Sex work is work. That sentence needs to be plastered in all caps, bold, italicized, underlined. It needs to be seared into the mind of everyone who mocks, diminishes or otherwise dehumanizes sex workers. Before we engage in an analysis of sex work as work, we need to separate sex workers from the sex-trafficked. Sex trafficking is a heinous crime that must be crushed. But sex work is separate from that, and people engage in sex work for a variety of reasons.

Whether it’s subsistence or pure choice, most sex workers do so for reasons that fall under those two groupings. Subsistence sex work is work intended to meet immediate needs, such as food, shelter or transitioning (for trans women, mostly). The rest of the sex workers in the U.S. do it because they just want to for whatever reason they have. Regardless of subsistence or simple choice, sex work is a valid line of work, and sex workers are part of the working class. 

This political line — that sex workers are members of the working class and that sex work is valid work — is, unfortunately, not held by many people who need to believe it. Whether it’s “liberal” or “do-good” organizations or even some groups that identify as “feminist” or “revolutionary” which attack sex workers and dismiss them as not workers or oppressed people, sex workers inevitably suffer. 

The combined yelling of these people basically says that because sex workers have to do sex work in order to survive, their work is inherently bad. However, as in all labor, people must work to survive. One in 12 trans people have done sex work in order to survive. We, revolutionaries, have to understand why this is. Without sex work, many would starve or be homeless. That is why a call for jobs with livable wages, safe working conditions and health care benefits for all these workers is essential.

Criminalization shuts sex workers out of jobs

We have to engage the approach to sex work that defines sex workers as either hapless victims who can’t make their own decisions or sinful criminals who defy the “natural order” of human sexuality and civilization. We have to expose both as lies and deceptions. 

In a perhaps unforeseen rebound effect, people arrested for sex work — who are “encouraged” by the state to give up the sex trade — are often forced back into it because of the criminalization they face. In other words, giving sex workers — who the state and “rescuers” claim are powerless in their industry — criminal records only shuts them out of most “legitimate” jobs, legitimate in this case through the eyes of the state.

We have to challenge the idea that the only legitimate jobs are jobs that fall outside the bounds of sex work. If we can’t do that, we cannot support sex workers the way they deserve to be supported as valid workers.

Without showing that sex work is work, we abandon a sector of our class that is intensely and deeply oppressed by all sectors of the state apparatus, police, courts, prison administrators, the capitalist class and the corporate media. If there are any “progressive” organizations, which oppose the decriminalization of sex work because sex work, to them, is oppressive, they are actually helping the ruling class keep workers divided. 

While sex trafficking is a form of oppression, the willful sale of sex is not. Sex workers are often the first to tell when workers are being trafficked, sexually or not, but the criminalization of sex work makes it difficult for them to act.

Stop violence against sex workers

Because both the full criminalization and the anti-equity (Nordic) models put sex workers in the sights of those who would do them harm, the safety of sex workers is in jeopardy. Complete decriminalization of sex work and sex worker-related initiatives — such as bad date lists — is the only way to stop the endless violence against sex workers. 

Without laws that make posting sex worker ads illegal or make bad date lists illegal, sex workers could do a much more effective job at screening clients. The FOSTA (Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) and SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) package specifically targeted some of the most oppressed workers in our class. It shut down the websites used by sex workers to find clients, forcing sex workers off-line to find people who want to hire them. It also shuts down websites used to find and screen workers (such as bad date lists) and forces sex workers into dangerous situations. 

Forcing sex workers who ordinarily would have the ability to examine and vet their clients into having to do street sex work with clients who cannot be vetted actually does tremendous harm.

Repeal anti-sex worker laws

In order to support sex workers, there are several actions we must take. First, we must repeal all laws impacting the ability to do sex work safely. This includes laws that target websites where sex workers advertise, laws that require extra identification for erotic dancers (dancer registries), laws that make full-service sex work (formerly “prostitution”) illegal and all tax laws that uniquely impact sex workers. 

Second, we must challenge all viewpoints with ideologies that turn sex workers into hapless victims or, worse, perpetrators. In other words, anti-sex-work organizations, including those which call themselves “progressive,” have to be challenged and shown that sex workers are safer under work plans proposed by them and their supporters, rather than under rules set by anti-sex worker organizations.

We also have to show that by making it easier to do sex work and to transition jobs to and from sex work, we actually make it safer even for the trafficked to escape. Lastly, we must emphasize that sex work is work and that sex workers are members of the working class. We cannot build solidarity with these oppressed workers if we infantilize them or step on their necks.

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