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Stigma damages the individual sex worker and also determines how all sex workers are judged by society. Stigma denies the sex worker any individual identity by reducing them to caricatures in literature and in populist media as criminal or deviant. Stigma justifies self hate and determines laws that criminalise the sex worker and sex work, legitimising prejudice, injustice and gives the sex worker a feeling of worthlessness and alienation. The truth is that sex work is not harmful, it does not hurt anyone and it does not kill anyone and any harm associated with sex work is almost exclusively the result of stigma. When sex worker activists argue for decriminalisation they must justify that argument, not just in terms of labour rights but also as the first step to end the harm stigma causes sex workers and also society in much wider terms because stigma determines not just opinion on sex work, but also how society understands human sexual diversity and experience.
When I read the stories of those who reference themselves as sex work survivors and/or prostituted women (rarely men) I recognise and empathise not with their claims that sex work (that is the physical work of having sex), has caused harm, but with the rarely acknowledged truth that it is stigma that has truly hurt them, often leaving deep emotional scars. Yes, some people also tell stories of violent pimps and clients, but since most of those claiming survivor status are working with organisations whose intention is to emotionalise the sex worker debate in order to further criminalise sex work, one can’t suppress a certain scepticism toward some of those claims. That is not to say that violence does not exist within sex work, but rather that there is no substantiated proof that it is endemic or that violence is especially specific to sex work. I acknowledged thowever, that all sex workers, regardless of which side of the fence they are on regarding criminalisation or decriminalisation and regardless of gender or sexual orientation, suffer from the effects of stigma and that the effects of stigma can have long lasting implications.
The role of the sex worker is to be a facilitator of pleasure. I acknowledge that the job is much more complex and more nuanced than this, but essentially, that is our job. Giving pleasure is what a sex worker is paid for. What sex workers are not paid for is the mental pain involved in leading a life lived (too often) in secret, of being constantly afraid of being outed, judged and condemned for having sex with strangers for payment. The psychological damage, that is the emotional punishment inflicted by society upon them for receiving payment for sex, for having sex without any pretence of real emotion or attraction, is very real and something they must endure, learn to cope with or become a victim of.
Sex work is work and like any work it has daily stresses, disappointments, tensions as well as excitements and pleasures. Human nature marks us all as social animals who like to share and receive support and praise in equal measure. Sharing is a stress reliever, however the shame that our society prescribes as being the deserved lot of the sex worker, alongside the legal requirement to work in isolation, too often results in the sex worker being unable to access necessary support mechanisms. Finding friends among fellow sex workers in a competitive market is not always easy and finding people amongst regular friends and family, who can be trusted with the truth about how you earn your money, is often even harder. Although support exists in the form of projects, fear of saying too much, of being officially recognised, registered, even with a supportive project, is a frightening prospect for many sex workers, even in those countries that offer some form of legalisation. Take for example Germany, in Germany many sex workers fear registering with any form of officialdom, even if supportive because of the fear that sex work or the stigma of having once been a sex worker may follow them should they ever leave the industry, get married, have children, or create a career outside of their chosen profession, stigma is therefore, the best friend of the anti sex work, rescue industry. Stigma stops many sex workers from speaking positively about their work, forces sex work to exist in a shadow world and allows sex workers to be easily caricatured as victims by their enemies.
Stigma leads too many sex workers to judge themselves as being unworthy and less human than the rest of society because they sell sex, thus explaining why so many “so called survivors” are encouraged by the lucrative rescue industry to reflect on their work as being one sexual violation after another. In most cases it was never like that but because society judges the exchange of sex for money as immoral, even if done consensually, the sex worker is judged as being shameful, a slut with no self esteem, unworthy and without value within modern society. Effectively the survivor is therefore given a choice of accepting their own moral deficiency or of grasping an offered scapegoat by claiming that the process of selling sex had been forced upon them and therefore had been a succession of sexual assaults making them victims of their own occupation. Blaming sex work becomes the excuse on which to lay their learned, taught, internalised guilt and shame.
Stigma is why decriminalisation of sex work is so important. Decriminalisation, itself will not end stigma but it will begin to allow sex workers to organise true support mechanisms that are sex worker run. Decriminalisation will allow sex work to regain its place within society where the positives of sex work are recognised and where the law supports sex workers rather than forcing them to work in isolation and in secrecy. By removing the link between criminality and sex work, society can evolve to an understanding of sex work and of human sexual behaviour that is not formed exclusively within a context of religious and legal moralism which understands an individuals sexual behaviour as a judgment on an individuals worth. Perhaps, this is the true reason moralists in the media and in politics prefer to listen to anti sex work propaganda rather than to sex worker truths, referencing sex work, as comodifying the sex worker ,as an object to be bought and used, while in fact the truth is, that by comodifying sex and the sex worker, sex work reflects a realistic and more emphatic reflection of the truth of human sexual behaviour. It is that truth that moralists cannot accept.
Stigma is the true enemy which imprisons sex workers in a jail without bars, a jail often of their own making and it’s not only sex workers but the whole of society that suffers.