I answered this reader’s question on my own blog a year ago, but since it addresses issues that arise periodically I felt it would be worthwhile to revisit it here:
I’m passionately against sex-trafficking, and on the whole I do not support sex work. If the existence of the sex industry hides trafficked victims, which it does, then I’d rather there’s no sex industry at all, because while the willing sex worker is able to do other work, the trafficked victim has no such choice. I was an advocate of the Swedish model until a Swedish friend of mine sent me a blog post that explained how it’s making life worse for sex workers (even coerced ones), contrary to what the Swedes and well-meaning Christian community might have us believe. I’ve also keenly noticed that in all the sex trafficking discussions and films I’ve seen, nobody – absolutely NOBODY – asked the prostitutes, the very people who know what it is they need, and what the situation is really like on the ground. So I’m interested knowing what, in your opinion, do sex workers need? What kind of system, law, or facility should be in place to better protect and help sex workers? Is it possible to help and rescue trafficked victims, whilst not interfering with willing sex workers? What would actually help rescuers identify and free trafficked victims in the sex trade? Finally, why have YOU chosen to be a sex worker? I’m asking not to judge you or to preach or change your mind. I just want to hear the other side.
I’ll try as best I can to answer all your questions; if I miss anything, please reply and ask it again. You may not like everything I’m going to say, but you seem like someone who’s genuinely trying to understand so I hope you won’t reject uncomfortable truths out of hand merely because they do indeed make you uncomfortable.
The first question you need to ask yourself is, what is it about sex work you don’t “support”? If you merely mean that you can’t envision yourself as ever being in a position to either sell or buy sex, the statement makes perfect sense; I could say that “I don’t support the rap industry” because I don’t like rap and therefore contribute no money to that segment of the music business. However, my powerful dislike for rap does not give me the right to deny that it undoubtedly gives pleasure to those who do like it, and provides a creative outlet for people who nonetheless could do “other work” under far less satisfying conditions and for vastly less money. Nor would it be right for me to demonize rap and blame it for things that derive from the nastier portions of human nature; these problems would still exist even if rap could somehow be eliminated by establishing a totalitarian state whose police had the power to violate people’s rights at will in order to further the War on Rap. It is never right, moral, justifiable or even possible to stop people from pursuing peaceful, consensual, private activity, whether that activity involves music, books, sex or drugs. You mention the prohibitionist myth that the sex industry “hides” the existence of coerced workers, but this is no more true than saying the agricultural industry “hides” the existence of coerced farm workers or the domestic service industry “hides” the existence of coerced domestics. The sad fact is that some human beings are willing to directly subject their fellow creatures to coercion, and most human beings are willing to allow others with fancy titles and interesting costumes to inflict coercion as long as that violence achieves results they like, whether those results be enlarging their country’s territory, filling the state’s coffers, inflicting their moral agenda on strangers or producing cheap food and consumer electronics. Most people who position themselves as enemies of “sex trafficking”, yet seem relatively unconcerned with other forms of coerced labor, do so for two reasons: first, that they do not themselves buy or sell sexual services; and second, that they wish to stop others whom they do not even know from doing so. If these same people were constantly calling for the abolition of other industries in which some degree of coercion occurs (such as agriculture, domestic service, textiles, electronics and the prison industry), their position would at least be logically consistent (if naively Utopian). But that is not the case: they are perfectly willing to accept exploitative and coercive, even quasi-slave-like, treatment of agricultural laborers, domestics, sweatshop workers and those arrested under prohibitionist laws; it is somehow only sexual exchange, coerced or otherwise, which inflames their ire.
I am really pleased that you recognize the necessity of listening to sex workers; that is the major point of my essay “Let Me Help”, which I think would answer most of your questions. It contains links to other essays of mine (and to resources outside this blog) which will help you to understand not only that very few sex workers are coerced in any meaningful sense of the word, but that most of the people “authorities” label “trafficked” are not the helpless victims in need of “rescue” that they are painted as being in exploitation films and prohibitionist propaganda. These people themselves say this over and over again, but as you pointed out nobody wants to listen because the truth conflicts with the narrative they prefer to impose upon it. And one thing upon which virtually all sex workers agree is that decriminalization – the removal of all laws which treat sex work as somehow magically different from all other forms of work – is absolutely the best way of dramatically reducing the harms which plague the industry under criminalized, semi-criminalized or quasi-criminalized regimes. My long essay “Treating Sex Work As Work” sets out the case in exhaustive and thoroughly-cited detail, explaining how every attempt to control sex work by criminal law results in causing far more harm than it prevents.
If you want a longish answer to your last question, you should probably read my three-part “Genesis of a Harlot”; however, I can give you a much shorter answer which is at the same time more universal. I chose sex work for the same reason about 98.5% of all sex workers do: it was the best fit for my needs at the time. Sex work is both more lucrative and more flexible than any other kind of work available to most people; in its most basic form it requires no special equipment, starting capital, intensive training, licenses or tests. And though those characteristics are attractive to many people, they are especially attractive to members of certain marginalized populations – including, ironically, women with prior prostitution arrest records – who find it difficult or impossible to secure or maintain conventional employment. In other words, the more laws, rules and regulations a society allows government to inflict upon it, the larger the fraction of people who will be driven into underground economies by their inability to get other work. The more a government tries to control people’s work, movement and lives – including their sex lives – the larger the sex industry will become; prohibitionists are therefore their own worst enemies, because the more they crack down, the more people they push into conditions under which sex work is the best available means of support.