On The "Right To Sex"
Why sex positivity has little to do with the sex workers' right movement.
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The amount of young men who have not had sex has tripled in the past decade. This is a statistic repeated by Mens’ Rights Activists and Feminists alike. Something is wrong. A solution regularly touted by well-meaning liberals, libertarians, and American “sex-positive feminists” is the legalization of sex work. Some go as far as to propose that the government should fund these services to disabled people and incels. This is ridiculous. Sex workers are not fodders to protect chaste women from incels. Sex is not a human right and this is a horrible way to advocate for sex workers.
As someone who has done community organizing in sex workers’ rights for the past five years, I’ve tried to inform myself as well as possible on the subject. I’ve read Laura Agustin, Bindel, bell hooks, and everything in between. Sex work should not be decriminalized on the premise of helping incels get laid. It should be decriminalized to protect the workers who participate in this industry. In fact, the American sex workers’ rights movement needs to have a major update on its talking points. Allies, you need to listen too.
The first step is to move beyond the conflation of “sex positivity” and sex workers’ rights. It's understandable why this talking point exists. The US is puritanical leads to its restriction of sex workers' rights. From an American perspective, these issues are intricately linked in ways they are not in Northern Europe and Japan. Yet I challenge us to think bigger than 90s third-wave liberal feminism.
There is also an interesting phenomenon. Inside the online sphere of sex workers’ rights exists sex workers who assert their insatiable sexual appetite in tandem with their activist careers. In Revolting Prostitutes, Smith & Mac dub this The Erotic Professional. This trope is occupied by college-educated attractive White Western sex workers. I’m not denying that they may like their jobs. I have nothing against sex positivity as a concept. I just wonder about the purpose in relation to this topic. These Erotic Professionals often have fanbases of other sex-positive 3rd wave feminists and sex-buying clientele–therefore there’s a certain chipperness required for it to work. Horny men don’t want to hear about trauma, poverty, and criminalization. If one were to talk about the often grueling reality of sex work, many ‘liberated’ feminists would be repulsed. I am asking, as I typically do, for nuance to return.
When sex positivity is centered it becomes a class issue and frankly, it ignores basic reality. The majority of sex workers are ambivalent about “sex positivity”. They are single mothers paying their bills. They are foster kids who aged out of the system. Queer people who have been kicked out of their homes. Migrants may owe smugglers a large amount of money or send cash to family back home. They probably don’t identify with the term “sex worker”. This is a reality that we cannot continue to ignore. It can and often is traumatizing. Many times at the hands of police but often at the hands of clients. There is often little to no sexual pleasure in it for those providing services, although there can be. The vast majority of people aren’t engaging in sex work as a feminist rebellion but rather as a means of survival. That’s fine too–we need to shift the narrative of being about sexual enjoyment to basic labor rights for society’s most marginalized. Even if that isn’t really all that sexy.
I am willing to wager that sex workers’ rights (and their restriction of them) have less to do with sex positivity than many think. There is little to no pushback about Gay men selling sex. There is little to no hysteria around Gay men selling sex. There is little to no moral debate about Gay men selling sex. Of course, gay men selling sex face criminalization however the level of patronization that women selling sex face is quite different. Nursing, retail, housekeeping, and school teaching are all feminized forms of labor. How much of the discrimination that sex workers face is due to controlling women’s labor rather than our sexuality?
As Mac & Smith say, you don’t have to love your job to want to keep your job. Let’s let go of the free love narrative and take on something more real. Something everyone can get behind and adopt.
Sex is powerful and many studies show that having a healthy sex life is integral to one's sense of self. Sex is still not a right. It is a privilege. Promising sexless young men the right to sex from sex workers is absurd. Let’s stop repeating it.