Throughout history, people have exchanged the commodity of sex for money to survive against poverty, to empower themselves against miserable life circumstances, and to challenge societal norms. “Sex work” is an umbrella term that describes a spectrum of transactional relationships between consenting adults. Sex work has always existed in society to verying degrees of legality. The modern Sex Workers’ Rights movement seeks to decriminalize all forms of sex work in order to lessen violence against sex workers, validate the existence and rights of sex workers, increase their autonomy, and destigmatize what sex work is and who engages in it.
People from all over participate in the facilitation and consumption of sex work. However, people in marginalized communities are often more prone to engaging in sex work due to extenuating circumstances such as poverty and employment discrimination.
What is Sex Work?
Sex work predominanately refers to prostitution, but it also encompasses escorting, camming, erotic dancing, adult film, phone sex, being a sugar baby, pro-domme/pro-sub work, and any other labor where the explicit purpose is to produce a sexual or erotic response.
Sex work is NOT sex trafficking. Trafficking victims do not consent and are having their rights violated and need to be protected. Sex work only refers to consenting adults who engage in it, and this is why it should be decriminalized. There should be no legal repercussions for those who engage in sex work, because there is nothing legally wrong about transactional relationships between consenting adults. In a world where sex work is decriminalized, sex trafficking is still illegal and still prosecuted. The key differences are the concepts of “consent,” meaning permission, and “autonomy,” meaning a person has the ability to make decisions for themselves. Trafficking victims and survivors are stripped of their autonomy and do not give consent. This is antiethical to sex work, and sex workers rights advocates are vehemently against trafficking. By increasing the rights and power of humans engaging in sex work, their quality of life is improved.
Although sex work is consensual, marginalized folks more often have to engage in sex work because of poverty and discimination. Black and brown people, transgender people, people living with disabilities, undocumented folks, and other communities facing disaparties are involved in sex work at higher rates because they are not afforded the same opportunities and advantages of white, cisgender, heterosexual people.
What is decriminalization?
Legalizing sex work is not the same as decriminalizing sex work. The legalization of sex work creates a system in which sex work is still regulated by government and law enforcement agencies. This still creates barriers and problems for adults engaging in sex work because of required background checks, licensing, government oversight, and discrimination. The regulations still say who can and cannot engage in sex work and the system of legalization removes autonomy from the sex workers.
Decriminalization means that sex work is free from criminal sanctions and that sex workers and clients are able to make deicisons for themselves about how they engage in sex work. This is safer for sex workers, because the threat of legal repercussions is removed and sex work is normalized like any other form of labor. Sexual assault and sex trafficking are still illegal and should be prosecuted.
How can sex workers’ rights be supported?
More than likely, you know a sex worker. Sex workers are your friends, family, coworkers, retail employees, and neighbors. The rights of sex workers can be supported through education, advocacy, voting, mutual aid, and by showing compassion for those who engage in it. Legislation such as Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) are aimed at helping victims of trafficking but have had large negative effects on adults engaging in sex work. Supporters of sex workers can contact their legislators to craft new legislation that doesnt endanger sex workers.
This conversation around sex work should not be taboo or only whispered. By having this discussion in the open, work can be made toward lessening the stigmas surrounding it. There is no room for a moral discussion when it comes to what other people do with their bodies. This is not a debate about whether or not sex work exists. Sex work will always exist—it is work—and sex workers deserve rights and protections. The debate about whether or not consenting adults deserve protection and autonomy is an easy one. Yes, they do.
If you want to support sex workers, work through your own understandings and mental blocks about what you think about sex workers and their rights. Fight your moral objections and look at sex workers as humans who deserve autonomy and freedom from criminilzation. Stick up for sex workers when friends and family and those around you have negative opinions about these concepts. Make donations to organizations fighting for sex workers’ rights and against the stigmas they face. Do research about how sex work can empower people to succeeed who are not afforded traditional opportunities for success. Educate yourself and others on how the lives of sex workers can be greatly improved with public and legislative support.
Sex Work & COVID-19
The limiting of human contact to help curb the spread of COVID-19 has greatly impacted the lives of sex workers. In-person work ceased greatly, and those who still engage in sex work to survive take on greater risks. Online sex work has seen a boom, and people who were not previously engaging in sex work are doing so because of loss of employment. Online marketplaces such as OnlyFans, a site on which users can upload pictures and videos to paying subscribers, are completely saturated with people from all walks of life who are using sex work to maintain income and provide for themselves. These online avenues are not accessible to everyone, and people who are engaging in street sex work still face greater danger and scrutinty because of law enforcement and the looming danger of contracting COVID-19.
Who am I?
My name is Alex Corona. I am a transgender Latina woman and born Wisconsinite. I am a transgender community advocate, an HIV prevention and awareness consultant, and a member of the Board of Directors for the Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA. SWOP-USA is a national organization focused on giving information, destigmafying sex work, legal/policy creation and advocacy, and support for sex workers all over the United States. SWOP-USA collaborates with local chapters to provide direct services and resources for sex workers, and we work with other organizations to fight for decriminilization and increased protections for sex workers. I believe in the mission of SWOP-USA and dedicate myself to improving the lives of sex workers everywhere.
I’m just one person, but fight for many. I see a world where sex work is as supported as any other profession with the same rights and advantages and paths to success and happiness. Sex workers are humans trying to make the best of what we have in life and contribute to the betterment of our world. We are not the enemy, we are not worthy of degradation, and we are not going anywhere. Be on the right side of this fight for autonomy, human rights, and empowerment for sex workers.