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The Law and Political Economy of Sex Work: Symposium


Lorelei Lee is a writer, sex worker, and activist.

This post is part of our symposium on the political economy of sex work. Read the rest of the symposium here.

I am approaching my 20th year of living in the world as a sex worker. This year, presidential candidates are being asked whether they believe sex work should be decriminalized. Decrim NY and the Sex Worker Advocates Coalition have introduced decriminalization bills in New York State and Washington, D.C. California passed SB 233, joining a handful of other states in prohibiting the use of condoms as evidence in prostitution arrests, and expanding a San Francisco policy that prevents police from arresting sex workers who choose to report client violence. The public conversation is shifting. That shift is the result of hundreds of years of resistance and movement building by people who trade and have traded sex. As Juno Mac and Molly Smith explain in their new book, Revolting Prostitutes, “sex workers have shaped and contributed to social movements across the world.” Despite state, local, and new federal laws promoting profiling, surveillance, and exclusion of people in the sex trades from fundraising and communication platforms and from otherwise-public spaces, sex workers have continued to speak, to build coalitions, to insist on being heard.

People interested in law and political economy have a particular reason to listen to people in the sex trades. The conversations that sex workers are having are about markets, work, and coercion under neoliberalism. They are critiques of a legal system that implements policing to keep the “sacred” out of markets while enabling corporations to profit on the caging of human beings. In this symposium, Gilda Merlot will explain how the U.S. failure to “end demand” for migrant labor through the Immigration Reform and Control Act illuminates the unlikelihood of “ending demand” for sexual labor through criminalization. Aziza Ahmed and Jason Jackson will bring a political economy lens to sex work, critiquing the moral claims that justify criminalization. Finally, suprihmbé will unpack the false binary between the “agency/empowerment” of sex work and the “oppression/coercion” of trafficking.

The term “sex work” was coined by full-service sex worker Carol Leigh in 1978 or 1979, as an attempt to reclaim her sense of her own agency, and as a response to objectifying feminist rhetoric that described her work as the “use” of her body by others. In the forty years since then, the term has taken on a multiplicity of connotations. Some people in the sex trades have embraced the term as a means of describing our cohort expansively in order to build a social and political coalition – “sex workers” includes all people who trade sexual labor and services for anything of value; this includes full-service sex workers, strippers, cam models, adult film performers, professional BDSM workers, peep show performers, lingerie models, etc. Some people in the sex trades continue to use the term “sex work” as Leigh did – in response to feminist rhetoric claiming that all forms of trading sex are violence, that violence and work have no overlap, and thus that trading sex can never be labor. A more insidious use of the term evolved out of the domestic and international debates over the passage of the domestic Trafficking Victims Protection Act and the international Palermo Protocol (both in 2000). This construction frames “sex work” as a discrete category from “sex trafficking” and claims that the line between sex work and sex trafficking is the line between consent and coercion, or between consent and force, or – at its extremes, between empowerment and violence.

This is not, of course, how we talk about any other kind of work, and this has resulted in a demand that those of us who call ourselves sex workers prove, as a prerequisite for talking about our experiences, that we have consented to trading sex. “Consent” in these conversations seems to require the kind of pleasure-seeking, power-dynamic-free, affirmative “yes” that is held up as the ideal for consent in noncommercial sexual relationships. In other words, we are expected to say that we would have done the same things for free that we have done for money. If our stories contain violence, poverty, overlapping marginalizations, we are deemed to no longer be workers and the things we have to say must fit into some other category – our harms become violence against “women” and not violence against “workers” (and male and nonbinary people get excluded from the conversation). This excising of violence and coercion in the sex trades from what we would otherwise call “work” removes our workplace harms from conversations about labor and oppression, about neoliberalism and globalization, about discrimination against trans and gender-nonconforming people, about racist policing, about parenting, about reproductive justice, about disability and access to healthcare.

Adjacent to this conversation is one in which self-identified feminists and socialists use trading sex as a metaphor – instrumentalizing sex workers’ lived experiences of violence as mere entry points into conversations about other kinds of gender-based and economic harm. A commonly made argument by people with no experience trading sex is to claim the existence of the sex trades as a harm to non-sex working people – that is, a categorical harm to “women,” to “families,” to “workers.”

Reducing trading sex to a metaphor not only flattens our complex and diverse lived experiences, but it is also a theft of our stories. This reduction and instrumentalization is itself an exploitation. These “categorical harm” arguments either exclude those of us who claim not to be harmed by trading sex from the category described (we are not real workers; we are not real women) or suggest that we have false consciousness. Under the most-prevalent existing legal paradigms, people in the sex trades can only be victims or criminals. Either we are so vulnerable that we need white-savior-style rescue, or we are miscreants who cannot speak on the side of justice.

These combined public narratives – the sex work versus trafficking binary and the instrumentalization of the sex trades as a metaphor – so dominate the public imagination that it is incredibly difficult to talk about anything else. To talk, for example, about how criminalization and delegitimization of the sex trades increases our vulnerability to violence at work and decreases our ability to access social and familial support, parental rights, healthcare, education, romantic partnerships, and non-sex work jobs. To insist that the harms of sex work stigma must be separated from the harms of sex work as work. To talk about the necessity, in measuring the violence resulting from law and policy, of including violence implemented by the state in the processes of criminalization. All conversations that are seemingly ignored when trading sex is framed as “violence against women.”

People in the sex trades refuse, again and again, to fit our lives into these limited understandings. We have insisted on being understood as a community whose experiences are neither uniform nor categorically separable. We have insisted on describing our experiences in the sex trades in all of their complexity, on talking about what it means to consent to work, about how sex work stigma and criminalization are harms in themselves, about what it might look like if we could create a world free of those harms. We have insisted on talking about whether we want to describe trading sex as “work” at all – about whether the attempt to frame us as “workers” might be just another assimilationist tactic, a “love is love” style argument that our lives are legitimate only if they fit into a pre-existing (capitalist, ableist, white supremacist, productivity-centered) paradigm. We have insisted on talking about the dangers of the respectability politics of claiming that we are not drug users; not people without formal education and without aims to acquire it; not single mothers; people living with mental health conditions; survivors of childhood sexual assault; survivors of rape both at work and elsewhere; not people with no desire to become “productive members of society.” Some of us are each of these things, and none of these things delegitimizes our use of trading sex as a strategy for survival.

We have worked to make clear that our experiences live in the intersections of so many other struggles embraced by people on the left. Assumptions about the meaning of sexual labor are embedded in conversations about reproductive rights, about slavery and reparations, about sexual harassment and gender-based violence, about the rights of migrant workers. Until and unless people on the left understand and unlearn these assumptions, people who trade sex will continue to be pushed out of movements claiming to strive for social change. It is because of this that we keep talking. It is because of this that we insist on refusing to be imaginary.