My Thoughts on Sex Work

I was 17 the first time I saw a prostitute. I’m sure that sounds ridiculous – I’m aware of that even as I’m typing this – but it’s true. I was headed to a house party, and there was a woman on the other side of the street, walking slowly up and down the same road, not wearing very much, and sticking her head into approaching cars.

I remember this so clearly because I was absolutely shocked by it. Of course, I’m sure I’d seen other prostitutes before and just not been aware of it, but this time I definitely was. She was right there, on the other side of the street. I remember feeling a lot of pity for this woman, and a bit disgusted, wondering what could have possibly gone so wrong in her life that she had to resort to this. But, after that, I didn’t give it too much thought.

And then I moved to Amsterdam.

Being an International Development student back in the UK, we had touched slightly on prostitution in some areas, but I hadn’t really delved too deeply into it. I had learnt a little about human trafficking, and we’d had one class focused on this article by Andrea Cornwall, which I’d whole-heartedly disagreed with at the time. I couldn’t find it within myself to accept sex work as empowering in any form. I couldn’t possibly imagine that any woman (in the right frame of mind) would willingly choose to sell her body over other forms of employment. I just couldn’t.

But, luckily, minds are susceptible to change. Mine was certainly opened in Amsterdam, particularly after I took a fantastic course called The Local and Global Complexities of Prostitution. It was an intensive 7 weeks, which included visiting the world-famous Red Light District late at night to observe and interview tourists, interviewing a sex worker herself (at 9.30am on a Tuesday morning – a very bizarre experience), interviewing a regular client, interviewing people back home and of course, lots of reading and presentations.

I could talk about this for ages and ages, but the one thing I wanted to make clear is that YES, some women actually CHOOSE to become sex workers and YES, some of them enjoy their work. For many of them, it’s just a job like any other. For others, it makes them feel good and allows them to explore their sexuality. It’s easier for us, and perhaps more comfortable, to immediately view them as victims that have been forced into the sex trade, either by a person or an unfortunate circumstance. But that is not always true. I would have never believed it myself, but I have seen it with my own eyes and I have come to accept it. We often let our own prejudices about prostitution, and the fact that we would never consider it ourselves, cloud our judgments.

In fact, the most important thing that I learnt from this course was that one of the main problems that a prostitute faces is not the work itself, but rather how they are treated in society. How they are pitied, viewed with disgust and treated like criminals. How everyone either wants nothing to do with them, or otherwise desires to ‘rescue’ them from their hell. Mainstream media is inundated with images and narratives of the ‘poor prostitute’, waiting for someone to lend her a hand. This image is not always true. Another common misconception is that prostitutes have to do every sexual act that a client asks of them. Again, this is often false. Ilonka, the prostitute that we interviewed in class, explained to us that she never did anything that she didn’t want to do. If a client didn’t like it … well, that’s too bad. In her situation, she was lucky to have the support of living in The Netherlands, with people and places to go to if things ever got bad. However, Ilonka told us that, in her 25 years of being a sex worker, she had never been exposed to a violent situation.

As a society, I feel that it’s our job to make prostitution as safe as possible for those wishing to engage in it, because it’s always going to happen whether it’s legal or not. The Netherlands provides one of the best, and safest, models for prostitutes anywhere in the world. It isn’t perfect, but its definitely preferable to what some sex workers around the world have to endure. I think it’s about time that other countries followed suit, and started having an open, honest conversation about prostitution, instead of brushing it under the carpet.

Don’t get me wrong. Forced prostitution and human trafficking exists, and it’s a huge problem that needs to be tackled. But it’s wrong to assume that all sex workers have come into the trade this way. To assume is to deny agency to the women (and men) that actively choose to be in sex work. Whether we agree with it or not is irrelevant. Contrary to popular belief, prostitution can simply just be a private, consensual act between two adults. Because of this, there needs to be a clear distinction made between human trafficking and prostitution, which are often put together in a nice big box, despite them not being the same thing.

Not all prostitutes want to be rescued.



Filed under Development Thoughts

9 responses to “My Thoughts on Sex Work

  1. Extraordinary. Well written and expressed and very understanding of both sides of the situation. If you don’t win that prize…………………. well even if you don’t, you ought to. You have a fluidity of expression and articulate so well. Thank you for teaching us something, for making us see another side to the oldest profession. x

  2. I think when people are okay with giving away their most prize possession (themselves);something is wrong. And, when someone is okay with taking it this, it is even worse. I also believe you interviewed a very good actress, who may just believe what she told you, but will probably look back later in life and regret it. Of course they want to say everything is good, the area is known for the ladies in the window. They have bills to pay. To find true answers, you have to form relationships. Really get to know people and understand it through their eyes.

    • Interesting response. It is similar to how I felt before taking the course. I think it depends on a lot of things – how you view sex, how you view your body, how assertive you are etc. I genuinely believe that the lady was telling the truth. She had been a sex worker for 25 years, and she is now an activist with her own organization to try and get better rights for sex workers. I’m sure that Ilonka made a lot of money doing sex work, and could have left if she wanted to, but she chose to stay. That must say something. Of course, for many people, something probably IS wrong and they DO want to get out of the sex trade, but at the same time you cannot presume that every sex worker thinks this way. Just because YOU assume that something is wrong, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is. Many sex workers don’t want our pity, they want our respect, and I think it’s important that they get it.

      Thanks for your comment 🙂

      • I do know how it feels to have your eyes opened to the other side of a topic. I learned a lot about myself and what I stand for in college. “American” culture is NOT always correct.That being said; pity is never a correct response, unless you pity their ignorance. I truly do understand what you have said. I also understand there are many ladies out there that do not want to be in this. People disappear because they are sold into prostitution slavery. I hardly believe someone needs to wave a flag asking for respect to sell themselves when it could take away from the efforts to stop human trafficking. I respect human life. I do not look down on people for what they choose to do or how they choose to live. I do look down on people who whine about getting a hamburger instead of a steak, when there are people starving. There is a large difference between condoning a behavior and respecting a person. What would we say if people were actively seeking respect for burglary? or murder? With our flare for words today someone could just get others to agree it might be a great idea. We see in history that Hitler had a flare for words. When people start condoning a behavior it becomes the norm. It becomes okay. We can see a trend in cultures condoning prostitution and selling their little girls for money. Not because of poverty, but because it is condoned.
        Another point, this statement “I’m sure that Ilonka made a lot of money doing sex work, and could have left if she wanted to, but she chose to stay” is very naive for several reasons (examples; greed, no other skills).
        If people like sex and feel freedom in it, fine…then don’t bring money into it. Involving money in it is where it can turn into organized crime, people get hurt, and young girls lose any choices they may have had in their lives.
        There are some great resources on human trafficking issues at the site below.

    • I agree with the forming relationships, I however strongly disagree with the “something is wrong” part of the statement. I work as a stripper for several reasons including the monetary incentive. But I also love my job. I personally don’t turn tricks because I’m in a committed relationship and prostitution isn’t a road for me. That being said I will never strike down a woman who does make that choice. I do not follow the puritan way of thinking when it comes to nudity and sex. I dont feel that being nude or being sexy has to be a negative experience or mean your a bad person. It all depends on where your thoughts are coming from.

      • I do not disrespect you. I could tell you that my cousin is a stripper and I love her very much. She is a great mom and caring person; but it is irrelevant. Your choices are totally yours.
        I also do not feel that being free in your sexuality makes you a bad person; again it doesn’t matter what I think. No one should be one knows another’s walk unless it is shared.
        I do believe paying/charging for sex leads to a large trade that enslaves many women and children; and even if it doesn’t matter what I think…I believe in it so much that I want to share the issue.

      • I believe by using the language “enslaves many women and children” you are confusing sex trafficking with sex work. There is a remarkable difference and they are not comparable.

  3. Pingback: Five Thoughts for You : Prostitution | PROPEL STEPS

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s