August 11th, 2018

Pernicious Perspectives and the Abomination of #FOSTA / #SESTA

I’ve written about sex work numerous times on this blog (click on the category “Sex+ Work” to the left to see how many). I advocate decriminalization of all forms of consensual sex work and dream of the day the social stigma around it has dissolved.

And I feel a bit like I perceive a new conundrum around it. I used to think that the majority of people just didn’t understand. That there was so much ignorance around sex work because the perspective that sex workers are sub-human and undeserving of basic rights and respect and autonomy was questioned so infrequently, assumed to be acceptable so automatically, perceived so often without even conscious choice or recognition, that people failed to realize how arbitrary, unfounded, and inhumane that perspective is. I truly thought that if people stopped to consider the existence of consensual sex work as an industry like most others, they would quickly recognize how nonsensical and tragically misguided the mainstream perspective around it was.

Now, I find myself wondering if that was naïve of me. It has seemed more and more evident of late that some people simply don’t like sex work or that it exists. Yes, I have understood this to some degree, but as I mentioned, I truly trusted that in large part, it was ignorance rather than malevolence that drove the perpetration of dismissiveness, degradation, and dehumanization of sex workers. Recently it seems, though, that an active aspiration to malign may be more prominent than I have realized. It is something, I have noticed, that often seems to manifest as a desire to actually punish sex workers for their very engagement in the profession.

The recent passage and existence of support for the passage of FOSTA/SESTA have highlighted this phenomenon for me. Trafficking, of course, is an entirely separate issue from sex work itself. Denial of that is indicative of a perspective that maintains that sex work could never be consensual. I admit this perspective is so bewilderingly nonsensical to me that I do not exactly know what to say to it at this point except to ask those who hold it to speak to sex workers who are doing it consensually. If you do so, and you you refuse to accept their viewpoint, ask yourself why?

The predictable ill-effects of the noxious passage of FOSTA/SESTA have already been reported on a number of times (here, here, here, and here are a few). I truly cannot understand how well-intentioned people who are paying attention could not understand these implications and circumstances at this point.

Granted, if one is not paying attention or interested in considering this entire subject area, one could be fairly easily manipulated: a reframing of the loathing of sex workers seems to have emerged as a claim to want to fight sex trafficking.* This reframing aims to position its crusade as helping victims. Significantly, however, the movement frequently postulates a conflation between trafficking in the area of sex and consensual sex work. This is not only a deliberate effort to erase the idea that consensual sex work exists but also a prominent threat to a clear and grounded discussion about the topic of sex work in general.

To some degree, what purports itself as the anti-sex trafficking effort is arguably the same underlying aggressive desire to punish those who work in the sex industry dressed up in different clothing. Why?

1) Because trafficking in humans is related to numerous forces including poverty, economics, gender socialization, geographic inequality in terms of living conditions, and other factors that are much more difficult to actually address then to try to throw more laws at something that is already illegal (trafficking);

and, more pointedly,

2) because trafficking occurs in various industries, but none seems to be targeted except (or at least nearly as much as) the sex industry. There is little to no outcry about saving victims of human trafficking in the farm, fishing, or domestic labor industries despite evidence in the United States’ own reports on trafficking in persons that all of these industries have seen just as much, if not more, trafficking than commercial sex has. I have yet to see any proposed law holding websites liable for trafficking in the farm or fishing industries because they sell food online or efforts to “eliminate the demand” for or criminalize the farm or domestic services industries in order to eradicate trafficking in them.

Like so many other legal or political measures pretending to be or do something they aren’t or won’t, FOSTA and SESTA are measures that without a lot of examination look like a great idea and are certainly touted as such by their supporters. With just a little bit of consideration combined with the kind of questioning I am lamenting the absence of above, however, it becomes obvious that they will do nothing but make sex workers’ lives more difficult. The idea that controlling websites will somehow make things more challenging for traffickers who already work outside the bounds of the law and will do what they need to do to perpetuate their grossly unconscious aims with little care for law or anyone’s well-being is easily recognized as absurd. (This is to say nothing of the overt threat to free speech encompassed in the measures, which I am not covering in this post.)

It appears that the measure is simply something that allows those who hate sex work and want to punish its workers, consciously or unconsciously, to do so without appearing as though that is their aim. It allows others who have not considered the well-being of sex workers (which I hold is most people) to feel like they are helping someone despite not consulting or, ironically, even really caring about those they are congratulating themselves for helping.

I am to the point where I frankly feel the mysterious active dislike of sex work is more harmful to sex workers than virtually anything about the job itself. A common view seems to be that some unique notion or type of harm is somehow intrinsic to the profession of sex work. I have yet to feel convinced of that at all and question why many people seem to be. (My offering to those who are is again to seek out the perspectives of sex workers—probably most easily done online—and consider what they say about that perspective and/or how they experience their job and why they choose to do it.) What I am convinced of is that the following are of direct, immediate, and practical harm to those who choose to work in the sex trade: the criminalization of their profession or of their clientele (also known as the Nordic model); the social stigma around it; and the denial of social, medical, and legal services to them because of either or both of these circumstances. All of these stem not from the work itself but from a zealous and intense dislike of the very existence of it.

If one takes a deep breath and pauses to consider this subject for a moment, one may realize that it makes sense that when the profession is criminalized, sex workers have significantly less access to social and legal services than they would if it were decriminalized—something that would increase the safety of their line of work and allow sex workers to actually feel safe reporting things like assaults and robberies to law enforcement. It doesn’t seem to me to take a whole lot of contemplation to realize that when their line of work is illegal, sex workers do not feel as inclined to or safe in reporting such actions to legal authorities. This is one of the biggest reasons decriminalization of sex work would support the safety and well-being of sex workers for anyone actually concerned about that. Obviously decriminalization would not support human trafficking enterprises any more than the legal status of farming and fishing supports trafficking in those industries. On the contrary, decriminalizing sex work would allow law enforcement to actually focus on potential cases of nonconsensual engagement in commercial sex rather than arbitrarily violating the human rights and infringing on the livelihood of those consensually working in sexual labor.

It is not that there is no possibility for detriment to workers in the sex industry. Of course there is, just as there is in many professions. Police officers may be killed in the line of duty. As, certainly, may military personnel. EMTs may suffer psychological damage from observations they are professionally exposed to. Professional football players may end up with lifelong injuries from their line of work. The notion that a profession may result in harm to someone has not generally seemed to result in calls for the eradication of that profession except where sex work is concerned. I imagine if it did, football players, for example, may maintain that they had the right to choose whether or not they did that for a living. A relevant concept indeed…

It has also been postulated as an apparent reason sex work should be eradicated that in the case of survival sex work (which refers to someone who feels they are in a position where they must do sex work in order to survive), the workers don’t have any other options. While I don’t disagree with this and certainly don’t find it optimal, it is the case for many professions. That is an issue with economics and our economic systems and structures rather than lines of work themselves. Many people feel reliant on jobs they dislike or would rather not do. The economic system in which we live is capitalistic, and at this point, literally almost every product or service imaginable has been allowed to be commercialized. Sex is, for some reason, a mysterious holdout in receiving the legitimacy to be offered for money…an irony given that it’s been labeled the oldest profession in the world.

Frequently, I have seen utilized as a supposed reason to invalidate the sex industry the audacious claim that sex workers essentially don’t know any better, in the form of the claim that a “vast majority” of them were sexually abused as children. To which I say sincerely and straightforwardly:

What is your point?

First, I don’t know how exactly anyone claims to know this. In order to, one would need to do some pretty serious and comprehensive studies of a representative amount of sex workers, and that seems an unlikely endeavor, if for no other reason than that sex workers are often working anonymously due to the criminalization of their profession. But to speak to the claim for a moment nonetheless, first, for a beautiful elucidation on it, please read this, which I have already recommended and quoted from once on this blog. Here, I myself will say that there is a fine (if existent) line between saying, “The abuse you endured is not your fault,” with which I wholeheartedly agree, and saying, “It wasn’t your fault that you endured sexual abuse when you were a child, but now you’re making a faulty decision as a result of it, and you don’t and can’t realize that because you don’t know any better due to what happened to you as a child. It wasn’t your fault that it happened, but now you don’t have the capacity to live your life and make adult choices, so I’ll tell you what to do since I know better and can thus see that what you’re doing is bad even though you can’t.” To deny a competent adult the autonomy to choose their own profession regardless of their past experiences is disempowering, infantilizing, and intrusive. It is reducing them to their experience of abuse and saying that they themselves are not capable of the awareness to make subsequent choices in their lives—only you know what is best for them because they simply can’t because of what they experienced in the past.

It is difficult for me to imagine a more disempowering (and wholly inappropriate) approach to someone who experienced personal violation at a time when they could not protect or defend themselves.

If your point is that those people should have other options or access to psychological or medical support, by all means, let’s do what we can to offer it. That of course is another economic issue that seems ignored in this relatively easy quest to suppress the rights and livelihoods of sex workers. Actually addressing the extraordinary inequality of access to health care, including mental health care, in our species would call for a tremendous amount of introspection and grounded consideration. It appears indeed much easier to perpetuate the largely unquestioned perspective that sex work is just “bad” and somehow almost exclusively performed by people who were abused as children as though that somehow invalidates their present circumstances and choices (and as though those who experienced such abuse as children don’t also choose other professions; are those choices invalid as well?).

The widely held perspectives and actions above (certainly including the passage of FOSTA/SESTA) lead to circumstances that perpetuate an injustice to autonomous adults choosing to work in the sex industry, make their lives more practically difficult, force sex workers into more dangerous scenarios due to the illegality of their job, facilitate survival sex workers’ entrance into states of poverty, and in some cases, all of the above. They are also, arguably, perpetuating our own underlying fear of, issues around, and/or lack of reverence for human sexuality in a way that intrudes upon consenting adults’ experience of it. It is high time for us to realize this and allow shift and release around the tremendous distortion historical and collective perspectives about sex work comprise.

As usual, I invite us to begin by looking inward.


*Human trafficking in any industry, for any purpose, is one of the most aborrent and horriifying displays of the unconsciousness of our species. I see that as undeniable. I do not deny that trafficking exists, and like everyone I have ever spoken to or seen speak or write on the subject, I earnestly wish for its dissolution. This post is not intended to undermine the existence and tragedy of trafficking; rather, I aspire with it to illuminate the misguided and often deliberate contention that sex trafficking and sex work are the same thing and why that is of significant detriment to those who choose to work in the sex industry.

“This is the world we live in, and these are the names we’re given, stand up and let’s start showing just where our lives are going to…”

-Disturbed “Land of Confusion” (originally and written by Genesis)


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