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Sex work is peculiar in that it is brutally stigmatised, being primarily women involved the discourse is also trapped within a so called feminist discourse about gender equality. The debate is also one seemingly forever owned by negative imagery that portrays the sex worker as the perpetual victim. As a sex worker however I know that that imagery does not represent my reality and I am sure that this is also the case for many others.
I have learned during my sixteen years selling sex, and over ten years in sex worker activism, that sex for sale is a hugely diverse business. I can draw on my own personal experience as a gay male sex worker, mainly working independently and indoors, in London, Edinburgh and Newcastle, and because my partner runs an escort agency I can also reference a wide spectrum of other experiences, from middle class housewives, professional women, single mothers, and a minority of others, who either by choice or circumstance, have turned to sex work to fund drug habits or simply alternative lifestyles.
As an activist I have also met migrant sex workers, some working legally and some not, some with good experiences of sex work and some who feel trapped in sex work. Sex work truly does represent a huge spectrum of experiences and as an activist my conclusion is that that sex work ultimately reflects the society it serves and that just as each society has its own unique characteristics, good and bad, so sex work will reflect those characteristics. Despite this the sex work debate inevitably simplifies and sensationalises the arguments with dangerous consequences for sex workers.
When commentators make sweeping statements about sex work, without referencing the circumstances of the society in which particular sex workers operate, they create a discourse that is unhelpful and even dangerous. As an activists I share a common desire for decriminalisation, but I recognise and always argue that decriminalisation, when it comes, must be negotiated to reflect the needs of sex workers and how they work within their own particular societies. Simply calling for decriminalisation without referencing the voices of sex workers results, as in Holland and Germany, for example, with imposed forms of legalisation that do not reflect the needs of sex workers, but rather the desire of the state to control and regulate sex work as a problem. The result is that sex workers become victims of legislators who do not understand why so many sex workers stubbornly choose to remain isolated and difficult to collectivise in a traditional way.
The other problem is that legislators, so called feminists, the media, and even some activists, deliberately choose to portray sex work in its extremes. In doing so they preserve a discourse that alienates many sex workers and preserves the mythology of otherness that stigmatises the sex worker as peculiar, as someone who needs help or who needs to be controlled. In truth most sex work and most sex workers are extraordinary only in their ordinariness.
Sex is the most natural of activities and selling sex does not change that. The stigma of selling sex is what makes sex work extraordinary, not the act. The hugely diverse nature of sex work and of the people who sell sex and who buy it is rarely portrayed in a populist but influential discourse that prefers sex workers as either abused victims, happy hookers or as exotic and tragic.
The first episode of the Rupert Everett documentary “Love For Sale,” exemplifies how even a positive documentary still prostitutes the images and language of sex work, presenting sex work in a populist caricature. The viewers are shown scantily dressed transsexual sex workers, (one of whom, a friend of Rupert’s, was murdered) working on the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, a male escort who had lost eight of his friends, also escorts, to suicide and drugs, a street worker in Liverpool feeding a drug habit, a Muslim, homeless young rent boy in Tel Aviv. These stories and images are the experiences of some sex workers, and they are experiences we must not ignore, but equally we also must not allow particular populist stories and images to be used to confirm negative populist prejudices about sex work and sex workers which politicians can turn into negative legislation. The images and language of otherness, even when supportive, is ultimately not helpful. Similarly the politicisation of sex worker rights so that sex workers again are presented as victims of capitalism, as victims of unemployment, as victims of the benefit system, all may in certain circumstances be true of some sex workers but not of all. They are images and language that confirm prejudices of sex worker victim hood rather than of the sex worker as an ordinary citizen deserving of rights the same as anyone else.
One day I hope that there may be a documentary, or an article, that does not deal in sexed up images, but which represents sex work as it is, work, and sex workers as being deserving of protection and of a voice in deciding legislation that will affect their lives as ordinary people, not as extraordinary people or people deserving of pity or in need of protection. In the documentary “Love For Sale,” Rupert Everett takes a group of transsexual sex workers to view paintings of nineteenth century sex workers by Toulouse lautrec. This for me was the most positive piece of dialogue in the documentary. The sex workers rejected the images of tired, used and degraded sex workers as not representing their experience of sex work. I wonder if, having watched the documentary those sex workers were happy with their portrayal, naked, exotic and described using the language of otherness which made them and their work seem sad and lonely and desperate? Would it have been positive, as they understood their lives and their work, or would the images of them used in the documentary have reminded them of the paintings of Toulouse Lautrec?