Putting Away a Childish Argument against Sex Work

[Originally posted May 2, 2016]

I have a friend who is doing a kind of work that, as a young girl, she never thought she’d be doing. She started, albeit grudgingly, because she considered it her least-worst option. Over time, she began to see benefits to doing this work, such as flexible hours and the ability to choose her clientele. As a result, it has become a major source of income, and even with its down sides, she considers it a good job.

No little girl dreams of doing medical coding and billing.

I bring up this story because, if you replace the job description above with “prostitution”, then you have one of the most specious arguments for continuing to criminalize and stigmatize sex work. It is an example of the moral solipsism of so-called “abolitionists”: since they view the selling of sexual services with displeasure or disgust, then they project that every woman must share that view, and certainly our innocent children. To them, a youngster’s hopes for the future are somehow equal to an adult’s real-life attempts to find a job that pays the bills.

There are many reasons why children imagine themselves in certain jobs and not others. Ballerinas and movie stars appear more glamorous than cashiers and telephone operators. Likewise, firefighters and police seem more heroic and respected than garbage collectors and street sweepers. Other jobs are simply unseen and thus unknown by younger folks – warehouse stockers, sewer workers, call center managers, and so forth.

There’s also a reason why young people begin to change their minds about what jobs they want to do. They may become aware of the risks that come with the job, and determine that they are not worth assuming. Ballet dancers, for example, require years of rigorous training and practice, often leading to multiple injuries, all in a highly competitive environment. A cashier, on the other hand, is able to start with simple training, with opportunities for advancing to management and above. Also, young people learn that, in order to make money and gain experience in the work force, they need to start by working in jobs they wouldn’t otherwise choose.

The pressures of parents, peers, and society not only affect people’s job choices, but also the attitudes they assume about themselves. We lift up doctors, lawyers, actors, professional athletes, and that sense of prestige is reflected in their pay. We look down on minimum-wage workers, often seeing them as interchangeable as machine parts, even useless, while still relying on their labor whenever we order a hamburger or buy new clothes. This doesn’t always correspond, of course – look how we speak of the noble calling of teachers, while paying them so little – but how we look at different jobs often becomes a mirror for those who hold them.

The argument of “abolitionists” is that sex work does not qualify as work. If, as Barbara Ehrenreich says, “work is what we do for others”, and transactional sex involves providing pleasure and companionship to others, then their proposition makes no sense. They might retort that sex shouldn’t be work, because it “ought to” involve caring and intimacy, but this in turn ignores the caring and intimate work of nurses, nannies, and other professional caretakers, as well as the actual interactions between many sex workers and their clients.

What bothers me most when I hear or read that “no little girl dreams of becoming a prostitute” is how it perpetuates archaic gender attitudes. We assume that boys must grow into men, and endure the rough and dirty path in that direction – but girls must somehow remain virginal and pure, even if we must paternalize and infantilize them well past puberty.

Women and men make choices that they would not have considered as girls and boys. Their reasons are likewise as varied and nuanced as adulthood itself. Our approval is not the issue; assuring their safety, and affirming their humanity, is what matters.