An article appeared in the The Nation not long ago offering a defense of the so-called “sex industry”—which includes, as the author notes, a number of services ranging “escorting, street hustling, hostessing, stripping, preforming sex for videos and webcams.” Rather fortuitously, there’s no mention of sex trafficking, which is a substantial part of the industry. Nevertheless, ostensibly the article endorses the view that we ought to dignify sex workers without “sanitizing or elevating” the work itself by simply acknowledging that sex workers are out for a check in much the same way we all are, hence we should promote their rights and benefits.
The author seems to believe that distinctions matter enormously when talking about sex work. She writes: “To collapse all commercial sex that way often risks conjuring something so flat and shallow that it would only reinforce the insistence that all sex for sale results from the same phenomenon—violence, deviance or desperation.”
Distinctions do matter, but to suggest that an incentive system exists outside the spectrum of “violence, deviance, or desperation” remains to be seen. It’s generally thought that women don’t opt out of promising careers to become sex workers for the compensation or prestige. But the reasons women turn to sex work aren’t completely arcane. An article in The Guardian chronicles the struggles of one young woman who “checked out of society” after her parents’ divorce. A crack addiction ensued as she slipped into a dark culture—one that postpones life at the behest of pursuits in adolescent-to-early-adult adventurism.
But it was ultimately the despair of rejection by a lover coupled with heavy student loan debt that pushed her into sex work—“desperation,” as it were. She recalls the depravity of what an average day consisted of: “I have had sex with as many as 12 men in a day. The busiest times were early in the morning when white men in business suits were on their way to work, or during lunch time when they could sneak off for a quickie.”
She admittedly was aroused by the idea of having men pay her for sex and took advantage of every warm feeling she felt on occasion throughout the course of being intimate with various clients, even though the feelings were temporary and loveless. But it wasn’t enough to provide any fulfillment where there was lack, and worse, the feeling of being judged and objectified added to the biding emptiness the lifestyle produced. After one scary encounter with a man who attempted to take advantage of her, she decided to quit.
The testimony she gives us doesn’t substantially depart from the day-to-day reality of sex workers more generally. While it is the case that often men and women engage in sex work on their own volition, we often overlook some of the more troubling facts about this pervasive industry.
The reality is the average age of entry into the sex trade is 13 or 14 years old, and the relevant statistics about child sexual abuse are daunting. The National Runaway Hotline estimates that “one in three teens on the street will be lured toward prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home.” Given the degree of social degradation that’s ravaged the population—family ills, poor parenting, drug addiction, alcoholism, ect.—there is no question the sex trade is an outgrowth of these problems, and others.
A recent study released by the Urban Institute estimated that the underground commercial sex economy (UCSE) generated between “$39.9 and $290 million in 2007 in eight major US cities—Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, Miami, Seattle, San Diego, and Washington, DC.” In spite of these numbers, “investigation and data collection remain under resourced.”
We’re kidding ourselves if we think that supporting the proliferation of sex work will surmount this kind of predation and exploitation rampant in our society. But solutions do not seem clear-cut. Many are of the opinion that legalization would amount to the institutionalization of exploitation and abuse; and criminalization seems equally ineffective in addressing the root causes and contributes little in the way of meaningful and compassionate solutions. To complicate things even more, there are feminist constituencies that support sex work under the auspices of sexual freedom and expression, adding an additional moral dimension on top of everything else.
Let’s not let the complexity mystify the reality. The sex trade is a perverse product of a patriarchal society with a sexually charged culture produced and perpetuated by massive advertising and public relations that have commandeered the way we view ourselves as sexual creatures. Sex and lust has transfigured beauty and love. Our concept of sex has been brutally hijacked and misimagined to include all of those things that privilege male arousal. The standing values transmitted and internalized by our culture embody male domination and female subservience, and mass marketing has ensured that these values are encoded in our youth.
This pathology is deepening as popular culture becomes increasingly infused with these values. There’s room for sexual freedom, but it’s being confused with sexual exploitation and enslavement. Furthermore, enslavement can well manifest even among “consenting” adults. This is a societal sickness; it runs deeper than consent. I think you’ll find, in one form or another, the reasons young women get involved in the sex trade do not stray far from the roots—violence, deviance, and desperation; and when women continue to engage in sex work well into adulthood, it represents just one way we fail as a society.
If we’re to proceed in defending sex workers, let’s start by acknowledging at least this much: likeliest the vast majority would not choose sex work were the circumstances different. The logic of “consent” doesn’t take us far enough in consigning ourselves to accepting an industry thriving off society’s inner-most pathologies.