The oldest profession of civilization: sex work. One might think that after all this time, this taboo trade might have dropped some of the stigma that it carries, but this doesn’t even seem to be the case. Even to this day, sex work is a subject many are uncomfortable with discussing. Is that right? Should we consider sex work like any other job? Note how the question says, “should we” not “do we”, for this slight modification would shift the discussion to describing what is, not what ought to be. The important part about this question is how it can guide us in the future; knowing if sex work ought to be treated similarly may guide our policies on decriminalization, among other things, in the future.
Merriam-Webster defines a sex worker as “a person whose work involves sexually explicit behavior.” It seems a little broad, right? That’s the point. Like any other industry, the whole field of companionship and the like is quite diverse and narrowing it down to merely the act of prostitution is, at best, a little imprecise, and at worse, quite offensive to those involved.
Down to its core, sex work differs from other professions in one important way: directly explicit sexual behavior. Quite simply, no other jobs contain this aspect to this extent. For this reason alone, it is different from other jobs in a very literal sense. However, the question demands more than just differences, but an implied reason to treat it differently than other jobs. If one has a moral outlook that sex ought to be a thing between married individuals and that sex work is immoral, then, therefore, it ought to be treated differently. More objectively, the high rates of crime, health issues, and diseases such as AIDs associated with sex work make it stand out significantly from other jobs.
There is no good reason why sex work should be treated all that differently from other jobs, and not just because there are many strong reasons why, but also because the rebuttals are weak and steeped in subjective, emotional, reactionary thinking. In other professions, such as jobs involving lots of manual labor, you are directly selling your body and your health (to a much greater extent, I might add) to your employer. The only difference is the sexual part, but there is nothing inherently wrong with sexual behavior, we only treat it so awkwardly because of social conditioning and evolutionary pressures.
Let’s look at the consequences of continuing to treat it with so much stigma. Do you know why sex work is associated with human trafficking, health issues, and crime? Because it is illegal and treated with taboo. If it was decriminalized and approached as just another profession, then maybe we could take steps towards stopping the awful occurrences we see in tangent with sex work such as rape, sex trafficking, and HIV. However, this won’t happen if we fail to consider it as it actually is; just another job. Compare countries that legalize sex work to ones that don’t; the differences are substantial. In an odd case in Rhode Island, a legal loophole made certain kinds of sex work allowed for a span of years, during that time, rape declined by a third, in addition to a similar reduction in STI occurrences according to a research paper from Baylor University by economists Scott Cunningham and colleagues. We need to dump the ingrained biases and face the facts, at the end of the day, sex workers’ rights and human rights go hand in hand.
Most of us can agree that sex work as a whole needs reform, some leaning towards the “yes” side of things might seek to decriminalize, while others leaning towards “no” might be alright with the current legal state of things. But regardless, I think this discussion exposes some interesting biases and unfounded notions of how we categorize work and sexual activity; overall, this debate is vital to the conversation about sex work. For the safety of not just sex workers, but their clients, and anyone else involved, we need to dig into this distinction to see if sex work should truly be treated so differently.
Scott Cunningham & Manisha Shah, 2018. "Decriminalizing Indoor Prostitution: Implications for Sexual Violence and Public Health," The Review of Economic Studies, vol 85(3), pages 1683-1715.
“Sex worker.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sex%20worker. Accessed 28 January 2020.
“Why Sex Work Should Be Decriminalized.” Human Rights Watch, 7 Aug. 2019, www.hrw.org/news/2019/08/07/why-sex-work-should-be-decriminalized#.