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Sex for pay and other controversies: empowerment

Photo from empowerwomen.maker.good.is

I got a lot of feedback on my post about prostitution vs. human trafficking that requested I write a more elabourate series of articles to explore the themes I brought up, and I have to admit I’m pretty excited by the idea. Not only does it mean I get to pontificate more — something that I clearly love doing — but it means this is a set of topics people are interested in dialoging about. How thrilling!

The first theme we should start unpacking is one of the core concepts of any discourse examining power imbalances and victimization: empowerment. It seems like a pretty straightforward concept, with the base definition (according to dictionary.com) being “to give power or authority to.” When applied to social science fields, it generally connotes the idea that one gives Person A (who we’ll call Pat for the purposes of this article) the ability to accomplish something. Theoretically, there’s nothing nebulous about it.

In practice, of course, the dictionary definition may as well be tossed out the window. The heart of this, I believe, is that the definition of empowerment tells us nothing about what Pat is being authorized to do. It appears to remain straightforward if the authorization is to make a hiring decision at work, to decide when to go to sleep, or to agree to support Pat’s rules and regulations. But when you examine that more closely, it becomes apparent that in all of these cases the authorization is about Pat’s choices- their hiring choice, their choice in habits, their choice in rules- and that empowering Pat is basically agreeing not to interfere with what they wish to do. So, in multiple ways, “empowerment” isn’t simply about authority; it’s all about enabling Pat’s ability to choose. When we disempower, then, we are saying that there are limits on what Pat may or may not choose.

Photo from empowerwomen.maker.good.is

Photo from empowerwomen.maker.good.is

To me, these limits aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Plenty of limits, such as making it illegal to kill another person, are drawn with a very clear emphasis on limiting empowerment for the sake of ensuring that no one’s choices lead to the injury or death of others. But the things that constitute enough of an “injury” to others to warrant limitation are up for persistent debate, especially in the United States and other religiously-oriented countries. To me, debates about sex for pay are just one example of the “grey zone” argument between a person’s right to choose and a social philosophy of protection of others.

I’m going to take this tricky, sometimes scary concept of “empowerment” and apply it to the sex trade. When we talk about sex work, I think most cultures adopt a patronizing discourse to discuss the sex workers who say they do what they do for fun. They “can’t” know what they’re doing; they’re “being exploited” and somehow “don’t know it;” they’re “contributing to the objectification and rape of women everywhere” (and, yes, I meant to be gendered there. We always gender sex work, even when it’s inappropriate to do so). What I think happens, when we start talking this way, is we abandon any pretense of empowerment philosophy- that another person is authorized to make choices for themselves that we might not always like or agree with- and simply presume to know better.

In other words…Somehow, because of a cultural taboo against being paid to have sex, I know better than Pat what they enjoy, like, want, or can choose. Somehow, because some sex workers are exploited, I know that Pat can’t possibly be making the choice to have sex for pay willingly. Somehow, because my culture believes sex is dirty, I believe that Pat secretly believes they’re dirty and has chosen sex work as a form of punishment. Somehow, because my culture believes sexuality is a problematic human condition, I can deride Pat’s choice as “setting a bad example” and then (somehow!) comfortably watch “Toddlers and Tiaras” or “Honey Boo Boo.” End sarcasm.

I don’t believe for a second that all, or even most, sex workers are in a position where their choice to engage in the sex trade has been made from a place of empowerment. Empowerment, from my perspective, is constantly being checked by a multitude of power struggles, and I think this is true for all of us regardless of our profession(s). However, I also don’t believe that the presence of power struggles (or exploitations of a person’s autonomy) negates the validity of the options a person may choose- including sex work. But that starts getting into risk management and injury, which we can explore further next time.

In the meantime, please take this discussion and run wild in the comments! I look forward to engaging with you.

Erica Laue
Erica first set foot on a plane when she was ten months old. 28 years, 18 countries, and four continents later, the travel bug’s still strong in her veins, and she's become increasingly engaged with issues of power, gender, sex, equality, and access around the world.

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