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Sex work – one of the oldest professions but one of the most stigmatised and least understood.

What is sex work?

Sex work relates to sexual services voluntarily being provided in exchange for monetary , goods or services as payment. Types of sex work can include full service sex work (escorting or prostitution), erotic massage, pornographic performance, exotic dancing, etc.

For the purposes of this article, we will be relating specifically to FSSW (full service sex work), this does not however diminish or negate the challenges and discrimination faced by sex workers in other fields and may revisit the topic should there be enough interest from our readers.

Common misconceptions about full service sex work

There are many misconceptions regarding FSSW within society. For many years, there has existed negative connotations and misconceptions running parallel to the actual realities of the industry and about the people that provide these intimate services and their clients.

Sex workers have a long history of being disparaged and ostracised for providing a service that has been sought for millennia. The need for this service has existed alongside the history of humanity, with evidence of full service sex work available through many ancient civilisations, shown in mosaics, art and texts; even ancient brothels have been discovered during archaeological excavations. The need for intimacy and touch is a very human trait, one that we all possess, so why the devaluation of sex work?

A big misconception relating to the sex industry is people’s erroneous assumption that any form of sex work is somehow related to heinous crimes such as human trafficking, sexual slavery, child abuse or that the industry is inherently predatory and exploitive. To conflate sex work with crime is a bit of a logic stretch and disregards the vast majority, the many thousands of people, that decide to pursue a career as a sex worker without any coercion or pressure.

Sex work, by definition, relates to voluntarily and consensually entering into agreement of an exchange for sexual services – a minimum age is also applicable in regards to providing sexual services (depending on the country/area where sex work is legal, the minimum age is 18, or in some places 21). Making the broad statement that sex work is intrinsically tied to serious criminal activity is similar to equating manual labour to slavery, gun ownership to violent crime or alcohol to driving under the influence, crime is by no means non-existent but it is not the reality for the vast majority of the industry (we will explore this concept further in our “Legislating sex work” section of this post).

Another enduring misconception about sex workers is that they are somehow “unclean”, vectors of disease and purveyors of immorality. Various sex worker outreach programs and advocacy groups provide education, advice and health services for sex workers. In particular, in states where sex work is legal or decriminalised, regular testing and condom use is required to be able to provide service and additional resources are also available for workers to ensure safety for sex workers and their clients. Sex workers are amongst the most regularly tested demographic and it is a requirement of employment within the industry to be regularly tested.

As for arguments on morality, it really depends on how much you feel entitled to influence and comment on the decisions of consenting adults and their sexual interactions.

The double standards

“Sex sells” is a phrase commonly used regarding the marketing and consumption of virtually every form of  goods available. You are surrounded by sex, it can be witnessed in advertising, films, music and in the products you use day to day. Turn on the tv and you will see scantily clad actors promoting items from cars to your favourite drinks, watch a music video clip and you are regularly shown bodies gyrating and moving seductively to lyrics that regularly describe sexual themes in graphic detail.

Sex and sexuality have been commoditised and used as a means of promoting a product or service for years. We can argue the motivations of the hypersexuality of media however one thing we can agree on is that sex really sells.

People enjoy sex, people enjoy feeling sexy and enjoy seeing sexually provocative imagery, and that’s okay! Humans are sexual beings and can enjoy intercourse outside of the purpose of procreation but it does create the question, why are some things relating to sex ok and others not?

Why is it that we can normalise the use of sex and sexuality to sell a product but providers can’t sell sex itself under their own volition?

Discrimination & prejudice

We’ve looked at some of the personal discrimination faced by sex workers from the public and society through the years however there lies a more subtle and damaging form of discrimination, one that is institutionalised through government and business policies, through media coverage and through law enforcement.

Media reporting on sex work has generally been rather one-sided, with a certain agenda or negative-angle as the basis of the reporting. A recurring trend seems to be one of featuring commentators and contributors with zero sex worker industry experience, offering their views and opinions on matters based off of their own personal biases and prejudices and not one based in fact. This normalises the discrimination of sex workers within society and further validates damaging stereotypes. [We must note that, in part, due to the tireless efforts of sex worker advocacy groups, attitudes of journalists has improved in recent years. We applaud all journalists that challenge ingrained stereotypes and biases by having balanced and well-researched reporting on sex work]. 

Even in communities where sex work is legal and regulated, sex workers face discrimination and have very little avenues to turn to for equality.

Most people are unaware that a lot of major banking institutions have clauses within their contracts and terms of service allowing for instant termination of contracts without explanation, or using the blanket excuse of the business being of “high risk” or against the ethos of the business – the seemingly random termination of services and accounts occurs for the sex industry regularly, this occurs even in locations where sex work is a fully legal and regulated industry.

A win for the anti-sex work advocates, you assume? Not quite. Making it harder for legal sex workers to access banking services forces workers to seek other payment options, like cash payments only or through various cryptocurrencies. The problem with forcing the legal sex industry to utilise more concealed payment options is that it becomes more difficult to verify legal operators and the source of payments. The only major effect that this form of discrimination achieves it that it’s just slightly harder for sex workers to seek loans from banking institutions (not impossible, just a bit more tedious and annoying to do so).

Hotels, motels and AirBnB’s are also known to regularly discriminate and cancel bookings of sex workers. This discrimination forces workers to seek other options that may be unsafe or illegal.

A major disconcerting form of discrimination towards sex workers is the kind directed from law enforcement. It is not uncommon for sex workers to experience incidences of bigotry, harassment and entrapment by police. Discrimination by police creates an environment of fear and distrust, one that discourages sex workers of reporting actual crime to police or cooperating with police on any level.

Historically, there have long been links of police corruption and sex work. In NSW, the Royal Commission into the NSW Police Service (AKA the Wood Royal Commission) documented numerous reports of police extorting brothel owners and demanding sexual services from sex workers. In the final report regarding police corruption and the sex industry it was found:

1.39 – In light of Royal Commission evidence showing a clear nexus between police corruption and the operation of brothels, the NSW Attorney General in June 1995 announced a reform of prostitution laws in NSW to remove the basis for an application under the Disorderly Houses Act to close a brothel which was not otherwise disorderly.
1.40 – In permitting well-run brothels to operate, a potential opportunity for corrupt conduct on the part of police was closed off.

Various laws were changed in NSW in response to the Wood Royal Commission. Other states had similar findings through probes into police corruption and subsequently changed laws regarding sex work also (see: QLD and the Fitzgerald Inquiry).

Legislating sex work

Legislators generally do not wish to openly broach the subject of sex work as it is seen as unpalatable to their voter-base (with the exception of doing so to persecute and denigrate sex workers and their clients). The view that a heavy-handed and harsher approach towards sex work helps reduce the work is absolutely untrue and in fact, much like prohibition, simply just forces the industry underground and creates an unsafe environment for service providers where crime thrives.

Sex work still exists in countries where the industry is illegal and heavily prosecuted. The reasoning is that a heavy handed approach to sex work and stronger penalties acts as a deterrent to workers and their clients. The reality however, as seen through history, is that the prohibition/criminalisation route is counterproductive to the goal of eliminating the industry and reducing crime. Additionally, these laws disproportionately affect the most vulnerable and marginalised and creates an environment where crime thrives and opens up to sex workers to predatory behaviour.

Criminalising sex work creates a barrier between sex workers and police. Sex workers and clients become unable or unwilling to report crimes for fear of incriminating themselves as seeking or providing consensual sexual services. This means that offences such as assault, rape and robbery regularly go unreported. It also creates a dangerous environment for workers and clients with zero transparency. Public resources (police resources, the judicial system and the prison system) are spent targeting consenting adults who are exchanging sexual services where the focus could be in targeting serious cases such as those relating to human trafficking, exploitation and child abuse. 

Positives of sex work

Most people have an image of what sex work is without having any exposure to the industry. These ideas are generally derived from depictions in films, tv shows and even video games which tend to solidify the same narrative about sex work. A major part of sex work that a lot of these depictions exclude is the therapeutic and healing aspects of the industry.

Speak with any sex worker and you’ll soon discover that the work is not entirely of an explicit sexual nature, numerous clients request a service that is more affection based or entirely for companionship.

In the age where mental health issues are at last receiving the attention and awareness it’s due, it is not inconceivable to realise the feeling of isolation and loneliness that many in society feel; a feeling not easily assuaged simply by visiting friends or family (many do not even have that option).

Seeking affection or companionship from a sex worker is definitely not a substitution for adequate access to mental health, however, when utilised in conjunction with receiving professional help (from therapists, psychiatrists, etc) clients report additional benefits and improvement in state of mind and mood. A therapist or mental health expert cannot provide the same level of physical contact and affection as a sex worker (for obvious ethical and professional reasons) – this physical contact can be as simple as cuddling or spooning on the couch, etc. 

Another form of therapeutic benefit is that from sex workers who provide services to disabled clients. An already overlooked and often neglected part of society, disabled clients have much of the same needs as everyone else. This includes [but is not limited to] having sexual needs and the desire for physical contact, companionship and intimacy. 

Sex work is work

Despite popular sentiments, sex work for the most part is very much like every other job. 

Administration, advertising, overheads, consumables, paperwork and taxes are all very much a reality for sex workers and businesses in the industry.

It is neither super glamourous not is it abominable, the reality of the work lies somewhere in between and varies client by client (as with every industry). The motivations for joining the industry also vary as greatly as the clients do. 

Detractors try to diminish the work that sex workers do however, as we’ve highlighted in this article, there are many roles and services that sex workers perform outside of basic sexual services to the great benefit of their clients. 

Editor’s Comment

The purpose of this article is to highlight some of the realities faced by sex workers, the challenges imposed by society and by business even when sex work is decriminalised within the region. 

This is by no means a complete reflection of FSSW either. Every country, state and, in some cases, even suburbs have different rules regarding sex work. Primarily, the laws being referenced in this article relate to NSW Prostitution Laws and regulations – with a small reference to QLD laws (which vary greatly with NSW). 

The goal is for people to treat sex workers as human beings. Human beings with their own autonomy, interests, experiences, life and passions and not some caricature that is presented as a fact for every sex worker. 

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