Sex Work Isn’t Consensual Or Exploitative, It Can Be Both

This story first appeared as part of‘s special Conversation series exploring the sex work industry.

Individuals who consider all sex workers to be victims make it that much harder for us to be honest.

People act unhurt for all sorts of reasons. It’s not simply a matter of denial—it’s a coping mechanism, a way to survive. Indeed, by “acting unhurt,” we protect ourselves from some level of the hurt. We succeed, at least temporarily, at reclaiming some agency and feeling of control.

For as long as I sold sex, it was impossible to articulate the ways the job negatively impacted me. To carry on doing what I felt I had to do, and to feel a sense of dignity while doing so, I couldn’t admit to feeling disturbed—not even to myself—not even by what was clearly disturbing. It reminds me of an article in the New Inquiry, wherein prominent sex worker activist Charlotte Shane argues that the time she was anally raped by a client was not traumatic. Sex workers, quite literally, cannot afford to be traumatized by their work.

In recent years, political conversations on sex work have begun to acknowledge how women’s participation in the sex industry can be—as politicized sex workers insist—consensual, but that such work may also be—as anti-industry feminists contend—exploitative. Sex work is work, an income-generating activity that is in some ways similar to other jobs and, in other ways, different.

When I worked in the sex industry, I could not have publicly admitted how my job was different. My occupation as a stripper was not like my first job, washing dishes. Working as a prostitute, some years later, was different than working the job I’d held before that, as a research assistant. In some ways, of course, sex work was better. Better uniform, better hours. And then there was the money.

But in ways less easily rattled off, it was worse. To have articulated publicly how sex work involves a particularly intimate form of male privilege, and to have explored how this bled into other areas of my life would have felt, as Katha Pollit remarks in the Nation, “too sentimental, too disturbing.”

As activists and intellectuals concerned for the interest and well-being of individuals with experiences in the sex trades, we need to talk substantively about the forces that harm those individuals. Within these discussions, we need to acknowledge how sex workers are fighting back, as well as the positive aspects of the work that, for many individuals, make it all worth it (including, but not limited to, economic factors).

Individuals who consider all sex workers to be victims make it that much harder for us to be honest. In their desire to project an image of themselves as decent, respectable, free-thinking human beings competent of making decisions and running their own lives, current, former, and transitioning sex workers often refuse to disclose anything that might be construed as evidence to the contrary. Pro-sex industry activists and other individuals with uncritical, overly permissive views on the industry are a problem, too.

It goes without saying that current, former, and transitioning sex workers need to be included in conversations about our own lives. When we speak, may we tell the truth.

Photo courtesy of the author

Melissa Petro is a former sex worker and “hooker teacher” who has written about the industry for HuffingtonPost, Salon and others. 

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