Debates about sex work and trafficking aren’t new, but they sure are heating up these days. As someone who has known many different sex workers of all different genders and sexual orientations in pretty much every branch of the business, while also not having ever been a sex worker myself, I find that I have a rather unusual perspective, at least among the people engaged in this debate. And at the recent conference for the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, I heard about an enlightening way to think about sex-positivity that I think offers some clarity around this issue.
Breanne Fahs PhD from Arizona State University approaches sex-positivity from the understanding that true liberation requires both “freedom to” and “freedom from.” While this maps easily onto the idea that the ability to freely consent rests on the ability to freely say “no”, I find that it offers a better way to unpack some of the issues around sexuality. For example, it means that ideally, we would each have the freedom to explore our sexual desires and fantasies, while simultaneously having freedom from anyone (including our partners) imposing theirs on us. We can have the freedom to enjoy any sexual activity we choose, as long as others have the freedom from being forced or coerced into participating. Neither freedom to nor freedom from is more important than the other- they are equally necessary in order to create real sexual freedom.
Understandably, most communities of erotic affiliation have focused on the freedom to side of that equation in response to the legacy of not being allowed to engage in their sexual practices. But the way to find balance is to seek the center, rather than bouncing back and from from extreme to extreme. I think it’s time for people to learn how to hold onto both of these pieces.
One of the many things that I like about this perspective is that is creates a language that clarifies some of the tricky things about the sex work debates. From this angle, I can say that I believe that all adults should have the freedom to engage in transactional sex (whether the transaction is based on money, gifts, or intangibles) AND that all adults should have the freedom from having it forced upon then, either as the result of economic forces or the actions of other people (i.e. sexual slavery, trafficking, etc.) For that matter, I believe that all adults should have the freedom to to engage in commercial domestic or agricultural labor while also having the freedom from having it forced upon them. (Anti-sex-trafficking activists generally ignore the existence of people trafficked for agricultural or domestic labor, just as they ignore the existence of male sex workers and female clients.)
When we start exploring the issue through this lens, we can see that the real solution to trafficking isn’t ending sex work, both because there has never been a society that has managed to do that no matter how harsh the punishments, and because that prioritizes the freedom from over the freedom to. Instead, we can ask questions like:
What systems need to shift to give people the economic options to not have to become sex workers out of desperation? After all, banning sex work isn’t going to change the fact that for many people, it’s the best or the only way for them to survive or to improve their lives. I know quite a few sex workers who put themselves through college with one day of work per week or who are able to feed and clothe their children. Lacking the option of sex work would have kept them from being able to improve their lives. Unless people have viable alternatives, taking sex work away is cruel.
Is a legal response the most effective way to support people’s freedom from being forced into sex work? I don’t think I need to explain that there’s a differential impact of the legal system on women, queers, people of color, transgender people, and other oppressed/marginalized groups. I understand that some of the anti-sex work folks will argue that sex work contributes to the systems that perpetuate the economic and legal inequalities that force some people into sex work. But I’m not convinced that attacking those very people is an effective solution. At best, it’s ineffective and at worst, it revictimizes many of the people who need our help the most. I challenge anyone who has advocated for a police response to sex work to experience being arrested and tried by the legal system before suggesting it as a viable answer.
Assuming that one stipulates that some people want the freedom to engage in sex work (although most anti-sex work folks don’t, in spite of the clear evidence), how can we distinguish them from the people who deserve the freedom from having it forced on them? This is probably one of the hardest questions to answer because there are no easy solutions. Two people could be doing very similar things with very different experiences. And when it comes down to it, how many of us really have the freedom to engage in work that we find satisfying, sustaining, and supportive? I understand why so many anti-sex work activists want to sweep this one under the rug- it’s hard to develop policies and procedures when not everyone fits a particular profile. And yet, what I’m asking requires the ability to see sex workers as individuals with diverse motivations, experiences, needs, goals, and hopes.
When we make a sweeping statement about how “all sex workers are like this…” we remove their individuality and their diversity in favor of forcing them into a category. And while that isn’t the same way that, for example, sex workers who are trafficked or coerced have their power taken away, both actions deny them their full humanity. Anti-sex work activists would do well to at least acknowledge that some people do, in fact, choose to be sex workers for a variety of reasons instead of rendering them invisible.
Can sex workers and anti-trafficking activists work together? Although the relationship between these two groups has been adversarial so far (mostly, as far as I can tell, as the result of anti-trafficking folks making sex workers’ lives and livelihoods harder), I think that they could actually become a powerful influence if they could work together. People who are sex workers by choice have a strong incentive to end trafficking because of the effects that trafficking has on their labor, their interactions with clients, and the general perception of sex workers. Further, they could be some of the strongest allies of the anti-trafficking movement because they are much more aware of who’s doing what than anyone not directly involved in sex work can be, at least on the individual level.
For that to happen, the anti-trafficking contingent is going to have to stop claiming that all sex workers are trafficked and take the first steps towards reconciliation. Of course, they’ll have to learn to listen to the people that they claim don’t exist. Given that the anti-trafficking crowd has attacked, shamed, and misrepresented sex workers, it’s on them to take the first steps toward creating alliances. Stopping their misinformation, exaggerations, and misrepresentations would be a good start.
Why aren’t there more answers?
You’ve probably noticed that I don’t have any specific answers to many of these questions. That’s because I don’t think that my answers are going to be effective or relevant. The best way to find solutions is to engage in genuine dialogue with the people affected by the situation. Any approach to changing sex work or ending trafficking that doesn’t include sex workers at every step of the process will be ineffective, irrelevant, and/or disempowering. Having a single former sex worker who’s vehemently opposed to the business (as some anti-trafficking organizations do) isn’t enough- there are many different experiences and unless we can integrate a representative sample of that range, any response is going to be limited in its effectiveness.
As much as I’m familiar with more aspects of sex work than most people who haven’t done it, I try to not be so arrogant as to think that gives me the authority to make decisions on their behalf. My opinions are definitely not more important than those of the people who are or have been sex workers. I prefer to focus on supporting sex workers and the people who want to make the world a better place by creating space to engage in this work and suggesting what questions might need to be answered. Thinking you know better than the people who live it is arrogant and there’s no place for that in creating genuine change.
If you aren’t and have never been a sex worker, I suggest taking some time to set aside your assumpti0ns and beliefs about how the business works, who does it, who clients are, how sex workers and clients interact, and what needs to happen. Try listening to the people who are doing it. Try listening to their advocates. Learn about the many different ways that people engage in sex work- there’s a lot more to it than you realize. Once you develop a wider understanding, you’ll be a much better ally. This is a good place to start.
I’m really grateful to Dr. Fahs for offering her perspective. I think it creates room to develop a more nuanced understanding of sex in general, and sex work in particular. I also find that offers a better way to unpack some of the competing elements in order to find a balance point. By making room for both freedom to and freedom from, we can start learning how to hold onto both pieces in order to find more effective and compassionate strategies for sex-positivity.