Skip to content

Sex for sale


I want to talk about sex. The industry. More specifically I want to talk about the oldest profession. Prostitution. Or rather, those who do it. Sex workers.

No dammit! I don’t want to talk about anyone. I want to talk to someone. Someone who makes things more difficult for sex workers than it needs to be. Someone who holds back governments the world over from basing sex industry policy on evidence.

You see, every Friday 13th Maggie McNeill at The Honest Courtesan asks readers to post an article in support of sex workers. I’ve got a few things to say on that topic. On most topics really. But up until now I’ve never felt the urge to say them on or about Friday 13th. But this month the stars aligned or the biorhythms converged or the entrails were auspicious or I stopped procrastinating or something equally unlikely happened.

So what do I know about sex work?
I was afraid you’d ask that.

Well, I’ve never explicitly exchanged sex for money in either direction. Unless you count porn. Back in the old days you generally had to pay to see porn. It was best to avoid the adults who offered to show you for free.

But I’ve former sex workers among my friends and family. Doubtless several clients as well. In the early 80s I shared a flat in Sydney’s main red light district with three sex workers. I’ve done a bit of activism in favour of sex worker rights too. So I’m hardly coming at this from an unbiased position. I’m pretty sympathetic to those trying to make a living selling sex.

The people I want to talk to are those who think sex work is a bad thing (compared to other kinds of work) and should be restricted with laws aimed at either providers, clients or the financial infrastructure of the industry.

I’m not preaching to those who know sex work is evil because their god told them so. I’d guess a god like that already told them how to deal with it too, so talking about the social and individual harms caused by prohibition wouldn’t be relevant to them.

I’m not talking to the people in law enforcement or sex worker ‘rescue’ industries either. They’ve got to earn a living and it’s probably best if they don’t think too hard about the effect their work has on people. They certainly don’t think too hard about the statistics they make up to justify their behavior and their budgets.

I don’t think I can reach the people who feel threatened by the sex industry. The ones who worry what might happen if a family member became involved with it in some way and who think it possible to legislate to keep their personal relationships under control. Those who fear sexuality and want to keep it safely chained up.

Nor do I think there’s much point talking to the various corrupt public officials and professional criminals who do very well from the prohibition of the sex trade. They’re hardly going to call for their golden goose to be given the chop.

The people I want to talk to are the ones who see themselves as progressives. Maybe feminists. Activists even. The ones who want to see Swedish style laws criminalising the clients of sex workers imposed worldwide. The ones who believe sex work is so inherently degrading to both participants and society that it must be suppressed.

Is that you?
Good. Read on.

I’m not going to try to bamboozle you with studies alleging that more sex work means less sexual assault or that outlawing sex work increases the incidence of STIs or that sex workers tend to be more satisfied with their jobs than most other semi-skilled women in the workforce. There’s also studies claiming the exact opposite. If you can critically evaluate all the research across multiple academic disciplines claiming that sex work causes this or prevents that I’m sure you’ll do so without my help. The rest of us will continue to focus on studies that seem to support our own views.

I’m not going to tell hair-raising anecdotes from the bad old days when sex work was illegal in NSW and what that meant for the most vulnerable people in the industry. I couldn’t begin to compete with the heart wrenching tragedies deployed by the ‘rescue’ industry, partly because I’d be trying to stick to facts, not sordid fantasy. Maybe it’s just coincidence that organised criminals and corrupt police withdrew their claws from much of the NSW sex industry after it was decriminalised.

I’m not going to beg for sympathy on behalf of all the socially handicapped folks out here either. The ones who would rarely feel a non-clinical human touch were it not for sex workers. Most of us can handle loneliness if we have to. There’s always daytime TV.

And I’m sure not going to try on the hackneyed folk wisdom of how no society in human history has ever stamped out the sex industry so it’s about time we started working with it instead of against it. You could make the same argument in favour of war.

All I’m asking is that if you really want to help people in the sex industry how about you start by listening to them?

Talk to some whores. It’s not that hard. If you don’t personally know any and they don’t advertise in your local newspaper or stand on street corners near where you live or work ask a few of your male friends how to contact them. Someone will know.

Ask sex workers about their job and their lives. You might find they’re pretty much like everyone else. You may even find they’re a lot like you.

Ask whether they’re being coerced into their work or freely choosing it. Whether they find it more demeaning or less satisfying than other jobs they’ve had. Whether they want it to be easier to do or easier to stop doing.

If you want to get involved ask them what you can do that might improve things. Ask which organisations they think best support or represent them. Ask if they need help. Ask if you can help. Listen.

Can it really be activism if it’s not informed by the people it purports to help? Or is it just another oppressive White Knight fantasy?

Sex workers facilitate fantasies for a price. Don’t make them pay for yours.

From → unclassified

  1. I kept waiting to hit the “escape” button on this piece. Yes, the topic generates a lot of uncomfortable reactions in me. But, you present a reasonable–gentle, even–call to action. You made me open my heart and mind. That’s not easy to do. Thank you.


  2. Balwyn Calling permalink

    Why haven’t you exchanged money for sex? Do you think
    your shit doesn’t stink!

    I was a sex worker for 11 years. Back in the late 20th century,
    it was called marriage.


    • I said I’ve never explicitly exchanged money for sex. I’m not trying to kid myself that all the nights out that ended well would have done so had I not picked up the tab.

      I’ve never been so silly as to invest in a wife though. They must be the least cost-effective way to get sex there is. Especially when they turn into ex-wives.


  3. Balwyn Calling permalink

    Awww, I suspect a smidge of sour grapes in there. Was there a female
    who thought you wouldn’t yield a good ROI? Anyways, why buy the bull when
    you can get the sperm for free.


    • Huh?

      Women are almost assured a more than fair ROI. Hubbie’s earning power tends to increase over time whereas the sexual utility of the missus does not. That’s why women have to learn to cook as well.

      I doubtless lost a few due to my unwillingness to share my DNA though.


  4. If prostitution was legal, then prostitutes would have access to the same legal protections that all other workers receive. Their choice to work in the sex trade should be one freely made, not coerced. To the very large extent that past sexual abuse influences the choices they make, we must fight child sexual abuse, really all sexual abuse, and offer treatment for PTSD. When I worked as a psychotherapist in a residential treatment facility for adolescent girls (or, young women, if for some reason people find it offensive to refer to an adolescent as a girl), when they went AWOL, they would use drugs and fall prey (yes, prey) to pimps and prostitute themselves. Most of these girls had been sexually abused in their early childhood and were easily taken advantage of. It would break my heart to know that my girls were out there prostituting themselves. I loved those girls. Paternal, no. Maternal, yes. They were kids. They needed healing and trust-worthy love.


    • It works much better in NSW now it’s been decriminalised. In the old days both organised criminals and bent cops stood over them and pocketed much of their earnings. A few men controlled the bulk of prostitution in Sydney. Now it’s mostly small to medium sized brothels with a lot of independents working singly or in small groups. When you don’t have to pay off multiple levels of regulators you don’t get the economies of scale with large organisations.

      Among the working girls I knew in the early 80s there weren’t all that many who seemed to have particularly dysfunctional upbringings – though there was a lot of smack addiction (my sample wasn’t representative – I mostly knew them because of smack). There was one underaged street prostitute who worked near where I lived who said she’d decided to sell it because she was sick of giving it away to family members but she seemed an exception.

      I was nineteen or so at the time and most sex workers I knew didn’t seem like kids to me. They were generally more sophisticated than my other friends. I don’t think they would have responded well to paternalism or maternalism. Many of the social services were shunned by addicts and sex workers for being maternalistic.


  5. Gracie Smoke permalink

    Prostitution will always be a controversial topic, so long as sexual possessiveness is socially acceptable and monogamy is the norm. Women are judged according to their sexual history and male sexuality is ridiculed and abhorred by many women. This is what underpins the fear and stigma surrounding sex work. I wish it were different.


    • I agree that sexual possessiveness is a big part of the problem but I don’t think it can explain why lesbian academics would be so concerned about lonely, unattached heterosexual men who might want to pay for sex with women who are very unlikely to become attached to them.

      I know I was painting a caricatured stereotype with that last comment, but there are people like that out there and it seems to me there are many otherwise sharp progressives and activists who buy into their arguments. It’s those people I’m trying to address, not the ones who are scared their daughters might ‘ruin’ themselves with sex work or their husbands might leave them for a sexy young escort.


  6. Gracie Smoke permalink

    Anti-prostitution feminism is terribly hypocritical in this regard. Women have no right to dictate what other women do with their bodies in the company of consenting adults, regardless of whether money is exchanged. Woman-to-woman sexual services are not pursued with the same conviction, if at all. It seems to be more about denying men easy access to sex than emancipating women.

    Western culture is shaped by Christian values. We’re conditioned from an early age to believe male sexuality is sinful and dangerous, and women are expected to be the gate keepers. There’s a lot of noise about prostitution under the guise of maternal concern (protecting the vulernable), but sex workers are undeniably abhorred, perhaps for being sexually irresponsible? Perhaps it goes back to our reproductive biology, where men must earn to right to have sex (by fighting off rivals, marriage and now courting). Most of sperm is made up of “killer” sperm that seek and destroy any rivals on the way to the uterus. And prostitution makes that process all too easy? As an argument it doesn’t quite hold, but as a cultural belief it is VERY strong.

    It is difficult to recognise these core beliefs when they are part of the foundation of our entire culture. And sharp minds are particularly well-equipped to find ways of defending them.


  7. Gracie Smoke permalink

    Er, by “making the process too easy” I mean the sex-for-money transaction makes our selective evolutionary process open to anyone with enough dollars in their pocket, it’s like cheating? Contraception is a relatively new phenomenon that perhaps hasn’t fully figured in our societal values. And I doubt our bodies recognise a thin bit of plastic as a barrier to reproduction.

    ps. I love your writing, keep it comin’


Over to you

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: