This past December, California changed some laws regarding sex workers. Sex workers will now be eligible to receive victim compensation for rape. Previously, there was a regulation specifying that rape-related claims from sex workers didn’t count—a 1999 regulation that the California Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board has now revoked. “Sexual assault, in any context, is absolutely a violation of basic human rights,” they said in a statement.
There’s an interesting debate about the phrase “sex work.” It’s not a phrase that’s assimilated in human-resource terminology. It’s not quite something a career counselor would recommend as a legitimate job choice. Perhaps it’s because the work it’s suggesting is illegal in many parts of the world, perhaps because it’s often intimately tied to abuses and shady dealings. Still, proponents of the phrase, some of whom have started their own sex-worker unions, are trying to use “sex worker” until it sticks.
So where did this phrase sex work come from? Some say it was first used by Carol Leigh, also known as the Scarlet Harlot, at a conference in 1989. According to Melissa Farley, head of the research powerhouse Prostitution Research and Education, “pimps and their friends began to use it a long time ago. . . . The term came out of California decades ago by pro-prostitution groups like COYOTE.”
COYOTE stands for Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics, a group now championed by sex workers but which was actually formed in the seventies to promote the cause not of women, but of johns. Farley, who has authored numerous national and international studies on prostitution, told me in a phone interview, “in that term [“sex worker”], a violation against women is turned into employment . . . people think it lends dignity to women who do it.”
Farley insists the phrase “sex worker” fails to bring dignity to women in prostitution. “What lends them real dignity,” she told me, is “to call them a woman or a sister. You don’t have to identify a person by what is done to her.” For Farley, the phrase is mainly a marketing tool. “So much of the thinking around prostitution is marketing driven,” she tells me. “Above all, prostitution and trafficking is about marketing and ‘having a good time’ and making money—this image is all a lie, but it’s good for business.”
The truth is, many of the women in so-called sex work do not choose that employment voluntarily. Drawing from decades of research, Farley says that most of these women “have been caged in by racism and sexism and poverty and end up involved in something that is really hard to get out of once you’re in.” Farley’s not concerned with making sex work more accessible and accepted; Farley is pushing instead for women’s “right not to prostitute.” According to her research, 89 percent of prostituted people interviewed in nine different countries indicate “they want to get out now.”
One formerly sex-trafficked woman, Rachel Moran, described her options at her blog The Prostitution Experience:
When I think of my choices they were simply these: have men on and inside you, or continue to suffer homelessness and hunger. Take your pick. Make your “choice.” People will never understand the concept of choice as it operates in prostitution until they understand the concept of constraint so active within it. As long as the constrained nature of this choice is ignored it will be impossible to understand the pitiful role of ‘choice’ for women within prostitution.
Escaped prostitutes’ testimonies like this one are what fuel many women’s organizations to try to help women out of prostitution across the globe. Lauren Hirsch and Kristen Berg, from the women’s group Equality Now, told me the phrase “sex worker” wrongly suggests that those in the industry freely chose the line of work, whereas “a very small minority” actually chooses to enter prostitution. They find that the sex-worker advocate philosophy “focuses on the elite who have a choice to enter or exit,” and that’s simply not the majority. Most are in more vulnerable positions.
For Equality Now, it would be “concerning to see a policy made for such a minority when so many women don’t have choices.” To make things more complicated, sex-trafficking often involves traumatic bonding of victims with their traffickers, so there are “a lot of women who say they’re doing it voluntarily but when you peel back layers, go back five years, there was coercion.”
Unfortunately, proponents of the phrase “sex worker” seem to believe that achieving widespread acceptance is more important than combating cases of real coercion and trafficking in the sex industry. At least, that’s the takeaway from pieces like “The War Against Sex Workers” by Melissa Gira Grant in Reason Magazine last year. Grant, whose bio describes her as a “former sex worker,” feigns ignorance of the problem of trafficking and its victims. Instead, she attributes any resemblance of sex work to sexual exploitation as a socially constructed “media offensive” from people who are “redefining sex work as an issue of bad men doing bad things to enslaved women.”
Only once does Grant reference human-trafficking without mocking it as a fictional media tool: when she suggests it should be hushed, because public attention to the issue could mistakenly be interpreted as “a mandate for arrests, and that will often result in sex workers who may or may not have been forced into sex work being arrested.” It’s as if Reason’s fact-checkers were off-duty that month, since many of the organizations Grant claims are pushing for more prostitutes’ arrests have clear policies against the arrest of prostituted women (such as Shared Hope International, Equality Now, and the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, most of whom are working for the criminalization of johns in order to curb demand for trafficking).
Still, Grant claims anti-trafficking groups are not trying to help trafficked women, but just “control their behavior.” Her rhetoric rings hollow, as numerous women who have willingly left the sex industry advocate for these organizations. To anyone who knows the facts on the issue, her article comes off as a lengthy attempt to paint a rosy picture of the sex industry, create strawmen for the arguments of those who disagree, and blatantly contradict the facts.
As someone who says she was once in the sex industry, can Grant really be ignorant of the significant trafficking problem? Might she have known at least one woman whose pimp had coerced her into prostitution? If she did, in the Reason article she is basically saying to such women: the dehumanizing violation of your rights as the victim of trafficking doesn’t mean as much as the “right” of others to make money in prostitution. It is better for your anguish to stay hushed up than for anything to inhibit sex-workers’ profits.
This rationale is not unique to Grant’s article. Sex-worker rights' activists use similar language to sidestep the trafficking problem, making them sound blissfully—or willfully—ignorant of the reality of sex-trafficking.
One former trafficked woman turned anti-trafficking activist, who goes by the pen name Stella Marr, claims that many of those who call themselves sex-worker advocates are intentionally silent on the trafficking problem. According to Marr, many of these advocates are not disinterested parties; many of them are, in fact, pimps. In a two-part blog post for Prostitution Research and Education, Marr draws an extensive list of sex-worker advocates who, far from being the low-level sex workers they claim to represent, are actually pimps managing and making money off prostitutes. The people at the top are making a lot of money with low overhead costs, which gives them a strong incentive to hush up abuses and maximize their own profits.
All this makes news of the recent California law somewhat ironic. The very sex-worker representatives who have long denied the violence within the sex industry are now admitting it exists.
News articles quote representatives from a number of sex-worker organizations, exclaiming how it’s long overdue for women in the sex industry to receive victim compensation for rape. What they miss is that people who work in the sex industry are more likely to be raped than the average Californian. Research reveals, for instance, that “70 percent of women in prostitution in San Francisco were raped,” and that “prostituted women were raped on average once a week.” Nations with legalized prostitution don’t fare much better. In the Netherlands, “60 percent of prostituted women suffered physical assaults,” “40 percent experienced sexual violence, and 40 percent were forced into prostitution and/or sexual abuse by acquaintances.”
I’ve talked with more than a few formerly prostituted women who agree with the statement, “Prostitution is paid rape.”
So, if these sex-worker organizations have spent decades denying research on the violence of prostitution while trying to paint it as a legitimate choice of employment, why are they now publicly calling for state compensation for rape victims?
The short answer? Money. They’ve spun this nicely for the news outlets, as if they are really concerned about the well-being of the women and are standing up for “sex-worker rights.” But if they really cared about women’s rights, they wouldn’t continue to recruit new women for the most dangerous non-profession in the world. As anti-trafficking advocates put it, prostitution is not a profession, it’s an oppression.
The California news “confirms to some extent what we’ve been saying all along about the violence of prostitution,” Melissa Farley says. Many of those championing the California law are the same people “who have said prostitution isn’t as violent as decades of research has shown.” “They’ve been dismissing us,” Farley says of her fellow researchers, “and now here they come thrilled that compensation comes to pay.”
It is certainly time for the abuses of prostitution to gain attention and for these women to receive their much-needed care. But if California officials don’t provide sex-worker rape victims with anti-trafficking literature or counseling to help weed out coercion, this could be just another success of sex-worker lobbyists. If that’s the case, one wonders if California will realize she’s being pimped.
Mary Rose Somarriba, who completed a 2012 Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship on the connections between sex-trafficking and pornography, is culture editor of Verily Magazine.