Unpacking Harmful Myths Around Sex Work
Sex work is an industry in which its workers face extreme stigma, violence and discrimination.
The many harmful myths circulating around sex workers and their industry add to this stigma and discrimination.
Here, we seek to unpack them and educate a little more around this issue.
1. Sex work is an act of gender-based violence by men towards women.
This myth perpetuates harmful stereotypes that sex workers (and women) are victims, without agency or a will of their own. Let’s unpack it:
- There are sex workers of all genders.
- There are clients of all genders and sexualities.
- Any non-consensual act that occurs between a client and a sex worker is not sex work, it is violence. Sexual violence happens across all levels of society and violence at work occurs in all industries - it is not “part of the job” for sex workers.
2. Sex work is when you "buy" a sex worker.
This myth perpetuates the objectification and dehumanisation of sex workers (and women), as well as the harmful and inaccurate stereotypes about what sex work actually is. Let’s unpack it:
- Sex work is when you pay for a service offered by a sex worker.
- You cannot "buy" a person or their body (that is slavery).
- Sex workers use their body as a tool to offer and fulfil services, much like many other industries such as carpentry, modelling, personal training, etc.
3. Sex workers give people permission to treat them like objects.
This myth perpetuates the objectification and dehumanisation of sex workers (and women) and lends a victim-blaming mentality to any stigma, violence or harassment that sex workers face. Let’s unpack it:
- Sex work is real work. People in the industry deserve respect just like any professional doing their job.
- Paying for a service from someone does not give you the right to disrespect or mistreat them.
- Sex work alone does not perpetuate patriarchal systems and structures. We all exist and operate within the patriarchy and we are doing our best to function within this oppressive system.
- Sex work can be, for many sex workers, a way to reclaim their body as their own and wield their own political power and agency.
4. Sex work is exploitative and cannot be a real choice.
This myth further perpetuates the harmful idea or belief that sex workers are victims without agency or a will of their own, while also enabling and validating the abuse and harassment of sex workers. Let’s unpack it:
- Just because sexual exploitation exists does not negate the ability of sex workers to have agency over their decisions. To claim otherwise is to be complicit in the act of dehumanising sex workers.
- While exploitation and abuse absolutely exist within the sex industry, there is a very clear difference between consensual sex work and sexual exploitation and trafficking.
The World Health Organization (WHO) provides the following definitions:
Sex work: The provision of sexual services for money or goods.
Commercial sex: The exchange of money or goods for sexual services. It always involves a sex worker and a client and it also frequently involves a third party.
Sexual exploitation: Actual or attempted abuse of a position of vulnerability, power, or trust, for sexual purposes, including, but not limited to, profiting monetarily, socially or politically from the sexual exploitation of another.
Trafficking: The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.
5. If we decrease the demand for sex work by criminalising it, we make it safer for sex workers and decrease rates of exploitation and abuse.
This myth perpetuates inaccurate and harmful messages about sex work. Here are the real facts:
- Criminalising sex work puts sex workers at a higher risk of violence and risk of unsafe sexual practices, by driving sex workers to areas that are less safe and forcing them to rush client screening processes. Sex work will always exist. We need to make it safer for sex workers to do their job.
- Criminalising sex work limits the agency of sex workers - we need to instead push for safe and supportive work environments for sex workers, like any other industry.
Sex work is real work. Sex workers deserve and need respect, support and safety when doing their jobs.
3 Myths About Sex Work That Harm Everyone - Yes! Magazine
Sex Work Series - The Conversation
Sex Work Is Integral To The Feminist Movement | Tilly Lawless - TEDxYouth Talk