A little while ago I began unpacking some of the controversies and conversations to be had when discussing human trafficking and sex work, including a widespread tendency to conflate the two. My first focus was a discussion of empowerment in this context and how much an outsider can infringe on a person’s choice to consent to perform sex acts for pay. It’s important to emphasize that consent, in any context, means that an adult’s “yes” is freely given and not coerced or threatened. This is very closely tied to another thread in the conversation about sex for pay: harm.
How do we define harm in relation to sex work? From my perspective, there is a wide variety of harms on which to focus – physical harms such as injuries or sexually transmitted infections, emotional harms such as loss of self-esteem or victimization by a client who won’t respect boundaries, and moral harms. All of these are valid concerns, even when we disagree on them, but I also think we take a lot for granted when we assume that everyone perceives these potential harms in the same light. While physical risks are relatively easy to regulate, similar to any profession with a risk for injury, emotional and moral risks are what make sex work so controversial.
I think moral risks are more significant to the debate than emotional ones, since so many beliefs about the emotional risks of sex work are informed by moral codes. In the primarily Christian U.S., for example, where overt sexuality is highly taboo and shameful, a cultural assumption is that sex workers (who, by the moral code, are doing something shameful) must be self-loathing and are thus emotionally scarred. Or the assumption (a very common one) is that sex workers “do” sex work 24/7 and therefore can’t say no or can’t be raped. I ask this: If in the U.S. we didn’t spend so much time judging sexual behaviour as shameful, would sex workers still be perceived as self-loathing? Moreover, if we stopped communicating the message that sex work is shameful, would sex workers stop feeling loathed by non-sex workers? If we’re judging so much, it’s worth considering that we’re at least partially to blame for the cultural victimization of sex workers.
Returning to the moral harms, since these are both deeply believed and extremely culturally specific: For cultures that restrict sex, who is damaged by sexuality? Is it the adults who are, by nature, sexual beings? Is it the children, who are also sexual beings? Is it the vulnerable? The criminal? What damage does sexual behaviour do when it’s consensual? Note, again, that consent requires the giver to be an adult and to be freely giving it. What is the moral harm of sexual behaviour? I would argue that there isn’t any. If your moral code precludes sex outside of marriage or procreation, then it is up to you and your partner(s) to set boundaries and behave accordingly. But for those whose moral codes don’t restrict sex to specific contexts, there are very few reasons to believe that a moral (or social) harm comes from having sex workers in society.
“But it’s too much temptation! It cheapens our intimate bond!” I can hear the outcry now. My thought is that temptation is everywhere, whether we’re naked or covered in so many layers we resemble polar bears. If someone is tempted by a sex worker, they’re probably tempted by others too. It’s just long been considered acceptable to blame a sex worker for temptation, rather than the person being tempted. Here’s another way of looking at it: When we talk about temptation and sex in other contexts, such as sexual assault, we’ve managed to shift dialogues from blaming the victim for being tempting to blaming the offender for lacking self-control. To me this means it’s possible for people to re-conceptualize the responsibility for one’s moral or immoral behaviour, including temptation.
Another common argument against sex work in society is that we need to shield children from material that’s too mature. What if we were to talk to them about it rather than pretend it doesn’t happen? I don’t mean that we hire a prostitute to explain the complex workings of the consensual sex trade, but what if we were as matter-of-fact about sex and sexuality as we can be about violence, drugs, and differing political views? I remember that on my first trip to Montreal, my parents – who are against sex work – inadvertently walked us past a strip club, and when my sister and I expressed curiosity, they told us, “Some people have sex for money.” That was it. I was young enough that all sex was revolting, and the matter simply dropped. I can’t imagine that I would’ve been so calm about it had my parents hidden it from us or acted as though the sex workers were terrible human beings. They clearly disapproved, but they didn’t make that the focus of their answer. And there was no harm done.
Everyone has their own moral code, and to a certain extent people who share a social context need to be able to respect each others’ boundaries. By the same token, however, we need to be realistic about the ramifications of establishing a moral code that isn’t inclusive of multiple perspectives on consensual sexuality. Believing that it will cause the world to end is rather catastrophic thinking, and I think we as a world are better than that.