Let's start off here: sex work is REAL work. Period. Not only is the work they do indispensable, but it is truly the backbone of our society. Sex workers provide the service of pleasure, exploration, and ultimately human connection. And sex workers deserve to feel respected and safe, just like any other professional.
In order to imagine a better, safer future for sex workers, it’s important to look for precedents across the globe. It has become increasingly obvious in recent years where our country lacks in terms of equality, freedoms, and bodily autonomy. We need to look to other nations, learn from their mistakes, and collaborate as a worldwide network to ensure that sex worker rights are protected.
Support Your Local Sex Worker
We donate 100% of the proceeds from our #SYLSW merch to The Cupcake Girls. In 2020, the non-profit organization had over 40,000 interactions and worked with 800 clients. Because of our generous partners and dedicated volunteer teams, we were able to offer over $1,200,000.00 in community resources and partner referrals.
What's the Difference Between Legalization & Decriminalization?
But before getting into sex worker rights around the world, we must understand the difference between legalized and decriminalized sex work.
Legalization: A system in which the government regulates sex work ie. zoning requirements, work permits, restrictions, licensing zones etc.
Decriminalization: No anti-sex work laws AND no government regulation. Sex work would be treated as and have the same legal protections any other job ie. store clerk, server, etc.
Sex Work in the United States
In all of the United States, besides some counties in Nevada, full service sex work is illegal, but sex workers persist nonetheless. Haley Hasen (Haley/Haley's) of @haleyhasenuncensored sat down with us to share Haley's perspective as an online erotic laborer in the US.
“Sex worker rights in the US are draining and devastating. I do virtual erotic labor, which comes with privilege,” Haley reveals. “I also am not doing this as a primary source of income; I do it along with many other jobs. I get taxed on my income and I do not receive any federal assistance during COVID based on my erotic labor. I received federal aid through my serving position.”
In popular discourse, anyone in the sex industry, including consenting adults, are often lumped together alongside victims of sex trafficking, who are children or adults forced into the sex trade.
“Society confuses sex work with sex trafficking and they are completely different and they are not interchangeable,” Haley says.
“I am a glimpse into a world that does not see me as a human—only as a slut. I am expected to pay taxes on my income [but] my labor is seen as dehumanizing and illegal.”
While Americans who engage in online sex work don’t have to worry about their immediate physical wellbeing (like risk of COVID infection), unique concerns about internet censorship and stigma shape their work, well-being, and income potential.
This stigma stems from the laws themselves, including the FOSTA SESTA and Earn It bills, which claim to have the interests of victims of sex trafficking at heart, but really do and will make life harder for autonomous sex workers.
“By creating FOSTA SESTA, back pages and forums sex workers use to communicate about bad johns or dehumanizing clients vanished,” Haley explains. “Word of mouth is really the only way to inform the community of this. The EARN IT act, which infringes upon my encryption is what I am currently battling, since all my work is done over the internet.”
Advocates for sex worker rights are currently pushing for decriminalization as opposed to legalization because activists feel that with the government’s biases against sex work, that regulation would unfairly penalize and cut into the earnings of sex workers. Even in Nevada — the single state where sex work is legalized — the government restricts sex workers in many ways that they don’t restrict other forms of commerce. For example, you cannot get a license in a county with a population of 700,000 or more, STI test results must be reported to the government, and you cannot advertise in neighboring counties if they have not legalized sex work.
Of course, it is harder for sex workers to mobilize in the ways many other marginalized groups do with marches, occupations, sit ins, etc. because that would require individuals to “out” themselves as sex workers. Recent exceptions have been the Black Sex Worker Liberation March of summer 2020, and the Decrim-NY protests of 2019.
And though being “out” as a sex worker carries social, legal, and emotional consequences for sex workers, celebrities in the US can often be found appropriating sex worker culture for their own gain, glorifying and tokenizing sex work without any understanding of the struggles of real sex workers.
Recently, American actress and musician Bella Thorne caused a massive social media conflict by joining the content subscription service site Only Fans. In only a short time, she managed to crash the site, meaning many online sex workers could not earn income until the problem was fixed.
Thorne has also notoriously done very little to advocate for the sex worker community who brought the Only Fans platform to fame. Her sister has even gone as far as to publicly bash sex workers, feeding into the common trope of sex workers as undeserving.
“People, especially celebrities, love to play our part like it is a game. They do not realize the harsh reality and shaming we go through. We do not have millions of dollars to fall back on. We do not have the luxury to say, ‘Ooops I’m sorry.’”
And despite celebrities who claim to normalize sex work, stigma towards sex workers is a widespread sentiment held by much of the US population. “We are viewed so low for this work, whether [or not] we do it from an empowering healing aspect, because we enjoy it, or because we need the money.”
In Haley’s ideal United States, we would “decriminalize sex work, (to) allow folx to do their labor and not worry about going to jail, especially full service sex workers.”
Sex worker advocates who agree can take action by supporting sex workers around them and paying for their services, researching and participating in sex work activism.
On Haley's own motives, Haley shares that “for me, I am in erotic labor to reclaim autonomy and power over my sexuality and body after I was assaulted. I cope by advocating, showing up, and going into sex worker affirming spaces.”
Sex Work in Sweden
Sweden operates under the Nordic model, also called Neo-abolitionism or the Sex Buyer’s Law. Under the Nordic model, sex work is decriminalized, but purchasing sex work is still illegal. In an attempt to eradicate sex work as a whole, the government offers resources to sex workers who want to leave the sex industry. This model began in Sweden in 1999 before it was adopted by 7 other countries. The government had tried to restrict sex work numerous times before passing the Kvinnford law, which enacted the Nordic model, and were met with protest from sex workers, feminists, and other supporters.
The problem with this model is that it equates sex workers with victims of trafficking, therefore disregarding those who choose sex work on their own volition. The country’s law perpetuates the idea that sex workers don’t have the agency to decide to sell sexual services by punishing the people who they consensually engage in sexual acts with. Not to mention that since buyers fear prosecution, they are forced to elicit sex work in less obvious places such as street corners or the dark web, which makes it that much harder for sex workers to do background checks on clients and utilize other resources to keep themselves safe.
Sex Work in the Philippines
The Philippines’ history with trafficking is unique; Japan forced Filipina women into sex slavery when they occupied the country during World War II, and US military bases in the Philippines are known for exploiting sex workers to this day. A lot of this history fuels the arguments of anti sex work advocates in the Philippines, where sex work is technically illegal, but seems to be somewhat tolerated by law enforcement. The mainstream narrative around sex work mirrors American laws, hardly differentiating between sex workers and victims of trafficking. And because sex trafficking is so prevalent in this Southeast Asian country, sex workers have to work exceptionally hard to be heard.
Sex Work in the Netherlands
Home of the famed Red Light District, the Netherlands prides itself on being tolerant of sex workers, but many sex worker residents of the country feel this is untrue.
Legalized in 2000, sex work is government regulated. In the hopes of curtailing sex trafficking or exploitation, sex workers are required to register with the Department of Commerce and pay an income tax. However, social stigma persists, and sex workers rights remain limited. Because they aren't as protected as employees in other fields, and because of overwhelming government oversight, many sex workers choose to remain in the illegal, underground market since they can make more money ‘under the table’ and maintain their privacy by not having to receive approval from the government.
Sex Work in Mexico
In Mexico, sex work is federally legal, but each state decides for themselves. Even in states where sex work is illegal, some cities across the country have tolerance zones where sex work is legalized and state operated.
Tijuana, Mexico’s red light district, is one of those tolerance zones. Tijuana has a customer base that consists of not only Mexican residents, but American tourists, who help support the local economy. Despite the fact that the US-Mexico border is technically closed now due to COVID-19, American sex tourism persists due to the lack of vehicle checks at the border. This means that Americans can engage with sex workers without having to worry about US law and bills like FOSTA SESTA, though lately, the pandemic has shut down many brothels and strip clubs in Tijuana, the way it has many bars, restaurants, and other small businesses worldwide.
Sex Work in New Zealand
The Prostitution Reform Act was passed in 2003, after years of protests by the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective. This law decriminalized sex work, allowing sex workers to control the sex industry more than the government does. It increased sex worker rights by encouraging smaller, owner-operated brothels under which every sex worker retains control over their money. It also required ongoing research be done to ensure the Prostitution Reform Act was doing what it set out to do. Based on this research, it seems sex workers overwhelmingly support the act; sex workers can simply report that they are “self employed” on COVID financial assistance forms, and are able to receive government funding during the pandemic, unlike in the US and other parts of the globe.
New Zealand’s system is not perfect, however; social stigma persists, as does employment discrimination in brothels, but decriminalization allows for individual injustices to be handled in a court of law on a case by case basis.
Meet the Author
Tara Michaela (she/her) @tara.michaela
Redefining Activism by Kénta Xiadani Ch'umil (they/them)
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