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What is Sex Work?

By Katya Schoenberg, WWAV Summer Volunteer

A protester holds a placard whilst marching through Soho after a candle-lit vigil to mark the international day to end violence against sex workers, organised by the English Collective of Prostitutes, in London on December 17, 2014. AFP PHOTO / JUSTIN TALLIS (Photo credit should read JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)

A protester holds a placard whilst marching through Soho after a candle-lit vigil to mark the international day to end violence against sex workers, organised by the English Collective of Prostitutes, in London on December 17, 2014. AFP PHOTO / JUSTIN TALLIS (Photo credit should read JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)

This summer, Amnesty International made mainstream headlines with the announcement of its upcoming vote on whether or not to advocate for global decriminalization of sex work. The announcement came with some backlash, most notably from celebrities such as Lena Dunham who signed a misguided letter stating that the vote would ‘legalise pimping’ among other things. The public pushback against Amnesty’s policy draft (which was put together based on input from sex workers themselves) reveals the lack of general knowledge about exactly what sex work is.

Sex work is the performance of sex acts for monetary exchange.  The Global Network of Sex Work Projects defines sex work as “the negotiation and performance of sexual services for remuneration with or without intervention by a third party, where those services are advertised or generallylogo recognized as available from a specific location, where the price of services reflects the pressures of supply and demand.”  Sex work is a form of commerce within the institution of capitalism, a labor that involves the selling of sex acts for money in relationship to market demands, whether the specific location is through the internet, in a club, a home, or on the streets.

Although prostitution is one form of sex work, the term “sex work” refers to several kinds of sexual commerce and acknowledges the value of these acts as a form of labor within a capitalist system.  While the term “prostitution” has a strict legal definition within criminal or civil codes (that varies widely across institutions, state lines, and countries), the term “sex work” encompasses a variety of sex acts, and validates them as labor, conveying professionalism and worth.  The term “sex work” serves to de-stigmatize and validate the labor of those who have historically been marginalized and ostracized for the work that, for them, is often a means of survival within structures and systems that oppress them in their marginalized social identities.  

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Various forms of “sex work” occur in a different of venues, with different degrees of legality, structure, supervision, and autonomy for the worker.  The most commonly criminalized form of sex work is prostitution, though it is legal in Nevada (however even in this state most people who engage in what is considered prostitution still operate illegally as legalization favors large businesses and thus diminishes sex workers’ individual agency).

People sell sex because sex sells.  Money is the dominant motivator for people to enter and remain in the sex work industry, especially when many legal positions do not pay living wages. However, other factors such as autonomy and flexibility can make the work more desirable.  Many sex workers supplement another income source with part-time sex work, and many identify sex work for its opportunities rather than pathologies.  Sex work is performed by individuals on a spectrum across race, class, and gender Poverty-has-a-womans-faceboth locally and globally, and these intersections result in dramatically different experiences of this form of labor.  It is critical to examine the reality of agency and autonomy for sex workers within these unique positions.  There are those who choose it freely, often correlated with higher levels of education and access to other opportunities, and there are those who are forced into the work often through human trafficking, or by a lack of other available economic opportunities.  WWAV’s director Deon Haywood stated in an interview with Mwende Katwiwa, “For a lot of the people we work with it truly is survival sex.  We have a few people who are like, ‘I’m a hustler, I get this, this is what I do.’  The majority would like to have another option.”

This is the first in a series exploring sex work with Women With A Vision. Next post, I’ll be writing about sex work in New Orleans historically and into the present. The piece will discuss the demographics of how sex work is performed in this city, by whom and for whom, and its relationship with the criminal justice system.

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