November 6th, 2019

A(nother) Plea to Consider

Around the time of the DECRIMNOW DC press conference on the introduction of a bill decriminalizing sex work in the District of Columbia, the inimitable Veronica Monet posted a link to a New York Times article titled, “Could Prostitution Be Next to Be Decriminalized?” I appreciated seeing the article in general, as well as some of what it said, and of course there were perspectives offered in it as well that are counter to mine. One such statement said, astonishingly enough:

“Ms. Mathieson and others who work with women in the sex trade say that supporters of decriminalization gloss over a raft of gruesome details about the profession, including rape, physical abuse by clients and pimps, commonplace drug use and an often ravaging physical toll of multiple sex partners, sometimes in the span of a few hours.”

There are times when my response to such assertions feels like one giant sigh. Nobody is “glossing over” anything in the sex industry. I sincerely don’t know why anyone even perceives that. The very motivation for decriminalization is the recognition of the extensive risks and, as the quote calls them, “gruesome details” of the industry that are largely invoked by its underground/illegal status. I honestly have not understood why this seems challenging to grasp. When abortion was criminalized, exploitation, sexual assault, and unsafe and unsanitary conditions surrounded it. This does not seem surprising, and I’m not certain why anyone would find it so. It is similarly the case with sex work. When it is criminalized, it becomes surrounded by exploitation and violence, in no minor part because the workers in the industry do not have the open option of seeking legal support. (In both cases, this is why I am unconvinced by anyone’s claim who supports the criminalization of either thing that they are actually concerned about the people impacted by such criminalization.)

Sexual assault is illegal, holding human beings against their will is illegal, and physical assault of another person is illegal. All would remain against the law were sex work decriminalized. It is these things that are a problem, not the consensual offering of sexual services itself in a capitalistic economy. Viewing any of these circumstances as intrinsic to sex work is like viewing them as intrinsic to marriage, as both sex work and marriage represent cultural systems in which astonishing abuses and exploitation have taken place. It is not the intrinsic fault of either of these systems but rather a result of unconscious and distorted perspectives our species has managed to develop around gender, sexuality, race, class, and in some cases, basic humanity.

Incidentally, both marriage and sex work have arguably have been a historical way for (some) women* to survive financially. Historically, marriage was the route offered white, middle-to-upper-class women in the western world. When people seem to find receiving financial payment for performing sexual services in the context of sex work inherently degrading, I do not understand how they see this as different from the historical cultural strictures that disallowed women from being educated and working to make their own money so that virtually their only choice was to marry a man who would provide the financial support they needed to sustain their existence. It was relatively understood at that time that sex was part of the deal in getting married. (If that’s hard for anyone to understand, please recall that marital rape did not come into existence as a law—indeed, as something many people even understood could happen—until the 1970s in the United States. That is because it was assumed that when people were married, sex was intrinsically consensual at all times and under all circumstances by virtue of the act of getting married.)

The most distinct difference between these two circumstances seems to be longevity: in sex work, a woman performed a service for a man for a limited time for a specific amount of money, while in marriage, the woman performed an action for perhaps the rest of her or her husband’s life in order to receive ongoing financial support that allowed her to subsist. The ethics or appropriateness of either of these circumstances is not, in this immediate context, the point. The point I offer at the moment is simply the commonality of these two systems and how engaging in a sexual action and receiving financial compensation for it on a short-term basis was (and still is) perceived as so fundamentally different from doing so on a lifetime basis that one is viewed as one of the basest of actions, worthy only of criminalization and dehumanization of those who partake in it, while the other has become lauded as one of the most cherished traditions in contemporary society and considered the standard among adults seeking to share their lives with a romantic or sexual companion.

To be fair, the practical difference as far as life experience between the circumstances is obvious. What is not, to me, is the subjective proclamation of the merits (or lack thereof) of each that has led to our feeling as a collective compelled to eradicate the existence of the first and, at least in the past, all but insist upon the preponderance of the second.

Though gender strictures have shifted in current US society, and many of the expectations and perceptions of marriage have along with them, the history of the institution of marriage and correlative notions as outlined above make it seem relevant to me that sex work has become such a viciously condemned endeavor while marriage was, at a time when women often depended on it for financial subsistence, not only accepted but expected. As usual, I aspire to support and participate in a collective examination of such perspectives as seem to me both arbitrary and automatically accepted with the aim of discovering what unconscious patterns may be influencing us (and eliciting detriment) unawares.


*In this particular illustration, I am referring exclusively to cisgender women and cisgender men, as, in speaking about the historical comparison between the phenomena of marriage and sex work for illustrative purposes, utilizing this referential limitation seems to make the most contextual sense. Since it is clear that sex workers are nowhere near exclusively cisgender women, I only use this limited population as an example for this particular context. I specify the class and race because the historical institution of marriage in the United States and elsewhere in the western world has certainly been different for people of different races and classes.

“If you’re not part of the future, then get out of the way…”
-John Mellancamp “Peaceful World”

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