” This would seem crazed were it not for MSP Rhoda Grant, who is sponsoring an “end demand for sex trafficking” bill in the Scottish parliament, declaring violence against sex workers a price worth paying to secure her proposals. As Magnanti tweeted: “Let that sink in. Politician thinks it’s OK if people die b/c of her bill. No one bats an eyelid.”

[Rest: commentisfree]