According to academic Caroline Norma, I am a “prostituted woman”.
While her inaccuracy might be obvious, the layers of her misrepresentation of me and my community are numerous as an onion’s and as eye-wateringly bitter.
Firstly I am not a woman. I am male and I am a sex worker. The assumption that all sex workers are female may be seen as clumsy oversight, innocuous and naive. Did you fall for it?
The representation of the entire front line of the sex industry as female is a deliberate distortion of the actual workforce. The charade may or may not be obvious but the intention is clear; so long as everyone believes that all sex workers are women then gender plays an active role in defining who are the victims and who are the oppressors.
There is a sad irony in this rhetoric; supposed “feminists” portray women (sex workers) as weak, inevitable victims of exploitative men (‘pimps’ and clients). Sad because the truth, ignored by these academics, paints a starkly different picture of sex workers than these doomsayers purport.
Some sex workers are the strongest people I know. Some have overcome incredible hardship. Some have reconciled traumatic personal histories. Some have demonstrated fantastic resilience and resourcefulness. They have made choices in the face of immense social stigma, discrimination and prejudice. I’ve been inspired by what we have achieved together despite our differences.
Sex workers are of all sexes, genders and sexualities.
While some estimates place female sex workers at 80% of the workforce, 15% male and 5% transgender, particular sectors of the industry have a different representation of gender (for example, statistics from the Business Licensing Authority indicate independent private workers closer to 50% male, 50% female).
While these numbers may be interesting, they’re greatest power is that they debunk the traditional feminist representation that all sex work is violence against women. How do I, a male sex worker who sees male clients, pose a threat to all the females everywhere?
The second misrepresentation Norma and her ilk assert is loaded in the language they use.
Flatly ignoring the voices of sex workers to be referred to as “sex workers” and continuing to refer to us as “prostituted women” show their true colours.
By interpreting what we do as “prostitution” her description of my job as “commercially mediated sexual abuse” might pass. Using these terms, loaded with all of their values and judgements allow for all sorts of prejudice to be expressed at the mere mention of our occupation.
If one is interested in being objective, upholding values of social justice, equity and fairness then one ought to follow the protocol we have used for all people throughout history- use terms minority groups have determined as appropriate.
We are not asking for special treatment; history contains many examples of groups demanding the right to be named by themselves- it is why we use the term “African-American” and not “Negro”, it is why we say “Intersex” instead of “hermaphrodite”. In our case, please call us ‘sex workers’ and not “prostitutes” or “prostituted women”.
In fact there are already precedents that have come into practice. UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, considers the words “prostitution” and “prostitute” inappropriate and directs people to use the term “sex work” in their terminology guide.
Following this, in 2010 the Victorian Government renamed the law that regulates the sex industry from “The Prostitution Control Act” to “The Sex Work Act” and changed all references accordingly.
The term “sex work” was coined by American sex worker activist, Carol Leigh, in the 1970s. The term emphasises what we are doing: work. The rights we are fighting for are labour rights.
Framed as work, the problems associated with sex work can be addressed via the recourse available to all other forms of employment: with good standards in occupational health and safety, industrial relations, human rights, equal opportunity and non-discrimination.
The resistance that some feminists exhibit in using our preferred terminology not only demonstrates a lack of respect towards us but also an unwillingness to address any of the genuine difficulties we face.
By not framing sex work as work the problems can feel insurmountable. From this perspective, exploitation appears uncontrollable. The only solution seems to be that we just have to do our hardest to stamp it out at all costs.
While everyone is emotionally caught up in the tragedy of what is presented no one focuses on real solutions beyond the false promise of prohibition. Academics can build a career churning out books and articles, profiting from the perpetual myth-making that I am a helpless victim.
I am not saying my occupation is without its flaws. The hardships that are present in our work can be overcome, not by abolishing sex work and exiling us to the underground, but by embracing us and allowing the standards that legitimise all other occupations apply to us.
Put plainly: sex work is work. Anything else is selling us short.