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Sex Work in the Modern World: A Changing Narrative

By Anika Midha

Graphic by Senching Hsia

Sex workers around the world face dangerous situations on a daily basis, ranging from physical and verbal violence to stigmatization and legal discrimination. Due to this, a majority of sex workers are either forced into the industry through exploitation or due to dire circumstances. Once in the industry, sex workers are highly prone to contracting degenerative diseases only to struggle with seeking proper medical attention.

Sex workers are adults who perform consensual sexual services for money or goods. It’s incredibly important to distinguish between human trafficking and sex work. Human trafficking is an atrocious violation of human rights where individuals are exploited for the purpose of forced labor, abuse, and sexual exploitation among other unconsensual acts. Sex work, on the other hand, is a consensual activity where neither party is coerced. Even though sex work is not considered a human rights violation, occurrences of violence and abuse towards sex workers is common and resources to seek help are minimal, putting sex workers in an especially vulnerable position.

According to Paul Berthe, a fellow at the Samuel Center for Social Connectedness, examples of sex work as a means of survival include: “A woman in Zambia stated that five blowjobs would allow her to purchase a bag of cornmeal for her children. Another in India deemed it a more lucrative business than her current employment. One woman in the United Kingdom said the only means to survive was to sell sex.” These circumstances are particularly prominent in developing countries where stigma surrounding sex work is amplified and legal protection for sex workers is practically nonexistent.

In the U.S., sex work is largely illegal with the exception of a few smaller, rural counties. Sex workers in the U.S. have began a movement to decriminalize sex work. Tamika Spellman, a sex worker of over 30 years in Washington, D.C., states, “Everybody has sex. The only difference is that we charge for it.” Indeed, there is a huge demand for the sex work industry. Furthermore, decriminalizing sex work is a step towards protecting sex workers and preventing the need to drive sex work underground. Spellman shares her experience with the numerous criminal penalties she faced and the implications of being arrested: “This is something that you can find across the board with sex workers. [Police] take advantage of us.” Activists are pushing for sex workers to be protected by guaranteeing full human rights as workers.

Sex work is stigmatized across industries. Whether it is in public perception or in health services, biases regarding sex workers act as a barrier to guaranteeing full and equal protection of sex workers. Public discussion of sex workers is often offensive with regard to terminology. For example, activists and sex workers prefer “sex worker”, which implies a chosen field of work, rather than “prostitute”, which indicates forced circumstances. A study done in Brazilian cities assessing discrimination towards female sex workers in health services reported that “stigma and discrimination are important barriers which potentially hamper access to and use of health services, especially due to fear of public exposure and consequent negative attitudes of service providers.” An estimated half a million women between the ages of 15 and 49 years have engaged in paid sex in Brazil, making it vital for proper medical services to be available.

Liesl Gerntholtz, the executive director of women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, states, “Would I like to live in a world where no one has to do sex work? Absolutely. But that’s not the case. So I want to live in a world where women do it largely voluntarily, in a way that is safe.” Decriminalization of sex work is a step towards undoing the stigma and changing perceptions to accurately reflect the reality of being a sex worker in the modern world.


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