There has been a recent rise in popularity to decriminalize sex work and to elevate it as a legitimate profession. Many advocates of this mindset claim that sex work is a source of empowerment, which allows women to control their bodies on their terms. Ushering it into the legal system would not only allow for their protection from violent clients but would also act as an aid for dealing with STDs. These arguments, however, are harmfully ignorant and based upon flawed data.
Teen Vogue recently released an article calling for a worldwide movement to destigmatize sex work. Titled “Why Sex Work Is Real Work,” the article’s author - South African doctor Tlaleng Mofokeng - claims that sex workers are unfairly criminalized and said criminalization is “a form of violence by governments that contributes to a high level of stigma and discrimination.” Why should the work of call-girls and prostitutes be stigmatized, she asks, while she - someone who advises and deals with sexual health regularly - is accepted by society? Isn’t she, too, technically a sex worker?
The answer to that is no. Despite her semantics, Dr. Mofokeng’s claims are directly refuted by how the term “sex worker” is defined. Written in an official HIV study by none other than WHO themselves, sex work is deemed “the provision of sexual services for money or goods.” This, according to the study, includes “clients (usually men),” third parties that arrange for these commercial sex acts to occur (i.e., pimps), and workers that perform literal sexual acts in exchange for money. Although WHO calls for the decriminalization of sex work as well (as Mofokeng points out), nowhere does its study mention sex work including such professions as “sexual health doctors” or even “gynecologists.”
The wordplay is misleading.
Does Dr. Mofokeng specialize in sexual health? Sure. But she is first and foremost a medical professional, someone who chose to study and pursue that particular career path through what was undoubtedly years of hard work and schooling. Claiming that she is also a sex worker is not only grossly inaccurate but also incredibly privileged. She had a choice in what she wanted to do; most (if not all) full-time sex workers don’t. For them, it’s a last resort or the result of being trafficked.
Dr. Mofokeng had a choice in what she wanted to do; most (if not all) full-time sex workers don’t. For them, it’s a last resort or the result of being trafficked.
Of course, that doesn’t stop it from being touted as a brazen cause for a vocal sect of modern-day feminists. Many, like Mofokeng, declare that sex workers’ rights are a feminist issue under the guise of being “pro-women.” Women should have as much sex as they like, some claim, and that includes whether or not price tags are involved. If you’re against that, well, you’re just as bad as that old misogynistic patriarchy.
Here’s the thing: Sex work has been a male-dominated service (as the WHO study confirmed) since that first Neanderthal exchanged mammoth meat for a quick cave romp. Legalizing sex work is a misogynist’s dream come true; it reinforces the idea that a woman's body exists solely for the pleasure of others, and usually not on her own terms.
Legalizing sex work is a misogynist’s dream come true.
Yet there’s more of an uproar over women posing as sex objects than over women actually being used for sex (to dire consequence).
The actual numbers don’t add up.
“But look at New Zealand!” These advocates cry, “Look at Sweden! They’ve decriminalized sex work and see how great it turned out?” This argument also proves faulty. A 2014 study reviewing the effects of the sexköpslagen - Sweden’s sex purchase law - states that not only is there a lack of reliable data demonstrating a decline in prostitution since the law’s enactment, but also that there has been an increase in danger towards sex workers “exacerbated by a lack of harm reduction services.”
The same goes for New Zealand. A similar study conducted as early as 2004 states that “the confusion caused by organizations that oppose trafficking but at the same time promote prostitution” has caused more harm than good. Canadian-based feminist journal, The Feminist Current, even exposed how many within pro-decriminalization groups actually muffled public attention towards the murders of numerous New Zealand prostitutes because it failed to align with their agenda. It is also important to note that the article’s own claims of Sweden having “not one” murder is based upon inconclusive data as well.
The confusion caused by organizations that oppose trafficking but at the same time promote prostitution has caused more harm than good.
Where were the protests for these women? Where is the media-wide exposure of Mofokeng and those sharing her views as people who are seeking to legitimize an industry that propagates sex trafficking and abuse for not only women (trans and cis alike), but children of both genders?
Actual sex workers are against it.
Luckily, there has been some outcry from those against the article. The New York Post published a direct retort detailing that, while sex workers should not be criminalized themselves, their work is far from the empowering (and occasionally fabulous) lifestyles advocates paint them as. According to one former prostitute who now runs a clinic helping those still in the profession, not one of her patients has expressed a desire to remain a sex worker. Even those who view it as a fun, modern past-time are sorely disappointed when introduced to the reality of trying it for themselves.
What a woman does with her body is her choice, including how often she wants to have (or abstain from) sex. The difference between this choice and sex work is just that: there’s very little choice involved. It is not a profession one applies to or dreams of becoming. It causes one to wonder: back before she started her job, if she truly believed them to be in the same industry, would Dr. Mofokeng have seriously considered a career as a prostitute over a doctor?